smart city: Neom: Saudi Arabia is building a city that could be the smartest of them all

While talking about smart cities, Saudi Arabia is creating a cognitive city, Neom, which envisions what a city has to offer its citizens 20-30 years in advance. He is building it now with an expenditure of 500 billion dollars. Urban planning and living are at the heart of this model, 95% of the territory being devoted to nature. The fact that it is built from the ground up allows cutting-edge thinking to take shape, almost without constraints of imagination, innovation, resources or regulation.

‘Neom’ comes from neos, Greek for ‘new’, and mustaqbal, Arabic for ‘future’. It will be 26,500 km², located on the northwest coast of Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea, accommodating 450,000 people by 2026, and about 2 million by 2030 and 9 million by 2045. The centerpiece is ‘The Line’, a 100-mile, 200m wide, horizontal city, with housing, workplaces, parks, entertainment, shopping and recreation. All facilities, including preventive health care, will be within walking distance.

The promise is that the interiors will be built to create captivating experiences, while the exterior will have a mirror facade to blend in with nature. Expect to see lush vegetation, sweeping views of the sky and mountains, as well as flying elevators, spaceports, and awe-inspiring twin-helix structures. The city will run entirely on renewable energy (RE), with an optimally organized environment for sunlight, shade and ventilation. There will be no cars. Instead, a high-speed rail system will get you across the city, end to end, in record time. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will enable other finely tuned automated services.

Neom will include Oxagon, a manufacturing innovation town focused on 14 industrial sectors, Trojena, a mountain tourism location that will include an outdoor ski venue, and Neom Bay. Business opportunities are expected to create 380,000 jobs by 2030. All systems will be digitized, including planning, design, procurement, logistics, construction and lifelong operations and management. AI and machine learning (ML) will continually improve productivity, efficiency and speed.

According to Neom’s Director of Projects, a living laboratory will be created to research alternative construction design, processes and materials, disrupting current project planning, execution methods and techniques. An RE network will be installed on all construction sites. The Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) ecosystem will also involve widespread use of 3D printing, fewer natural resources, reduced emissions, zero construction waste, and circular economy techniques. An advanced Internet of Water (IoW) infrastructure will deliver high-quality potable and reclaimed water across the entire network, monitoring smart irrigation, leak detection and contamination in real time. And the plan is for all of Neom to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Neom is owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund (PIF) and is led by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and deputy prime minister of the country. Ongoing ideas include flying taxis, a robotic housekeeper, a project to empower humans by editing the human genome, robotic dinosaurs, a glow-in-the-dark beach, cloud-strewn rain and an artificial moon giantess.

According to the Wall Street Journal, however, red flags include the resettlement of thousands of people, a slow justice system, technological challenges inherent in ambitious projects, fleeing recruits and stressed expatriate managers giving up lucrative contracts. Neom struggles with chronic lateness for all of these reasons.

A good benchmark for defining and evaluating smart cities is the Smart Cities Index (SCI) designed by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the University of Technology and of Singapore design. It assesses qualitative, economic, technological and inclusive aspects. The SCI methodology captures citizen perception scores on two pillars – structures (existing infrastructure) and technology (technological arrangements and services available to citizens). The assessment of the two pillars covers health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities and governance.

The survey uses scores over three years, with the latter getting the maximum weight. Of the 118 cities that made the cut in 2021, the top five were Singapore, Zurich, Oslo, Taipei and Lausanne. For the record, New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore rank 89, 90, 92 and 93 respectively. Other smart city indices include the Kearney Global Cities Index and the Cities in Motion Index from IESE Business School in Barcelona.

Neom challenges traditional principles of urban planning, design, architecture, technology and the very concept of smart cities. A key factor enabling this reimagining is that Neom is being built from the ground up, while most other cities are being modernized to become smart – and none with the budgets Neom works with.

There is no guarantee that Neom will succeed. But by trying to set the bar so high – and despite appearing to be a city for the wealthy only – Neom has certainly changed the texture and tone of smart city discourse.