When Dr Rashid Alleem was handpicked by the Ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi, to lead Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority’s transformation journey in April 2014, he knew how important his work would be in driving the emirate’s critical infrastructure.
“His Highness was unhappy with SEWA’s performance at the time of my appointment, and said that he wanted to have someone who could deliver a magic touch, and make changes within a very short time period,” the SEWA chairman says. “I now report to him directly to ensure that we can collectively come up with speedy and efficient decisions to create a better future for the nation through technology.”
Throughout his career, Dr Alleem has accumulated an understanding of the importance of calm yet decisive leadership in a series of high-ranking, government-critical roles in the emirate. He chaired Sharjah International Free Zone, Hamriyah Free Zone Authority, Sharjah Seaports and Sharjah Customs, and was named the ‘Ambassador of Knowledge for the UAE’ in 2015 by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Since the Authority’s creation in 1995, the emirate of Sharjah has seen a tremendous economical and industrial boom, and SEWA now maintains the electricity, water and gas supply for the entirety of Sharjah’s population.
Guaranteeing consistent access to these services for 1.5 million people across 2,600 square-kilometers of land is no small task for Dr Alleem. “We’re touching people’s lives every second – not just every minute, and we simply cannot afford to have blackouts,” he says.
In December 2015, hackers successfully compromised three energy distribution companies in Ukraine, plunging nearly a quarter of a million people into darkness for up to six hours. It was the first successful cyber-attack on a power grid, and attracted global attention in demonstrating a hackers’ ability to go beyond merely causing digital chaos, and instead initiating real-time, physical damage to a country’s critical infrastructure.
For SEWA, it was a powerful wake up call, and a reminder of the need to ensure the security and robustness of business systems if such incidents are to be avoided. “Any utility business is going to face challenges in staying secure and protecting the huge volume of customer data that we collect,” Dr Alleem says. “But the blackouts in Ukraine really reiterated the fact that if hackers have the means and opportunity to cause real-world damage, then they will – and we needed to be prepared for that.”
Maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction through the reliable delivery of these services requires Dr Alleem to ensure that he can depend on partnerships with both qualified, dedicated employees and the latest technology innovations.
The Ukraine attacks kick-started SEWA into action, and sparked conversations around building back-up servers and benchmarking the Authority’s security progress against the work of leading utility organisations outside of the Middle East. Following a trip which left Dr Alleem “amazed” by the heightened security levels of the country’s utility industry, SEWA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Singaporean government to enhance relations between the two entities. Earlier this year, he began sending his staff to Singapore on ‘crash courses’ to give employees a better understanding of how to protect their IT systems, and learn how to handle crisis situations.
“I think it’s important to emphasise the criticality of leadership skills in surviving tough scenarios,” he says. “In my opinion, leaders should know how to manage a crisis.”
A strong believer of “collaboration and co-creation,” Dr Alleem prioritised the signing of various partnerships with top technology vendors to support this vision. “Ensuring that my team is in safe hands is crucial for me,” he says. “I have been highly involved in these IT deals because I want to work with the brand itself, not the middle man, to ensure that my message was being heard loud and clear by industry players.”
Delivering sustainability – which is highlighted in Dr Alleem’s 15 principles needed to create “a winning future” named in his book, ‘The SEWA Way’ – through technology is a major part of the Authority’s IT strategy. “Sustainability is a term that tends to be misused,” he says. “When you talk about sustainability, people presume you’re talking about ‘green initiatives,’ or the environment. You can go to a sustainability conference and have green brochures, green tea and green cappuccinos – but just going ‘green’ is not what I believe sustainability really is.”
Dr Alleem has spearheaded various projects incorporating his idea of sustainability, comprising a combination of social, environmental and economic factors. He led SEWA’s Solar Street Light Project, and implemented 15 kilometres of solar street lighting in Al Saja’a – a neglected area of Sharjah that was previously in darkness, and was consequently a “prime target” for crime. “A recent police report has shown that since we began the project, the level of crime in Al Saja’a has reduced by 15 percent, and the value of residential properties and land has risen by 25 percent,” he says. “These figures show the real value in creating sustainable solutions.”
In addition, 20,000 smart meters have been installed into homes as part of SEWA’s Smart Homes initiative. “I believe it is important to educate customers – especially families with young children – on how they can make small changes in their everyday lives to reduce their energy consumption,” says Dr Alleem. The smart meters also enable SEWA employees to remotely take readings without having to physically visit each home.
These new devices display the meter reading as a simplified consumption rate, allowing the customer to appreciate how much energy they are using, and whether they will be overcharged depending on their payment package. “If the customer’s monthly rate is set at 2,000, and it hits 2,005, even though it is only a small increase, it will take the customer into the next payment band which could see a potential rise of 30 percent in cost,” explains Dr Alleem. “Through this technology, consumers have indirectly been educated on when they should become concerned when reading their meter. I believe it is important that this mindset is reinforced when educating children on how we can help the environment and save money by just switching a light off when leaving a room.”
Aside from enabling sustainable and efficient solutions for customers, Dr Alleem is also keen to ensure operations run smoothly within SEWA’s own four walls. In December 2015, the Authority unveiled the region’s biggest smart control screen, which enables SEWA to monitor the performance and functioning of power plants around the clock. There is also a mobile app in place to allow consumers to pay utility bills online and check their monthly energy consumption against their annual history records.
What’s more, Dr Alleem sought to implement a more efficient record management system to handle the huge volume of paper documents that had been accumulated over the years. Many of these remained from decades before, when the emirate’s water and electricity was run by privately-owned Sharjah Electricity & Water Resources Co. “Some of these documents could be between 50-60 years old, and are consequently not in the best condition,” Dr Alleem concedes.
It had previously taken employees 3-4 days to retrieve customer documents, before the installation of Kodak Alaris’ heavy-duty scanners at SEWA’s centralised office 18 months ago. “The scanners are working around the clock, 24 hours a day, and can scan up to 110 pages per minute,” explains Dr Alleem. “We chose Kodak’s scanners because the output files are of a high quality, yet compressed in size, which maximises our server storage space.”
Digitalising SEWA’s backlog of documents is a hefty process, and currently involves scanning 500,000 pages a month. With 30 heavy-duty scanners already installed, and another 50 in the pipeline, Dr Alleem and the IT department plan to have completely archived all documents as digitised files within 3-4 years.
Looking ahead, SEWA’s aim is to continue implementing the latest technologies to enhance the delivery of services, and further educate Sharjah’s residents on the ways in which energy consumption and costs can be reduced. “I believe we must continue to engage this vision with young people in particular, and enhance this mindset through the use of smart, innovative technology,” says Dr Alleem.