In recent years, one of the biggest buzzwords at the crossroads of urban planning and technology has become the “smart city.” Across the globe, governments and institutions are developing plans, making pitches, and closing deals to make cities more technologically advanced or “smart”.
The United Nations projects that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, an enormous increase over the span of just 100 years when roughly 30% of the world’s population were urban dwellers. Mass growth across the globe and especially in the growing economies of Asia and Africa will have innumerable impacts on the world economy, environment, and how we live.
Smart cities are pitched as a way to bring cities into the future with an emphasis on sustainability, economic growth, and improved quality of life.
One region that has been heavily focused on rapid urban expansion and economic diversification seems almost tailor-made for the advent of the smart city, the Persian Gulf.
As Gulf nations fight against growing worries over the impact of climate change and a global turn away from oil, various leaders have set out some bold, ambitious plans to reinvigorate economies and reduce emissions.
But there are many concerns surrounding smart cities and their implications for citizens. Smart city proponents offer plenty of bold solutions, but many question marks remain including if it’s simply a very effective marketing campaign for big technology.
Nonetheless, a whole gamut of futuristic smart city plans is in the works, and we will take you through some of the plans in the Gulf, and what their impact may be on the region, its citizens, and geopolitics.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE
The most well-known smart city projects in the Gulf region are found in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project has received plenty of media coverage for its lofty goals, and the UAE has a host of plans under the umbrella of the Economic Vision 2030.
Both plans promise futuristic, sustainable cities that will both help the countries reach short-term environmental goals and diversify their oil-dependent economies. Plenty of commentators have called into question the feasibility of some of the more ambitious goals, but certainly many elements of smart cities are already under construction and use.
Saudi Arabia’s NEOM and the UAE’s Masdar City are the headliners for the respective country’s smart city plans. Both are being constructed from scratch and have received mixed responses from an environmental and economic standpoint.
Masdar City has been in the works since 2006 and was pitched as both a smart and zero-carbon city. Ten years later, The Guardian ran a headline declaring that the futuristic city might, in fact, become the “world’s first green ghost town”.
While Masdar City has not lived up to all the hype and has been classified by many as a failure, the company behind it, Masdar (Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company) is still active in 30 countries. The UAE still holds up Masdar City and the company behind it as playing a pivotal role in Abu Dhabi’s ambitions to become a world leader in sustainability.
Masdar City is still of great interest to urban planners, but it may end up as a cautionary tale and giant showpiece rather than a functional city.
Urban planners and government officials descended on the planned smart city in February 2020 during the UN World Urban Forum held in Abu Dhabi. But as reported in Bloomberg, Masdar City is still far off from feeling like a real city, “the streets of Masdar City seem to be occupied mostly by tour groups coming to check out the master-planned clean-tech hub near Abu Dhabi’s international airport.”
According to Masdar’s website, only 1,300 residents call Masdar City home.
And while its futuristic, carbon-zero plans have wowed the world, the UAE is emitting more than it ever has. The country’s global carbon emission share is steadily increasing, and per capita, it has the fifth-highest CO2 emissions per capita, sandwiched between many of its Gulf neighbours.
Both Masdar City and NEOM have received plaudits for their ambitions, but plenty of sceptics remain concerned considering both country’s rising emissions.
Saudi’s NEOM project is newer and tops Masdar City’s ambitions. Neom is a smart city that includes several marquee projects including The Line, which promises to make the city car and street-free, built completely in a line rather than a typical concentric city.
The Line and NEOM have left plenty of urban and city planners scratching their heads, but there is big money behind the project, the Saudi Public Investment Fund has pledged $500 billion to the project.
And while there are questions about feasibility and sustainability, NEOM is the perfect place to consider smart city’s true potential and danger, surveillance.
Smart City aka the Surveillance City
Smart city plans dazzle the public with shiny new technology and promise to greatly improve the daily lives of urban dwellers with new-fangled gadgets and transport out of The Jetsons. There are plenty of definitions of what a smart city actually is, the most defining feature is the use of interconnected information communication technologies. And for those who look deeper, the real potential and driving force behind smart cities is data collection and surveillance.
According to Foreign Policy, “56 countries worldwide have deployed surveillance technologies powered by automatic data mining, facial recognition, and other forms of artificial intelligence.”
One of the key technological components of this AI surveillance that is the backbone of many smart cities is the burgeoning industry of 5G. 5G has been beleaguered by an array of often bizarre conspiracy theories, but the potential of the new technology is to be the backbone of a more interconnected data collection apparatus.
As Sue Halpern writes for the New Yorker, “a system built on millions of cell relays, antennas, and sensors also offers previously unthinkable surveillance potential.”
This potential has led to a gold rush for the latest AI technology with American and Chinese firms competing over the multi-billion dollar and growing industry.
Neom’s data collection potential is billed as the beefiest in the world. Joseph Bradley, head of technology and digital at Neom, told ZDNet that Neom’s 5G infrastructure Neos will collect 90% of the communities’ information compared to the paltry 1% collected by contemporary smart cities.
In the plan, each Neom resident would receive a unique ID number to process data from “heart-rate monitors, phones, facial-recognition cameras, bank details, and thousands of internet-of-things devices around the city.”
Bradley assured that residents would be given the option to opt-out, and the whole project is pitched as a way to improve the lives of citizens, giving city services the ability to know when you fell down and eliminating the need for keys, a simple fingerprint scan will do.
But as the public becomes increasingly more aware and potentially paranoid about data collection, experts are left wondering whether residents will want to move into these smart cities.