Robotic Residents and 3D Transportation: Saudi “Future City” Looks to Disrupt Life As We Know It


The future is now.

Last week during the Future Investment Initiative, it was announced that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has unveiled his plans to help fund a $500B futuristic innovation-filled megacity, which promises to “write humanity's next chapter." The 10,230 square mile-zone on Saudi Arabia's border with Jordan and Egypt, which will be powered entirely by wind and solar energy, is meant to reshape the way its inhabitants live, work and are entertained. It's called Neom, derived from the combination of "new" and an abbreviation of the Arabic word “Mostaqbal" which means “future."

At the same conference, it was also announced that Saudi Arabia would grant citizenship to a humanoid robot named Sophia, which is certainly another first. Built by the Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics in 2015, Sophia utilizes artificial intelligence to recognize faces and mimic 62 facial human expressions. Although there has been some criticism regarding the robotic resident, it is maintained that the move underscores Saudi Arabia's push towards the future. And speaking of robots, more than half of Neom's population is meant to be comprised of them.

Described as the “world's most ambitious project," the city -33 times the size of Manhattan- is being built from scratch, which allows it to be perfectly customized to deliver best-in-class everything. As the laws in Neom will be much more tolerant than that of most Muslim countries, the hope is that it will be a springboard towards a more peaceful future. The city, which will also create new revenue streams to compensate for declining oil dollars, comes at a time when people are ready for solutions, and they want technology to help them get there.

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Sophia the robot

“We want to live a normal life, a life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness," said the Crown Prince about Neom's long-term goals. “Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today and at once."

Financed by the Saudi government and private investors, another focus of the city described as “startup the size of a country," is to shift the thinking of the world towards localization across industries, including medical care, media and manufacturing. Investing heavily in tech innovation is clearly another of Neom's priorities. Among future Neomites' amenities are automated passenger drones, vertical urban farms, a global media hub, “futuristic record-breaking theme parks," and “an awe-inspiring new bridge" that will link Asia and Africa.

“We're in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world … We are returning to what we were before - a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world."

-Prince Mohammad bin Salman

“I'm intrigued but it's sort of like a moon colony," says sociologist Dr Katherine Loflin, also known as The City Doctor. “I hope this project has looked carefully at previous projects that have gone down a similar path and is doing applied learning to know-how to avoid potholes, just as a smart startup does."

Experts say that Neom, like other recent projects that blur the line between lifestyle and business, belies a larger trend in which entrepreneurs are thinking beyond products and are now focused on disrupting the very way we live. Due the rise of distrust in big business and government systems, people are actively seeking their own solutions to self care. Equally on the rise are “transformative experiences" that contribute to emotional intelligence and overall well being.

“There's a real opportunity for businesses to reassert themselves in areas of the community and people's lives that were [once] off bounds," says Trevor Hardy, the CEO of The Future Laboratory, adding that today's smart companies are now looking to provide consumers with life-enhancing, wellness-focused services. “This is about playing a productive and genuine role in society."

According to Hardy, who spoke at the CEW Connected Consumer Conference just a few weeks ago, rather than acquiring “more stuff," today's generation is interested in “scalable value creation" and to make community connections. Neom is a tangible example of what happens when a well-funded startup tries to answer the human desire for a more meaningful, fulfilling life, on a very large scale.

"We will build the city from scratch, it will be drone-friendly and a center for the development of robotics."

-Prince Mohammad bin Salman

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Hardy went on to say that just a few years ago the consumer started desiring experiences more than things, but now the idea of self-transformation, and solving worldwide issues is paramount. “We used to say years ago that it was about the 'experience economy;' that people weren't buying products or services, they were buying experiences, and things are moving well beyond that," says Hardy. “People are looking for transformative experiences, to learn things, to see a different side of themselves and to become potentially something different."

