Can smart cities in MENA bring us closer to achieving the SDGs?

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) Member States set out to establish a new pathway for development that would put the future of the people, and the planet, at the forefront of its goals. The 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by UN member states to serve as a guiding framework towards a more prosperous and peaceful future. Its 17 far-reaching, and interconnected goals, were put forward to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the world today, including poverty, inequality, hunger, climate change and sustainable urbanisation.

With nearly 70% of the population expected to live in urban areas, it’s no wonder countries are prioritising new modalities for sustainable urban planning to offset the drawbacks of urbanisation. From climate change to water and sanitation, it has become more imperative than ever to adapt to the increasing needs of the population, whilst preserving the ‘well-being’ of the planet. Which is why the convergence of smart cities and the UN SDGs is underscored in SDG 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Studies have shown that through transformative action under the framework of sustainable urban planning, an effective pathway towards the achievement of the UN SDGs can be paved, which puts digital transformation as a cornerstone of this effort. Through ICT awareness and capacity building for local government stakeholders, the deployment and utilisation of smart technologies across all city sectors can be possible.

The race to sustainable development: Vision 2030

Around the globe, the race to become a ‘model’ for sustainable urban design is evident through the unravelling of newer, smarter cities. Take the MENA region, which is garnering the attention of the masses. According to Emirates News Agency, investment in smart city technologies in MENA is expected to reach $2.3 billion by 2026.

Most recently, Saudi Arabia announced a $6.4 billion investment in future technologies and entrepreneurship, with an estimated $1 billion – earmarked towards NEOM, the kingdom’s ambitious, smart city mega project. NEOM, a futuristic, $500 billion smart city, is based on a new concept of “zero gravity urbanism.” The 170 kilometres long, 200 metres wide, 500 metres high, linear city would be the first worldwide to be powered by clean energy, including wind, solar and hydrogen power.

Residents residing along “the line” will live in “cognitive communities” that leverage the power of data and predictive analysis technologies that will serve to enhance the day-to-day experiences of its inhabitants.

Also in store are plans for an industrial city on the sea – Oxagon – which will revolutionise the kingdom’s trade and commerce industries, whilst maintaining the integrity of key sectoral areas underlined within the SDG framework, ranging from sustainable energy and food production, to water innovation and modern construction methods.

This rise in investments is expected to yield a myriad of innovation projects, and governmental initiatives, supported by the private sector, to achieve sustainability and prosperity for cities across the region.

With smart cities like NEOM underway, it begs the question: Can developing countries in MENA also make the move towards smarter, and more sustainable cities? The answer isn’t so clear-cut. The move towards more sustainable urban development and smarter cities in the developing countries of the Middle East has been cumbersome. Faced by a revolving door of conflict, insufficient funding and the general social climate, the adoption of new technologies to support the development of smart cities and the achievement of SDGs is lagging and must be addressed with more rigour.

Regional Partnerships

One way to accelerate the growth of smart cities in the region can be through regional partnerships which integrate key sectoral development strategies within the program frameworks. Through various cross-border initiatives, LI creates linkages between development stakeholders in MENA and neighbouring European countries such as Spain and Italy, to facilitate knowledge-sharing and support young entrepreneurs and SMEs, specifically those who lack access to credit.

To understand context-specific, smart city needs in developing MENA countries, LI brought together SMEs in Spain and Italy to propose innovative solutions to address those challenges. Conversely, young entrepreneurs from MENA were also offered the opportunity to propose smart city solutions to European public authorities currently working on the transformation towards sustainable, smarter, greener, and more resilient cities.

The SDGs are the driving force for a universally shared vision of sustainable communities that effectively employs emerging technologies and available resources in a way that can improve city planning, management, and services to positively impact the people and the planet, to create a more sustainable future. With a common goal of creating a positive and sustainable impact on humanity in mind, citizens and public authorities can work together to shape the way sustainable urbanisation is carried out to yield favourable SDG outcomes for generations to come.