A city that knows your every move: Saudi Arabia's new smart city might be a glimpse of the future

Saudi Arabia is building a smart city in the desert that will know its residents better than they know themselves. Snapshot of the future, or an example to avoid?
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Picture this: you land from your flight, walk through the airport undisturbed, then jump on a high-speed underground transit line that within less than 20 minutes takes you to the city center. As you hop off, forget about pulling your phone out to search your way from the station to the hotel: a small autonomous shuttle is awaiting you at the exit, and it already knows where you're going. After a short ride – nothing here is further than a few hundred meters away – through a city that has traded cars and roads for open piazzas and luxuriant green spaces, the shuttle drops you off at your hotel.  

Don't bother checking in; a facial recognition system has already pinned you down. You walk directly to your room, press your fingertips next to the handle to authenticate, and sigh comfortably as the doors open. The holidays can start. 

In the same amount of time that it would normally take just to queue for passport control, you have successfully made your way to "The Line" – a 170 kilometer-long city on the Red Sea in northwestern Saudi Arabia that is currently being built from the ground up. Expected to be completed by 2030, The Line will be fitted with every high-tech element of a science-fiction movie, from air taxis to humanoid concierges. And while much of the project is still a vision, the designers and architects working on The Line are already providing an exciting, if for some unnerving, snapshot of what smart cities might soon be made of. 

The Line is a part of the Neom project, a portmanteau of the Greek word for "new" and of the Arabic word for "future", and which more prosaically takes the shape of a Belgium-sized chunk of land in the desert. Neom was announced by the Saudi Arabian government as part of its "Vision for 2030", with the objective of creating "a living laboratory", complete with hyper-automation, creative entrepreneurship and sustainable initiatives, for a total estimated cost of $500 billion.

Within Neom, The Line will extend over almost 200 kilometers, a corridor dug through the desert and made of smaller communities all connected to each other with a single ultra-high-speed transit line. No cars, but AI-enabled micro-mobility services; no streets or congestion, but an urban environment in which 95% of nature will be protected. All of which will be powered through the 100% renewable Neom grid. 

The Line will be organized in three layers. At the very top, the people: arranged in community "modules" of about 80,000 citizens each, residents will never be more than a five-minute walk away from anything they need, including schools, medical clinics and leisure facilities. Underneath, an invisible layer of services dedicated to last-mile logistics; and under that, a "spine" layer, containing the transportation system that will connect the communities at high speed. Going from one end of The Line to the other, promises Neom's team, will never take more than 20 minutes. 


The Line will be organized in three layers: pedestrians, services and spine.

Image: Neom

Underpinning The Line, and key to the city delivering on its promises, is an aggressive use of technology. The city will have its own operating system, called Neos, which will bring together various data points to run services as efficiently as possible. IoT devices will be sprinkled liberally across the communities to smarten up buildings and save energy. AI systems will balance the electricity grid to make sure that no power is wasted. Data analytics will be used to monitor the condition of various assets across the city, each of which will be assigned a "health indicator" to predict maintenance requirements with over a month's anticipation.  

Where smart cities currently make use of about 1% of available data, Neos will be injected with 90% of the communities' information, says Joseph Bradley, head of technology and digital at Neom – and it doesn't stop at smart meters and footfall metrics. The project, it turns out, also includes swathes of citizens' data.  

"If you come to Neom, clearly you want to participate in a highly digital experience," Bradley tells ZDNet. "If you're comfortable with that, we want to say: 'Do you want to be able to fully experience Neom? If yes, then go for it.'" 

Describing the possibility of a hyper-connected "cognitive" city, Bradley paints a picture of what full participation in Neom could mean. The Line will effectively know its residents better than they know themselves; from the moment they step off the plane, Neos will predict their next move and act accordingly. "Neom will be proactive," says Bradley. "It can take action. And ultimately, it is personalized." 

As travelers emerge from the high-speed transit layer into The Line, they shouldn't wait for a bus to take them to their final destination. Neos will know flight numbers, times of arrival and gates; it will know which hotel has been booked and for whom; combined with facial recognition, the OS will make sure that a shuttle is routed on time to meet the visitor as soon as they walk into the city. 

Neos will know where residents are at all times, and it will monitor their health; the OS will react if someone falls down and stays on the ground for too long, sending in drones to take video footage while re-routing a proper vehicle if necessary to bring medical attention.  

Bradley refers to an array of technologies, all more cutting-edge than the other, that will constitute the backbone of The Line's data ecosystem. They include the "most advanced" 5G technology in the world, which telecoms company stc has already been contracted to build to support IoT devices, VR, AR, autonomous vehicles and many other applications with a network up to 10 times faster than standard 4G. Interactions will be built on blockchain technology, and protected by next-generation quantum cryptographic systems to prevent even the most sophisticated attacks

Individuals will be fitted with a digital ID, and their data will inform service providers ranging from housing and transport, to retail, consumption or banking. "Of course, an individual's right to privacy is theirs, but the ability to use that information is directly correlated to the value they receive," says Bradley. 

