There’s a lot of talk about smart cities, but in most cases this amounts to small projects trying to bolt technology onto an existing infrastructure.
Fahd Al-Rasheed is taking a different approach. He’s building one from scratch.
Al-Rasheed is CEO of King Abdullah Economic City, a $100 billion effort to build a giant port city along the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. Al-Rasheed has actually been working on the project for nearly a decade, since just after a stint he spent at Stanford University in 2004 and 2005.
“We are trying to do something that has never been done,” Al-Rasheed said, grabbing coffee in San Francisco’s Noe Valley before heading off for two days of meetings with Silicon Valley tech companies. He’s here to see how the region’s companies can help make the vision a reality, especially when it comes to home automation.
King Abdullah Economic City, located an hour from Jeddah (Saudi Arabia’s second largest city), is unique in a lot of ways. It’s a private effort, listed on the Saudi stock exchange with $2.5 billion in paid-up capital.
“It’s probably also one of the largest startups,” he said.
Plus, the port is actually run by 80 women from a nearby village, which is a surprise in a country where women have been less present in the economic conversation. “Women in the workforce — it’s happening everywhere,” he said.
The city’s port is already in place and on pace to be the largest in the region by the end of this year. The company sold 6,000 homes last year, with plans for 400,000 eventually, including a mix of homes for the port’s workers, affordable housing as well as middle income and luxury accommodations. Al-Rasheed’s company, meanwhile, has been profitable since 2011 and is growing at 30 percent per year.
That’s not to say everything has been easy. Initially, Al-Rasheed said, he tried to work on everything at once — the port, the economic zone, the housing and the education system.
“Like any startup in a new business model, you have to figure it out,” he said.
The opportunity, though, remains huge. Al-Rasheed said the Red Sea region has 650 million people now and that figure is projected to double by 2050.
“It is going to be the next China — the next frontier, really,” he said.
What few people realize is just how tech-savvy Saudi Arabia is, Al-Rasheed said, noting that it has the highest YouTube use per capita as well as the world’s most active Twitter population. His goal is to take some of that tech know-how and inject a spirit of entrepreneurism. He said he is working with Boston’s Babson College as well as looking for ways to include business-building skills into the city’s elementary and vocational school curriculum.
While he wants to learn from Silicon Valley, Al-Rasheed said he knows a different approach is needed.
“We don’t want to try to imitate it because it is impossible to imitate,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.