The Ethics of NEOM
Data-driven urbanism is an ongoing trend that is slowly taking shape and defining cities’ future across the world. But at what cost is the smart city of the future going to impact the human race now and in the future? Nowhere is this form of development considered more than in Saudi Arabia, where the Kingdom’s monarch is seeking to develop a $500 billion city that will ultimately define the future in the eyes of the Kingdom. While there are various critics against the project, the Kingdom continues on its track to develop the city. Nonetheless, one detractor element whose opposition to the project presents an adequate yet justifiable opposition towards the project. The Al-Huwaiti people’s struggle against the future City of Neom represents a form of struggle that symbolically foreshadows, human struggles of privacy, autonomy, freedom, and aspiration of self-determination that will manifest in the data-driven future that the city brings.
Neom characteristic is a smart city in its inherent nature. Its creators define a city beyond the conceptual understanding, which has manifested in the modern-day urban society. The proponents of the city identify that, among other things, the city will feature an artificial moon. These sandy beaches glow in the dark, hologram teachers, and it will be equal to the size of Belgium or 33 New York Cities (Michaelson, 2020). The city’s other functions, such as infrastructure and structural framework that coordinate human organization, will feature a large data-gathering network that includes drones and facial recognition and other essential amenities for human existence (Bostock, 2019). This places the city at the helm of civilization by the sheer fact that it acts as a convergence of all human technological achievement and development. But important issues arise as to the feasibility of the project and its usefulness within the context of a world growing towards sustainability.
The Al-Huwaiti people are the natives of this region where the city will be based. Michaelson (2020) identifies that they have been part of the regions for generations, and their tribe spans Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Sinai Peninsula in North Africa. Saudi Arabia plans to evict 20,000 members of the city from the region without offering them an alternative location (Michaelson, 2020). This virtually strips them off their identity by decentering them from their ancestral home. It denies them their freedom and rights for self-determination. People’s identity works hand in hand in defining their purpose and ambitions. This is because identity links them to a set of social value systems that control their socialization.
By denying the Al-Huawiti people their rights, they become disconnected from who they are. It works to deny the city its bragging rights as the sustainable city of the future right from its foundation. Research identifies that the basis from which the city is conceptualized is unsustainable (Michaelson, 2020). This comes especially from the sheer fact that smart city ethics work to propagate existing capitalistic notions rather than tackle fundamental multipliers of inequality and discrimination (Kitchin, 2019). The current society owes the future society sustainability and equality if the world is to achieve development. Neom’s foundation is already tainted since it does not only work in halting inequality and discrimination but works to propagate it. Criticism towards the city identifies that the city does not work in tackling current social injustices but works to sustain it by forceful evicting the Al-Huwaiti people, who are also marginalized in their nature (Michaelson, 2020). This begs the question of how the city’s authority will work to propagate equality.
While the city’s developers identify Neom as the future city, certain facts remain unanswered and alarming, working to foreshadow continued discrimination and inequality. The city is poised to gain its status through massive data collection that is aimed to work in controlling virtually all aspects of its existence. Kitchin (2016) cites that data collection aims to control anything from emergency service, transport, health service, and government services. Data creates a more accurate visual representation of a problem. Kitchin (2016) identifies that ‘the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete.’ But in the case of Neom, the people in charge raise more questions than answers into the benefit of collecting data. Kitchin (2019) identifies that the future city’s main concern is the loss of privacy, reduction in oversight, persistent mass surveillance, and greater automation. This works to limit the people’s freedom and their will for self-determination in looking for their immediate objective in life.
While the ideals that formulate the city’s foundation are good, the governing regime repudiates the impacts of inequality among its people. It additionally propagates ethnic profiling and generally lacks transparency and accountability in preaching the value of the project. This hinders the true value and meaning behind the City of Neom. It presents a situation where the city similarly perpetuates discrimination and works to benefit the rich at the poor’s expense. It also raises important ethical questions about how the city’s ambitious data project will serve the people dwelling within the city safe from stripping them their values and freedoms by controlling their every move.
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