The ruler to be in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has revealed a plan to create a gleaming, super high tech city, with robot workers, which will be energy self-sufficient, to sit at the crossroads of three continents, subject to its own rules. It feels like the stuff of dreams: would you want to work there?
Take a left at what was once Jericho, in modern day Palestine, the world’s first city, and head west and a little to the south. After a few hundred miles you will reach Neom, a city in waiting on the crossroads of three continents, spreading into three countries, when complete it will be 10,000 square miles, and to borrow words from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman it will be the “first capitalist city in the world.”
There is something about great cities: Babylon – the cultural centre of the ancient world, Venice, the merchant city built in swamp land as a last refuge from Romans fleeing the collapse of their city, and today: Singapore: city of capitalist delight, New York, the Big Apple and London a multicultural melting pot of ideas. But there is one thing these cities have in common, legacy. London has its creaking underground built by Victorians, New York, trying to re-establish old glories, maybe Neom can be different.
It is a familiar tale to all who have studied disruptive technology – it is hard for incumbents to stay on top of their game, new technology creates opportunities for new business, with bold, or audacious plans, while established players fret over cannibalising what they already have.
But can such principles apply to cities, as well as companies?
The plan for the new city: a kind of Milton Keynes in the desert, but with ten times the scale – maybe more, and much, much more money behind it, was revealed yesterday. “Unrivalled in concept” claims the marketing blurb, “unmatched in intelligence, unconstrained by history.”
The city, which will be partly in Saudi Arabia, partly in Egypt and partly in Jordan, will be an independent economic zone, subject to its own rules, taxes and regulations. It will be sustainable, and if the sales pitch is right, a very pleasant part of the world, “cooled by red sea breezes, and a temperate Mediterranean climate.”
The promotional video, highlights a multicultural feel, people of multiple races, and both sexes dressed in western attire.
This is what the Crown Prince had to say on the matter: “There’s a commitment from the government; we’re putting our name on the first line. We can do 98 per cent of the standards applied in similar cities, but there is 2 per cent we can’t do, like, for example, alcohol,” the prince said. “A foreigner, if they desire alcohol, can either go to Egypt or Jordan.”
For Saudi it’s a bold move, but one that is far from certain to come off. The kingdom has just fallen into recession, the planned IPO of Aramco, the Saudi owned oil company that once floated, will be the largest company in the world, seems to be going backwards.
Saudi remains a country afraid of change, with an ultra-conservative culture, struggling to diversify away from oil.
“We want to live a normal life,” said the Crown Prince, “a life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness.” He said Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today and at once.”
It is easy to be cynical, easy to think of reasons why it will not work. But many of the critics miss the point
Boaz Shoshan, said in Capital & Conflict “Considering that most start-ups fail, I’m not sure I would want to live in one that is 10,000 square miles across.”
But he misses the point, Neom won’t be one start-up, it will be a centre for many – like a co-working centre that is 100 miles long.
The PR for Neom said that the city will provide a “chance to test out inventions like personalised, fully automated, point-to-point transfer, passenger drones, self-learning traffic systems, in a live destination and refine them to perfection.” It will focus on 3D printing, nano technology, internet of things devices… etecetera. It said; “starting from scratch means a chance to innovate the very systems underpinning those innovations or R&D, supply transport and infrastructure.”
It is commonly argued that we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution. This is incorrect, technology is accelerating, the fourth, fifth and sixth industrial revolutions are merging into each other.
And big dreams will become real, indeed maybe only the big dreamers will be a success.
But the age of innovation that is approaching will also create great social change. The Crown Prince said nothing about democracy in Neom, rather the city itself will be subject to an IPO, presumably run by a board of directors, and owned by shareholders. If every citizen has an equal share, that may be a good thing, but the big danger relate to the social, and not economic implications.