These days, we’re all familiar with the concept of the "smart city’: The term defines the new urban environment, one that's designed for performance through information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other forms of physical capital. With the effective management of resources through intelligent management, visionaries hope that cities will drive a higher quality of life for citizens, drive down waste, and improve economic conditions. Given that the majority of people across the world will live in urban environments within the next few decades a connected. It’s an urban ecosystem where digital technologies are used to monitor, integrate, and coordinate many components – transport, housing, water, energy, lighting and more – vital to human life. And where insights gained from data are used to manage assets, resources and services efficiently, and that data is used in turn to improve the operations across the city.

It’s a compelling vision, and one that’s already being rolled out in many places across the Middle East and worldwide. But here’s an interesting concept to add to it: that a land port is similar in many ways to a smart city – and requires a similar mindset and approach if it’s to be as successful and effective as it possibly can.

Close parallels

If you can’t immediately see why a land port is like a smart city, you’re not alone. But stay with me, and allow me to explain why the parallels between the two are so close.

One common attribute – as highlighted in my previous blog in this series, on the evolution of the invisible border – is the growing use of digital technologies and data to shape people’s journeys and experiences across the border. In the future, both smart cities and land ports will be equally data-rich environments, using data-driven insight to enable better decisions and improve people’s lived experience.

But for me, smart cities and land ports also share a much more fundamental attribute: the fact that they’re both distinct ecosystems in their own right, and must coordinate a wide array of elements to make that ecosystem function effectively. For land ports, this need is often driven by their geographical location.

Why? For example, there are land ports in the Middle East that are 600km from the nearest city. If there are no gas stations or places for rest or refreshment on that route, nobody – whether trader or traveller – will run the risk of driving along it for fear of getting stranded. So unless the port ensures that these elements of its ecosystem are available, it will die from lack of traffic.

Sustaining employees

The parallels with smart cities become even stronger when you look at the needs of the employees working at land ports. Given the remoteness of their workplace, they have no choice but to live nearby with their families – and need safe housing and supplies such as food, water and power to sustain them.

Yet without the presence of the port in these otherwise relatively empty areas, there would be no business case to build housing or supply utilities and food. So the port must both deal with its own everyday border operations, and also think and act like a smart city in ensuring the housing and supplies its employees need are available and reliable – as well as coordinating vital resources such as hospitals and schools.

Again, the similarities with smart cities are clear. While a land port may be on smaller scale than a smart city, running it requires a comparable mindset focused on managing and integrating the holistic needs of the people living, working and travelling through it. And the means of meeting those needs are increasingly enabled by digital technologies and data.

Entering the era of the digital twin

The reliance on digital is set to make the similarities even greater in the coming years. Smart cities systems enabled by AI and predictive analytics are adept at forecasting events such as congestion and overcrowding and initiating actions to prevent them. In the same way, land ports are increasingly using pre-arrival data to predict and smooth out peaks in traffic to prevent long queues forming – a point I made in my recent blog on smart lane management.

Predictive data insights can also be used both by smart cities and land ports to take decisions such as widening a road or launching a new housing development. And looking further ahead, both will make rising use of digital twins – a digital replica of the physical environment that enables infinite simulations of different choices. It’s like trying out different options using an eraser rather than a hammer, enabling land ports (or smart cities) to test out multiple scenarios without any risk to their people, business or reputation.

Smart city or smart port? The biggest difference is size. As increasingly digital ecosystems for living and working, they’re converging fast. Governments have been planning cities since King Gilgamesh ordered a massive wall to be built around the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia. Although city governments have long been creating regulations and frameworks for providing city services, they must now comprehend the profound technological advances that have emerged in ICT, including the Internet of Things (IoT), machine to machine (M2M), and big-data analytics/AI. In general, port ecosystem will need to focus on many general tracks of emphasis to discover and plan for the best applications for ICT with a coordinated approach to port operation as a smart city design.

Disclaimer: This content is provided for general information purposes and is not intended to be used in place of consultation with our professional advisors.

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Mohammed Adlani

Client Account Lead


Jorien Kerstens

Manager – Consulting, Public Service, Border Services

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