Inside NEOM, Saudi Arabia’s megacity built for 2170
| Culture | April 21
Nadhmi Al-Nasr is tasked with bringing a $500 billion, future-proofed, robot-populated giga-project to life. But first, he must convince people it’s all more than just an idea.
Nadhmi Al-Nasr, chief executive of NEOM. (Illustration: Manuel Cetina / WIRED)
NOT MANY CITIES start out life on paper. London grew from a ragtag of farming communities; the first settlers in New York were mainly there for the fishing; we don’t know much about the early days of Dubai, but 14-lane highways probably weren’t part of the plan.
For Nadhmi Al-Nasr, building a major development from scratch is both a blessing and a curse. As chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s NEOM, he’s charged with creating a $500 billion mega-development that—as the excited launch announcement in 2017 claimed—will be powered by solar and wind energy, and be home to more robots than people.
The “giga project”—one of a handful owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, and the number-one pet project of Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler—is an opportunity to build anew, in a country where legacy cities are snarled with cranes and traffic jams as they clamber to modernize.
Assuming everything goes to plan, traffic won’t be a problem at The Line, NEOM’s planned 170km-long city, which was announced in January. The design is intended as a global blueprint for others to follow in the generations to come—as far as 150 years in the future, according to Abdullah Alswaha, Saudi Arabia’s technology minister.
It aims to avoid the myriad mistakes made in urban planning of the past. The Line will have no cars, be powered entirely by renewable energy, and boast an AI-powered health-care system which, NEOM bosses claim, will add ten years to a resident’s life.
But for now, the development’s grandiose vision exists primarily on paper—or, at least, PDFs—and some worry that’s exactly where it will stay.
Illustration: Manuel Cetina / WIRED
It’s easy to see why NEOM has been dismissed as a “utopian dream” by some. The two key announcements regarding the 26,500-square-kilometer site were full of bold ideas, but scant on detail. Robot maids, AI health assistants, and flying taxis all sound great, as sci-fi writers know only too well.
For Al-Nasr, though, it’s all part of a choreographed PR plan around The Line. “We intentionally didn’t get into more details,” he says. “We designed it so people will need to come and ask questions… we want people to dig deep.”
He’s speaking from NEOM’s “base camp” in the northwest of the kingdom, where more than 500 employees, and thousands of laborers, are camped. It’s here that the broad vision—which Al-Nasr sums up in just four words—is taking shape. “NEOM is the future,” he says. “If you just say that and stop, it should say a lot.”
But, as the construction of NEOM commences, more details are unfolding as to exactly how Mohammed bin Salman’s “daring” plan, as Al-Nasr calls it, will unfold.
Al-Nasr contrasts the NEOM model with that of Saudi Arabia’s broader Vision 2030 reform plan. The latter aims to transform a kingdom mired in the past—reliant on oil, inward-looking, and socially conservative—and build a stronger future. By contrast, NEOM is a blank canvas—a “no-legacy area,” as Al-Nasr sees it.
“It is creating a new economy based fully on technology [with] its own rules, laws, and regulation,” he says. “There are many successful free zones that follow this model. If we are to design an equal model, then we will not succeed. Because why would any investor, resident, or entrepreneur come to a new area that’s going to be equal to another five in the world?”
The term “free zone” does not quite do NEOM justice. For Al-Nasr, it’s more akin to “a country within a country,” with a distinct regulatory system. The NEOM site is indeed as big as a country—albeit Belgium. But under the masterplan, just 5 percent of the land will be developed. The Line, which is set to be home to a million people, will make up 90 percent of that, says Al-Nasr. “That tells you that The Line is NEOM,” he says. Construction of The Line has begun, and NEOM also plans to develop four or five other regions—including a site in the mountains, and another on the Gulf of Aqaba, says Al-Nasr.
“I dream that this model will be developed worldwide and—over two or three centuries—help reduce emissions and environmental challenges.”
Technology is at the beating heart the development, which will boast its own operating system and smart health-care service. But creating a “future-proof” city that will endure for hundreds of years is, as Al-Nasr acknowledges, “close to impossible.”
Take the transportation system that promises to whisk people around The Line—all 170km of it—in 20 minutes or less. There are plans for a high-speed rail network to make this happen, but it’s not clear whether that will involve high-speed trains, a hyperloop, or something else.
That’s indicative of the challenge Al-Nasr faces—and, perhaps, why colleagues say he’s been known to work in his office all night.
“Technology changes faster and faster every year,” he says. “But what we are designing is… a region that’s technology-driven and future-proof. We are designing it to be ready to evolve [over] many years. It’s not going to be an easy job, but… it’s the mentality we have.”
