Joseph Bradley describes himself as an applied futurist, author and cognitive city developer—not necessarily three descriptions that you would expect to find in the same person. However, Joseph is CEO of NEOM Tech and Digital Company, which means that he is responsible for developing the technology and digital infrastructure for NEOM, expected to be the world’s first cognitive city. But what exactly does this mean? Here’s our primer.

A cognitive city goes beyond a smart city—but nobody seems quite sure how

According to Joseph, the key difference between a smart city and a cognitive city is that smart cities are reactive, and cognitive cities are predictive and proactive. He cites the difference between a car that will show you a warning light when you need to stop, and one that will identify something that might cause a problem, and alert you that you need to get the car checked. However, it is not yet clear exactly a cognitive city will be able to do that a smart city cannot.

There are examples that may be moving towards ‘cognitive’ 

Two examples of developments that are said to be moving beyond ‘smart’ include Microsoft’s campus in Redmond with 125 buildings that are all managed as a single ‘asset’ through digitalisation. The company has achieved huge energy savings in the process. Yas Island, in the United Arab Emirates, also has similar elements of digitalisation to create a more immersive experience for visitors. However, the article is light on how this is ‘cognitive’, not ‘smart’.

One things is clear: cognitive cities must focus on people

Technology is not the driver of cognitive cities, only an enabler. Like smart cities, successful cognitive cities will need to consider how people want to live. The key difference may be the ability to blend different experiences, perhaps at different times in the year, or different times of day. Technology will be key to this—and it must bring together both basic technologies, such as waste, water and power, and more experiential technologies such as virtual reality. 

NEOM is planned to be the world’s first cognitive city

NEOM is described as an independent international zone, with land from three countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. It is around 10,000 square miles in size, extending from the coast into the mountains. The creation of NEOM was announced by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017. He explained that it would operate independently of the existing government of the country, with its own taxes and laws. 

The area is designed as a ‘living laboratory’, but also aims to diversify the country’s economy

The project is part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, and diversify into other sectors. It is therefore focuses on other sources of income. The first area to be developed includes the airport, and an industrial area called Oxagon, linked to the sea port at Duba, on the Red Sea. This is to be entirely powered by clean energy, including through a green hydrogen power plant that will start operating in 2025. A new tourist destination will apparently blend artificial and natural experiences—although some of the technology cited is some way in the future.

Security will be an important issue

Any city that will be controlled entirely by computers will be a potential target for cyber-terrorists—and good cyber security is therefore essential. NEOM has already announced a memorandum of understanding with Arqit Quantum to develop and build the security system for the area. The name alone suggests that the two companies are thinking big. However, like some of the other technologies cited, quantum computing itself is still not a proven concept.

There are still many questions and issues

We have mentioned some of the obvious questions, such as what exactly will be different about a cognitive city, and whether the technology will ever be available for some of the proposed developments. However, there are also other more practical issues to resolve. Reports suggest that up to 20,000 people will be displaced from the area to permit the development, including Bedouin tribes. This has created serious controversy, and scared off some investors. There may also be challenges to bring together an industrial area and port with the tourism and ‘clean/green’ image required. Only time will tell what will happen, but this is very much a space to watch.