NEOM is a monumental project with a potential as great as the highest altitude of human imagination. With a land area the size of a small country, and the will and resources of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its Royal Family and people, the zone may well play a role in helping to shape a more prosperous and harmonious future for the Middle East.
Most cities evolve over hundreds or even thousands of years. Walking tracks become horse tracks which become roads. Skyscrapers stand in the footprints of straw huts. Somehow, along the way, urban planners manage to make them livable despite their imperfections.
On very rare occasions, a metropolis has been built from scratch through the determination and vision of its nation. And succeeded.
In 2017, Lonely Planet awarded Canberra the Number Three choice in its annual list of top cities worth visiting (Best in Travel 2018). Canberra was planned and built, complete with a huge artificial lake, early in the 20th century to form the new capital of Australia in a remote and barely inhabited stretch of the Outback. From empty landscape to internationally recognized city in less than a century.
It can be done.
"Visitor numbers to the ACT [Australian Capital Territory] are at an all-time high. For the year ending June 2017, latest Tourism Research Australia statistics show 2.9 million overnight visitors… spending a combined total of $A2.16 billion, a record-breaking figure for expenditure in the ACT."
Canberra – capital punishment or next hot spot?
Australian Financial Review (print edition 28-29 Oct 2017)
Canberra is not standing still. In a global world, cities compete with one another for the finest talent. Livability, environment, infrastructure and governance are key elements in this competition.
As an example, Canberra has introduced a "Digital Backpack" – an initiative that provides a secure portal for local students. Online learning services are provided which include Microsoft Office 365, Google educational apps, collaborative tools and more than 2,000 e-books.
"The ACT Government is committed to evolving Canberra into a smart and connected digital city, through leading-edge initiatives like the CBRfree WiFi network…"
"The ACT Government's smart city program utilises smart partnerships, smart policy and smart technology to ensure Canberra remains the world's most liveable city."
Smart City Canberra
ACT Government. Chief Minister Treasury and Economic Development
A PDF prepared by the ACT Government and Arup is available ("Canberra: A statement of ambition"). Its theme of "Canberra: city of choice. city of talent. city of ambition. open to all." is quite similar to NEOM's.
It is possible for the combined vision and determination of governments, citizens and corporations to lead to the successful creation of brand new cities and economic zones. Large scale investment in tandem with special status, incentives and regulations can lead to immense innovation, synergy and progress.
Other (smaller) smart zone projects are being built around the world. Alphabet is backing the Urban Innovation Lab in Toronto. Bill Gates is backing Belmont in Arizona. Peter Thiel is backing Seasteading Institute's Floating Cities in French Polynesia. And Tesla is backing YarraBend, the "Town of the Future" in Melbourne.
"Smart cities with high speed internet functioning at a city-wide level are popping up from the deserts of Saudi Arabia to suburban Phoenix and Melbourne."
"Along with these built-from-scratch cities, the market for the technology that holds them together is projected to be worth $34.4 billion per year by 2020, according to Curbed."
Which of these high-tech utopias would you live in?
Cities around the world are seeking modern solutions to complex developmental challenges. IBM has a program called the Smarter Cities Challenge which has provided technology and expertise to more than 130 cities. An IBM team spends three weeks in a selected city, collects and analyzes data and makes valuable recommendations.
IBM's cognitive computing, cloud capabilities and big data experience provide the cities with expert insights. This enables planners to make strategic decisions and deliver more efficient and equitable services. The program points the way towards smarter urban planning.
"IBM Watson® cognitive computing capabilities give users the ability to analyze and draw insights from what would be an overwhelming amount of unstructured or difficult-to-consume data and make decisions based on evidence. The solution can understand different forms of information, including spoken or written natural language, to reason and understand underlying concepts, becoming more advanced over time."
Smarter Cities Challenge (IBM)
Nearby Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has achieved outstanding success and is no doubt a key inspiration for Neom Zone.
"The planned city, though, won't compete with Dubai, but rather complement it and other parts of the Gulf, according to Prince Mohammed. It will create 'new demand, not the same demand of Dubai,' he said. 'It will help Dubai, it will help Bahrain. It will help especially Kuwait…' "
Sun, Sea and Robots: Saudi Arabia's Sci-Fi City in the Desert
NEOM is taking a lead from the prior success of Dubai and has comparable aspirations. People in the DIFC (Dubai International Financial Center) are subject to local laws (with the exception of criminal law). These laws are innovative and efficient – for example, a small claims court has been established to quickly settle disputes.
Further, there is evidence that such achievements can come to be appreciated for the value they add to society and subsequently be rolled out nation-wide. As if by public demand.
"Established in 2004, the DIFC is a special economic and legal zone. It not only offers tax and custom duty exemptions for registered businesses; it also operates its own regulatory system, civil and commercial laws, and courts, conducted in English, drawing on English common law and judges experienced in that system."
"…There is evidence that innovation within an independent legal zone can generate spillover benefits for the rest of the country: Dubai's national courts have followed the DIFC's lead in introducing women judges …"
Saudi Arabia's TechUtopia Neom will have to reinvent the rules to succeed
The possibilities of NEOM
There will need to be a catalyst for imagination. There will need to be a cauldron of creativity. Design and architecture competitions on an unprecedented scale. Agility and flexibility. Barriers removed. New technologies detected and embraced. The backing of the resources of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people and the outside world. Waves of willpower and persuasion and enthusiasm and vision to drive the project forward into a new future. Creation of the future.
