Masdar: the shifting goalposts of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious eco-city

December 6, 2013

Masdar was supposed to be the world’s showcase zero-impact city

Todd Antony

And then reality hit. This is Masdar today. Financial and political realities ruined the dream of a 6km squared eco-city in Abu Dhabi’s desert — but could its true impact still be to come?

Todd Antony

This article was taken from the December 2013 issue of Wired
magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before
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Seventeen kilometres south east of Abu Dhabi, capital of the
United Arab Emirates, Steve Severance should be sweating. His suit
is dark. He wears a tie. The midday Sun hangs directly overhead.
Yet Severance, 45, has not even begun to perspire. “It basically
feels between 15C and 20C cooler here than downtown Abu Dhabi,” he
says, grinning behind his blue aviator sunglasses.

Then again, Severance is not standing on just any spot. He is
among the dozen office buildings known as Masdar City. From a
distance, they look like a tiny, incongruous business park that has
been uprooted from a suburb and plonked in the desert. But for
Severance, Masdar’s head of programme management, they represent
the future of sustainable urban living.

Severance’s dry forehead is testament to this: just metres away
on the desert sand the temperature is as high as 35C. Here, on
Masdar’s streets, it is as low as 20. The difference is down to the
way the city has been constructed: a 45-metre-high wind tower,
modelled on age-old Middle Eastern designs, sucks air from above
and pushes a cooling breeze through Masdar’s half-dozen streets.
The site is raised slightly from the land, which architects say
cools the air. Most significantly, the buildings are situated
close together, unlike many developments in the UAE, creating
shaded, pedestrianised thoroughfares.

In many countries, such a street would be unremarkable. But in
the UAE, the world’s eighth-biggest oil producer — where
subsidised diesel costs the equivalent of only 30p a litre, where
the wide roads are built for motorists, and whose citizens,
according to a 2010 report by the World Wildlife Fund, have the
world’s largest carbon footprint — Masdar is an anomaly. The
development is an acknowledgement that, one day, the oil will run

“When you look at the whole concept of Masdar in the 21st
century, it’s the same as Nasa in the 20th century,” says Fred
Moavenzadeh, the president of Masdar Institute for Science and
Technology (MIST), a 336-student postgraduate university
housed in one of the first buildings to be finished at Masdar. “It
has the same rationale, the same philosophy. Nasa put a man on the
Moon to show the strengths of the United States in that area
of technology. And Masdar is being developed to show Abu
Dhabi’s commitment to clean air and technology.”

Masdar, managed by a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi government, is
energy efficient and almost car-free, and the project aims to prove
that cities can be sustainable, even in environments as harsh as
this. The entire community is powered by a 22-hectare field of
87,777 solar panels with more on the roofs of the buildings. For the
most part, cars have been replaced by a series of driverless electric vehicles that ferry residents around
beneath the site. The design of the walls of the buildings
(cushions of air limit heat-radiation) has helped reduce demand for
air conditioning by 55 percent. There are no light switches or taps
— just movement sensors that the Masdar authorities say have
cut electricity consumption by 51 percent, and water usage by
55 percent.

Steve Severance joined the project in 2009. £12 billion is budgeted to be spent on Masdar by 2025

Todd Antony

“Now when I go home,” says Sanaa Pirani, a PhD student at MIST
and a Masdar resident, “I stick my hand under the tap, and nothing
happens. And then I remember that not everywhere has

The environment is striking: the city’s swirling terracotta
walls are adorned with vast arabesque patterns. Designed by
British architects Foster + Partners, with input from artist
Jean Marc Castera, the buildings make Masdar look, from a distance,
like a perfectly wrought cube. “It’s quite a mind-flip to be in
such a strangely beautiful environment,” wrote MIST student Laura
Stupin in 2010. “It really feels like I’m living in a
science-fiction novel.”

