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Plenary: Towards a smarter world

12 February 2014


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We have entered a new era of collaboration between the citizen and the government

The opening plenary on the third and final day of the Government Summit saw Osman Sultan, CEO of the UAE’s Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (du), take the stage and deliver a talk titled ‘Towards a Smarter World’.

Reminding the attendees that the word hasn’t stopped changing – from the industrial revolution to the knowledge era – Sultan said globalisation and innovation are redefining old ideas and concepts, and that the current change underway, brought about by the digital era, is only the beginning. Even bigger change is coming, he noted.

He gave a glimpse into the future when he said that, soon, robots would be walking alongside us when we go shopping, or that to watch all the videos uploaded in just one second in 2015 will take five years. That’s the pace of digital content generation and consumption, and it is only going to increase further, he said.

This is shaping the evolution of new technologies, he said, which is giving rose to new players, new systems and new businesses. “Are we heading toward a new civilization?” he asked, and said the rapid pace of change is cause for concern for some people.

However, he noted that instead of being concerned, we should embrace change. He noted that all important cities in history were successful because they had the means of transportation to move things and people from one place to another, to relocate people. They were based on the banks of major rivers, he said.

Today and tomorrow’s successful cities will have the means to transmit digital content and will be built on solid digital infrastructure, he said. To reach the next phase, a smart city will be based on this network, on sensors, in cars, streets, hospitals, he said. The UAE, said Sultan, has witnessed more change and quicker change than any other nation in any era in history.

He pointed out that the Internet has completely changed the way content is created and consumed. YouTube is the largest repository of digital content in the world, he said, but noted that the platform itself creates “zero” content. “It’s you and me that create that content,” he noted. And this is what signifies the way we create and consume content.

He noted that the online channels of content creation and consumption have had a huge impact on mankind. “The digital world has become a tool for human empowerment,” he said.

He noted that, if a farmer in remote parts of Africa were to given a phone today, he’d have the same communication power as the US President 25 years ago. He added that, if he were given a smart phone, he’d have the same intelligence on tap as the US President 15 years ago. “Communication is a human right. Broadband is a basic need,” said Sultan.

“Building the Internet is no different than building any other market,” he said. “The Internet is a modern day coffee shop. People from all over the world come to exchange ideas,” he noted. Rephrasing the famous quote, Sultan says that in today’s age, “Innovation is the mother of invention.” He noted that the UAE’s initiative towards smart government will open new doors and steer us towards a whole new world of positive developments.

He recommended that as the digital world creates an unprecedented amount of data, “there must be a mechanism to collect, store and analyse data. That will not happen unless there is a certain layer, a governance layer, that’s out there in place that has the right to access this data, secure this data, and provide payment security.” He said that this layer was required to ensure that the data was used for positive purposes. “We need to strike a balance between privacy and total openness,” he noted.

“Communication, interactivity and social media can be used to improve relationships between citizens and governments,” he said. Preconditions for such a status are a balance between total openness and the will to govern. Privacy is important, Sultan noted. That governance layer, he said, is the basis to make people happier. It will analyse what is required and help people generate apps for the same.

“Today, I am asking you to not look for answers, but ask the correct question,” Sultan said. “We need to start to move from the culture of correct answers we used to learn by heart. we need to move to the era of information that asks the correct questions.”

Sultan noted how relationships are changing thanks to the access and availability of information on the Internet. “Our children behave differently than what we did,” he said. “We used to wonder how to bring technology to our schools. Now, it’s how can we move our schools to the internet?” he said.

In $100, you can buy computing power equivalent to a human mind, he noted. In 10 years, you can buy computing power equivalent of the entire human race. “Think about the creativity that will be at tap – what impact will it have on future inventions and development,” he said. “I am convinced the digital era will be a positive change in the Arab region. The young will make their own future,” he said.

The du CEO lauded the UAE’s efforts to involve citizens in suggesting improvements to basic and vital sectors like education and healthcare. “We have entered a new era of collaboration between the citizen and the government,” he said. “This is an era of sustained governance,” Sultan said.