"You have to be clear that you're articulating that value. But without a doubt, those people who are attracted to Neom will want to experience all of what Neom brings." 

The proposal is certainly unusual – and whether it is great enthusiasm or deep suspicion, the idea is likely to trigger strong reactions. One thing, however, is certain: previous examples of initiatives with a similar approach to The Line were not always met with the warmest of welcomes. 

In 2017, for example, Alphabet-owned urban design business Sidewalk Labs kicked off works to develop Toronto's eastern waterfront into one of the world's most sophisticated and sustainable smart cities, home to 2,500 housing units and designed to leverage technology to improve residents' quality of life.  

The project soon ran into opposition from local activists and Toronto leaders who were concerned about potential privacy-invading practices. US venture capitalist Roger McNamee wrote to the city council warning that the initiative was a prime example of surveillance capitalism, and suggesting that Alphabet would be using algorithms to track and influence residents' behavior. Last year, Sidewalk Labs eventually announced that it was calling off the project due to economic uncertainty. 

For Shannon Mattern, professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York, the parallels between Sidewalk Labs' smart city initiative and The Line are evident. "It echoes the pitches we've heard for smart cities for the past decade," she tells ZDNet. "And a lot of these projects don't actually come into being as the spectacular renderings that they are meant to be. Cities that are built on a model of data extraction very rarely come to fruition." 

Mattern has spent years studying smart cities; one project close to home was that of Hudson Yards in Manhattan, New York. First proposed in the early 2000s – and still under construction – Hudson Yards prides itself on being the largest private real estate development in the history of the US, and promises to be "a model for the 21st century urban experience." Data, once more, is at the heart of the $20 billion project: the district will be built on an "advanced technology platform" that can monitor traffic patterns, air quality, power demands, temperature and pedestrian flows, all for the purpose of delivering the most efficient, attuned neighborhood possible.  

SEE: IoT: Major threats and security tips for devices (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

On top of this, residents will be given the option of anonymously sharing their data, such as shopping habits to energy use. As Mattern explains, therefore, the model is very much the same as the one put forward by The Line's designers: citizens are encouraged to share their data, and in exchange can expect to benefit from a high-value, responsive, ultra-personalized urban environment. 

The problem? It's one thing to deploy the technology, but it's another to build a city with it. "In some cases, there is a techno-fetishism that drives the project in the first place," says Mattern. "I think, especially when proposed by either a tech-fetishist government or tech companies themselves, sometimes those plans aren't fully thought through." 

Data protection is one key area where residents are likely to want some clearly defined policies. In the case of The Line, for example, Mattern points to retail workers or taxi drivers, or temporary visitors coming for a short amount of time. "What type of data-sharing agreement will they have?" she asks. The exact details of how to opt-in or opt-out of data sharing and for how long, she argues, are tricky and long-winded, and likely to require thorough debate and discussion. 

The Line's designers are adamant that they are thinking through those issues, and have clearly stated that residents who did not wish to contribute their data will have an option not to. Whether that will be enough to fill the city's future neighborhoods with thousands of trusting residents remains to be seen. 

Mattern, however, wouldn't be too quick to bet against The Line's success.  Back in 2016, she wrote a long article arguing that Hudson Yards might legitimize surveillance practices in New York, and warning that citizens' actions would be framed by their roles as consumers and generators of data. 

"I wrote it with the hope that it would be a cautionary tale, and I was surprised to see how many people responded by saying it sounded amazing, and they would love to have customized travel and customized services," she says. "It actually seemed like a promotional piece to some folks.

"The point is, there are a number of people who are really attracted by this kind of development," she continues. "So I have a feeling that if people are willing to pay, especially in the luxury market, then it might not be difficult for them to find people to populate this city." 


Citizens are encouraged to share their data, and in exchange can expect to benefit from a high-value, responsive, ultra-personalized urban environment.  

Image: Neom

Building smart, but unborn cities 

Between 2009 and 2010, Federico Cugurullo, professor in smart and sustainable urbanism at Trinity College Dublin, travelled various times to Masdar City – the UAE's own version of The Line, a smart city only kilometers away from Abu Dhabi, conceived over a decade ago as a blueprint for the sustainable city of the future. 

"I could talk for days about being in Masdar City," Cugurullo tells ZDNet. "I went to see it a few times, and it was always a very immersive experience." 

Just like The Line, Masdar City started off as an ambitious pitch to build a city from the ground up in the middle of the desert. Created for up to 50,000 residents, the idea was to operate on a carbon-neutral and zero-waste principle, with a ban on fossil-fuel vehicles and an environment built to encourage walking and public transport. The city was initially planned for completion in 2015; the timeline has been pushed due to the impact of the 2007 global financial crisis, and it is now expected that Masdar City will be fully built in 2030. 

