Robotic Residents and 3D Transportation: Saudi “Future City” Looks to Disrupt Life As We Know It

Robotic Residents and 3D Transportation:

Saudi “Future City” Looks to Disrupt Life As We Know It

The future is now.

Last week during the Future Investment Initiative, it was announced that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has unveiled his plans to help fund a $500B futuristic innovation-filled megacity, which promises to “write humanity’s next chapter.” The 10,230 square mile-zone on Saudi Arabia’s border with Jordan and Egypt, which will be powered entirely by wind and solar energy, is meant to reshape the way its inhabitants live, work and are entertained. It’s called Neom, derived from the combination of “new” and an abbreviation of the Arabic word “Mostaqbal” which means “future.”

At the same conference, it was also announced that Saudi Arabia would grant citizenship to a humanoid robot named Sophia, which is certainly another first. Built by the Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics in 2015, Sophia utilizes artificial intelligence to recognize faces and mimic 62 facial human expressions. Although there has been some criticism regarding the robotic resident, it is maintained that the move underscores Saudi Arabia’s push towards the future. And speaking of robots, more than half of Neom’s population is meant to be comprised of them.

Described as the “world’s most ambitious project,” the city -33 times the size of Manhattan- is being built from scratch, which allows it to be perfectly customized to deliver best-in-class everything. As the laws in Neom will be much more tolerant than that of most Muslim countries, the hope is that it will be a springboard towards a more peaceful future. The city, which will also create new revenue streams to compensate for declining oil dollars, comes at a time when people are ready for solutions, and they want technology to help them get there.

Sophia the robot

“We want to live a normal life, a life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness,” said the Crown Prince about Neom’s long-term goals. “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.”

Financed by the Saudi government and private investors, another focus of the city described as “startup the size of a country,” is to shift the thinking of the world towards localization across industries, including medical care, media and manufacturing.  Investing heavily in tech innovation is clearly another of Neom’s priorities. Among future Neomites’  amenities are automated passenger drones, vertical urban farms, a global media hub, “futuristic record-breaking theme parks,”  and “an awe-inspiring new bridge” that will link Asia and Africa.

“We’re in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world … We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”

-Prince Mohammad bin Salman

“I’m intrigued but it’s sort of like a moon colony,” says sociologist Dr Katherine Loflin, also known as The City Doctor. “I hope this project has looked carefully at previous projects that have gone down a similar path and is doing applied learning to know-how to avoid potholes, just as a smart startup does.”

Experts say that Neom, like other recent projects that blur the line between lifestyle and business, belies a larger trend in which entrepreneurs are thinking beyond products and are now focused on disrupting the very way we live. Due the rise of distrust in big business and government systems, people are actively seeking their own solutions to self care. Equally on the rise are “transformative experiences” that contribute to emotional intelligence and overall well being.

“There’s a real opportunity for businesses to reassert themselves in areas of the community and people’s lives that were [once] off bounds,” says Trevor Hardy, the CEO of The Future Laboratory, adding that today’s smart companies are now looking to provide consumers with life-enhancing, wellness-focused services. “This is about playing a productive and genuine role in society.”

According to Hardy, who spoke at the CEW Connected Consumer Conference just a few weeks ago, rather than acquiring “more stuff,” today’s generation is interested in “scalable value creation” and to make community connections. Neom is a tangible example of what happens when a well-funded startup tries to answer the human desire for a more meaningful, fulfilling life, on a very large scale.

“We will build the city from scratch, it will be drone-friendly and a center for the development of robotics.”

-Prince Mohammad bin Salman

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Hardy went on to say that just a few years ago the consumer started desiring experiences more than things, but now the idea of self-transformation, and solving worldwide issues is paramount. “We used to say years ago that it was about the ‘experience economy;’ that people weren’t buying products or services, they were buying experiences, and things are moving well beyond that,” says Hardy. “People are looking for transformative experiences, to learn things, to see a different side of themselves and to become potentially something different.”  

