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Saudi Arabia’s Remarkable Template For Future Smart Cities

Imagine a gleaming city rising between the desert and the sea. Connected smart city infrastructure directs flying drone taxis flitting between the glass skyscrapers that reach towards a huge artificial moon hovering above the rooftops. Glow-in-the-dark beaches glitter by the shoreline, while robotic waiters powered by 100% green energy serve freshly squeezed juice to resting citizens.

It may sound like a work of fiction, but this remarkable landscape reflects the vision of Saudi Arabia’s planned smart urban region ‘Neom’. Neom’s name itself is designed to evoke an almost mythical appeal of this visionary future, combining the Arabic term for ‘future’ with the Greek word for ‘new’.

Critics argue that Neom is a colossal USD500bil vanity project designed for affluent communities which unnecessarily displaces local populations. Supporters say it’s an ambitious and innovative view of the future in a fully-digitised smart city region. Whichever side of this argument you fall, it’s clear that Neom offers a impressive view of what a future city might look like.

A city of the future

Neom in many ways is designed to represent the pinnacle of the urban energy transition. Its champions aspire to create an urban environment built on a backbone of big data and artificial intelligence, delivering a fully-integrated smart region that optimises urban infrastructure, promotes zero-carbon living, and creates a utopia of digital convenience for its citizens.

When complete, currently targeted for 2025, Neom will cover 10,230 square miles in an area adjacent to Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. It forms a key part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 — a transformative roadmap for the nation which moves beyond its traditional fossil fuel roots towards a technology-driven future, and a powerful reflection of the accelerating global journey towards a low-carbon future.

Neom’s plans commit to an ‘unrivalled energy future

Green energy will be fundamental to powering this digital paradise, with advanced renewable energy systems built with integrated smart grid networks to improve performance and efficiency across the region’s entire power infrastructure.

Neom’s plans commit to an ‘unrivalled energy future’ leveraging both solar and wind technologies to power its journey. It includes a vision to drive forward adoption and innovation in green hydrogen technology, promising a new wave of low-carbon energy for the future, and positioning Saudi Arabia as a global leader in this transformative green fuel opportunity. Neom aims to operate on a 100% renewable energy system, with smart transmission and distribution networks driven by the latest advanced energy technologies.

Lining up the future

Neom’s transition from fiction to reality took a major leap forward in 2021, with the recent announcement of the first stage of development in pioneering smart city ‘The Line’. The teasingly dystopian name masks a fantastical vision of what Neom’s first development phase promises — a 100-mile strip of zero-carbon smart city which stretches from the Red Sea in the west across the dessert and past Jabal al-Lawz (the Almond Mountain) to the east.

The Line is designed to house over one million residents, with ‘zero cars, zero streets, and zero carbon emissions’. It reflects a radical redesign of urban infrastructure, quite literally building on a backbone of AI-driven intelligence.

Residents at street level will enjoy a pedestrian-first approach to urban mobility, with bike-friendly and walkable paths, and the aim that no journey will be longer than 20 minutes travel time. A service layer below the street will utilise data-driven intelligence to provide critical public services and infrastructure. A third layer below will aim to incorporate ultra-high-speed transit and next-generation freight capabilities, all controlled by artificial intelligence.

The next-generation hydrogen-powered transport system will be enabled by a USD5bil investment in a 4GW renewably powered hydrogen production facility, built in partnership between Neom, regional power company ACWA Power, and US-based chemicals and gases group Air Products.

If all this sounds too good to be true, it’s worth reflecting on some of the challenges that Neom must overcome. While Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country, the full vision of Neom will undoubtedly rely on accompanying foreign investment, which is perhaps not as guaranteed as it might have been in the current environment. Technological advancements will also be required in key areas like mobility and food production if Neom is to realise its vision of urban agriculture and ultra-high-speed transport.

Perhaps more challenging still will be questions of privacy in a data-driven city of the future where a combination of citizen data and AI-driven technologies will be parallel enablers of opportunity. A fully-digitised city offers remarkable potential to deliver an efficient and low-carbon urban environment, but a planned combination of facial recognition technology and substantial data-gathering networks which underpin it are likely to set alarm bells ringing for many data privacy campaigners. These challenges reflect the fine balance between benefit and opportunity in our future digital world.

The renewable energy technologies and smart grid networks that underpin Neom’s low-carbon promises offer a clear pathway to future green city opportunities. Realising the ambitions for a completely digital future however will mean navigating a tightrope between optimised modern living and data privacy and security.

Neom’s low-carbon promises offer a clear pathway to future green city opportunities.

The most important factor in Neom achieving its zero-carbon goals is the one that’s perhaps most technologically viable today. It is the promise of a region powered 100% by renewable energy, designed from the bottom up to deliver zero-carbon lifestyles for a modern world. With the opportunity to build from a broadly blank template, Neom leapfrogs the challenges of upgrading existing infrastructure in often chaotic and active urban environments, and offers the potential to build a fully-realised vision of a smart connected city of the future.

Neom’s investment challenges remain, as do privacy concerns and lingering criticisms of which citizens will truly benefit from this impressive ambition. One thing that’s certain is it offers a compelling vision of what a fully-digitised smart city could look like in future.

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