Delivering on this are the heads of 16 “sectors” that NEOM is focusing on—ranging from energy and water, to tourism and sport. And that is where the vision for the future is becoming palpable: developing, for example, “digital twins” that will mirror residents’ biometrics and health data.
They are tasked with overcoming the Catch-22 inherent in the development of NEOM: creating, today, a city fit for 2170, using some technologies that haven’t even been invented yet. But if the plans make it from paper to reality, it will be a model for the world to follow, says Al-Nasr.
“When his royal highness says, ‘no cars, no streets, no roads,’ that’s the message we want to convey to the world. I dream of 200 or 300 years from today, when there is a NEOM model being developed worldwide that has helped… reduce emissions, reduce the environmental challenge,” he says.
“This is not a Saudi initiative only. The dream is a Saudi dream, but the vision became global.”
Florian Lennert, head of mobility. (Illustration: Manuel Cetina / WIRED)
Where the only roads are in the skies
For many of the world’s major cities, trying to build or expand infrastructure in crowded urban areas—which were often built hundreds of years ago, without public transport in mind—is one of the biggest problems faced by planners.
Rapidly rising populations, urban sprawl, and the increase of cheap but inefficient private cars, make that problem even more difficult to solve.
Many have failed in the past, but the planners at NEOM think they have the answer. That’s partly down to the luck of the draw: they have, after all, been tasked with building a complete city from the ground up. This means transport infrastructure can be incorporated from the get-go, rather than as an afterthought, says Florian Lennert, NEOM’s head of mobility.
“You don’t end up building a city and then trying to retrofit the technology, the design, the land use… needed to fit hand-in-glove,” he says.
That means creating developments with mobility in mind, where autonomous vehicles, flying taxis, high speed rail, and large mixed-use spaces for walking and cycling will be introduced as the city rises from the sand.
In many ways, Lennert says, NEOM is actually building developments around transportation.
“Over these last two, three decades, there’s been so much innovation that’s evolved around how we can build cities: better the technology, the mobility. But we’ve never had the opportunity to bring it all together in a greenfield setting and in an integrated, comprehensive manner,” he says. “This will be a fully integrated, fully zero-emission, fully multimodal mobility system.”
The clearest example of this is The Line, NEOM’s “linear city” designed around transport, and moving people and goods. It aims to be a hyper-connected belt of communities, free from cars and roads, and relying on both clean methods of public transport, as well as encouraging people to walk or cycle.
“The Line [is being developed] for the very explicit purpose of avoiding the kind of suburbanization and sprawl [in] Los Angeles or Mexico City, which is so dysfunctional, and eats up nature. We want to protect 95 percent of the nature around us and limit the urban sprawl,” says Lennert.
Connecting The Line through its core will be the “Spine,” an infrastructure belt that will include a high-speed public transit system and the core water and electricity supply.
Lennert says that method of public transport has currently not yet been decided on, but will either be provided by ultra-high-speed electric rail, magnetic levitation (maglev) technology used in Japan and South Korea, or the hyperloop, the long-promised (and, say many, overpromised) vacuum pod system. A decision is expected to be made on that in the next few months, says Lennert.
The concept of a completely car-free city probably sounded like a good idea when the idea was dreamt up. But for Lennert, it’s more than just a pipe dream. Cars are “over-engineered solutions for what you need to do in cities,” given they’re primarily used at a fraction of the speed they’re designed for, and are “fundamentally inefficient.”
“We’re moving people around in vehicles… to carry a human payload of 70 kilos. And that is not an efficient, sustainable, or actually particularly intelligent way of organizing mobility in cities,” he says.
Wayne Borg, managing director of media, entertainment, culture and fashion. (Illustration: Manuel Cetina / WIRED)
Game, film set, VR match
Media commentators have long suggested the next Hollywood or Bollywood could emerge from the Middle East. Historically, Cairo has come closest, while in more recent years the brash, big-bucks cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have tried and, arguably, failed to make a big mark on the big screen.
Yet Wayne Borg, managing director of media, entertainment, culture, and fashion at NEOM, has his eyes firmly set on creating a globally competitive film industry—all in a city that does not yet even exist. It’s an ambitious goal, for sure. But Borg boasts of one early success: a major feature film has already signed up to shoot at NEOM. He’s keen to keep the details under wraps for now, but says this could be the first of many film projects for NEOM’s fledgling entertainment industry.
“The hub we create here will allow us to participate… with the elite global media hubs around the world, and participate in what is in effect a 24-hour industry,” he says.
“Our vision is to create an epicenter for content.”
