Masdar City: A City Laboratory Open to the World

Updated on 12.27.2021
Middle School

10 min read

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 resources. 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 how Masdar City, an unusual “eco-district”, sprung up in the Abu Dhabi suburbs. 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 hydrocarbons with renewable energies and to diversify the economy thanks to a " Valley of energy", and an ambition to become a testing ground for new energies, as well as an international investor.

Breath-Taking Innovations

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 city is expected to have some 50,000 residents (including 40,000 foreigners) and 1,500 businesses in an area of 6 square kilometers by the end of the 2020s.

For the time being, Masdar City is still mostly empty. But it has started to deploy some 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 world. 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 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.

Worldwide Investments

Masdar intends to invest in advanced technologies, including thin-film solar panels in Germany, thermal solar systems in Spain and wind farms in the United Kingdom’s Thames Estuary. Within the emirate, Masdar has invested alongside TotalEnergies and Abengoa Solar to build the region’s largest concentrated solar plant, Shams 1.

Some Masdar units focus on carbon capture and storage, while others still are looking into how to recycle waste and reuse wastewater for irrigation, with a view to developing the technologies in Africa.

In 2021, the United Arab Emirates even launched a project to produce drinking water “from thin air”, by capturing moisture in the atmosphere. Powered by solar panels, the “hyper-dehumidifiers” would be installed in Masdar City.


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