Despite the delays, Masdar City is already partly built up, but it is missing something – residents. Simply put, the city did not manage to attract enough people to populate its boroughs. With only a few thousands of inhabitants, Masdar City is sometimes described as a "ghost town" – a term that Cugurullo disagrees with.  

"The idea of a ghost town implies some sort of dead entity, some kind of past," he says. "For me, Masdar City is more some kind of unborn city. Nothing really died, because they never managed to create a community." 

Bringing a city to life requires much more than building up infrastructure and showing off innovative digital services. Masdar City's focus on experimenting with new technology alienated people and put them off from putting down roots in the city, argues Cugurullo; and without a stronger focus on social foundations, he predicts, the chances are that The Line will fail to attract residents, too. 

Keen to show that they will not repeat the mistakes of the past, The Line's designers have insisted that extra effort will be put in to ensure that each community stays vibrant; creating a "work, live and play" environment is effectively a key part of the strategy for the city. 

Florian Lennert, the head of mobility at Neom, re-iterates that the communities on The Line will be built to create a pleasant and attractive urban environment, designed with space and nature in mind. Not only that, he argues, but each neighborhood will be filled with facilities to fulfill every residents' wants, needs, and hobbies, to prevent the city from becoming a commuting town. 


Each neighborhood in The Line will be filled with facilities to fulfill every residents' wants, needs, and hobbies, within a five-minute walk.

Image: Neom

To populate The Line, Neom's team is also banking on a major demographic trend. Lennert has some handy statistics: by 2050, more than two-thirds of the population is projected to live in cities. This, coupled with population growth, means that in the next 40 years, three billion people will need housing. 

"There will be a need to massively build new cities, and we need solutions," Lennert tells ZDNet. "The most pressing challenge is to make sure that this generation has a roof over their head, has some water, and has a job.

"This project is not for the next ten years," he continues. "Even 100 years is a pretty short lifetime for a city. We're really trying to develop a syntax for a future city to grow into." 

The objective is clear: The Line could provide a model for future city growth. And the city projects that have come before have pointed the way. 

Cugurullo remembers trying Masdar's autonomous transport system, which a decade ago seemed an unparalleled experience of futuristic tech. "It felt like a glimpse into the future, and it turned out that it was pretty accurate," he continues. "Nowadays, we increasingly see autonomous cars in cities, and Masdar started experimenting with that ten years ago." 

"We shouldn't underestimate the impact that experimental cities like Masdar and Neom can have on real cities. It might be the case with Neom that we will see new systems and design strategies that ten years in the future are actually real." 

Of course, The Line is not the only model for a smart city out there, and there have been numerous examples of alternative models of urban development, which don't necessarily follow the same principles as the Saudi Arabian initiative. Barcelona, for instance, has often been hailed as an example of an advanced smart city that makes use of open data to improve on infrastructure and services, with at its core, the imperative of a "citizen-owned data ecosystem". 

The Finnish capital Helsinki has, for many years, taken top spots in worldwide smart city rankings; local authorities make use of data-driven technologies to improve citizens' health and safety, transportation, activities and governance. The smaller Yorkshire city of Hull has its own operating system, which uses IoT sensors distributed around the city to provide real-time data about street lighting, refuse collection or traffic congestion.

SEE: The algorithms are watching us, but who is watching the algorithms?

Although subtle, there are some fundamental distinctions in the ways that different smart cities function. Established academics such as British geographer Rob Kitchin have previously established that these differences are a matter of ethics, stemming from the way that urban developers approach questions such as privacy, data security, and data protection rights – and whether the approach is driven by fairness and democracy, or by productivity and profit. 

Back in New York, Mattern explains further: "There are a few different definitions of a smart city," she says. "There is the one, which is consumption-oriented, where it's about data extraction and the provision of personalized services for individual people. But there are also models of e-government and civic technology, where communities work together to open access to data resources to make infrastructure and services better." 

As cities increasingly deploy technology solutions to improve efficiencies, therefore, a line seems to be drawing between two models of data usage. Which will succeed is hard to tell: while some may be put off by the idea of sharing ever-more personal data, others are already welcoming the prospect of a city that services and assists each of its residents in the most personal ways possible.  

Neom's team has less than 10 years to sell the project to The Line's future residents, and expects hundreds of thousands of citizens to be strolling around the city's piazzas by 2030. About 600 developers, architects, designers and urban planners already live in the region today; building has kicked off for the city's 5G infrastructure, and coding has begun for the Neos OS. By 2025, says Neom's team, it will be possible to start enacting a resident's experience of The Line. 

Whether enough residents will be convinced to pack their bags and move to the Saudi Arabian desert to enjoy it, is still a story in the making. 

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