In the quest for innovative solutions to urgent global challenges such as rapid urbanisation, climate change, and population growth, megaprojects have emerged as vital agents of transformation. These substantial undertakings hold the potential to reshape our urban landscape, captivating architects, engineers, and policymakers alike.

As such they change the narrative of the sponsoring country as well as megaprojects as a category of endeavour.

Simultaneously, it is vital to acknowledge the inherent trade-offs they introduce: the impact on local populations, wildlife, and the environment. We propose that viewing megaprojects as complex learning landscapes can offer a more nuanced understanding of these challenges, allowing us to integrate diverse perspectives and consider these trade-offs as opportunities for learning and development.

For instance, consider Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project. This visionary endeavour seeks to create an economic and tourism zone equivalent in size to Belgium in Northwest Saudi Arabia. Amidst scepticism from various sectors focusing on constructability and the displacement of the indigenous Howaiti tribe, the NEOM project surfaces vital issues of urban densification and the industrialization of construction.

The compelling promise of a brighter future draws individuals to burgeoning cities worldwide, leading to increased urban density. The associated housing challenges are formidable.

Merely constructing more disjointed high-rise towers does not provide an adequate solution. Despite dwelling in lofty apartments, our everyday lives necessitate descending to a two-dimensional surface to fulfil our daily routines.

NEOM’s Line, a linear residential city comprising towering parallel structures, offers an innovative response. It challenges the traditional ground-level life narrative, exploring the potential of living at various altitudes within tall buildings. This vertical urbanism approach promises a more convenient and efficient lifestyle.

Imagine stepping out of your apartment and navigating walkways to various locations, with schools, parks, and theatres nested at different heights within the building. The Line embodies an integrated vertical urban experience, a pioneering endeavour in its own right.

Critics underscore construction challenges, questions about future residents, and the viability of a state-funded business model. However, irrespective of one’s opinion on NEOM’s designs for The Line, the insights gleaned from addressing persistent urban issues can enrich our collective understanding.

A significant aspect of NEOM’s project pertains to the industrialisation of construction. Notwithstanding the seeming standardisation of building design, cultural nuances and codes often present challenges. Construction sites, plagued by inefficiencies, often squander valuable time due to inadequate materials or tools, or a lack of visibility into the status of related work phases.

Contrast this with car factories, which epitomise “lean” manufacturing. The absence of common industrial processes underpins these construction inefficiencies. NEOM aspires to bridge this gap by standardising and streamlining building processes, drawing inspiration from assembly lines in manufacturing industries.

This industrialisation initiative encompasses design – defining and using a standard library of structural elements – and continues throughout the construction process. A significant portion of this process will occur offsite in automated factories producing modules, which are then transported to the site and installed. This approach reduces the number of onsite workers, bolstering efficiency.

NEOM aims to embed a synchronising concept of time, the German-innovated “takt” time, to unify all material and resource flows and work packages across the project portfolio. If successful, NEOM could epitomise Lean Construction, with Takt time at its core.

Projects of the scale of NEOM have the potential to foster substantial learning and catalyse the adoption of innovative methods and solutions, with far-reaching implications for enhancing living standards and improving quality of life. They can also fuel economic growth, creating thousands of jobs within Saudi Arabia and the countries participating in its development.

The transformative potential of megaprojects can serve as a beacon for other nations, encouraging investment in sustainable infrastructure and technologies.

About the authors

Mark Linder’s expertise is in large project stakeholder engagement. He has a background in large energy and infrastructure projects, and has worked for the past 15 months on location in NEOM. Mark is international business development lead for Vastuu Group, and advises other clients through the N2 Group and Amöl Projects.

Sami Haapoja With a background in technology development and supply chain management at Nokia, Sami has become a catalyst in industrialising construction in Finland, working most closely with YIT. Sami advises domestic and international clients through his consultancy Costiom.