Qatar’s capital Doha set itself ambitious technological and environmental objectives to reach the status of “smart city” ahead of the 2022 Football World Cup it is hosting. Entitled “Tasmu”, or elevation in Arabic, the initiative is part of Qatar’s “2030 Vision” directed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Indeed, its position as the leading natural gas exporting country also earns it the price of the world’s largest per capita carbon emitter. The project therefore represents an opportunity for Qatar to reverse this trend by becoming a leader in eco-responsible urban transformation, a cornerstone of the kingdom’s growth objectives.
In a report published in 2014, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies highlights its ambition to centralize the services offered to citizens by harnessing new technologies in all areas, from healthcare to education or crime prevention. The report emphasizes the instrumental role played by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and the Internet of Things (IoT) in the digitalization of cities and public services. The initiative also stems from the emirate’s desire to diversify its sources of income, which are limited in nature as they mostly rely on natural resources. Instead, its position as the 6th richest country in the world enables Qatar to leverage considerable financial means to invest in new technologies. Alike major economic powers, the emirate is therefore transitioning towards a smart future and does hesitate to match its spending to its ambitions: 6 billion Qatari riyal (equivalent to more than 1.5 billion US dollars) have been allocated by the kingdom to the public and private sectors to finance the first five years of the project’s launch.
In addition to a substantial budget, the city’s environment is also conducive to innovation: most of the infrastructure, built over the past 40 years, is better suited to accommodate technological equipment than some major European cities. The transformation of the urban landscape also meets a logistical need – Doha is home to nearly 2 million inhabitants, which represents 80% of the Qatari population. Faced with this high density, the city is determined to achieve the objectives inherent to the transformation of smart cities, which consist in “putting technology at the service of the community in order to improve the living conditions of its inhabitants”, according to the Ministry. In this regard, $550 million were already invested by the Ministry of Information and Technological Communications to equip the city with optical fiber and thus guarantee residents the access to high-speed Internet.
MSHEIREB DOWTOWN: A HIGH-TECH SHOWCASE
The project mostly revolves around the 32-hectare Msheireb Downtown historic district. Initiated in 2010, the restructuring of the district has transformed it into one of the most eco-responsible in the world. According to the official website, the development of the Msheireb smart district focuses on renewable energies, and promises a 32% reduction in energy needs. The project’s innovative outlook and solutions have earned it the first global prize for Futurist Architecture in 2012. For instance, an army of 6,400 photovoltaic and thermal solar panels aims to provide electricity and 75% of hot water to the 800,000 buildings in the area. Water will be recovered from rainfall and air conditioning equipment, saving nearly 288 million liters per year. Furthermore, all the buildings within the Msheireb area are LEED gold or LEED silver certified, which testify of an eco-friendly construction, a responsible use of natural resources and sustainable materials.
French telecommunications giant Orange took advantage of this investment to develop a multi-million dollar partnership with its Qatari counterpart Meeza, aimed at providing “the majority of intelligent applications and services” in the Msheireb district according to the official statement. Indeed, the Ministry wishes to “develop, integrate and monitor its entire infrastructure, including roads, railways, airports, communications, electricity and buildings in order to optimize resources and maximize the services offered to residents”. Orange Business Services is therefore supervising the installation and development of 500,000 sensors and the associated main control center, that will subsequently enable the control of buildings and services equipped with these sensors. Included services range from video surveillance to automatic waste treatment, public lighting, car parks and access to buildings. The contract also contains the development of applications for users “in the fields of public service, online payment, energy and navigation”, according to the press release. These advances reflect Doha’s digital transformation, already well underway.
Transport has also turned green in Doha: particular attention was paid to the city’s rail network to prepare for the several millions of visitors expected to attend the 2022 Football World Cup. To this end, USD 9 billion – or 24% of the annual budget – were invested in the development of new transportation to fix the total lack of public transport. A first for a country in which each inhabitant owns at least one car. Among the flagship projects are the creation of a fully electric, automated and interconnected metro, with a speed of up to 100km/h. In comparison, the Parisian metro travels at about 25km/h (all rolling stock combined) and its top speed is 70 km/h. The train set is adapted to each customer’s need as it is divided into two classes, “gold” and “standard”, with a starting price estimated at 0.50-euro cents for the “standard” ticket. In total, 110 interconnected trains will form the rail network, which certain French companies such as Vinci group have contributed to build. Parking lots and delivery services were relegated to the basements to encourage residents to walk, cycle or use public transport.
