Almost two years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic it is worth reviewing what has happened. With lockdowns around the world, preventative measures varied from country to country; theories about the origins of the coronavirus and its consequences were many. Apart from the development of vaccines and the global changes in the measures implemented, not much has changed.
With the outlook starting to look clearer as the pandemic recedes, how will the world function? As with many such crises, many issues will affect this, so it is useful to see what one of the world's leading organisations, the World Economic Forum (WEF), has to say.
Many of the world's richest and most influential figures are involved with the WEF, which aims to prepare and help implement agendas to develop the economies and environments of countries around the world. With backing from its billionaire members and the international community, the WEF's is a voice that is rarely ignored.
The organisation set out some of its vision in 2016. In an article written by the Danish politician Ida Auken, the WEF presented its view of life in a place labelled "our city" in 2030. "I don't own anything. I don't own a car. I don't own a house. I don't own any appliances or any clothes. It might seem odd to you, but it makes perfect sense for us in this city. Everything you considered a product, has now become a service."
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Residents "have access to transportation, accommodation, food and all the things we need in our daily lives. One by one all these things became free, so it ended up not making sense for us to own much." The catalyst was predicted to be "when clean energy became free" because "things started to move quickly. Transportation dropped dramatically in price. It made no sense for us to own cars any more, because we could call a driverless vehicle or a flying car within minutes for longer journeys."
The image painted by the WEF in the article is somewhat utopian, with a world in which the current climate concerns have disappeared or been limited drastically. "Environmental problems seem far away, since we only use clean energy and clean production methods. The air is clean, the water is clean and nobody would dare to touch the protected areas of nature because they constitute such value to our well-being. In the cities we have plenty of green space and plants and trees all over."
In other ways, however, it becomes darkly dystopian, and even shopping has been abolished. "I can't really remember what that is. For most of us, it has been turned into choosing things to use. Sometimes I find this fun, and sometimes I just want the algorithm to do it for me. It knows my taste better than I do by now."
The forecast becomes even more chilling when the writer's future-self remembers "all the people who do not live in our city. Those we lost on the way. Those who decided that it became too much, all this technology. Those who felt obsolete and useless when robots and AI took over big parts of our jobs. Those who got upset with the political system and turned against it."
What happened to such people? "They live different kind of lives outside of the city. Some have formed little self-supplying communities. Others just stayed in the empty and abandoned houses in small 19th century villages."
Towards the end of the article, the writer admits that, "Once in a while I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. Nowhere I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me."
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Five years ago, that article could simply be mistaken for a prediction of what the future might look like. Given the advances of artificial intelligence and technology, and with flagship projects being conducted by figures such as Elon Musk, it would not be surprising. But there was a disconnect between the design and the implementation of "our city".
Two things have changed that, though. First, as elaborated by WEF Executive Director Klaus Schwab, the pandemic has provided the need for a "Great Reset" on a global scale, more than the gradual drip of climate change ever could.
Second, "our city" as presented in the article is becoming a reality. A futuristic megacity called NEOM was announced by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2017. Just like "our city" as described in the WEF article, NEOM is set to be a smart megacity as large as an entire country, which will serve as an economic and technological hub by attracting companies from all over the world.
In January, Riyadh announced a major aspect of NEOM, called "the Line". It is exactly what it says on the label: a 170 kilometre-long line of urban communities ending at the Red Sea. Described as "a revolution in urban living" it will be entirely free of cars and streets, with residents able to access lush nature and all of their daily needs within a five minute walk. It is also planned to be be powered 100 per cent by clean energy.
Across the Red Sea, Egypt is also implementing plans for its own smart megacity. The project for the proposed new seat of government has been labelled the New Administrative Capital. Although less acclaimed and less transparent than NEOM, the two projects are connected and look set to be completed by 2030.
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The apparent alignment of the WEF vision, the pandemic and the development of AI-driven megacity projects has been addressed by many sidelined political commentators such as Alex Jones and his banned InfoWars platform. Many have dismissed it as just another conspiracy theory.
Whether or not that is true is unimportant, but the WEF does indeed support the building of such projects as being the future of cities and urban planning. Last year, the forum launched 40 "Global Future Councils" around the world, consisting of city and urban planning experts, which it admits freely would help shape and implement the "Great Reset".
In a different WEF article, it describes the cities of the future as being, "Strategically located… designed to become tomorrow's trade, finance, logistics, technology or commercial centres, directed at long-term economic growth that could challenge existing global networks." Unlike traditional cities, which "grow over time, spreading and sprawling as the population expands… these new cities are purpose-built."
The question is not if such a future is on the way, but if it is beneficial or harmful for humanity. Human rights issues such as privacy and freedom of choice are being debated hotly by the plan's supporters and critics. There are also concerns that places like "our city" will primarily be for the wealthy and elite, and perhaps foreigners, instead of the average citizen. Debates around those issues are going to increase.
In the meantime, it is likely that the Middle East – for better or worse – will be at least one focal point for the post-pandemic "Great Reset".
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.