Borg—who previously worked at Fox Corporation and the twofour54 media zone in Abu Dhabi—believes NEOM could provide a center for the region’s more siloed entertainment hotspots. This means introducing incentives (such as subsidies) to encourage film crews to shoot there.
“Our vision is about creating that epicenter for content creation in the region. It doesn’t exist today; the industry remains fragmented across a number of sites… it’s critical that you have an industry that comes together,” he says.
And as the Covid-19 pandemic has forced people to stay at home, increasing entertainment consumption, Borg says there is no better time than now to have a new player in the market.
Creating an entertainment industry from scratch comes with its own set of challenges, Borg says. But at the same time, it means he is free from the bureaucracy and legacy regulations that established film hubs must deal with.
“That provides huge advantages to us in terms of how we design and structure our whole proposition… working with the industry according to their needs, rather than having to force-fit into existing infrastructure and facilities,” he says.
This goes for the film, culture, and gaming sectors. The latter in particular is a “priority sector” for NEOM, due in no small part to Saudi Arabia’s overall focus on growing its gaming sector—with a target for it to represent up to 1 percent of the country’s economy by 2030.
Borg says an AAA (the gold-standard of games) studio is soon to be announced for NEOM—a significant step, as currently there have been no AAA games created in the Middle East.
“There’s a great groundswell of developers here that haven’t necessarily had the infrastructure or support, both in terms of facilities, connection with industry, training, and development opportunities—and that’s what we are looking to address and fill in, through this integrated ecosystem that we’re developing,” he says.
This also extends to bespoke theme parks, incorporating mixed reality and other technology that, according to NEOM, the world hasn’t seen before.
“For gamers, it’s taking their online experience and extending seamlessly into a mixed-reality theme park experience… Game play on a larger-than-life scale with the inputs bespoke to you, your favorite character, your skill level, your preferences,” he says.
“We will redefine the entertainment experience… These will be hyper personalized, transformative experiences that don’t exist today.”
Borg says infrastructure announcements will be made in the next couple of months, for projects that could be operational in a year.
All the while, he will be “redefining” how work is streamlined and how technology is deployed to help with that. It also means supporting and nurturing a startup and SME environment where smaller players can assume roles that might typically have been set aside for larger corporations.
“We’ll have a robust, thriving, vibrant media industry hub that is attracting talent across the value chain—from the technical practitioners, to the on-screen talent, script writers, and producers,” says Borg.
“This will be a fully integrated media hub, unlike any other in the world.”
Paul Marshall, chief environment officer. (Illustration: Manuel Cetina / WIRED)
Reawakening the lion kingdom
The sandy dunes of NEOM could one day be home to free-roaming lions, cheetah, and leopards. If that seems like a wild idea, in many ways it is. But such animals would not be newcomers to the kingdom— there’s evidence that the big cats roamed the Saudi Arabian desert hundreds of years ago.
The notion of “rewilding” NEOM is arguably one of the more outlandish plans for the state-within-a-state. Paul Marshall, NEOM’s chief environment officer, is charged with the conservation of 26,500 square kilometers of desert landscape, most of which—at first glance, at least—is arid and dry and not particularly conducive to sustaining life.
But that’s what Marshall and his team are trying to change—by almost rewinding time. “This landscape we’re inheriting as the new stewards has actually had a history of pretty long use—and overuse,” he says. “Large parts of the landscape are quite heavily over-grazed by camels and goats, and the marine waters are quite over-fished. And so we don’t want to preserve—we want to actively restore.”
He aims for this to happen in a number of ways. Firstly, Marshall is focused on restoring natural water flows to the area, as groundwater has been “abused” and “over extracted” for many years.
This will then “bring back habitat” to the area. Which is where the lions and cheetah come in. “We’re not talking about freaky genetic species or cockroaches for the future, we’re talking about restoring the natural ecosystem to create the resilience that enables things like gazelle, oryx and ibex, leopards and cheetah, which used to be here,” Marshall says. “[If] you go back 200 or 300 years, and we look at the rock inscriptions, there’s evidence of lions here.”
But reintroducing such animals into such a harsh environment isn’t just a random scientific experiment. The region will be “rewilded over decades,” Marshall says, and done to combat climate change and to “stabilize the ecosystems” to make them more resilient.
“We want to actually start planning out particular areas in our conservation areas for future climate. And so that may mean that we actually bring in species—animals or plants—that don’t live here now, but maybe were living here 100 years ago, and will live here 100 years in the future. So we want to start building the resilience of our system now, by designing for the future.”
“Conservation isn’t the thing you do to the land that you’ve got left over when you’ve got nothing else to do with it.”
