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It is Smart, but is it Resilient? How Smart Cities are Confronting the Resilience Challenge

By Mohannad Salam, Regional Lead, Smart Cities and Digital Twin Cities, Middle East at AtkinsRéalis

The world-leading professional services and project management company AtkinsRéalis will be joining the World Climate Summit 2023 on 7-8 December alongside COP28 in Dubai, marking its 14th year.

In this article, Mohannad Salam Regional Lead Smart Cities and Digital Twin Cities, at AtkinsRéalis Middle East, shares how smart cities are confronting the resilience challenge.


Cities are both our biggest hope and our biggest challenge. They are the economic engines, the motors of progress, and the centers of innovation and culture alike. Yet they also represent humanity’s biggest challenges: many of our cities are polluted, overcrowded, and highly unsustainable. In the last decade, our species crossed a threshold of urbanization, with over half of the planet’s population now living in towns and cities. By 2050, the UN forecasts it to be almost 70%. If we are to confront the climate emergency while also improving living standards, we must improve how we plan, design, and operate our cities.

Smart cities have long promised to solve these problems. Combining different types of technology to collect data and derive insights, smart cities more efficiently manage assets, resources, and services. From waste management to traffic monitoring, power usage to crime detection, every aspect of urban life can be improved through the enhanced decision-making offered by data gathered from citizens, devices, and assets. The Middle East is particularly well-suited. Greenfield projects such as THE LINE at NEOM, Saudi Arabia, supported by AtkinsRéalis, provide the opportunity to transform our preconceptions about the way we're meant to house and transport ourselves, distribute essential services, and make use of renewable and regenerative local resources. Moreover, climate change challenges are driving the need to strengthen cities’ resilience across the region while meeting national net zero targets. By better mapping of both the challenges and their potential solutions, smart cities can shape a more sustainable future for the Middle East.

Yet despite their potential, smart cities can be just as vulnerable to the effects of climate change as low-tech ones. Regardless of our progress towards net zero, some amount of climate disruption is inevitable - which means we must start building resilience into our cities. Resilience does not begin with technology, but with understanding the needs, behaviors, and relationships upon which urban life depends. To truly meet the challenges of the 21st century, smart cities can no longer be designed around technological innovations.

A city can hardly be called 'smart' if it doesn't address urban challenges, tackle climate change, and shape resilient, sustainable communities. Instead, they must integrate technological solutions with their intended communities and environment. Otherwise, smart cities and the advanced technologies they pioneer risk being as vulnerable to social and environmental disruptions as their ‘dumb’ predecessors - and exposing their citizenry to hardship.

Smart becomes Smarter

Initially, smart cities around the world were primarily focused on integrating and automating technology into infrastructure. The concept of smart cities did not emerge in a single place or time. It evolved from global trends in technology and urbanization. As information technology spread in the 1990s and early 2000s, tech companies started promoting smart city solutions, focusing on the potential of what was then known as ICT (Information and Communication Technology) to address urban challenges. The emphasis was on creating cities that use digital technology to enhance performance and well-being, reduce costs and resource consumption, and engage more effectively with citizens.

But by starting with the technology, this first wave of smart cities - sometimes labeled smart cities 1.0 - ran into problems. As the primary goal was to implement digital technology to existing urban services, it lacked collaboration between key stakeholders to ensure effective implementation. This often resulted in siloed solutions, with each city service using its own technology, lacking integration with the whole or with the actual needs and behaviors of the citizens themselves.

However, as the concept matured, smart cities began encompassing a broader perspective that prioritized not technology itself but the social, economic, and environmental context in which the technology was being deployed. The initial tech-centric approach evolved to become more people-centric, focusing on enhancing the quality of life of its citizens. The idea transformed from simply installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructures to rethinking urban life in the digital age holistically.

That’s Smart Cities 2.0, and although the concept has yet to become the dominant paradigm, it is rapidly making progress. Mature smart city planners therefore begin with the people, rather than starting with the technology and trying to find ways to fit it into the urban fabric. Abu Dhabi recently retained its first-placed ranking in the IMD’s Smart City Index, ranking 13th worldwide and ahead of New York City, Amsterdam, and Shanghai. Meanwhile, Dubai has ranked in the top 20 every year for four years running. This is notable, because the Index explicitly focuses on the social and interpersonal aspects of smart cities, those that are indicative of ‘2.0’ maturity. ‘The basic principle that led to the creation of the Smart City Index in 2019,’ the IMD explains, ‘was that if cities wanted to be smarter, they needed to be less technology-centric, and more human-focused.’ That Abu Dhabi and Dubai have consistently ranked so highly shows that smart city maturity really is growing.

Yet despite such progress, climate change challenges are making this transition much more urgent. Climate change won’t just affect temperature or weather - it will cascade through other key factors, from infrastructure to supply chains to food security. There is no single solution fortifying cities against these disruptions. Yet resilience and smart cities can go hand in hand. Data-driven solutions have the transformative potential to empower cities in simulating complex scenarios, modeling diverse responses, and proactively enhancing their built environments. However, this transformative capacity is not inherently ingrained in smart cities; its realization hinges on the vision, design, and management of these urban spaces.

