- Saudi Arabia is building a futuristic megacity called Neom from scratch.
- The city plans to ask future residents to submit a large amount of personal data to help it function.
- Experts said the technophiles would migrate to Neom, but warned of the potential for mass surveillance.
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In 2017, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that a new city would be built from scratch in the deserts of northwest Saudi Arabia.
The city, called Neom, would be “a place for dreamers,” he said, adding that the $ 500 billion city would be run by artificial intelligence and financed by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.
The first plans for the city imagined flying taxis, holographic teachers and an artificial moon. But few concrete details emerged until January, when Neom officials announced “The Line”, a series of settlements connected by a vast underground transport system.
Resolving doubts about funding and feasibility, the work is advancing, as well as in several other favorite projects of the Crown Prince.
Last month, Joseph Bradley, chief technology officer at Neom, told ZDNet that he wanted to collect 90% of the available data from residents and smart infrastructure. Existing smart cities use about 1% of that data, added Bradley, without providing details.
Bradley’s interview is the first insight into how Neom will work. Neom’s press office declined to comment on the story.
Today’s smart cities like Songdo, South Korea, use data from IoT sensors to take actions like alerting people when their bus is approaching or avoiding wasted water – but nothing in existence comes close to Neom’s plan.
How ‘Neos’ works
The coordination of Neom’s data collection efforts will be an operating system called Neos, Bradley said.
Each resident would have a unique identification number, and Neos would process data from heart rate monitors, phones, facial recognition cameras, bank details and thousands of IoT devices across the city, according to plans reported by ZDNet.
For example, Neos would have known if you had fallen and, if you remained on the ground for a long time, would deploy drones at your location and alert emergency services, ZDNet reported. You would not need to check in to your hotel room online or at a table, as a fingerprint reader will be sufficient, ZDNet reported.
“Neom will be proactive,” Bradley told the agency. “You can act. And, ultimately, it’s personalized.”
For some, this extreme digital intrusion is a threatening prospect, but Neom is interested in attracting those who embrace the technology.
Residents will have the option to choose how much personal data they send to Neos, Bradley told ZDNet, adding: “An individual’s right to privacy is theirs, but the ability to use that information is directly related to the value they receive”.
It is not clear whether Neom would require residents to provide a minimum amount of data for basic functionality.
Utopia of convenience or nightmare of surveillance?
Experts described Neos as an extraordinary proposition, but noted that the deep level of technological integration could prevent many from moving there – and leave the door open for nefarious exploitation of personal data.
“Neom says you can choose to come and go, but people will be skeptical about the truth of that,” Jonathan Reichental, author of “Smart Cities for Dummies”, told Insider.
“We heard a lot of stories where we thought there was a sensor on a traffic light that was used to count traffic, but there was also a camera that they didn’t turn off.”
Vincent Mosco, author of “The smart city in a digital world”, added that Neom would have to show complete transparency about the data collected.
“We don’t have a clear idea of what will be done with this,” he told Insider. “From what we know about Saudi Arabia, you know that it is unlikely to be used for good.”
The Saudi Arabian government has been accused of hacking the phones of journalists, dissidents and activists, as well as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Mosco and Reichental cited the case of a smart city district that Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, proposed for Toronto in 2017.
The project was dropped in 2020 due to the economic uncertainties resulting from COVID-19. But he was also involved in controversy during the planning phase, with a privacy adviser releasing concerns about how residents’ data would be handled.
“You transfer that to a region of the world that inherently already has transparency challenges and gets more complicated,” said Reichental.
‘People will value convenience’
Other experts noted that for technophiles and the avid for convenience, handing over personal data is not a problem.
“We like rewards,” Andrew Hudson-Smith, a professor of digital urban systems at University College London, told Insider.
“People will believe this, as long as they have an incentive to do so. This may be a better health care system, which is what Neom said.”
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst and a member of Neom’s advisory board, suggested that much of the data that Neom plans to explore is likely already being taken by technology companies today.
“People will appreciate the convenience and the associated elimination of bureaucracy … about sharing their digital data that many assume is already in the public domain given the technology they use,” he told Insider in an email, citing the use of smartphones and smartwatches.
For many, handing over personal data is not a problem, said Professor Jiska Engelbert, a communications specialist and smart city at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Neom residents are probably “the kind of person who says, ‘I don’t care, it will be very impersonal and, if it is personal, it will give me all kinds of benefits,'” she told Insider.
For other experts, the main barrier that Neom faces is not the concern with surveillance.
“The main challenge is to create a society in the middle of nowhere, instead of making people comfortable with the idea of sharing personal data and being surrounded by drones, robots and AI”, Federico Cugurullo, assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, who studies smart city ecosystems, he told Insider.
In general, experts are enthusiastic about Neom, although they add the caveat that smart cities rarely look like their original designs.
Reichental said he was especially optimistic about Neom’s health-oriented philosophy, as most traditional cities place great stress on their residents’ daily lives. For example, Neom plans to run out of cars, reducing air and noise pollution, and having abundant green spaces.
“Each city eventually needs to be updated, and we are desperately looking for good ideas,” he said.
“It could create a barrier for cities to learn what is possible, what works.”