From Saudi Arabia’s “Neom” to South Korea’s “aerotropolis”, smart cities are providing the vision and urban innovation to improve all our lives. Award winning writer Jenny Southan reports on the metropolises building our future
Saudi Arabia is probably one of the least open, least forward-looking and least tolerant countries in the world but by 2030, things are set to change. The new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has already cracked down on corruption and given women the right to drive but more ambitious still are his plans for a 26,500 sq km desert “smart city” called Neom.
More than 30 times the size of New York, the proposed $500 billion utopia will be powered entirely by the sun and wind, robots will work side-by-side with humans, and tourists will flock to its high-end hotels and Red Sea beaches (where bikinis will be permitted).
From nanotechnology to seawater farming, Neom will have a special economic zone at its heart, where (it is hoped) academics and scientists from around the world will come to conduct research and execute cutting-edge projects that promise a non oil-reliant future. Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a statement: “Neom will focus on eight specialised investment sectors that will drive the future of human civilisation – energy and water, mobility, biotech, food, technological and digital sciences, advanced manufacturing, media and entertainment. [They] will stimulate economic growth and diversification by nurturing international innovation and manufacturing to drive local industry, job creation and GDP growth in the Kingdom.”
Unlike other cities that have grown organically over decades, if not centuries, Neom will be planned from scratch and built from the ground up on greenfield sites within Saudi Arabia, as well as nearby Egypt and Jordan, in just a few years. Smart technology and artificial intelligence will be wired in from the beginning to ensure a fully automated and highly secure city, while investors, businesspeople and innovators will be called upon to help design Neom’s economic framework, consult on urban planning and identify ways to attract talent. Meanwhile, repetitive tasks and hard labour will be handled by robots, which may even out-number flesh-and-blood citizens, making Neom’s GDP per capita the highest in the world.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman said future technologies will include: “Disruptive solutions for transportation, from automated driving to passenger drones; new ways of growing and processing food; wireless high speed internet called ‘digital air’; free, world-class, continuous online education; full scale e-governance; building codes that make net-zero-carbon houses the standard; and a city layout that encourages walking and bicycling.”
Even if it doesn’t achieve everything in the timeframe it plans, Saudi Arabia is already taking steps to widen its technological outlook – for example, in February its central bank began exploring new types of financial technology with the signing of a deal with the Ripple, a blockchain-based currency exchange and remittance network in the US.
A very far away place?
Unfortunately, Neom sounds so good that it’s hard to believe the reality will be all it’s cracked up to be. Boldness looks to blend into hubris, especially when it is making extravagant claims about being “one of the world’s future economic and scientific capitals” and “a new blueprint for sustainable life”.
As Zachary Karabell noted in a piece for wired.com, Abu Dhabi’s carbon-neutral smart hub Masdar City, which took root ten years ago, “has burned through billions with little to show”. According to a piece in The Guardian by Suzanne Goldenburg, only 300 people live there. “Now the world’s first planned sustainable city could well be the world’s first green ghost town,” she wrote.
When I visited Masdar City in 2012, I was impressed to discover space-age driverless cars whizzing around the walled campus, but other than that, it was as desolate as a struggling colony on Mars. Apart from a cluster of terracotta office buildings and apartments, much of it was a sandy construction site devoid of human activity. Even the white roses standing in a vase at the hotel’s reception, had been stamped with a blue Masdar City logo, adding to the alien, transported commodity, feel of the place. Will Neom be the same – an expensive vanity project that never fulfils its potential? Critics say yes, but nevertheless, it isn’t alone in its ambitious visions for a new urban future.
A tale of new cities
South Korea has also been building a smart, eco-friendly city, this time an “aerotropolis”, just a short drive from Seoul’s Incheon International airport. Songdo International Business District (IBD) was inaugurated in 2008, when it opened its debut residential complex, First World. I flew in a year or so later around Halloween, checking into the new Sheraton Grand, which offered panoramic views of wide, empty roads and a simulacrum of New York’s Central Park with a boating lake in the middle of it.
The city was built on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea; today, the international business district (IBD), which is being developed by Gale International, is almost 70% complete. Almost 53,000 people live and work there, with a further 69,000 populating the greater Songdo City area (it has a planned capacity for 265,000 people). In total, 1,600 domestic and international companies are in operation, including the UN’s Green Climate Fund and World Bank Korea. In terms of smart technology, it exhibits innovations such as rubbish disposal via vacuum tubes from people’s apartments to eliminate the need for garbage trucks, electric car charging stations and in-home Cisco “telepresence” screens for people to video-call their doctor or take part in live online classes.
Stan Gale, chairman and CEO of Gale International, credits the need for evolution in the implementation of his firm’s vision: “Today, the $35 billion Songdo IBD project holds great significance for the future of greenfield urban development. Songdo is a platform for international companies accessing the Korean market, as well as for global organisations who are addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Our hope is that Songdo will continue to serve as a ‘proving ground’ for innovation and a global exchange of goods, services and, most importantly, ideas.”
Further on the horizon sits architect Fernando Romero’s idealistic US-Mexico Border City project, originally mooted at the London Design Biennale in 2016. The proposal counters President Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall between the two countries, instead envisioning a dual-nationality city where people and goods can move freely. Romero’s company FR-EE dreams of starting construction on privately owned land bordering Chihuahua, New Mexico and Texas within the next decade. Laid out on a hexagonal grid system, with different districts assigned different industries such as sports and medicine, it would have its own government and a special economic zone, much like the sovereign European enclave of Andorra.
In an article by Jessica Mairs on architectural magazine website Dezeen, Romero was quoted as saying: “This is a long-term vision, a utopian vision that is not about building walls but about thinking more ambitiously about the mutual relationship [between Mexico and America] and about what borders really mean between countries – With technology, those borders are just becoming symbolic limits. The reality is that there exists a very strong mutual dependency of economies and trades.” Romero detailed how the city would benefit from its position on the threshold of two huge economies: “Whatever goods you produce here you immediately have a train that connects to Los Angeles – so it is the dream situation in terms of having connectivity to the United States.”
Planting seeds in husks
Would you relocate to a smart city? Populating “new worlds” is a major problem for even the most pragmatic of developers. It’s all very well building them but a city is not a city without residents. Founder of smart city consultancy SmartUp, Renato de Castro says that after solving the issues of attracting investments, “making them attractive to people to live in is the big issue. The main criticism is that these cities have no DNA.” They can literally feel soulless.
Even if smart cities don’t take off immediately, Sohail Inayatullah, UNESCO chair in Futures Studies and a professor at Tamkang University, Taipei, believes that it is important to think big and think bold. “The present is always busy but vision sets direction. Vision coheres citizens, community, NGOs, businesses and political leaders. It allows a jump into a different possibility,” he says.
From Singapore and London to Barcelona and Oslo, experimental smart districts are popping up across established cities as a way of testing out concepts such as the Internet of Things, app-controlled services for parking and transport payment, self-driving cars, intelligent street lighting and ubiquitous super-fast wifi; all of which can then be rolled out more widely.
As the Earth’s population rises from 7.6 billion today to 9.8 billion by 2050, de Castro maintains hope for our largely urbanised future in which rural habitation becomes a second choice. “I see a globalised world but represented not at national levels but in a new local municipal order. Cities or regions will replace nations in our geopolitics.” He adds: “My romantic definition of a smart city is a place where everything conspires to make your life better. The most successful projects will be citizen-centred – but smart city strategies are not only for big cities, they can be for villages too.”
Jenny Southan is an award winning travel journalist and editor of Globetrender Magazine
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