The integration of smart city guidelines and the cultivation of planned orderly growth can exert a profound and positive influence on the development of smart city projects. A prime illustration comes from our work on a project in Saudi Arabia, a historic town deeply committed to preserving its rich cultural heritage. In this context, we have meticulously crafted smart city strategies and guidelines that prioritize heritage preservation, sustainable urban landscapes, and technology-driven infrastructure initiatives. This approach propels cities towards becoming data-driven, resulting in enhanced citizen satisfaction and environmental sustainability.

Slick to Smart

Smart cities have the potential to supercharge resilience, but only if they’re approached holistically. They must be based both upon historic challenges and future forecasts. How does the city respond in simulations of different scenarios? How long does it take for the civil guard to arrive, and how could their response time be accelerated? Digital twins can help answer such questions by simulating potential disruptions and identifying efficient solutions.

For example, AtkinsRéalis adopted a digital twin approach to the fully-automated Canada Line. By using drones, train-mounted scanners, and remote sensors, critical flaws were identified to create efficiencies in maintenance, and ultimately optimizes passenger flow. This can strengthen resilience, improve decision-making, and help cities maintain their services even in the face of significant challenges. For this scenario planning to be effective, however, a range of stakeholders must be involved from the start: the public sector, emergency services, planners, and more. Urban centers need holistic, integrated responses to climate change, but such responses can only be developed through integration itself.

Ensuring that all partners and stakeholders are seeing the same information unlocks greater collaboration, deeper insights, and far-sighted decision-making. Rather than capturing ever-increasing volumes of data, smart cities can progress faster by sharing it holistically, supporting collaboration with Common Data Environments and data standards conducive to integrated design. In every smart sustainable city project that we deliver within the region, we ensure the seamless alignment of multi-phased initiatives, each entailing its distinctive consortium of stakeholders, diverse data types, and sources, all overseen and managed by a spectrum of technology players. Such complexity demands the precise orchestration of data's full potential, while safeguarding privacy, security, and adherence to governance policies.

This strategy ensures that data doesn't overwhelm a single repository but rather draws from diverse sources, creating a more meaningful and impactful dataset. For instance, data collected from the Intelligent Transport System (ITS) transcends its initial purpose: it becomes a valuable resource for addressing environmental sustainability, carbon emissions, traffic congestion, safety concerns, and public health. This data isn't limited to a single department; it's a valuable asset for city governance, law enforcement, healthcare, transportation, environmental management, and even cultural preservation.

Connecting the Future

Smart cities stand as more than just technological marvels; they embody a profound opportunity to cultivate meaningful connections—an intricate interplay between citizens, governmental bodies, and the very essence of urban existence. In the ever-evolving urban landscape, resilience hinges on these connections. To build cities that are not only technologically advanced but also resilient, we must adapt mindsets. Resilience should be at the core of smart cities, and smart cities at the core of resilience. Failing to do so would be akin to constructing cutting-edge innovations on insecure foundations, leaving our urban future in an uncertain state.

Complexity is best overcome through collaboration. Growing population, an increasingly volatile climate, and a rapidly shifting global economy - cities are attempting to get smart in a highly unpredictable, complex context. Collaboration enables us to meet the complexity challenge. Reality is an interdependent whole; so too are our cities. By approaching their future that way, we can make the next generation of cities truly smart.


About AtkinsRéalis

Created by the integration of long-standing organizations dating back to 1911, AtkinsRéalis is a world-leading professional services and project management company dedicated to engineering a better future for our planet and its people. We create sustainable solutions that connect people, data and technology to transform the world's infrastructure and energy systems. We deploy global capabilities locally to our clients and deliver unique end-to-end services across the whole life cycle of an asset including consulting, advisory & environmental services, intelligent networks & cybersecurity, design & engineering, procurement, project & construction management, operations & maintenance, decommissioning and capital. The breadth and depth of our capabilities are delivered to clients in key strategic sectors such as Engineering Services, Nuclear, Operations & Maintenance and Capital.

About the Author

Mohannad Salam is the Regional Lead, Smart Cities & Digital Twin Cities, Middle East, at AtkinsRéalis. As part of his role, he leads on providing innovative advisory solutions for designing smart cities in the Middle East region. With more than 20 years’ experience, he developed transformation strategies with chief experience officers (CXOs) and government executives, and managed cross-functional teams to design, develop and deliver disruptive solutions. In addition, he advised enterprises on driving growth through innovation and transformation, and built successful vendor partnerships, such as Intel & Microsoft, to become their strategic IoT Partner in the region. An award-winner, Mohannad was named among "Best 20 Worldwide IoT Solution Providers" by CIO Review, the enterprise technology magazine, in 2018.


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