Saudi Arabia is well known for having some of the most pristine coral reefs on the planet—largely due to the fact there’s no mass leisure-tourism industry. And because NEOM is located on the coast, plans must be put in place to ensure it stays that way.
Research has shown that the coral reefs in the Red Sea are hardy due to the high water temperatures, which have helped them continue to be among the healthiest in the world.
Cutting-edge technology will aid the marine conservation, says Marshall. His team is currently examining whether aerial drones and artificial intelligence could be used in tandem to detect and monitor marine wildlife—in particular for dugong and whale sharks, which are known to frequent the area.
Last year, the OceanXplorer research vessel was in the Red Sea on a six-week expedition. Using submarines and remote operated vehicles, the expedition revealed previously unknown information about the deep-sea environments.
Which is why preserving these environments at the inception of NEOM’s plans, and before building even begun, is so critical.
“Conservation isn’t the thing you do to the land that you’ve got left over when you’ve got nothing else to do with it, which is what happens in the rest of the world,” Marshall says. “We’re starting from the very beginning to identify what the most important parts are of NEOM, and how we protect that.”
Joseph Bradley, head of technology and digital. (Illustration: Manuel Cetina / WIRED)
An OS update for entire cities
Smart cities have come a long way in providing high-tech services for residents, mainly by being instantly reactive to a person’s needs. But the planners behind NEOM want to take that one step further—by being proactive.
There are certainly headline-grabbing technologies being introduced at the giga project, which once boasted it would be home to more robots than people. But a much simpler idea drives Joseph Bradley, NEOM’s head of technology and digital: systems that can make decisions for you in anticipation of your needs, freeing up your time. This could involve something as basic as handling your baggage at the airport carousel.
“Imagine your life with as little friction as possible,” says Bradley. “We want to eliminate these friction points… because most cities were not built around people, they were built around assets, so the people were the fallout. And so you start piling up time.”
Bradley is charged with working with the project’s various sectors (which include energy, water, and food) on the implementation and framework of their specific technologies. It means he’s involved in projects as diverse as “digital twins” for every resident, autonomous transport, and utility-scale hydrogen power.
“An autonomous drone taxi will recognize where you are.”
For Bradley, it all comes down to that notion of time. Take that example of transiting through the airport. Under NEOM’s plans, a visitor will step off the plane and be checked through the airport using biometric identification such as facial recognition.
“You will have an autonomous drone taxi, which recognizes where you are with your picture and it will show up exactly at that spot given your time, your gate, and traffic estimation to where you are, so you’re not sitting around waiting,” says Bradley.
This connects with that central idea that NEOM will be “proactive, not reactive,” he adds.
“It’s not ‘a water pipe is about to break, so you’ve got to do something about it.’ It’s ‘a water pipe is about to break inside of 30 days, I’m going to shift the water traffic and I’m going to dispatch a technician’,” says Bradley.
An operating system—a little like that on your smartphone—will run the city. Dubbed NEOS, it will power things like autonomous technology and personalization.
Humanoids will be used in places such as hotel concierge desks—but they won’t simply be robots. They will be gateways to real, human specialists. So if you’re asking about jet-boating, you’ll be put through to a jet-boating expert.
Bradley is most excited about natural language processing that NEOM is hoping to bring in, as well as multi-purpose robots that can be programmed by anyone, even children.
He also speaks optimistically about potential technology that could be used—such as digital contact lenses that will allow you to “click on information with your eyes.”
But as with any technology system that relies on personalization, concerns arise around collecting and disseminating data from its users.
To combat this, Bradley says NEOM is working on quantum encryption and “trust technologies” to ensure information is protected. All visitors and residents to NEOM will also have to “opt in” to the technologies available. “Privacy is contextually based. It is directly proportional to the value you receive,” he says.
The technologies implemented in NEOM will also be about benefiting the world as a whole, says Bradley, who hopes it could one day be used to improve the livelihoods of people in Africa. That reason is ultimately why he chose to be involved, he says.
“How can you live in a place where more people have access to a cell phone than they have to a basic toilet? There are 1,000 children dying each day because of poverty. We can fix these things. We can start figuring out that it’s not about the color of our skin and how we talk. We all bleed red.
“We’ve got an opportunity to really do something special. [People] will look back at this generation and say, ‘man, they had all this technology, and they fundamentally shifted the curve of what it’s like to be human, and what it’s like to live in cohesion with the environment.’ Or [they’ll say,] ‘they really blew it’.”
