For Dubai, global data standards offer metrics for economic competitiveness
DUBAI — Dubai is taking data seriously, having embraced the value of urban data in particular as a strategy to maintain a competitive edge in the global city arena.
It’s investing in its “smart city” capacities, having launched 121 such services and more than 1,100 initiatives over the past three years. That has saved the government more than USD 1 billion dollars, according to government figures.
Dubai was also among the first cities to adopt a global standard for measuring urban performance, and has since embedded that into its city reporting framework. It was one of the first to be certified in accordance with the ISO 37120 standard — a global benchmarking system for measuring city performance based on 100 indicators that measure urban services and quality of life across 17 themes.
In 2015, the World Council on City Data (WCCD), which is spearheading the standard, awarded the city “platinum status”, its highest certification level. This certification means that Dubai reports on more than 91 of the 100 indicators bundled into the ISO 37120 standard. The city, for instance, reports having over 28,000 higher-education degrees per 100,000 of its population, and over 6,000 businesses per 100,000 of its population — both statistics regularly culled under the ISO standard.
This month, Dubai hosted WCCD’s Global Cities Summit, a first of its kind meeting of over 200 city leaders and urbanists dedicated to using standardized urban data for tracking and informing urban development.
On the sidelines of the summit, Citiscope’s Brendon Bosworth spoke with Aisha Miran, assistant secretary general in the Executive Council of Dubai’s strategy management and governance sector, about the city’s experience with the global standard. This interview has been edited for length and consistency.
Brendon Bosworth: Dubai was one of the first cities to receive ISO certification. What did the city learn through that certification process that could be useful to other cities that want to become certified?
Aisha Miran: When we looked at the 100 indicators, they were very much aligned to our vision and to our Dubai Plan 2021. The way they broke down the measures into themes [was] of relevance to us as a city. So once you see that there is that relevance and applicability, that is the first thing you take into account.
Once we saw that the ISO indicators [were] relevant to our vision and our plan, it gave us a great addition, because this would allow us to compare ourselves against other cities. Our leadership direction is focusing on the competitiveness of Dubai. And if we’re talking about competitiveness and being the best, and being number one, that has to happen within a context of comparison — and that comparability was able to be achieved through the ISO certification. We hope more cities [will] join, so it will give us a further breadth of cities to compare against.
It also allowed us to know who is “best in class” among the different themes. So when I talk about environment or urban development, I know now who is best in class. I can go and see — okay, how are they doing it, what can I learn from them? And I know where I’m positioned as a city.
We embedded those ISO indicators as part of our performance tracking system in the government. It’s not about a submission we give every year — it’s embedded within our monitoring within the government.
Moreover, it helped us to standardize our methodologies, our definitions. So I’m Dubai, compared to cities x, y and z, we’re comparing apples to apples. We know now [that] the difference is in the way we’re doing things, because the scope is exactly the same, the methodology is the same, the calculation is exactly the same, and this is the benefit of having an ISO.
These [indicators] have helped us a lot to know where we are good at, and what we can do to maintain that, and where we need to develop. Like, we know when it comes to certain environmental pressures, we need to work harder on that.
Q: So, if you look at the indicators — like air quality, for instance, [the use of] renewables is minimal. Is that something that you’ve now taken into account?
A: Yes, definitely. And we even took it beyond that. We started engaging with international bodies and organizations.
Today, Dubai is part of the C40 network; we hosted the C40 network nearly a month ago. And one of the themes C40 focuses on is environment and climate change. We hosted a conference on climate change adaptation and were able to bring the different network of cities within the C40 to learn from each other.
During that conference, we announced that we want to do the Dubai Climate Change Adaptation Plan, because we know that there are areas we need to focus on. And when we looked at other cities, they do have an adaptation plan, and we don’t have. So this is where we learn from the best in class.
Q: When you were getting certified, was there anything that was challenging for the city? What was the more difficult component of that?
A: I think there are very, very few indicators that are not applicable in one way or another. When you talk about the slums, we really don’t have that in Dubai. There are very few [indicators] that are out of context to Dubai city. In many of the others, we were able to hit  out of the 100, and I think we even went beyond that by now.
Q: Does the governance format here also affect the indicators? There are ISO indicators for municipal elections and things like that where there is no data for Dubai.
A: Exactly — there might be a few that are not applicable to Dubai because of the political context of the city.
Q: Was there anything that, once you’d done the ISO certification and looked at the metrics, you learned about the city that you hadn’t known before?
A: I wouldn’t say that we were surprised or that we learned anything new, because for us as a city we started introducing performance measures within the government in 2003. So when the ISO came, we were not among the struggling cities trying to collect and fetch data.
We were able to establish the data and turn around our application quite fast, and we were fortunate to get the platinum certificate in that. This comes as a result of having a basis. Many other cities are maybe a bit unfortunate around their data collection.
As much as we have a decentralization approach in our government when it comes to executing plans, everything is aligned to government systems. So, planning is aligned to government systems; performance management is aligned to government systems, budget. These sorts of things have helped us over the years to establish our baselines.
Q: What is an example of a project that’s come out of this, where Dubai looked at the data and said, ‘Right, here’s something we want to improve on’?
A: [During the Global Cities Summit,] we talked about the share of public transport, about the ridership of public transport. This is something that we believe we can be better in. And we’re working with our Roads and Transport Authority to see ways that we cannot push but encourage the public to use the public transport system, because we also have high private car ownership.
Q: I’ve ridden the metro, and it’s been pretty busy in the mornings.
A: Yes, it is busy — it is packed. We do have a “gold” cabin, which [costs] a bit extra. We do have a [cabin for] women and persons with disabilities. But even these are packed. So there is an appetite by the public. It could be that we need to connect things in a better way — London is a great example around that.
We’re aware of the best practices that other cities are implementing. But we also need to understand that when you are within a federation, there are things that are within your control as a local government, and there are things where actually you need to think of the federal government to implement in order to reap the benefits.
So when we talk about licensing, we talk about car entitlement — these sorts of things have to come from the federal [level], because we don’t have borders as cities within a country. So here, we are pushing at a higher level in order to get support.
Q: You spoke about having your database since 2003. What is a good example of how the city is incorporating this ISO data into its decision-making?
A: As I said, it is part of our reporting cycle. We actually take it into account in our policies that we implement, and the reporting that we make to decision-makers.
But what is also interesting is that the WCCD has plans around [two new ISO standards on] “smart” cities and resilience. And these are two areas that we are working on, in terms of new measures — seeing where we stand and how we can be better in doing things and improving.
This is where more of these [standards] to come will be more interesting. They fit within the new buzzwords out there — “resilience”, “smart” — and lots of nations and cities are looking towards that.