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Read more: Nokia emphasizes 5G is now primarily the technology for industry and Internet of Things

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Exclusive Interviews
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Mobile World Congress promises to be world's largest gathering for the mobile industry, where hot technology topics are introduced, discussed, analyzed and eventually implemented. Ghazi Atallah, CEO of Dubai-based smart city consulting and managed services group neXgen, shared his perspective on what trends to look out for this year that will significantly shape smart city services of the future. From blockchain technology to cognitive computing, Ghazi gave Telecom Review the smart city scoop in order to prepare for the ultimate technology event of the year.

Ghazi heads the region's leading advisory and managed services organization in the field of smart cities and next-generation technology innovation. neXgen provides expert services for cities, districts, government institutions, real estate developers and entrepreneurs. Drawing from his consulting experience, Ghazi outlined the technologies that are currently shaping smart city development, as well as the ones that we can expect in the future.

"At the core of any smart city service you'll find big data capabilities, where it's not just about archiving data, but mining data and making predictions using big data technology," Ghazi told Telecom Review. "Internet of things (IoT) is another area shaping smart city services, which is all about collecting the city's data by being able to reach every point in the city to gather the information from connected 'things'. That data can then be used for the purpose of delivering better services or better decision making."

Analytics is another significant aspect of smart cities today, says Ghazi, which involves utilizing all big data and IoT data and analyzing it to predict and simulate scenarios. These technologies - big data capabilities, IoT and analytics - are all at the core of every smart city service today.

Speaking of emerging trends in the industry that will likely be discussed at MWC this year, Ghazi said hot topics in relation to smart cities include blockchain technology and cognitive artificial intelligence. These two areas are "already in the limelight and have people talking about implementing them," he said.

As an example of cognitive computing, it can be used to interact with customer issues or deal with any kind of requests by better understanding what it is they are asking for, Ghazi explained. It represents artificial intelligence in the sense of computers being able to interact, understand and learn, and then respond with an appropriate solution.

From a blockchain standpoint - a technology being adopted by the Dubai government - the advantages involve being able to "secure and stamp transactions". Blockchain's can be created for government transactions, monetary transactions, licensing transactions - any kind of transaction that can be 'blockchained', Ghazi explained.

Dubai will become one of the first governments in the world to extensively use blockchain technology in all its transactions, according to Shaikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council. The Dubai Blockchain strategy is being implemented to achieve a high degree of efficiency in government departments.

neXgen announced its next evolution of smart city services with the launch of blockchain solutions in partnership with bespoke blockchain technology solution provider, Chainvine, in October last year. UK-based Chainvine was chosen because of its expertise in blockchain technology. neXgen and Chainvine will provide solution offerings to multiple smart city verticals. These will include the capability to audit IoT devices, enable digital economic transactions, intellectual property protection, vertical specific distributed ledgers and identification.

"We believe blockchain is a very relevant technology for today, specifically for the smart city environment, where lots of information is flowing and transactions are taking shape," Ghazi told Telecom Review. "Blockchain enables you to make sure those transactions are well documented and secure. It has the ability to distribute this responsibility across the chain so that many units within the chain can participate, thus creating resilience, security and the capability to ensure that transactions are done correctly. You can see how this could be applicable to many cities around the world."

Emerging technologies such as blockchain and cognitive artificial intelligence are definitely on the horizon, according to Ghazi. Looking even further ahead, he said we can expect things like augmented reality computer vision and robotics to become integrated into cities.

Even now there are discussions about combining artificial intelligence and machine learning with robotics so you can have robotics that don't simply respond with a voice, but can actually perform tasks as a robot, he explained. The application of this is becoming more practical, because "as technology develops, prices come down, and intelligence goes up."

Delving deeper into the potential of AI, Ghazi discussed the possibility of computers one day possessing the ability to comprehend what they see. Being able to analyze in depth the content of what they see (video stream) is the next step, said Ghazi, who envisions robots deciphering and analyzing content and then making subsequent decisions.

Augmented reality is also something that Ghazi believes will grow in significance for smart cities once more practical use cases emerge. Today, augmented reality is used for entertainment value (such as the app Pokemon Go) or for tourist purposes; for instance, adding augmented reality to a certain view of a city, and augmenting to that information about what you're looking at.

The future of artificial intelligence integrated into society might be enticing, but something to consider is the lack of emotion that could grip society if computers lived among us. Ghazi explained, "We can argue that the more computers understand, then the more they can provide personalized services, but there is a certain limit to the ability for computers to become emotional and personal in the way they deliver a service. It will be more understanding of the needs of that person, but the ability to deliver a service from an emotional and personalized standpoint will likely be lacking."

Leveraging the extensive experience that neXgen has accumulated in the field of smart cities, Ghazi said the company will be participating at MWC this year, under the Zain Group pavilion, with which it has a strategic partnership, to showcase and highlight its smart city as a service capabilities. The firm moved ahead from providing smart city consulting services to actually delivering smart city services last year.

"At Mobile World Congress this year, we are preparing to showcase and highlight our smart city as a service capabilities. The partnerships we've made the past year, the technologies we're looking into, and platform capabilities are all there to be able to deliver smart city as a service. We will showcase our smart city as a service offering such as smart district, smart fleet management, smart utilities, and smart security," said Ghazi.

He said neXgen is open to sharing its knowledge and experience with attendees at the event. "We are happy share our knowledge and thinking, including understanding and analyzing the specific environment of a given customer, and based on that, we can then figure out together the right technologies and services to implement to deliver effective solutions," said Ghazi.

For instance, in a medium-sized city, the challenges and relevant solutions might be very different than for a large industrial city. neXgen looks at different types of technology -  "from infrastructure to big data to IoT to blockchain and analytics" - in order to find the best smart solutions.