Dubai’s new Smart Palms – keeping us all connected

Since last week, there’s been a different type of palm tree blooming in Dubai’s parks. The Smart Palm is a “self-sustaining community tech hub” in the shape of a date palm.

In other words, it’s a man-made tree that provides free WiFi and information services as well as eight high-speed phone-and tablet-charging points for the public to use at no cost.

The launch of the Smart Palm – the first of many – comes after it was announced last October that free WiFi – already available in major shopping malls – would be made available to the public in the parks and on the beaches of Dubai.

The idea of Dubai residents being able to recharge their phones or use the internet for free while at the park comes as no surprise to me. HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum vowed to make Dubai’s citizens “happy” some time ago and, when you’re thinking about improving people’s everyday experience, it’s often small things like this that count, especially for low-income workers who can’t afford the relatively high cost of mobile data plans here.

But it’s part of a bigger plan, too: internet connectivity is crucial to Dubai’s “smart” blueprint for the future. Already the ; the goal is that, by 2017, “the entire city’s services and facilities” will be available on smartphones. 

Just a few years ago, the experience of government services in Dubai was very different. Preparing paperwork for your residence visa medical, for example, involved half a morning spent standing in multiple queues while you waited to see a form-filler, a typist, a translator, a form-checker, a cashier and sometimes even a dancing dog (but only on a Tuesday). Yesterday, I filled out my application online and paid in little more than three minutes.

The Dubai Police app, I’ve mentioned before, is a shining example of technology in motion: at the gentle tap of a smartphone screen you can report accidents, pay fines, report crimes, apply for official documents and take directions to your closest police station. It even has an “SOS” button to press if you’re lost in the wilderness and need rescuing by helicopter.

So, yes, the government has a lot to do with Dubai’s high internet penetration.

But I think it goes deeper than that. Another reason, perhaps, for our “hyper-connectivity” here is the fact that the population is 89 per cent expatriate.  For expats far from home, the internet isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity.

Social media is a lifeline to everyone living apart from loved ones and we’re all – from the maids chattering with their families on Skype on Fridays to the labourers grabbing free WiFi and a free phone charge in the parks – living double lives: a physical life in the reality of our adopted countries, and a virtual life back home.

Bravo to the Smart Palms, I say, for bringing free WiFi to the people. Can I please have one in my garden?


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