A Mirage Called NEOM

“Dubai (CNN Business) Saudi Arabia is attracting big names from around the world to advise on one of its most ambitious projects — building a futuristic mega city — even as questions mount about its role in the disappearance of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

A friend sent me this CNN article and asked for my opinion. “As a future architect, do you think this would work? It seems to be a pretty inspirational future vision: a whole city run on renewable energy sources.” She spoke with excitement but also a touch of skepticism. I gave her a definitive “no” without hesitation, without even factoring in the cascading political and economic implications from Khashoggi’s disappearance (at the time this CNN article was published) — not only because I don’t believe in using a massive amount of money to manifest a better future brute force, but also because this future has been envisioned as a 20th-century fantasy. It’s already outdated before it’s even built.

NEOM’s vision describes a future “where the greatest minds and best talents are empowered to embody pioneering ideas and exceed boundaries in a world inspired by imagination.” The word that gave me pause: “imagination.” As a future architect, I define imagination as the capacity to create circumstances and conditions that do not conform to existing systems of reality. We often marvel at children’s boundless imagination. Kids are able to make up their own realities because they have not been brainwashed by “systems of reality” which define our values, identities and relationships. These systems, such as capitalism and even democracy, set boundaries and permissions for our beliefs and behaviors. In a most Catch-22 kind of way, they tell us when to curb our imagination.

In the case of NEOM, I’d call this quasi-imagination at best, the kind that puts advanced technology on a pedestal to drive innovation across silos without considering systems-level complexity. Compartmentalized improvement on a linear path, whether incremental or exponential, is still innovation without imagination.

This project is the archetype of a much bigger societal problem. Humanity is facing a crisis of imagination. This crisis has to do not only with our inability to see different realities but also, more importantly, with our apathy toward creating new realities. It can sometimes stem from selfish motivations to maintain the status quo by those who stand to benefit from it. It can also be the result of feeling a lack of agency to pursue seemingly unattainable visions. But the most concerning reason has to do with a blind and more generalized belief in systems that disguise themselves as forces of good — for instance, progress.

The Dalai Lama once said that we live in the most peaceful time in history, with world war, deadly disease and extreme poverty more and more under control. Yet a far more clever and insidious enemy has taken hold in the 21st century: a cult of technology.

Take a careful look at the negative impacts technology has had on humanity: loneliness, isolation and, in some cases, complete disintegration of our social fabric. Yet we continue to worship technology because it brings linear progress, and we see such progress as ultimately a good thing. We celebrate each X.X iteration because a better version of the same thing is all we can imagine. Indiscriminately, we choose to believe that we will always find a way to control our own creations. The fear of AI taking over the world is not placed at the same level as the fear of the next nuclear war, because we lack the capacity to construct a new reality that rejects linear progress along the same path as the single most important driver for the long-term wellbeing of humanity.

When the master plan of a $500B future city gets hatched without a fundamental shift in mindset, it doesn’t deserve to tout the power of imagination. A government that shows no interest in human rights is not equipped to design a future that claims to be “a new, inspiring era for human civilization.” Architecting a beautiful future requires the intricate interplay of imagination, narrative and embodiment. In this case, NEOM’s imagination is flawed, its narrative is archaic, and its embodiment of the ideas and ideals it preaches is non-existent.

Saudi’s narrative for this initiative centers around masculine ambition and dominance: “NEOM is a new kind of tomorrow in the making, a place on earth like nothing on earth, a new blueprint for sustainable life on a scale never seen before.” Nevermind 21st-century values such as inclusion and diversity, harmony and humility, trust and equity or a willingness to collaborate with the rest of the world in creating an open playground to spark real imagination.

This ill-conceived vision pushes us deeper into a dangerous reality, one that will likely create a less healthy society numbed by the spell of powerful technology. In a sense, tech will become the new oil, and the more it gets blind worshipping, the more dependency will take root.

Now, the $500B that was supposed to come from selling a 5% stake in state-owned Aramco is hitting a snafu as Saudi Arabia faces growing international pressure over its crackdown on dissent. On the surface, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and NEOM may have nothing to do with each other. A more critical examination will quickly bring us to the conclusion that the vision of NEOM is nothing but a mirage.

After hearing my impassioned response to her first question, my friend winked at me and asked, “So, if you could command $500B, how would you architect a better future?”

It’s a question I think we should all consider and will take time to answer. But I know we can do much better with far less. Imagine that.

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