For its critics, Stupin articulated Masdar’s problem: the city
is still a work in progress that’s more grand vision than
realisation. For all the Masdar team’s talk of a cohesive
community, it is still for the most part at the conceptual

Siemens has chosen to locate its Middle East headquarters at
Masdar, and, in a symbolic endorsement, the International Renewable
Energy Agency (Irena) will move in later this year. Meanwhile, in
just three years of operation, MIST — founded with the assistance
of MIT in Massachusetts — has become one of the Middle East’s most
promising projects. The institution is already responsible for 40
patent-application disclosures.

It’s still early days for MIST, says Steve Geiger, Masdar’s
chief operating officer from 2006 to 2009. “But the fact they’re
already graduating first-class students doing pretty near
first-class research —  don’t think anyone can really
challenge that.”

What urban planners challenge is the concept of building an
eco-city here, from scratch, in the first place. Masdar has no
affordable housing, meaning that many of the city’s workforce must
drive to their jobs. “What good is a car-free city,” asks Brent
Toderian, the former chief planner of Vancouver, a Canadian
city that promotes sustainability, “if everyone’s commuting from
somewhere else?”

Then there’s the unfavourable comparison with some of the
Emirates’ other building developments, such as Dubai’s artificial
ski slope and its man-made tree-shaped islands. “Masdar will be the
world’s most sustainable city,” wrote Cornell academic Brian
Stilwell in 2008, “but it will be surrounded by some of the world’s
most unsustainable developments.”

Masdar’s residential blocks, which are currently home to just 102 people, mainly students

Todd Antony

For many urban thinkers, there’s a more pressing question: how
do we make ancient, densely packed cities such as London,
Mumbai and Cairo more sustainable? “Should we be putting our
energy into making brand-new cities, or retrofitting and
making more sustainable our existing cities?” Toderian asks.

The fact remains that the university’s students are Masdar’s
only residents and life here cannot be described as urban. There
are a handful of cafés, an organic supermarket, a bank and even a
travel agency. But the cafés are dead outside of mealtimes, and the
travel agents say they just serve the lecturers.

In fact, the city has a long way to go before it achieves what
its founders hoped for back in 2006. Back then, Masdar was imagined
by the Emirati government as the world’s largest zero-carbon
settlement, 5.95km2 in size. By 2015, there were supposed to be
50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters. There would be windmills
producing electricity on site, and vegetables grown on its fringes.
It would be a hotbed of enterprise, with 1,500 new green businesses
and startups staffed by 10,000 new employees, adding two percent to
Abu Dhabi’s GDP. But in 2010, the completion date was pushed back
to 2025. Today, the project has no scheduled endpoint.

“They had the university built there, the Siemens research
centre, and they’re building the Irena headquarters. But it’s a
fraction of what it was supposed to be back in 2006 when we
announced it,” Geiger says. “At the beginning of the project,
nobody really anticipated how difficult it is to build a city.”

A PRT station

Todd Antony

The MIST library building

Todd Antony

In 2006 a message landed on the desk of Gerard Evenden, a
senior partner at Norman Foster’s firm. “We received this letter
out of the blue,” Evenden remembers. “It said Abu Dhabi was
looking to build a sustainable city, and would we be interested in

The tender was an indication of a change in thinking from the
country’s government. That year, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa
bin Zayed Al Nahyan — president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi
— had an idea. He knew that the main source of Abu Dhabi’s wealth
— oil — would eventually run out. So he asked his advisers to
plot a long-term plan that would allow the country to diversify its
economy away from hydrocarbons. The answer: renewable energy.

“It was basically them saying, look: we produce oil,” says
Geiger, “but we’d like to be part of the energy solution. And at
the same time, we’d like to make some money. As energy markets
change and renewables become a bigger piece of the energy equation,
we’d like to have a piece of that too.”

