By Joe Badalamenti
If you’re a student, or just recently graduated without a job lined up, summertime can be very boring. (That is if you don’t have any classes, work, or anything better to do.) During these times, one of my favorite pastimes is to surf the internet for anything interesting. One of the things I found was so absurd that I just couldn’t ignore it. As college students, I’m sure you’ve heard of breaking cutting-edge technologies that are going to revolutionize the way we live: The Metaverse, The Bitcoin, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. These projects, however, are dwarfed in comparison to “THE LINE”!
What is “The Line?” The Line is a “city” planned by the Saudi Arabian Government called “Neom.” It’s called The Line because the entire city will encompass a 100-mile line (roughly 105 miles exactly) across the Arabian desert. The following description was taken from promotional material related to Neom and The Line:
“Within The Line will be everything: people, homes, businesses, restaurants, you name it. Cars? Forget them. Everything you need will be located within a five-minute walk. For further destinations, each end can be traveled to in about 20 minutes thanks to clean and sustainable high-speed rail. In fact, there will be no pollution at all as The Line will be completely powered by renewable resources. The Line’s infrastructure will also be completely automated using advanced machine-learning technology. The Line will be designed by world-class architects to feature iconic architecture that incorporates the element of verticality while preserving the surrounding nature.”
As you can visualize, living in a 200 yard-wide line would take up much less of the surrounding nature compared to a round and spacious city. No need to worry about the cost as the entire project will be funded by the treasury of Saudi prince Muhammad bin Salman. Such a paradise will be available to 9 million residents so sign up immediately!
Did that get you hyped up? I don’t blame you–concepts like these tend to be overhyped. I call it a concept because that’s basically all it is; none of the physical infrastructure has actually been put in place. Even in concept, it has problems. Glaring problems. The first is its geography. If you’re going to design a settlement, you should make convenience a top priority. Hence every ancient, and modern city was not linear but circular. Not only do you have more area in a circle, but there is less distance between opposing ends of a circular city compared to a “line” with similar internal magnitude. Then again, the ancient peoples didn’t have all of our modern technology such as high-speed rail and fully automated systems. But just how practical are these futuristic technical applications which make The Line so special? The fastest high-speed rail system, the Shanghai maglev, runs at 268 mph, but in order to travel from end to end, in 20 minutes, you would need a train that can go 300 mph. This estimation gets even more impractical when you consider time spent waiting for the train and time spent stopping at 10 or so stops every 5 minutes. These rail systems, with Elon Musk’s imaginary hyperloop coming to mind, are nowhere near commercial use. The same degree of impracticality can be said for The Line’s “automated systems.” Moreover, automation relies on technical innovations such as machine learning and IoT (internet of things) technology that have persisting flaws that still need ironing out. Even to those who struggle with basic logic, designing a project that uses technology still in the process of being researched makes no sense.
We also must tackle the issue of logistics with this linear limbo. The cost of construction, operation, planning, research, and any other activity necessary to build The Line would cost billions or even trillions of dollars; even the Saudi’s generously endowed treasury wouldn’t be able to cover the cost of it. This must be why Neom is still on the prowl looking for investors, despite the massive amount of resources that they have access to. Even if The Line was miraculously able to secure the funding necessary to be built, the question remains: Who is even going to live there? Looking at western countries, where this technical hype would be considered appealing, I doubt that many would want to move to a country like Saudi Arabia where they would lose their basic human rights. Plus, Saudi Arabia would have to keep this hype for the next decade until they can get this city operational and that’s if there are no delays. Even looking at densely populated countries like China or India, I doubt that either of these countries would want a massive portion of their youth moving to a foreign country (China is already facing a significant population decline, tantamount to a crisis. Maybe instead of building a super city this money would be better spent on implementing some of this infrastructure into Arabia’s current large cities, then again that wouldn’t be as hypable as “live in da line.”
Okay let’s be generous and assume that somehow The Line gets built in 2032 and can somehow attract and keep 9 million residents. Even during daily operations there are more impracticalities. What language will these residents speak? It’s an Arabian city so would everyone have to learn Arabic? But much of the advertising is in English, Chinese, Russian, etc. so will the city be multilingual? If so, that adds even more problems to daily operation. How will The Line’s economy function? The Line also claims to be completely self-sufficient but how will that work? Agriculture is difficult in an arid desert and there’s no room for animal pastures, so how will the city obtain food for 9 million residents? The official website implies a mixture of traditional agriculture and aquaculture: a method of cultivating fish for consumption. But aquaculture is also a novel technology which needs to be developed. The fact that The Line is promoting these undeveloped technologies for food is a big red flag. Energy would have to be one of the biggest missed opportunities for The Line. The designers could’ve chosen to integrate reliable nuclear power for the city. Instead they chose to use inefficient solar and wind power for a city of 9 million people. Unless the goal of this project is to sack their own treasury (or launder their money) I predict that this project will end up as a colossal failure.
We can be even more generous and assume that not only is construction completed but that daily operations are satisfactory. The question would now be: Was it worth it? To answer this question, we can deploy a simple cost benefit analysis to the problem. In order to make this city a reality, you must spend at least a decade and trillions of dollars. This also includes all the labor that goes into designing and building each section and system of The Line. There was also the forced eviction of the Huwaitat tribe in order to obtain the land required to build The Line. While this may seem like a massive ethical oversight, I don’t remember when repressive regimes cared about ethics standing in the way of their goals. Now let’s look at the benefits. You now have a new city that can host 9 million residents. One could say that this project could help with overpopulation of certain areas, however, a simpler solution would be to build smaller settlements closer to these areas of overpopulation, or increase the size of these cities to accommodate the increasing population. There is also the goal of an entirely self-sufficient city that is completely carbon neutral. Again, this goal can be accomplished more efficiently through gradual change of current infrastructure. From concept to construction to implementation to purpose, the Line seems to be doomed from every angle
When looking at The Line and similar unrealistic pitches, the main flaw is the framing each of these projects. Because of the diminishing attention span of the average consumer, everything must be read like a sales pitch. If you’re excited about emerging technologies, the best way to promote its adoption is just to describe how it works and how it can be used. A great example can be seen in free and open-source software where the code that runs these programs is not only available to the public but also free to modify and use in different projects. In this case, instead of building a city that no one asked for, the Saudi government could instead subsidize the integration of these systems into current infrastructure at a fraction of the cost. Even if this ends as a massive failure, you can still rely on the existing infrastructure in place. Sadly, this isn’t the case and trust in technology grows ever more slowly.
I’d like to end this article with some advice to Watson students in particular. When you’re designing a project or a system, it may be tempting to incorporate fancy technology or recent innovations in order to stand out. However, your most common design criteria will be based on practicality. If it doesn’t work, no one will want to use or even invest in your design. While recent technologies may be useful in some niche way, they often overcomplicate systems. Complexity will often act as a hindrance causing frequent bugs in a system. If you want to be a successful engineer, I’d recommend focusing on combining proven technologies to solve current issues. You would be surprised how far a change in design philosophy can get you.
Thumbnail Credit: Luistxo, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons