The desert lab

On the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, the world’s most ambitious green project is gradually taking shape. Welcome to Masdar City. 


The oil-rich Emirate of Abu Dhabi may appear an unlikely driving force behind an initiative to create a zero-emission centre for clean-tech innovation. But with Masdar City, an £11billion project aiming to provide the blueprint for tomorrow’s renewal energy sources, it is just that.

Here, in what will be a city of six square miles some 17 kilometres outside Abu Dhabi’s city centre, next to Abu Dhabi International Airport, everything is designed to optimise natural energy; high-tech solar towers, driverless zip pods jetting people across the city, and an automatic ‘energy police’ that alarms you whenever water or electricity is overused. The streets are designed to maximise shade. Essentially, it is a laboratory for innovation within renewable energy.

The Emirate’s development agency took this initiative in 2006, despite Abu Dhabi sitting on eight per cent of the world’s proven crude oil reserves and enough hydrocarbon reserves to last nearly 100 years. The city is part of the ‘Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030’ that aims to reduce the reliance upon non-renewable resources. One goal is to increase its economic non-oil share from 40 to 60 per cent.

Central to the project’s progression is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), the city’s first constructed building, which drives research into renewable energy technology in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and which aims to house between 600 and 800 Master’s and PhD students upon the project’s completion in 2025 (its initial 2016 date was pushed back due to financial setbacks).

Crucially, however, Masdar City is not just to save the Emirates’ energy future; its insistence on being commercially viable makes it relevant to the outside world as well. MIST cooperates with global clean-tech companies in order to develop ecologically and commercially profitable energy solutions, using Masdar City itself as a test-bed. The plan is that once technologies are proven successful, they can be copied elsewhere in the world.


The nature of this arrangement makes Masdar as amusing as it is ecologically vital. The Norman Foster-designed architecture optimises sunlight and reduces the dependency of electricity and water wherever possible. The absence of regular cars means the streets are narrow and shaded. Their positioning is not left to chance either; they are designed to funnel cool breeze throughout the city. Overlooking the buildings, a 45-metre wind tower directs high winds down towards its base and out into public space.

Inside the residences, which are almost exclusively occupied by MIST students, ecological gadgets are everywhere. The city, which hopes to house 40,000 residents, 50,000 commuters and hundreds of businesses by its completion, deploys smart-water metres that inform of consumption, alarms that identify leakages and systems that go into ‘sleep mode’ when no one is inside. Long-term, the city aims to reduce the water usage per person to 105 litres per day.

The transport system is, despite its futuristic appearance, discouraged from being used. Instead the city is designed to promote walking, with an amble network of beautiful and convenient pathways. In fact, stairs are made visible while escalators tend to be ‘hidden’.

The all-electrical vehicles are parked around the city’s edge in forms of busses, trams and cars. The most common is the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT); small driverless pods zipping around the city according to your pre-determined destination. The Abu Dhabi light rail and Metro lines also go through the city centre, contributing to the goal of leaving no area further away than 250-300 metres from public transport.


To continue its development, the project relies on investment firms, although Masdar says it emphasises expertise over finance. Siemens, the German electronics and electrical engineering giant, will move their Middle East headquarters into the city, with their first 12,000 square metre lease to be completed in 2013. Eventually, the company will provide 2,000 specialists to develop clean-tech solutions alongside MIST.

Schneider, the French electrical equipment firm, has also been signed up to build a research and development centre focusing on green buildings, district cooling and wastewater treatment plants. Other tenants include the Swiss Village Association, an interest group for Swiss clean-tech companies, and the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The result of such collaboration is a series of so-called ‘pilot projects’ – the testing of new technologies to analyse whether they work in practice. To date, this includes a geothermal-powered cooling system, a ‘passing daylight’ capture system and a tower with its solar panel near the ground as opposed to close to the top, saving money in maintenance. In August, Masdar announced together with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries a rapid charger that reduces the charging time of electrical cars by 90 per cent.

But Masdar is not without its problems. The changing nature of the economical and technological landscape has caused several alternations to construction plans. The city’s IT facilities have been rationalised to cut costs, while the PRT vehicle system, although widespread in the city, is likely to be replaced by better and cheaper solutions before 2025. One cutting-edge technology may be modern today and outdated tomorrow. This, among others, is the challenge Masdar faces if it wants to be modern and financially sustainable.

The city develops continuously, and phase two of the MIST’s construction will add 45,000 square metres of floor space upon which three laboratories, 200 student apartments and a recreational centre will be built, more than doubling the campus’s current size. Also under construction is The Courthouse Building; a 10,000 square metre office building to house around 80 firms.

There is still much work to be done, with 13 years remaining before the project is scheduled to be finished. For now, the world will continue to closely follow what is the world’s most ambitious green project.

Photos: Alexander Cheek, Martin Yhlen