The idea was for a fully functional city, the construction of
which would inspire better local understanding of, and greater
investment in, green energy and technology. Mastery of those
industries, the thinking goes, could in the long term, offer Abu
Dhabi significant revenue — and in the short term allow it to sell
more of its remaining oil overseas. Second: it was hoped that by
housing a green-focused university, and providing office space to
eco startups, Masdar could act as an incubator for a new generation
of Emirati greentech entrepreneurs. In turn, this new workforce
could both accelerate the country’s reincarnation from an oil
economy to one based on renewable energy, and simultaneously help
energise a local population long pampered by high state salaries
and subsidies. And along the way, the sheikhs hoped their
international reputation might receive something of a fillip.

The man entrusted with this mammoth task was a young Emirati
called Sultan al-Jaber. Today, the 39-year-old heads a team of 233,
and doubles as a cabinet minister. Back in 2006, he was an MBA
graduate with an economics PhD from Coventry University, leading a
team of six. “It was basically just Sultan al-Jaber,” remembers
Steve Geiger, the project’s first COO, “a project manager, myself,
and three external consultants.” As for the site, Geiger says: “It
was a block of sand. That was it.”

Foster’s team, led by Evenden, was awarded the contract and, to
conceive the world’s newest city, Evenden’s colleagues first toured
some of its oldest. They visited the crowded warrens of Cairo, then
the mud towers of Yemen’s Shibam, and finally went to Muscat in
Oman. They wanted to see how the traditional cities of the Middle
East had kept houses cool over the centuries.

What Foster discovered was that these ancient cities often
lowered temperatures through simple means: shorter, narrower
streets. They calculated that cooler streets tended to be no longer
than 70m, and were usually blocked off at the end by a building.
“The building at the end was creating just enough turbulence that,
as the air hit the building, it would flick the air upwards,”
Evenden says. “You’d get a flushing effect with this turbulence
which would then reduce the level of heat in the street.” As
Severance’s experience shows, so-called passive designs such as
this played a key role in Masdar’s realisation.

And so did technology. The hope was that the city could be
powered entirely by onsite renewables — the world’s largest
hydrogen plant and an array of photo-voltaic solar panels. The
whole city would be raised on a platform, underneath which a
squadron of driverless cars would carry residents.

For Toderian, implementing technology is just one aspect of city
planning. “New technology can be advantageous,” he says, “but it
doesn’t replace compact, walkable, complete communities, and a
good relationship between housing and employment — so that we are
not only environmentally sustainable, but socially and economically
sustainable as well.”

“At the outset, the biggest challenge we faced was convincing
the world we were serious about renewable energy,” says al-Jaber.
“People would ask, ‘Why is a major oil-producing country talking
about climate change and renewable energy?’ But we see the move
into renewable energy and sustainable technologies as a natural
extension of our conventional-energy leadership.”

Construction started on MIST in late 2006. The same year, the
search for faculty took al-Jaber to a meeting at MIT.

“They wanted to know: is MIT interested in establishing a branch
here?” recalls MIST’s current president, Fred Moavenzadeh, then an
environmental engineer at MIT, who had previously worked in
the Gulf. “We said no, but that we would help them to establish
their own institution that will be as much as possible similar to
that of MIT. But it will give its own degree, it will have its
own faculty. And they agreed to that.”

Al-Jaber’s other international quest was not as successful. The
hope was that major international companies would set up shop at
Masdar to develop new green technologies. But with the exception of
Siemens, the pitch fell on deaf ears. “We beat our heads against
the wall to try to bring in corporate partners to set up research
and development — the big guys,” Geiger explains. “But why build
them in Abu Dhabi? There’s limited indigenous talent and local
markets are too small to justify localising a lot of

Masdar faced similar difficulties in attracting startups. Until
recently there were few regulatory incentives to set up new
businesses in the UAE: companies must be majority-owned by locals,
which puts off foreign entrepreneurs, and many locals receive big
state salaries, which offer no incentive to private enterprise. To
counter this, an on-site agency has opened to help streamline the
complex administration associated with starting up a company.
Inside the city, restrictions such as the ban on foreign ownership
were recently lifted. The Masdar administration has announced that
up to 80 firms will have moved in by the end of 2013. But it’s
still some way off the 1,500 that were promised initially.
“Building local human capacity, that was one of the goals. Yes, the
university’s doing it, but we really failed at building a local
venture-capital community,” Geiger says.

