Masdar City is a paradox. Despite having virtually no residents and no real urban culture, it has already set its sights on achieving world city status, attracting researchers and businesses and spreading its technological innovations to other regions around the globe.
Of the seven constituent emirates of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Abu Dhabi boasts the most extensive hydrocarbonOrganic compound consisting of carbon and hydrogen. Hydrocarbons are the principal constituents of crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products. resources, with 5.8% of the world's proved oil reserves (98 thousand million barrels1) and nearly 3.3% of its natural gas reserves (215 trillion cubic feet). The emirate's capital city, also named Abu Dhabi, is the federal capital of the U.A.E., although international tradingThe buying and selling of products in financial markets... hub Dubai in the neighboring emirate vies for the crown of economic capital. Fifty years ago, Abu Dhabi was nothing more than a small town of just 3,500 people. Development kicked off once seawater desalination techniques had been mastered in this arid coastal region of the Gulf. The emirate has since opened up to the world. Fully 88% of the population is now made up of foreign-born residents, including international experts and engineers and above all poor migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent.
This background makes it easier to understand the thinking behind the concept of Masdar City, an unusual "eco-district" being built some 30 kilometers from Abu Dhabi. Named after the Arabic word for "source", Masdar City owes its existence to a combination of faith in technology (the reason for the country's success), a determination to replace hydrocarbonsThe final phase in petroleum system formation, after a deposit has accumulated... with renewable energies and to diversify the economy thanks to a "SiliconSilicon crystals come from silica, the main compound in quartz and sand. Silicon is a semi-conducting material. Valley of energy", and an ambition to become a testing ground for new energies, as well as an international investor.
In April 2006, Abu Dhabi's ruling family announced the creation of a "model" new city, designed to be "zero carbon", "zero waste", "zero fossil fuels" and – wherever possible in this desert region – based on the circular economy. The investment cost was originally estimated at $15 billion, before being revised to more than $20 billion ten years later. Initially, the objective for 2016 was to have 52,000 residents and 1,500 companies in a six-square-kilometer area, as well as 40,000 workers from outside the city.
Unfortunately, this objective had to be pushed back to 2030 due to the global economic crisis. In fact, in 2016, Masdar City was made up of just 2,000 people and mostly empty streets. If the first completed works are anything to go by, however, the town planners still have big ambitions. The city has started to deploy breath-taking architectural innovations, such as a "wind tower" that captures hot air from higher altitudes and draws it down through mist generators to deliver cool air at street level. Other solutions include buildings with solar-panel-packed rooftops and plastic-film-covered facades, narrow streets styled on traditional Arabic cities to offer protection from the sun and channel the breeze, and an underground transportation network of driverless podcars guided by magnetic rails.
The main idea behind Masdar City, however, was to be open to the world2. To this end, three symbolic institutions have already set up base in the city:
- The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), which aspires to become a world-class university for new energies. Developed in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it already hosts some 300 students and researchers.
- The headquarters of the International Renewable EnergyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organization that brings together some 170 countries and benefits from the active involvement of the European Union.
- The Middle-East headquarters of German conglomerate Siemens, which Abu Dhabi hopes will eventually be just one of many large multinationals.
Masdar City is actually a project led by a larger entity named Masdar, a subsidiary of a state-owned investment company (effectively a sovereign wealth fund)3. Because of this, the city is governed more like a state-owned enterprise than a conventional municipality with elected councilors. Like a large company divided into departments, Masdar manages Masdar City and the Masdar Institute, as well as for-profit units such as Masdar Clean Energy and Masdar Special Projects, which oversee construction, operation, research and investment activities in Abu Dhabi and around the world.
Masdar sets out to invest in advanced technologies, including thin-film solar panels in Germany, thermal solar systems in Spain and offshoreRefers to sea-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "offshore license" or "offshore drilling". wind farms in the United Kingdom's Thames Estuary. It has also developed wind and solar farms in the Middle East and Africa. Within the emirate, Masdar has invested alongside Total and Abengoa Solar to build the region's largest concentrated solar powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... plant, Shams 1.
Other Masdar units focus on clean development mechanisms such as carbon capture and storage, and particularly on ways of reusing the captured CO2See Carbon Dioxid by injecting it into oil fields. Priority is also given to research into recyclingAny waste treatment process that uses materials from identical or similar end-of-life products or manufacturing waste to produce new products. waste and reusing wastewater in irrigation, with a view to developing the technologies in Africa. In addition, Masdar is involved in setting up the finance mechanisms needed to secure investment in such high-cost projects. The "city" has, for example, formed partnerships with banks and other financial institutions in Germany, Japan and Switzerland.