Central to what makes Neom so compelling is the question of whether or not there is a way to buy into a better life. According to Loflin, although you can create the perfect equation for a successful existence, the human element makes achieving it much more nuanced. “There are some things that we as humans require from our place that cannot be let out of the equation, and it's quality of life," she says. "We need a social outlet so we feel comfortable, we need physical surroundings that we can be proud of, and we need to feel we belong. It's not that simple to say we created the recipe using a recipe book for a great place. As long as we are dealing with humans, there is another element to consider."

Back To The Future

This isn't the first time we have tried to anticipate the needs of our future selves. Throughout modern human history, there have been many cities built meant to bring about change. In fact, the very idea of “suburbia" was a futuristic one at conception. Drastically different than the vertical way our cities were built, the suburban way of life actually affected the human body. Thanks to the exposure to fresh air, mankind grew two inches taller.

But, as a rule, predicting what the future may hold isn't something we are particularly good at, says Loflin. Among the failed utopias, which were abandoned sometimes before construction even began, were floating cities composed of giant geodesic spheres, vertical garden cities where the poor and rich would live side by side in sprawling skyscrapers, octagonal settlements made specifically for vegetarians, and indoor cities complete with sky trams, monorails and moving sidewalks. In the 1930s Henry Ford himself tried to build a US-centric oasis in the Brazilian jungle called Fordlandia. The city, which included a power plant, hospital, library, golf course and employee housing, was meant to promote a “healthy American lifestyle" but ended in worker riots.

“If you're planning on doing something so radically different you can throw narrative out the window. It's going to attract a very innovative risk-taking population."

-Dr Katherine Loflin

“It's amazing how many places that are built by people who claim that they can predict the future, who can anticipate what our future needs might be," says Loflin. “Many times these cities look a lot like what's going on now but on steroids. In the 80s, cities of the future were the ones with the coolest malls and office parks, which are eyesores today. 60s futurism was basically The Jetsons. They thought we'd be living on the moon by now and flying around in spaceships. We are horrible at predicting what we need in the future."

According to Loflin, another reason for pause is that because Neom will be created from scratch, there will be little in terms of historical homage. She goes on to say that quality of life is actually improved when residents are reminded of what came before via their surroundings. “From a social scientist perspective, I usually tell people that anytime you start something new you should make sure it fits in context of the place you live," she says, "But I have to say that the more I'm reading about this and the plan that they have in mind, it's almost like they are saying we want to do things the antithesis of the way we have always done it. It's part of Neom's branding."

When thinking of Neom, it's hard not to think of Dubai. Another future-focused city designed to reflect the top levels of luxury, technology and efficiency, Dubai is undoubtedly a glittering destination, but the verdict is still out on how sustainable life is there. In terms of innovation, however, Dubai is leading the charge. Futuristic initiatives like its driverless car program, plans for Mars colonization, drone-based public transportation and the fact that 25 per cent of Dubai's buildings will be 3D-printed by 2030, prove Dubai's laser focus on next-gen tech. In fact, The Dubai Future Accelerators is meant to help develop new concepts via development, research, cutting-edge technologies and start-ups. Its first project, Museum of the Future, is due to open in 2018 and will explore advancements in health, science, education, energy and technology.

In terms of quality of life, The United Arab Emirates is also aggressively seeking top marks. It has recently appointed its first 'minister for happiness', underlining the ambitious plan to become the happiest city on the planet. But a new report suggests there is “still much work to be done," as the country's “happiness" ranking is slipping. Despite a surge in tourism- Dubai is on track to receive 20 million visitors by 2020 -Loflin says that the city, which is the 22nd most expensive in the world, is still wildly inaccessible for most.

“The Middle East has a history of trying to plan the utopian places but historically haven't hit the metrics they set for themselves," Loflin says. “The goal is to be the birthplace for innovation, tech, amazing architecture. It is meant to be a new Garden of Eden where everything is perfect and wonderful and yet the thing is you still have to deal with the fact that we are all humans and you can't populate cities with robots."

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.