Saudi Arabia’s Smart Cities Program: Why Local Government is Imperative to Digital Transformation

Cities can only become “smart” if they are responsive to their citizens – therefore, local governments need to take the lead in the digital transformation, says Bilal Saghir.

With urbanisation challenges distressing cities worldwide, “smart cities” have increasingly become a popular narrative of modern urban planning. Experts claim that the latest technological advancements and innovations are fully capable of offering solutions for conventional urban problems, improving our lifestyles and achieving sustainability. Claims to transform cities into more liveable, intelligent, and resource-efficient centres are gaining traction among governments, planners, and policy makers.

Some traditional challenges facing cities include the ever-growing demand for infrastructure and services, mobility constraints, housing backlogs, limited access to clean water, rising pollution levels, waste management, and environmental sustainability, amongst others. These challenges are no different in the case of Saudi Arabia. The world’s largest oil exporter has witnessed a steep rise in its urban population, with more than 83 percent of the population now living in urban areas.

Following the economic oil boom in the region during the 1970s, the country experienced tremendous economic growth. With low density and a horizontal development style, the urban environment is characterized by urban sprawl, traffic safety issues, high-level emissions, large automobile dependency, and insufficient infrastructure.

Saudi Cities are Embarking on the Path to Smart Development

To overcome the above challenges, Saudi Arabia is keen to explore new opportunities and ways to revitalize the quality of its major cities. In 2017, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs (MOMRA) launched the nation’s first Smart Cities program – an ambitious initiative by the government to drive smart transformation in Saudi cities to enter the digital age. In the initial phase of the programme, 17 selected cities comprising about 72 percent of the Kingdom’s population were selected for carrying out smart urban projects. This effort will be supplemented by a US$ 500bn investment which will be focused on modernising the infrastructure of the existing 285 municipalities across Saudi Arabia .

So far, much debate on the Kingdom’s Smart Cities Program has been confined to the use of technology and its effect on service delivery. Technology is certainly important but just one of the components of smart cities. Urban transformation must be seen as a much larger and inclusive agenda of development that views a smart city as a living environment wherein technology is complemented by effective governance.

Potential Roles that Local Governments Could Embrace

Past experiences worldwide have shown that interventions of local governments can certainly act as a launching pad for smart cities success. Here are a few key takeaways:

Community awareness includes civil society, academia, business community, social groups, non-government organizations (NGOs) and young entrepreneurs’ engagement in the process of development. The stakeholders must be encouraged to provide feedback on pilot programs and to suggest what initiatives they would like to see in their city.

Social inclusiveness is an equally important aspect besides raising awareness. The creation of a smart and sustainable city would largely come from the meaningful engagement of citizens of all genders, age, and income groups.

Detailed mapping of existing physical infrastructure including roads, utilities, electricity, public health services, and social infrastructure in the selected 17 cities should be the foundation for the subsequent efforts. The municipalities must take the lead in collaboration with the private sector, ICT firms, app developers and the Research and Development (R&D) sector.

Integration of urban services into the daily operation of a city determines to a large extent how smart the city is. Such integration efforts to establish city-wide connectivity of local ministerial branches, and effectively manage the multiple stakeholders involved in the smart city transformation, must be led by the municipalities.

Sustainable financing is one of the challenges witnessed globally in the course of implementation of such projects. Again, local government has an important role to play in lobbying for grants, sourcing seed money for smart projects, and identifying opportunities for public-private partnerships wherever possible in a bid to develop long-term financing modes.

Smart urban planning implies that municipalities must opt for smart, innovative and efficient ways to carry out planning functions including land use planning, infrastructure development, zoning, creation of public spaces, housing and expansion of services, maintaining heritage sites, improving the environment, and encouraging public participation at the local level.

Experiences of Saudi Municipalities

A smart city is an ambitious goal to achieve. For cities to succeed to enter the digital age requires the effective participation of local authorities to localise the national agenda by carrying out smart interventions at the neighbourhood level. The development of urban planning and management practices is highly imperative and requires that local authorities be equipped with adequate local autonomy, clearly defined roles and functions along with the financial and technical capacities to perform in a smart manner. Like many other countries struggling with implementing a smart cities agenda, local institutions in Saudi Arabia have been constrained by the above prerequisites.

As identified through research by the Center for Local Governance (a think tank based in Saudi Arabia), most Saudi municipal councils lack both the necessary budget and control to perform their function. Such budget constraints, coupled with the councils’ inability to spend it in a best possible way, leaves a big question mark for sustainable financing of smart projects. In stark contrast with countries such as Australia and Canada, where municipal councils largely rely upon their own revenue, Saudi municipal councils receive their budget from the Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs (MOMRA) and administrative employees from Amanahs (regional municipalities).

Regional councils also suffer from inadequate budgets to conduct their own research or control the regional budget to determine development priorities. This indicates the need of reforms across the local institutions. Local bodies need to be empowered with more administrative and financial autonomy so they can successfully plan and implement smart cities programs. In addition, the clear distribution of tasks and minimisation of inter-jurisdictional conflicts among the implementing agencies will be the first challenge.

The article was originally published on the website of the Center for Local Governance. To view the full version, please click on the following link:
http://www.ksclg.org/en/publication-project/saudi-arabias-smart-cities-program-why-local-government-is-imperative-to-digital-transformation-in-saudi-cities/

Bilal Saghir

Bilal Saghir is a Research Associate at the Center for Local Governance, a pioneer Saudi-based public policy think tank located in Riyadh. His research focuses on the contextual challenges facing cities and the role of governing institutions. He advocates for a shift from conventional top-down planning and management practices to a holistic and human-centric approach to governance for sustainable urban transformation. Bilal holds a M.A. in City & Regional Planning from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.
Bilal Saghir