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Looking At Progress From A Wide-Angle



Marlon van Maastricht, Senior Manager – Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning & Design at Khatib & Alami, shares his thoughts on the evolution of smart cities.


Concepts like smart/sustainable cities are quite abstract and trend driven. We have started to question their actual meaning and application in recent years.
What does smart mean? Is it just being digital? Is it just being technologically advanced? I find this discussion very interesting and important in relation to urban planning, especially looking at how that benefits or challenges the consumer and end user.

We are starting to realize that technology is only one side of the story when it comes to the planning of our future cities and communities. In some ways, the tech boom has actually created a counter movement and yearning to go back to basics, for example in terms of recreation and our natural living environment. And conversely, tech is also providing answers to enable new ways of living and working, as we have seen during the current pandemic with the move towards home-working.

We need to find the right balance – our priority should be to understand and facilitate the changing needs of the end user, especially when it comes to the public domain in our cities and communities. This will enable us to focus on applying the best available technologies for improving the user experience and quality of life in general. Within that context, I prefer not to use the trendy term “smart” city at all, but rather use the term future city.


We live through our screens nowadays, and in some aspects, it could be argued that as we have become more digitally connected to the world and each other, we have also become more disconnected as human beings.

In the Middle East, we have seen a positive shift in focus towards user comfort and convenience in several projects, such as the Sustainable City in Dubai, and initiatives such as Green Riyadh in KSA. As a city, Abu Dhabi in particular has taken big strides forward in putting user comfort and urban green at the top of the agenda where it belongs – this no doubt helped to propel its rise and rating as the most livable city in the Arab world, according to the 2020 Global Livability Index issued by the Economist Intelligence Unit.


Technology is infinitely going to advance and evolve, and should therefore be the baseline, not the goal in terms of the urban planning and development of our cities and their public realm. The rate of this advancement is constantly changing, and is affected by external factors. Just six months ago, who could have imagined the impact that the current pandemic would have in fast-tracking technology and the way we work today – it forced practically the entire business world to “go digital” and remote within a few months, inadvertently driving efficiencies while opening up new lifestyle opportunities.

Looking ahead, IoT, Blockchain, A.I. and other disruptive technologies will continue to change the way we live our lives, both positively and negatively, in ways that we don’t yet fully understand. We’re also seeing the rapid advance of new forms of mobility, such as driverless vehicles and TODs (Transit Oriented Developments), that are set to deeply change the forms and applications of transport, infrastructure, and the public realm in the next decade or so.

In the context of the planning and (re-)design of our existing and future cities, we are still in the very early stages of inventing, exploring and incorporating these technologies to the fullest benefit of the end user. And as technology indefinitely keeps getting smarter, the goalposts will also keep shifting on how to successfully apply it to the maximum advantage of end-users and their equally dynamic needs and desires.

It is only by focusing on the bigger picture and greater good with an open mind, that we will truly unlock the true potential to consistently keep improving our living environments and lifestyles, and create healthy, happy communities. This insatiable quest is what keeps our jobs as planners, designers and engineers interesting and “smart”!


Marlon has recently completed a Master Degree in City Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). His Capstone project "User Comfort is the New Smart" assessed and evaluated the status quo of Dubai as a Smart City and the quality and user comfort of its public realm.