The Middle East’s birth of ‘smart nations’

Julia Boullemier discusses how smart cities, the Internet of Things and wearables will impact marketers in the Middle East

This year’s Davos summit hit on an interesting idea: we’re entering the fourth industrial revolution. If you’re wondering what the other three were, it was the advent of widespread water power use in the 1700s, steam in the 1800s, and electronics in the 1970s. The fourth revolution will be built on the creation of smart cities, use of 3D printing, adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) and improvements in artificial intelligence (AI).

Tying all of these concepts together is data. Specifically, the analysis and application of data to revolutionise nearly every aspect of our lives. Combining smart cities, the IoT and wearables essentially creates smart nations. Theoretically, this will improve the quality of life for citizens by enhancing urban planning, making infrastructure more efficient and enable better utilisation of a city’s resources.

Dubai has already fully embraced IoT and smart city tech, with an aim to become a world leading smart city by 2017. Current and planned smart city and IoT projects centre around six pillars outlined by the Dubai Government in its smart city strategy: life, society, mobility, economy, governance and environment. Initiatives you can see as you walk the streets in Dubai include smart palms and street lights, with a smart theme park planned for later this year and Silicon Park due for completion in 2018.

Not all of Dubai’s IoT and smart city tech is visible; the government’s vision and aspirations are underpinned by telecom connectivity, and a key enabler of future development will be the first-of-its-kind IoT network being set up by du.

The value of data created by these projects was recently recognised by the government when it created the Dubai Data Law in late 2015. The law will further Dubai’s smart city vision, enabling data sharing between public bodies and the private sector.

For marketers, a smart nation will create unparalleled opportunity. By measuring nearly everything that the populous of a city does, marketers and brands could have access to an unmatched level of insight into the behaviour, preferences and interests of consumers. This information, when combined with data science techniques, will allow marketing campaigns of a highly targeted nature. It will also open the door to a huge range of media of communication through which companies can reach prospective customers.

Flippantly, many people when discussing the IoT cite the example of a fridge telling its owner that he or she needs to buy more milk. Although this is a slightly mundane example, it does speak to the larger truth about what a smart city could allow brands to do in the future. Conceivably, marketers could use real-time information collected from consumers to send individual messages via any device that has a display.

If you know the routine of an individual, such as what shops they visit and the route they travel to work, and personal information, such as their age, gender and family situation, you can target marketing with a high-level of precision. The data gathered from connected devices in a smart city on an individual, coupled with existing targeting methods (e.g. the information contained on social media) will make this possible.

Perhaps the most exciting opportunity for brands and marketers is in relation to finally fully bridging the gap between the offline and online retail worlds. Successfully attributing a marketing initiative directly to a sale has long been the bane of everyone associated with the advertising industry.

Marketers can work with data scientists to build models that use the information from devices in a smart city and marry them with their online behaviour. At a basic level, this means that if you search for an item online and then buy the same item a week later in a high street shop, the dots will be connected.

Insights from wearable data alone will be profound. For example, by monitoring two individuals that are in a relationship, marketers could work out via raised stress levels, poor sleep and a combination of other behaviour that the relationship is in trouble. Reconciliation services could be targeted at this couple. In the working environment, a recruitment firm could seek out individuals that were habitually late for work, were largely immobile when at the office and spent little time with their colleagues – perhaps indicating dissatisfaction with their job. Recruitment companies could target their efforts accordingly.

It’s easy to get carried away and envisage an Orwellian nightmare where your every move and action is monitored and analysed, so at this point it’s worth having a reality check. The degree to which businesses use data, at least over the next few years, will be limited by what people accept as appropriate. Education and open debate about data use is essential. Brands and marketers need to be clear that, to all intents and purposes, individuals are anonymous, represented as a number; their information is buried in a huge amount of data that only complex algorithms can reveal.

Julia Boullemier is regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Profusion