But the biggest challenge to Masdar’s growth was not a local
phenomenon. It was global, and it happened in 2008.

Shams 1 solar power station consists of 768 solar collector assembly units and 27,648 absorber pipes

Todd Antony

100 metres from Masdar’s southern-most offices, a three-storey
car park stands in the sand. Five years on from when builders first
set to work on it, it remains a building site. The top two floors
have never been finished. They were meant to house the cars of
Masdar’s 40,000 commuters — but there were never enough to fill
the space.

The car park is a monument of its time: 2008. At that point,
Masdar was still moving ahead with optimism. Then came the global
financial crisis. A two-hour drive away, Dubai’s vast state-owned
investment company, Dubai World, ran up unserviceable debts of $59
billion (£39 billion). Its sister city, Abu Dhabi, had no choice
but to bail out Dubai. As a result, Abu Dhabi had less to spend on
its own projects — such as Masdar. The crisis led to the Emirati
housing market crashing. The city’s rental-income projections
collapsed overnight and, with them, any hope of finishing the site
by 2015. Out went the dream of 50,000 residents and a zero-carbon
settlement. “When Dubai collapsed,” Geiger says, “the plug was more
or less quietly pulled on six million square metres at Masdar

In this light, it would be easy to see the project as a failure.
Certainly, Geiger, who left Masdar in 2009 to build a similar
innovation hub in Russia, is frank about its shortcomings. “We
promised the world it was going to be the first zero-carbon [city],
but it’s just not economically feasible. Now it’s low carbon.
We said it was going to be zero-waste. We said it would be
car-free. We said it would be built on a nine-metre-high platform
— we had to backpedal on all those ideas.”

Yet the Masdar project continues — there are plans to build
homes and even a school in the near future. In the context of other
putative eco-cities, this is significant: Dongtan — another mooted
eco-city in China — was commissioned in 2005, but work on it has
still not begun.

“Whatever we think of Masdar now,” says Richard Burdett,
professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics, “the
mere fact that a public agency is actually putting its money where
its mouth is, and investing in an environmentally sustainable city,
is something that must be a good thing. There’s so much talk about
these things, but Masdar has, with all its strengths and
weaknesses, created one.”

“In the beginning, we thought that we could just find out the
latest and greatest technology, and create a high-performance
building,” says Chris Wan, city design manager at Masdar. But
because the financial crisis forced it to scale back its budget and
its ambitions, Wan says they had to come up with routes to
sustainability that can be more easily and more usefully replicated
in other cities.

Gerard Evenden, the lead architect from Fosters, says that the
original plan was to power the entire city through on-site methods
such as photovoltaic solar panels installed on the roofs of the
buildings, and he argues that Masdar shouldn’t be criticised for
realising that this approach was wrong and adapting accordingly;
the lessons they have learnt will save future builders time.

“When we started this project, nobody had really looked at doing
projects of this scale,” Evenden says. “Then you realise it’s much
more efficient to build your solar field on the ground in the
middle of the desert. You can send a man to brush them off every
day, rather than having to access everyone’s buildings
individually, and you can make sure that they are running at their
absolute peak. It’s much better than putting them on every building
in the city.”

Perhaps the most significant sign of what Masdar has to offer is
even further afield. About 150km south-west of Masdar there is
a remote, 2.5km2 plot of land that is covered by row upon row of
solar mirrors. Forget Evenden’s 10mW plant; this is a 100mW solar
field so vast that, even when one’s standing on a sand dune 75
metres away, the site extends beyond your field of vision.

