Smart at heart – Smart Cities essential to Middle East Development Future

Populations worldwide are gathering in cities, drawn by necessity and economic opportunity. This makes cities the most important battleground for the global struggle to adapt and overcome climate change. But what does the latest phase of Middle East smart city development – a bumpy journey decades in the making – look like today?

The UN predicts that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population – nearly 10 billion strong by then – will be living in cities. Cities will become the site of the vast bulk of human activity – our energy, food and water consumption, our collective waste, transport activities and other pollutive acts. Smarter ways of carrying out all our daily actions, big and small, will be essential to our long-term survival. 

Building for the future, faster

It’s this survival imperative that is driving the more rapid adoption of smart city solutions, as well as planning on an even more ambitious scale. More integrated smart cities, developed quicker – this appears to be the socio-economic trend unfolding as the 2020s progress.

The Middle East is one of the world’s fastest growing smart city markets today. There are significant push and pull factors that explain this acceleration. Not only do respective Middle East nations want to economically diversify away from hydrocarbons, the region is also massively vulnerable to the effects of climate change, suffering higher risks associated with water security, air pollution and biodiversity loss than almost anywhere else on the planet.

Together, these natural and manmade risks continue to drive a smart city development surge in the Middle East in 2022. The region’s IT spend alone will rise to $1.7bn by the end of the year, according to Gartner, driven by substantial public and private sector investments in 5G, AI, IoT, blockchain, cloud computing and cybersecurity. However, this figure is dwarfed by the investment capital currently earmarked or deployed for smart city infrastructure and integration projects ranging across the region, which runs into the tens of billions.

Key Smart city prospects and opportunities this decade

Digital twinning: Creating a wholly accurate, digitised version of a city is essential to testing the best way to make new technological deployments and other improvements. Leading Middle East smart cities such as Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO) and NEOM are already well placed to take advantage of digital twinning advances. NEOM recently announced XVRS, a first-of-a-kind $1 billion digital twin metaverse platform. This platform will help realise the next level of smart city planning, and provides features like real-time translation and humanoid robotic avatars.

Renewable energy: Power generation is among the biggest, ‘easiest’ and most visible targets for transformation to combat climate change. Practically every Middle East smart city plan today aims to achieve 100% clean electricity generation either at launch or early on in its development. This focus opens up interesting new opportunities in small-scale renewable energy deployments, such as rooftop solar and wind, geothermal pumps and biowaste solutions being networked as a citywide energy platform.

Electric vehicle infrastructure:  Transportation accounts for nearly 15% of the worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Every major Middle East smart city has EV adoption as a core component. Even non-smart cities are jumpstarting EV adoption – Riyadh aims to have 30% electric vehicles by 2030, jumping to 100% by 2060.

Next-gen mobility solutions: Middle East cities continue to break new ground in developing clean, efficient and reliable mass transit systems, from flying taxis to the Hyperloop. Early 2022 saw Abu Dhabi-based AI company Bayanat successfully complete trails for its autonomous taxi service, TXAI. 2,700 passengers booked the service through the TXAI app, which resulted in 16,600 km of autonomous driving without incident.

Roundup: The most impactive Middle East smart city projects in 2022

Although they are at different stages of development, ranging from actual cities to newly revealed plans, the following plans demonstrate that smart city development is a regional trend that’s accelerating at pace. Unlike some of the ‘shiny but symbolic’ plans of the previous decade, new smart city initiatives are backed by tangible investment and a stronger political will to turn them into a reality.

The Line: Saudi Arabia’s NEOM remains one of the most tantalising smart city prospects in the world, one whose potential may yet be realised in the coming decade. Its $5 billion addition in the form of 170km-long strip city ‘The Line’ is the latest example of how innovate thinking can utterly reshape our view of city design and living standards. Today, The Line is on track to deliver on a 100% clean energy, carless, net-zero carbon, people-centric city.

Nexgen: Egypt’s Nexgen has the honour of being the (currently) greenest smart city plan in the world. If successful, this 580-hectare sustainable city – planned for construction in the eastern portion of Cairo – will be ‘climate positive’. It won’t just be net-zero, it will actively produce more clean energy, water and food than it consumes. The initial phase plans for a population of just 35,000 people, but every resident will enjoy a completely walkable city, enabled by 11.5 km of dedicated running, walking and cycling tracks.

The Sustainable City – Yiti: Last month saw the launch of Oman’s first major green city project. A $1 billion collaboration between OMRAN Group and Diamond Developers, Yiti will occupy around 1000km2 within Muscat. Powered entirely by clean energy, mostly solar and biogas, the city will reuse 100% of its waste and water, while making extensive use of clean mobility solutions such as EVs and autonomous shuttles. The latest innovations in vertical farming, humidity harvesting, and water reclamation will ensure that every element of city life here is sustainable.

Sustainable urban living may be nearly upon us

As smart city investments, ambitions and integrations are all on the rise in the Middle East, the creation of wholly sustainable urban lifestyles is moving from fantasy to reality.

Central to this change is the interconnective power of new technology advances. The smart city ideal has always been one open to interpretation and even wishful thinking, where good intentions have led to completely unrealistic project plans destined to wither or even fail entirely. With technology bridging the gap between our collective reach and our grasp, smart city projects are now progressing with a speed and confidence never seen previously.

This is a welcome and possibly world-saving development. If humanity is going to overcome the greatest existential threat it has ever faced – climate change – the decisive turning point will occur within the world’s cities.