DR MALIHA HASHMI

Saudi Arabia 2021 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr Maliha Hashmi, Executive Director of Health Wellbeing Biotech NEOM and Deputy Chair of NEOM Covid Leadership Taskforce, about biotechnology, learning from COVID-19, and the future development of the firm.

How do health and biotechnology factor into future plans for NEOM?

NEOM will be the first major development built from the start in the age of digital technology, and so technology will contribute to the development and functioning of NEOM in every way theoretically possible today, and in ways not yet even imagined. Everyone in NEOM is welcomed and encouraged to think about how technology can be used to further their goals, because we will have the technological infrastructure required to make these ambitious aims a reality. In the area of health, this means looking at applications in biotechnology. And health is a priority for NEOM, not only because of the exciting opportunities lying at the crossroads of health and technology, but because we aim to be the most livable city in the world, and this won't be possible unless we make the health and wellbeing of NEOM citizens a priority. NEOM will be healthy by design. We are already undertaking numerous projects focusing on health, wellbeing, and biotech longevity with the aspiration of adding 10 years to the lives of citizens across the MENA region. Addressing chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity is an important near-term aim, and one especially relevant to Saudi Arabia where 20% of the population has similar problems. NEOM will counter this by making healthy ways of living where we invest in healthy people the standard, rather than simply focusing on healthcare and treating those who area already sick.

How is NEOM adapting to take advantage of increased digitalization over the coming years?

Digital-first systems are in NEOM's DNA, and our health and wellbeing systems are no exception. At NEOM, our digital backbone means that we will be using and encouraging advances in health-tech wherever they are most useful and feasible. From administration, handling records and analyzes efficiently, to prevention using wearables and AI-supported diagnostics, all the way to digital twinning which we intend to implement as widely as possible across NEOM. The COVID-19 pandemic has actually accelerated many of the plans we had for the next two to three years, such as virtual telemedicine and virtual care, which have become extremely important. We have talked many times about creating a system where people's heath starts at home, and only progresses to hospitals when there is a true need. At home, one can access virtual care not only from physicians but also mental coaches, life coaches, and nutritionists. In NEOM we have implemented emotional mental health services all accessible from home. Over the last several months, people have adapted to virtual care out of necessity, but it is a welcome shift and a trajectory we absolutely want to encourage. Moreover, at NEOM we are more than prepared for this shift, and for the many changes digitalization will bring in the future.

What lessons have you taken from COVID-19, and how has that created an aspect of learning and changed your direction?

If anything, it has actually validated our strategy, and provided useful learnings for the future. The pandemic has validated two aspects of our strategy in particular: the need for virtual care, and the importance of and demand for mental health care, not just physical care. Mental health is more important now than ever as lockdown fatigue and uncertainty about the future leave people feeling anxious and alone. A core aspect of our strategy is the principle that there are five dimensions of health and wellbeing: mental, physical, virtual, social, and emotional. We want to be able to provide all NEOM residents and visitors the tools to fulfill these five elements of wellbeing. I am extremely proud of the opportunities being extended to women here and have had opportunities that I would not have had before, as silos are being broken, and everything is becoming integrated. I have an opportunity to showcase a caring, empathetic, progressive strategy that caters to the health and wellbeing of all elements of our people, and that demonstrates effective leadership. For me, there have been multiple learnings in terms of health, leadership, and helping people to be completely productive at work. It has been an opportunity, as every calamity brings opportunities. It is comforting to know that what we have designed so far and learned from all the benchmarking and travelling around the world is bearing fruit - that our plan is working and will continue to work well into the future.

What key trends will drive the development of NEOM going forward?

Technology will always be at the core of what we do, but as a facilitator - a means to an end- not the end in itself. NEOM's ambition to be the most liveable city in the world and a model for 21st century and beyond living will drive our development, and to achieve this we must remain agile and adaptive to the many changes sure to affect us in the coming years. The most important skill going forward will be agility and our ability to immediately adjust to anything that comes our way, as we have with COVID-19. Agility has been incredibly important for us this year as business never stops, and we have had to find ways to not only continue, but to continuously improve. If we remain agile we will find ourselves adopting many best practices from across the world, regularly adjusting the way we do things to introduce incremental improvements, and developing new ideas and practices through transformation and integration. Adaptability is so important in the world right now, and the key to success for NEOM.