Will Smart Riyadh bring social change?

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2016-04-10

Amongst the various smart-city experiments in the Middle East, Riyadh is the most intriguing. It raises a big question: Can technology and new urban infrastructure advance social change?

Saudi Arabia’s capital has allocated $5.6 bn to become smarter. In spite of low oil prices and an economic slowdown, the city remains a construction site. A new metro, more highways, and the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) are forging ahead. The cloud over Saudi Arabia’s new modernization efforts, though, is more social than economic.

Many of the financial firms considering locating in the KAFD want to know whether the workplace will be gender mixed, or if men and women must be segregated in separate offices. Supermarkets must replace the ubiquitous small corner stores (bagalas) if retail productivity is to increase, but if women cannot drive this change is difficult. The unemployment rate for Saudi women is 33% compared to 12% for men.

The metro, scheduled to start carrying passengers in 2018, is particularly interesting as it could address one element of Saudi social life—restrictions on women’s mobility—which has had a tremendous negative economic impact. In the not so far future, driverless cars will transport anybody regardless of gender.

Riyadh’s smart-city initiative aims to help the city catch up with fast-moving Dubai and Doha. Dubai is implementing a smart-city initiative bringing all government services to the web, and integrating them into a common technology platform for big-data analytics. The Mayor of Riyadh, Ibrahim Al-Sultan, also hopes to bring central coordination to the various smart projects in Riyadh. It will not be easy to integrate those projects across various federal government departments, municipal agencies and businesses. A “compound” mentality fragments these projects. It is very different from Dubai, where a single “vision” has driven the process so far. But this might be about to change with work on a new Smart City Master Plan for Saudi’s capital scheduled to be finalized by the end of this year.

This is all happening in a context of significant challenges for Saudi Arabia. Low oil prices have ignited a new plan focused on modernizing the country. This is being done by shifting the economic model from reliance on public spending to market forces. Government spending will turn to improving infrastructure in the hope of attracting private investments and generating private-sector jobs, instead of subsidizing water, electricity, and gas prices, not to mention inflated salaries for the army of Saudi civil servants.

Watching how this plays out will be fascinating. Riyadh is a unique laboratory for studying the social and economic impact of introducing new technology to urban infrastructure.

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