This is Shams 1, the largest solar plant in the Middle East. It
is ten times bigger than Masdar City’s, and it works
differently. There are no panels here, just gleaming, curved
five-metre-wide mirrored blades shimmering in the heat. Each one
reflects the Sun’s 40C rays on to a pipe of liquid at its centre.
Under the glare of such concentrated heat, the temperature of the
liquid is heated to several hundred degrees Celsius. It is then
pumped through a station on-site — its heat creating electricity
that will save 175,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. Completed at the start
of 2013, it will take 20,000 Abu Dhabi homes off-grid.

Although Shams — which cost $600 million (£366 million) — is a
two-hour journey from Masdar by car, it’s an important part of the
project’s story. For Shams is just one of several greentech
projects that Masdar has brought into being. The capital for Shams
comes from Masdar’s investment arm, which has also funded Africa’s
largest solar plant, in Mauritania, where it provides ten percent
of the country’s electricity. Then there is the Gemasolar plant in
Spain, which is the world’s first solar plant to be able to provide
energy around the clock. (It uses a vat of molten salts to
store excess energy during the day, which it then releases when
there is no Sun at night.) There’s another solar project in
Germany, and Masdar has a 20 percent investment in the London
Array, the world’s largest offshore wind farm, 20km off the Essex
coast. Meanwhile, every January the group now organises the world’s
largest renewable-energies summit, attended by over 20,000 industry

Although Masdar City may be a work in progress, some parts of
the mission have already borne fruit. “These projects are all
world-first or world’s-largest — and one way or another we can
take credit for that,” Geiger says. “Collectively Abu Dhabi is
probably the largest investor in renewable energy in the world.
So if the goal is for Abu Dhabi to play a role as an
investor in renewable energy, then Masdar has succeeded.”

“Look at their venture-capital investments — all in green
technologies,” Moavenzadeh says. “When you look at their track
record, you see that they have done a lot. Granted, their ambitions
were much larger. But what has been accomplished is

Al-Jaber argues that it’s time to stop thinking of Masdar solely
through the prism of the city. “It’s the one piece of our story
that has remained at the forefront of people’s minds,” he says via
email. “But Masdar is, and has always been, more than just a

The city may be what has attracted the world’s attention to the
project, but much of what is most exciting about Masdar is taking
place outside of its light-switchless walls: Masdar is slowly
helping to change attitudes about renewable energy and climate
change in the Gulf and the Maghreb. Across the region, governments
have seen what has been achieved here, and have followed suit.

“Six years ago, Masdar was the only initiative in this part of
the world,” says Bader al Lamki, the city’s Director of Clean
Energy. “Fast-forward six years, look around, and see Saudi Arabia
going on full-speed, with 40GW of renewables as a target. And you
see Jordan and Morocco and other countries in the Mena region
following the same path, because it’s not only environmental, it’s
also economic.”

In Abu Dhabi, the government hopes its energy make-up will be
seven percent renewable by 2020 — not a huge figure, but
significant for an oil producer. More generally, the concept of
“estidama” — the Arabic word for sustainability — has taken root
in the consciousness of architects and builders. And, thanks to
Masdar, ordinary Emiratis have been introduced to the concepts of
climate change and renewable energy.

“I used to see sustainability as something we could do in the
future — but not today,” explains Eman Ibrahim Ustadi, an Emirati
studying carbon capture at MIST. “We have a good amount of oil
reserves, so why go for sustainable technology? But after I lived
in this sustainable place, I realised its importance.”

In 2007, Abdulaziz al-Obaidli had been working for 12 years as
an engineer for an aluminium company. At the time, the Emirati
says, “for me it wasn’t really clear why we needed renewable
energy.” Then he was contacted about a position at a Shams plant.
“I started Googling renewable energy. Then I saw what it involved,
and I felt responsible for it. I think that was everyone’s
experience. Masdar has really helped to change attitudes.”

He stands on a sand dune overlooking the Shams power plant. Down
below, the colossal mirrors of the plant, where al-Obaidli is now
chief engineer, glisten in the 40C heat. So what would his younger
self have thought of his standing here, gazing at these giant razor

“I wouldn’t have understood it,” he says.

Patrick Kingsley wrote about Space Expedition Corporation in

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