In October 2017, five of the richest men in the world sat next to each other in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh and with childlike excitement talked about their new shared dream: building Neom.
They were on stage at the first edition of the Future Investment Initiative, an event that gathered international business leaders to explore new economic opportunities for a country that hopes to be no longer dependent on oil revenues as it fulfills its “Vision 2030” program.
Neom is to be the grandest manifestation of that vision. A city of the future, the likes of which the world has never seen—except maybe in science fiction books and movies. It is to be built from scratch on 10,231 square miles of untouched land in the northwestern region of Saudi Arabia, including territory from within the Egyptian and Jordanian borders.
It will be an independent zone, with its own regulations and social norms, created specifically to be in service of economic progress and the well-being of its citizens, in the hopes of attracting the world’s top talent and making Neom a hub of trade, innovation, and creativity.
While the scope of ambition for this urban project may be unprecedented for this century, its necessity is evident. With falling oil prices and declining demand, as well as insufficient investment opportunities at home, Saudi Arabia is searching for its place in the future.
It hopes to utilize another abundant natural resource: the sun. As Masayoshi Son, chairman, and CEO of the SoftBank Group Corp. of Japan, said during the panel:
“Only 3% of the land of Saudi Arabia can provide over 50% of the electricity of the world, with today’s solar technology.”
Neom will not only become a test case for a zero-energy mega-city (with a size 33 times that of New York), but it will provide abundant opportunities for employment and investments within Saudi Arabia, attracting local and foreign money back to the country. The city’s vision is to be at the forefront of nine key economic sectors, including energy and water, biotech, advanced manufacturing, and food.
Addressing a question about the political and social stability of the region, Prince Mohammed bin Salman said:
“We were not like this in the past. We only want to go back to what we were — the moderate Islam that is open to the world, open to all the religions. 70% of the Saudi people are less than 30 years old, and quite frankly we will not waste 30 years of our lives in dealing with extremist ideas.”
$500 billion has already been committed to the construction of Neom, with its first phase expected to be completed in 2025. The city will be owned by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, overseen by a special authority, chaired by Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Excluding sovereign laws (pertaining to the military sector, foreign policy, and sovereign decision), Neom will have its own governmental framework, including different taxation, customs, and labor laws.
Marc Reibert of Boston Dynamics emphasized that the success of the project will depend on attracting the right talent (“dreamers” are welcome) and creating the right culture of innovation that will allow for building this technological city of the future, where all services and processes will be entirely automated, food will be grown in the desert, drones will fly in the skies, and there will be a full-scale e-government.
At this initial stage, it is unclear what Neom will look like, but we may get a taster thanks to another “future city” project to be built in Canada albeit on a much smaller scale.
Sidewalk Labs, owned by Alphabet has committed $50 million to develop 12 acres in the Quayside area of Toronto in a public-private partnership with the city. The plan is to build a mini digital city, using a range of smart technologies, sustainable energy, and autonomous cars, that will eventually become the home of Google’s Canadian headquarters.
Of course, redeveloping an area within a city and building a city from scratch are two entirely different endeavors, especially when the ambition for the latter is to “be the most exciting, fulfilling place to live and work on the planet. A tribute to humanity’s timeless ambition, the herald of a new era and a new standard for centuries to come.”
History can provide us with its fair share of examples where humanity’s vision of would-be utopian cities did not manifest itself the way it was intended. Hopefully, given the fact that both Neom and Sidewalk Toronto are intended to be commercial projects, things will pan out differently.