Central to what makes Neom so compelling is the question of whether or not there is a way to buy into a better life. According to Loflin, although you can create the perfect equation for a successful existence, the human element makes achieving it much more nuanced. “There are some things that we as humans require from our place that cannot be let out of the equation, and it’s quality of life,” she says. “We need a social outlet so we feel comfortable, we need physical surroundings that we can be proud of, and we need to feel we belong. It’s not that simple to say we created the recipe using a recipe book for a great place. As long as we are dealing with humans, there is another element to consider.”

Back To The Future

This isn’t the first time we have tried to anticipate the needs of our future selves. Throughout modern human history, there have been many cities built meant to bring about change. In fact, the very idea of “suburbia” was a futuristic one at conception. Drastically different than the vertical way our cities were built, the suburban way of life actually affected the human body. Thanks to the exposure to fresh air, mankind grew two inches taller.

But, as a rule, predicting what the future may hold isn’t something we are particularly good at, says Loflin. Among the failed utopias, which were abandoned sometimes before construction even began, were floating cities composed of giant geodesic spheres, vertical garden cities where the poor and rich would live side by side in sprawling skyscrapers, octagonal settlements made specifically for vegetarians, and indoor cities complete with sky trams, monorails and moving sidewalks. In the 1930s Henry Ford himself tried to build a US-centric oasis  in the Brazilian jungle called Fordlandia. The city, which included a power plant, hospital, library, golf course and employee housing, was meant to promote a “healthy American lifestyle” but ended in worker riots.

“If you’re planning on doing something so radically different you can throw narrative out the window. It’s going to attract a very innovative risk-taking population.”

-Dr Katherine Loflin

“It’s amazing how many places that are built by people who claim that they can predict the future, who can anticipate what our future needs might be,” says Loflin. “Many times these cities look a lot like what’s going on now but on steroids. In the 80s, cities of the future were the ones with the coolest malls and office parks, which are eyesores today. 60s futurism was basically The Jetsons. They thought we’d be living on the moon by now and flying around in spaceships. We are horrible at predicting what we need in the future.”

According to Loflin, another reason for pause is that because Neom will be created from scratch, there will be little in terms of historical homage. She goes on to say that quality of life is actually improved when residents are reminded of what came before via their surroundings. “From a social scientist perspective, I usually tell people that anytime you start something new you should make sure it fits in context of the place you live,” she says, “But I have to say that the more I’m reading about this and the plan that they have in mind, it’s almost like they are saying we want to do things the antithesis of the way we have always done it. It’s part of Neom’s branding.”

When thinking of Neom, it’s hard not to think of Dubai. Another future-focused city designed to reflect the top levels of luxury, technology and efficiency, Dubai is undoubtedly a glittering destination, but the verdict is still out on how sustainable life is there. In terms of innovation, however, Dubai is leading the charge. Futuristic initiatives like its driverless car program, plans for Mars colonization, drone-based public transportation and the fact that 25 per cent of Dubai’s buildings will be 3D-printed by 2030, prove Dubai’s laser focus on next-gen tech. In fact, The Dubai Future Accelerators is meant to help develop new concepts via  development, research, cutting-edge technologies and start-ups. Its first project, Museum of the Future, is due to open in 2018 and will explore advancements in health, science, education, energy and technology.

A rendering of a future city.

In terms of quality of life, The United Arab Emirates is also aggressively seeking top marks. It has recently appointed its first ‘minister for happiness’, underlining the ambitious plan to become the happiest city on the planet. But a new report suggests there is “still much work to be done,” as the country’s “happiness” ranking is slipping. Despite a surge in tourism- Dubai is on track to receive 20 million visitors by 2020 -Loflin says that the city, which is the 22nd most expensive in the world, is still wildly inaccessible for most.

“The Middle East has a history of trying to plan the utopian places but historically haven’t hit the metrics they set for themselves,” Loflin says. “The goal is to be the birthplace for innovation, tech, amazing architecture. It is meant to be a new Garden of Eden where everything is perfect and wonderful and yet the thing is you still have to deal with the fact that we are all humans and you can’t populate cities with robots.”

Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

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