Saudi's Sustainable Solution - Neom City

Now, we know what you are thinking: how can the #1 oil-producing country on Earth be seen as a leader of the environmental transition? Well, it turns out, even they know oil is unsustainable. Except they look at it as long-term economic unsustainability. They have realised that their reserves are depleting and they only have a few years left of that "black gold". After the last drop is pumped out, they don't have much else to produce.

Prince Muhamad Bin Salman (aka MBS) rose to power in 2017 after his father appointed him Crown Prince. One of his first announcements that year was the construction, from the ground up, of a massive new city, covering an area of 26,500 km2 or 33 times the size of New York, with its tax and labour laws and an autonomous judicial system.

Now such a project seems to be the exact opposite of sustainability. In a world where we talk increasingly about the limitation of resources and the scaling down of our activity to reduce our impact on the environment, such a massive project seems counter-productive. However, the project is part of Saudi's Vision for 2030, a plan that aims at reducing the country's dependence on depleting oil resources. 30 to 40% of Saudi's GDP comes from Oil revenue, and that figure excludes Oil distribution. It is therefore urgent that Saudi diversifies. Saudi's vision for 2030 encompasses a series of systemic changes along with a variety of projects. Neom is by far the largest of those projects and a perfect representation of Saudi's restructuring.

Innovation will be at the heart of this project. Defined as a smart city providing a "ubiquitous cognitive environment where humans and machines will live in harmony, as peers, to continually reinvent themselves through the application of advanced and future technologies", Neom promises to define the future of sustainability and innovation across all sectors of the economy.

The entire region will be powered exclusively by renewable energy. Further, the project aims to be a global powerhouse in water production and storage, and a centre of excellence for global water technology, fully integrated along the value chain and anchored on water desalination.

Food production will be revolutionised, through the use of innovations currently being developed for the sector, based on new technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things sensors or drones. The manufacturing industry will be reinvented through an approach based on nanotechnology but also 3D printing, sensors, IoT devices, electric vehicles, robotics, renewables and much more.

Perhaps the most significant, most important sector for Neom will be the digital sector. The project aims at becoming a region-wide living lab for innovation. The vision encompassed by Neom relies heavily on technology, to the point where "humans and machines will live in harmony, as peers, to continually reinvent themselves through the application of advanced and future technologies" and where the boundary between physical and digital is blurred so that both worlds are seamlessly integrated together.

Environmental sustainability is set to be central to all phases of the project: from design and construction to the city's growth. But even more, interestingly, the project also encompasses vast nature restoration plans built on the best available science and a deep understanding of the values - and vulnerabilities - of our landscapes and seas. These plans will aim to protect, enhance and sustain Arabian wildlife in an effort to integrate the environment into the human activity of tomorrow.

Such an audacious project is inspiring. However, could it be considered too ambitious? Even worse, could it be a massive effort from the Saudi government to greenwash itself and clean up its image? The latter question can be answered. The Vision 2030 of the Saudi Government encompasses a total of 14 individual construction projects. The budgets for all the 13 other projects combined represent just over half of the $500 Billion budget for Neom. It should also be noted that the second most significant project is the Renewable Energy Project, which will be rolled out all over the country and represents an already impressive $200 Billion. It is doubtful that the Saudi Government, especially in such uncertain times for the future of the country, would even consider pouring this amount of money in a PR stunt.

As for the question of the ambition, it seems these days the ruling class across the world has agreed to take on the same principles when it comes to the environmental transition, a way of thinking that has proven successful in the past when it comes to innovation, business or development:

Dream Big, Start Small, Act Now!

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