Sustainability is the beating heart of the Smart City Ideal – ME builds blueprints for better urban living

Realising the Smart City dream is an ambition long held by leading Middle Eastern nations. But beyond the dazzling presentations and ‘wow factor’ technologies, the core principle is simple – smart cities will improve lives by offering sustainability.

The need to get smart, fast – ME smart city ambitions to scale up in 2022

The whole of 2021 had plenty of announcements and updates on plans for both new and existing smart city projects. However, in wake of numerous climate-related disasters and the sobering culmination of COP26, the stage is now set for an even more rapid adoption of smart city principles and design ethos in the Middle East.

The lure of making cities smart is both ecological and economic. ‘Smartification’ of cities is expected to generate over $20 trillion in economic benefits by the end of 2026. But big rewards require big investment, a realisation that is prompting smart city investments to more than double from $100 billion annually in 2021 to over $250 billion per year by 2030. 

For the Middle East, this desire to get smarter, faster, can be seen in the rapid promotion of new smart city initiatives and (perhaps more importantly) refinements of existing plans. More generally, spending on ICT technologies is rising across the region, as the leveraging of data through digitalisation technologies takes hold at a more rapid rate.

  • Egypt’s minister of communication and IT recently announced plans to build 17 smart cities that are “totally reliant on technology”. This is part of a broader national initaitve to connect 25,000 villages to the internet.

  • Once the current Expo 2020 in Dubai ends in March 2022, 260,000 square feet of floor area of LEED Gold and Platinum structures from the Expo will form the basis for a wholly sustainable and human-centric future city, District 2020. Its buildings will consume at least 50% less water than typically designed ones. 22% of all its energy needs will be met by rooftop solar panels. Plus, everything within the city will be accessible within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

  • Gartner predicts that IT spending in the Middle East and North Africa region will rise to over $1.7bn in 2022. Smarter data management and supporting technologies will form the bulk of this total spend.

NEOM: The ultimate expression of ME smart city ambitions

Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion smart city is something of a bellwether for the Middle East’s smart city development journey. Initially ahead of its time and critiqued as being ‘more style than substance’, there is an increasing realisation that more concrete investment and tangible development activity will be needed to get this glimmering vision of the future off the ground. 

This is what makes recent NEOM developments all the more important. December has witnessed a flurry of new deals inked between NEOM and international congolerates to provide advanced infrastructure and services to the megacity, as it begins to take shape. In all cases, the concept behind these projects is to improve the daily lives of the future citizens of NEOM by making their surroundings and urban interactions more sustainable. 

Sky’s the limit for NEOM public transport

Firstly, on December 2nd, German aircraft manufacturer Volocopter and NEOM formed a joint venture company to “operate the world’s first bespoke public vertical mobility system”. It will utilise the vaunted ‘air taxi’ service approach that generated such buzz in the UAE several years ago. This joint venture will be responsible for giving NEOM citizens the chance to connect to the city’s zero-emissions public mass-transport systems more easily, by supplying both air taxis and seamless take-off/set-down infrastructure at key points in the system. Again, focusing on producing tangible results, the initial order of 15 Volocopter aircraft will start initial flight operations within the next two to three years. If successful this will be a major feather in NEOM’s cap, providing a wholly sustainable transport system that truly embodies the spirit of the ‘city of the future’.

Better defence, easier daily interactions

On the 9th of December, NEOM signed another deal with Arqit Quantum, to build and trial the ‘Cognitive City’ quantum security system. Not only will the system defend the smart city and its inhabitants against cyberattacks, it will also utilise blockchain solutions to enable frictionless, sustainable and energy-efficient financial payments, smart contracts and other digital transactions. In a city that will supposedly run on such digital interactions, boosting the sustainability and convenience of such daily activities will be a huge boon to NEOM. The system’s first major trial is scheduled for the first half of 2022.

Floating above it all – The Oxagon

Though the Oxagon was announced in mid-November, more details on this ambitious expansion of NEOM continue to flood in throughout the final weeks of 2021. Currently an expansive set of earthworks, these will be the foundations for the largest floating industrial complex in the world. Oxagon is designed to be a radically different model for future manufacturing centres, with a careful eye for sustainability alongside job and wealth creation. 

Predictably, Oxagon will be powered by clean energy. However, the sustainability vision goes much further than this, and envisages all commercial partners using the latest in AI, automation and green technologies to make their operations as environmentally friendly as possible. Its very shape is designed to minimise its impact on the environment and provide optimal land usage, allowing for the preservation of 95% of the area’s natural environment.

Cleaner, greener, better urban living

Smart city announcements will no doubt be even more frequent in 2022 than this year. However, going in to the new year it’s already possible to detect a new tone to official descriptions and the general language used to describe developments in this area. The focus is undoubtedly moving more from style to substance. There is a growing need to describe in concrete terms (and even actively demonstrate) how smart city initiatives will be delivered, what their impact will be, and how people will live in them. In every particular, sustainability cuts to the heart of the matter. If a smart city innovation does not contribute to the overall ability of the urban environment to sustain lives and lifestyles in balance with both society and nature, it is falling short of the mark. As the new year approaches, expect ME smart city plans to more forward more rapidly, especially when it comes to elements that secure and prove their long-term sustainability credentials.