NEOM economic zone is being created at a very interesting moment in history, a pivotal moment. Transformative technologies are in a race for development around the world (self-driving cars for example) and these present a golden opportunity to grasp the lead by implementing and pioneering them to create a new and exciting way of living. An unprecedented and fast leap forward. And perhaps in the process gaining a first mover advantage.
"The kingdom's new operating model is Vision 2030, which foresees Saudi Arabia as the epicentre of the Middle East's economic future, but also a global leader in embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) – a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres."
Saudi Arabia's NEOM: A bold vision or a pipe dream?
As an example of a future scenario, NEOM has the opportunity to create the first ever metro area with majority self-driving transportation. Intelligent learning traffic systems, connected cars, driver assistance technology, big data, integrated traffic & parking systems, automated logistics, robotics, passenger drones and other mobility themes yet to be dreamed of could be implemented.
Mobility is just one of the nine key economic sectors to be developed.
NEOM could be the first iteration of a very new kind of metropolis for this century. Combined with its immense budget, the timing of Neom Zone with this emerging theme is impeccable. It may become the greatest Smart City of them all and assume significant global impact.
"The smart city industry is projected to be a $400 billion market by 2020, with 600 cities around the globe expected to generate 60% of the world's GDP by 2025, according to McKinsey research."
New forum seeks to unite 100 cities in standards to drive smart city innovation
Robotics already seems to be a prime focus for NEOM, with the dramatic suggestion that robots may outnumber humans there. In a similar way to how Dubai has developed a focus on the concept of the blockchain, perhaps robotics will emerge as a leading theme in NEOM's technology and economy – and lifestyle.
Tellingly, Marc Raibert, CEO of world leading robotics firm Boston Dynamics, attended the 2017 Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh among other tech leaders. One of the firm's robots can be seen walking around in the YouTube conference video.
Just via its very existence a robotic city could become a major tourist attraction as a kind of bonus. It could be very popular with children and families to "experience the future" and have a focus on wonder and fun.
The 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) is a dynamic and transformative combination of the physical, biological and digital realms. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has created a 31 person 4IR team led by Murat Sonmez to monitor and study its evolution. The interconnections and implications are extremely complex.
Physical assets, such as robots, and technical infrastructure, such as big data, will be underpinned by blockchain. Murat Sonmez likes the idea of NEOM becoming a sort of case-study for 4IR implementation, saying he "would like further engagement with Saudi Arabia in systemic issues involved with 4IR."
" 'I think it's an excellent plan to create a "sandbox" where you design new governance models for 4IR. Having a new city [Neom] as pilot for the whole project is a great idea, and I see building such a city from scratch as a possible option, for a place where you can test the ideas of 4IR in practice' he said."
" 'We've had discussions regarding greater WEF involvement with the Saudi government and we’re following the progress of Vision 2030 with great interest.' "
Blockchain can be more important than the Web, says 4IR chief
The Middle East was an important cradle of civilization and it may be that a renaissance in science and the arts is in the making. Anything is possible.
For example, the highly innovative UAE is planning a space probe to Mars which is likely by 2021 (the 50th anniversary of the UAE). It will be in co-operation with most of the world's space agencies, and based at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center. The ultimate goal is for a human settlement to be established (though that may be in 100 years time).
"Speaking at the Dubai Airshow Tuesday [Nov 2017], Director General of the UAE Space Agency, Mohammed Al Ahbabi said the first ever Arabic and Islamic space mission was intended to educate and inspire."
" 'We have national objectives to inspire young people and provide confidence in our people, to show it is possible,' Al Ahbabi said…"
" '…This region, 600 or 700 years ago was the base of astronomy. Two-thirds of the stars that we can see with our naked eyes have Arabic or Islamic names,' he said."
This Arab country says it’s on track to go to Mars within three years
A $136 million simulation center called Mars Science City will be constructed near Dubai. The center will feature such facilities as biome labs to simulate Martian conditions and model a futuristic built environment. The underlying philosophy of providing opportunity & inspiration for its youth and designing a positive future echoes that of NEOM.
"No timeline was given for Mars Science City, but speaking at the launch Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid] told the audience 'the UAE seeks to establish international efforts to develop technologies that benefit humankind, and that establish the foundation of a better future for more generations to come.' "
UAE looks to Mars for STEM inspiration
Enormous funding and a huge land area on the Red Sea are being provided for NEOM. A fair system of governance has been promised. An aspiration for the creation of a fair and vibrant society has been emphasized. A wish for friendship with all nations has been underlined.
The next stage is for construction to begin and migration to follow so that imagination and innovation can come together to build a great and unique and beneficial society.
" 'The Kingdom needs new cities. We are at 30 million population today, growing to 40 million in the next 13 years. KAEC [King Abdullah Economic City] is only going to handle a million by then, so you're going to need 10 more KAECs.' "
Saudi Arabia offers licenses for foreign entrepreneurs to set up shop for the first time
Towards the Future
Saudi Arabia has a young population that is growing quickly. The Kingdom is striving to empower them and ensure a positive future. It is also striving to solve various socio-economic challenges that act as a head wind. In parallel with this bold and transformational vision, NEOM, the world's largest project, with the aim of creating the most modern metropolis ever, looks set to have a major impact on the Middle East and far far beyond.
" '…you can see nothing, or you can see nothing to hold you back.' "
Twitter 3 Nov 2017