LUSAIL CITY: THE CITY OF THE FUTURE
Lusail City, the kingdom’s emblematic project, prides itself on responding to contemporary urban challenges: overpopulation, pollution, increasing consumption of energy resources such as water, electricity or air conditioning, for certain countries such as those in the Gulf. Built 15 km from the capital over an area of 38 km2, Lusail City is “self-contained”: it will be divided into 19 districts, each offering a wide range of services, such as shopping centers or business districts, but also hospitals and mosques. With an estimated capacity of 450,000 inhabitants, Lusail City is a real high-tech showcase. The futuristic city is indeed expected to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 World Cup.
An integrated ICT infrastructure will cover, among others, telecommunications, urban infrastructure maintenance, security and surveillance systems. The network of smart devices will be monitored and controlled from the control center; everything that happens in the city will thus be detected in real time by the surveillance cameras. The Lusail Command and Control Center (LCCC) is aimed at monitoring and analyzing all the data collected from the sensors that are integrated into the urban fabric. In addition to a perfectly secure environment, residents will be able to benefit from many intelligent services. For example, the city provides unlimited access to the public WiFi network, as well as connected information panels that provide information on the weather, city maps and activities.
In terms of urban infrastructure, Lusail focuses mainly on maximizing the use of natural resources: irrigation systems will enable the collection of water, and buildings all meet eco-responsible standards. Other smart innovations include the air-conditioning system, which adapts to the ambient temperature and sun exposure of the infrastructure; or streetlights, which generate more or less electricity depending on the time of day and weather conditions. In addition, 17% of the land will remain unexploited, so as to create a more aerated environment. A 100% electric tramway network will also be set up: the “Light Rail Transit” (LRT) will cover a distance of 19 km and serve 25 stations. Another alternative for travelling customers are the “floating taxis”, maritime shuttles linking the coast to neighboring islands.
With its state-of-the-art urban development, Doha is now one of the “most advanced cities in the world in terms of urban planning and technological development”, according to some experts. The authorities also plan to digitize all public services by 2020. As such, previews of the state’s technological innovations will be exhibited at the Smart City Expo World Congress organized by Fira Barcelona at the end of October 2019. Several issues related to urban digital transformation will be addressed, such as cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, artificial intelligence and urban planning.
Whilst the kingdom prides itself on the smart innovations it harnesses, these developments take place against the backdrop of a few controversies concerning some of its practices. For instance, the world athletics championships that took place earlier this year were much talked about, not to highlight unprecedented sporting performances, but rather to denounce a “climatic absurdity”, as notably argued by the European Green Party. The overwhelming heat forced 28 of the 70 marathon runners to give up, despite the 3,000 air vents installed all around the track. Intended to temper the 40 degrees ambient, the ventilation guns also seem incongruous in an open-air stadium. The controversy increased even more with the announcement, a few days later, of the installation of air conditioners on the streets of the capital. Indeed, the increase in summer temperatures in Qatar is such that even environmental activists have conceded the need to cool the ambient air to the kingdom.
The state is trying to face the critics by unveiling 100% “eco-friendly” stadiums to host the 2022 Football World Cup, already postponed in view of the unsustainable heat expected. The stadiums will be built from containers, so that they can be dismantled and transported. According to the official video presentation of the project, they will be converted into “shopping centers, educational centers” or even sent as spare parts “to developing countries”. Indeed, these reflections are intended to respond to the criticism targeting the country’s lack of football culture, which suggests a dire fate for the 7 stadiums erected once the tournament is over.
Despite such announcements, Qatar’s reputation was considerably tarnished by the deplorable working conditions of the site workers, denounced in particular by the European Green Party which encourages a boycott of the event. The Guardian recorded the deaths of 44 of the workers working on the site, “almost one death per day”. A statistic that reveals the harshness of the employees’ daily lives during the construction of the stadium: access to drinking water is charged, despite the ambient 50 degrees; workers have their identity documents confiscated or do not receive wages, and share their hotel rooms with a dozen others.
Qatar is a key player in the city of tomorrow. With considerable financial resources, the kingdom allows itself innovations that few can afford, such as LEED gold or silver certified buildings, which represent an additional cost compared to traditional construction methods. Similarly, the $200 billion invested in the 7 stadiums to host the FIFA event promises to put on a real show for fans of new technologies. The kingdom is therefore on track to achieve the objectives set out in its “Vision 2030”, namely the development of a “hyper-connected, ultra-fast, zero carbon emission” city. However, such ambition cannot fully be achieved if concerns over human rights abuses and environmental destructions continue to overshadow considerable technological advances.