Sustainability in the Middle East - transitioning to a lower carbon economy by building smart cities?

Imagine a city where you land in the airport from your flight, walk through and be taken on a high-speed underground only a short ride from the city centre. The facial recognition software inbuilt into the system already knows where you’re going – so an auto-shuttle picks you up to take you to your hotel. No need to check-in – the hotel already knows it’s you and you can sign into the room. The city has no cars, no streets and no carbon emissions. Everything you need is within walking distance.

This is what Saudi Arabia’s ‘The Line’ - the largest ‘smart city’ being built in the Middle East - is aiming to achieve by 2030. The Line, part of the Neom project, is a 170-km long urban development aiming to house one million residents. It is built around people (not cars) and powered 100% by renewable energy - part of a plan to move Saudi Arabia off oil dependency. The Line contains three layers:

  1. The top pedestrian layer - where people will live and where everything is designed - where ‘live work and play’ are within a five minute walk of each other. It is arranged in community ‘modules’ of about 80,000 people each.
  2. The middle service layer - an invisible layer dedicated to the logistics running the city.
  3. The bottom infrastructure spine - containing an ultra-high-speed mass transit access to the communities along The Line. Going from one end to the other is not expected to take more than 20 minutes.

The Line’s communities and businesses are connected through a digital framework called Neos incorporating artificial intelligence and robotics. The Project team states that whilst a usual smart city leverages less than 1% of its data to make a difference in the lives of its residents, over 90% of the data in Neos will be analysed to provide a predictive system with ever-improving services to residents and businesses. Neom is supposed to know residents better than they know themselves and predict their actions accordingly.

The Line isn’t the first smart city to be built in the region. The UAE’s Masdar City was conceived in 2007-2008 and is now partly built-up in Abu Dhabi. Similarly to The Line, the idea of Masdar City was to build a city from the ground up and operate on a carbon-neutral and zero-waste principle (although it was created for up to 50,000 residents, not the one million that The Line is aiming for). Only a few thousand residents currently live in Masdar City, and it is due to be completed in 2030 (after numerous delays).

To populate The Line, Neom’s team is banking on a major demographic trend that by 2050, more than two thirds of the population is projected to live in cities – and coupled with population growth, there will be a massive need to build new cities.


For builders/contractors building smart cities (or even smart pieces of infrastructure within traditional cities), it’s not just about the technology being an add-on to existing infrastructure – it will require designing and constructing buildings and facilities that embed the technology within them, are able to be controlled by the technology, and also be able to develop over time as the technology advances.

Ultimately, technology develops faster than buildings and so the challenge will be with the designers and builders to develop:

  • Buildings with higher efficiency, lower energy use, better access to clean air, traffic management and waste management and
  • Whole systems like transport, waste management, electricity and water systems that will need to be built with the technology embedded.

Are the tools and approaches currently being used to build traditional infrastructure enough, or does there need to be a complete shift in the construction sector to address the ambitions of a smart city?

Once smart cities like The Line have been built, the most obvious risk for participants and insurers alike is a cyber one. Cyber risk will undeniably increase as more people, objects and places are connected and will also generate naturally increasing security and privacy concerns. Insurers and the organisations within the smart city will have to determine where liability will fall if the autonomous systems (like the transport or water system) fail, if the software malfunctions, or if there is a hack.

Some of the cyber insurance market is still almost exclusively focused on traditional IT systems - and now, will be required to actually cover the much larger autonomous and integrated systems which will be the lifeblood of the cities. However, it isn’t just cyber risk that will be impacted. There will be significant impacts on many lines of business such as property damage and business interruption and public liability. Insurers should be considering potentially developing new products or expanding their existing ones to cover the new risks posed by smart cities.

Read other items in Construction and Engineering Brief - May 2021

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