Dr. Melvin Samsom, head of health and wellbeing, and Dr. Maliha Hashmi, deputy sector head for health, wellbeing, and biotech. (Illustration: Manuel Cetina / WIRED)
“The city that will add 10 years to your life”
Urban planning can do a lot of things. It can reduce your morning commute, create tree-lined walks between homes and schools, and ensure you’re never more than three minutes away from a Starbucks latte—all nice perks in day-to-day life. But can the architects of tomorrow’s cities actually make us live longer?
The health-care chiefs at NEOM think so—and have even dared put a number on it. They believe that a mix of daily health diagnostics, an AI-powered medical service, and a gamified approach to keeping fit will prolong residents’ lives by an average of ten years.
That’s not a promise—don’t expect a posthumous rent refund just because you only made it to 74. But for Dr. Maliha Hashmi and Dr. Melvin Samsom—who head up health at the Saudi giga project—a technology-first take on human health will have a tangible impact on longevity.
“Your digital twin will develop and change in the virtual world.”
There are many aspects of NEOM’s proposed health-care system to wrap your head around. The largely online service will start in the zone’s planned smart homes, which will include, for example, in-built diagnostics systems, smart toothbrushes, and access to the aptly named Dr. NEOM, a virtual gateway to medical care available from your phone, computer, or even a mirror. It will listen to your concerns, assess if you need further care, and—if necessary—connect you to experts from around the world.
The virtual health assistant will also be a gateway to your “digital twin,” an online avatar that mirrors the real you based on biometrics and health data—from your daily habits and face print, to your medical history, blood type, and genome.
Digital twins will have a range of utilizations, but in medicine, NEOM plans to use them to provide tailored plans based on a person’s genetic sequence—and you’ll be alerted to any potential threat to your health before it happens. If you’re predisposed to diabetes, for example, your food and exercise program will be designed with that in mind.
“You can see how your digital twin is developing in that virtual world by taking, for instance, certain nutrition, doing physical exercise or not, and [it] can change over time,” says Samsom, who is head of health and wellbeing at NEOM.
In this way, NEOM wants to “gamify” health care. This has proven popular worldwide, Samsom says, as a method for people to keep interested in getting fit and healthy. Closing the exercise rings on your Apple Watch, for example.
“Gamification has proven to be an excellent way of letting people see how their behavior influences their own health. So if you can show that in that video game, in your digital twin, you can take these learnings in,” he says.
Outside the home, NEOM plans to develop a range of specialized institutions to cater for specific needs. So the days of visiting your GP or hospital for everything from a curious rash, to a sprained wrist, are numbered. Samsom describes the future of the zone as “like a gym” where “you have an environment where you are really nudged to do your physical activity and keep you mentally healthy.”
Dr. Hashmi, who is NEOM’s deputy sector head for health, wellbeing, and biotech, says there will be a number of mostly roboticized “advanced health centers,” housing nutritionists, life coaches, and—if there’s a need—registered doctors.
These will be “medical sanctuaries, where people can go for meditation or yoga or also get themselves checked,” she says.
As well as the NEOM general hospital, which will be a last resort for patients, there will be specialized “centers of excellence,” focusing on three key areas that are particularly pertinent to the Middle East region: musculoskeletal, diabetes, and personalized preventative care.
The diabetes center, for example, will connect “every single stakeholder across the world that has some elements of input for diabetes.”
“It brings in this complete spectrum of care… those that are predisposed to diabetes, those that are pre-diabetic, those that are diabetic, and those that have advanced diabetes,” says Hashmi. “So in each point of care, there will be different types of services catering to those types of people.”
The planned health-care service will not just be designed around residents: NEOM aims to attract 200,000 medical tourists per year. Hashmi says the system will be a “huge disruption” to worldwide practice, abolishing the need for “siloed” health care, streamlining everything into one integrated and connected system.
“We’re connecting people, we’re connecting technology, we’re connecting emotions. It’s an interconnected approach to living, which is fulfilling, and it exudes happiness,” she says.
“We have an opportunity to produce something that’s never been produced before and make an impact, and get people engaged with it. And that’s really the game changer: the disruption is just this shift in the way you view care.”
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of WIRED Middle East.rn tttt
Inside NEOM, Saudi Arabia’s megacity built for 2170
Content Published By the SFiProfile
- Isra and Mi'raj2021.06.15“164 Jihad Verses in the Koran — Passages in the Quran about Islamic Holy War” compiled by Yoel Natan
- Isra and Mi'raj2021.06.14Akashic Mysteries – Spheres of Power Wiki
- Isra and Mi'raj2021.06.14St. Bridget | Saint Bridget of Sweden and her Revelations
- Isra and Mi'raj2021.06.13NATIONAL BUY A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT DAY – May 22