Smart cities and smart thinking: the Middle East’s tech on the rise

Smart cities Middle East
No middling tech

We are now entering a new digital era: the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR).

Suffice to say, technology evolves every day and changes the world along with it. Huge strides in technological innovation are made to meet and further propagate demands for faster information, transformation, and increased agility in both our professional and personal lives.

The First Industrial Revolution harnessed the power of water and steam; the Second, electric power; the Third, electronics and information technology to drive automation and efficiency. Building on its predecessor, this Fourth and current phase ischaracterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.“ In essence, this refers to areas of emerging technology such as AI, machine learning, autonomous vehicles, Internet of Things (IOT), robotics, drones, smart cities, and the innumerable ways they will interact with our physical lives. Think, for instance, of “voice-activated assistants, facial ID recognition or digital health-care sensors.”

Although the impact of this will extend globally, 4IR is transforming the Middle East at an unprecedented rate largely thanks to the region having one of the world’s highest internet adoption rates, as well as a very young and tech-savvy population. This transformation doesn’t seem likely to slow any time soon either: PwC has predicted that AI will generate $300 billion for the Middle East economy over the next decade.

At the heart of this astronomical growth are mega-projects such as Saudi Arabia’s NEOM. NEOM is planned as a $500 billion smart-city, one of the world’s firsts, powered by renewable energy. If completed to original plans, it will be 33 times the area of New York City. Beneath physical infrastructure too, advancements are being made towards smart governments, and several countries in the region have already institutionalised AI in government ministries. The region, in fact, has been an early adopter of AI technology and is proving to be a pioneer in the space; the UAE, for instance, appointed the world’s first Minister for Artificial Intelligence in 2017.

The state-sanctioned shift towards increased adoption of AI will inevitably brings the creation of more jobs in the region. As a result, plans have been proposed for an AI Centre of Excellence in the Middle East which will “enable a new focus on home-grown innovation and upskilling the regional workforce in preparation for a range of new roles.” Last month, Bahrain Polytechnic, in collaboration with Microsoft, launched the Artificial Intelligence Academy, the first of its kind in the Middle East. It offers participants – everyone from school and university students to jobseekers and professionals – a blended-learning programme with an online syllabus covering AI, data analysis, data science, and machine learning.

Beyond learning about tech, technological advancements have also shaped the way we learn generally, with the rise of e-learning. Even before the outbreak of coronavirus, the value of the global e-learning market was forecast to reach $341 billion in 2025, an increase from $107 billion in 2015. The pandemic, however, has further accelerated that growth and led to a surge in ed-tech start-ups worldwide, who previously struggled to secure funding. Their solutions offer distance and online learning solutions in place of in-person classes at schools and universities.

Digital learning has been adopted quickly in the MENA region, which has seen its own surge of regional ed-tech businesses. Leading the charge is the UAE whose ed-tech market alone is estimated to reach a value of $40 billion by 2022. Its most popular ed-tech start-up is Lamsa – an educational Arabic-language app for children that previously won the Arabic e-content award at the United Nations’ World Summit Awards. Since the closure of schools in the UAE, Lamsa’s number of downloads and content consumption has risen by 300% and, to date, the app has been downloaded by more than 17 million families.

Other countries across the region have also achieved success in their ed-tech ventures. Saudi start-up Noon Academy, for instance, is one of the largest and fastest-growing ed-tech platforms in the Middle East and has now raised over $21m placing it amongst the most well-funded start-ups in the Kingdom. Little Thinking Minds is a leading ed-tech start-up which launched in Jordan and now has offices in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Its platform, designed to improve learning for school-age children across MENA, is now being used by over 300 schools globally, 160,000 students, and thousands of teachers. In Egypt, Zedny was launched earlier this year with a $1.2m pre-seed investment. It offers “animated video summaries of global business bestsellers, using AI to customise learning for users, to help individuals and employers in Egypt and the Arab world develop their business skills and soft skills.”

The ed-tech landscape, needless to say, has changed dramatically. Three years ago, for instance, ed-tech start-ups across MENA were only receiving $2m in VC investment. Online courses, however, are no longer a luxury add-on, but a necessity and at the heart of education moving forward. As such, VC funding for Middle Eastern ed-tech start-ups is expected to reach $35m by the end of this year.

With increasing technological advancements, as well as the impact of 4IR, the Middle East, a region with one of the most tech-savvy populations in the world, is set to continue as a global leader of innovation.

This post is the second in a series. Find the first here.


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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the mediainformationtechnologycommunications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.