In the Arabian Desert, a Living Laboratory

Posted by on February 4th 2013 @ 4:11 pm

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originally published in Arbitrage Magazine
February 1, 2013

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In the desert, 20 kilometres southeast of Abu Dhabi, stands a low-lying fortress that is one of the world’s more intriguing experiments in “green” urban development.

Masdar City, designed by British firm Foster + Partners, employs an unorthodox architecture in the spirit of sustainability. Its vision is that of a zero-carbon ecosystem. As of early 2013, only a quarter of the city has been built. That quarter looks like something from an alternative sci-fi reality.

The entire city is raised two stories above the desert floor.

This placement is partly a strategy to foster wind-flow, and create a cooler internal environment. But the main purpose is to create room for an underground, taxi-like transportation system which serves as the city’s only means of personal automotive transport. The cars are electric, silent, and fully automated. The system’s sophistication and overall aesthetic hearken to the world of Spielberg’s Minority Report.

The city’s buildings are painted shades of dusty gray and sandstone to mimic the desert surroundings. Still, these exteriors have a steely complexion.

The buildings’ curvy and jutted facades look galactic in their strangeness, but serve a very practical purpose: unlike flat modern surfaces, this alternative design keeps out sunlight and creates natural pockets of shade.

On the outskirts of the city are massive fields of solar panels, neatly arranged in rows and columns, in the tradition of industrial agriculture.

The focal point of the city is the new Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) whose stated mission is to be “the world’s first graduate-level university dedicated to providing real-world solutions to issues of sustainability.” The Institute derives international academic integrity through its close collaboration with the world-leading Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The incentives for thought-leaders and -chasers in the field of sustainable engineering to come to Masdar are compelling. Tuition, housing, and textbook fees are generally waived or “taken care of” by the government. Students and professors are often given a generous living stipend. Masdar is flush with public grants for research, and the city itself is to be treated as a sort of living laboratory — an open-source platform for experimentation and innovation.

A National Initiative

Masdar City is the brainchild of Abu Dhabi’s political leadership. Its development is (ironically) funded using the country’s massive reserve of petrodollars, an investment funneled through the state-owned Mubadala Development Company.

Masdar’s official mandate is to develop into a “global hub for renewable energy and clean technologies.”

This vision serves several national agendas. Commercially, it attracts investment from progressively-minded corporations and organizations around the world. Economically, the community is a national platform for research and the development of proprietary technologies. Politically and socially, Masdar is a glittering showpiece for the world at large — to see and appreciate the United Arab Emirates’ ascension to modernity.

Masdar City is on its way to fulfilling its mandate. Global corporations such as Siemens, General Electric, and Mitsubishi have already signed on to build offices and conduct research. Masdar recently hosted the renowned 2013 World Future Energy Summit. And the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is set to open its new headquarters in Masdar City later this year.

On a global scale, Masdar isn’t the only green urban development project of its kind.

A Green Tech City is being developed in Hanoi, Vietnam. The governments of China and Singapore are collaborating to develop an “eco-city” in Tianjin; several smaller-scale city projects are sprouting in other parts of both countries.

These eco-cities have yet to attract serious international attention. They’re often interpreted as somewhat-frivolous initiatives: Projects that have a noble mission or aspiration, but are more of a novelty than a serious step towards progress.

Writing for the FutureChallenges project at the German-based Bertelsmann Foundation, Steven Watson observes that “the most ambitious plans for city living are being seen across Asia and the Middle East.”

What does it say that the more developed countries of the world haven’t made such strides in re-imagining urban development? Is it a matter of public resources? Or of governmental structure?

Either way, it shouldn’t be viewed as insignificant that countries in the South Asian and Middle Eastern regions are pioneering some of the coolest new case studies in green urban development. These countries are positioning themselves for the not-so-distant future where — if these globally tumultuous times have taught us anything — we will have to change our ways and the environments in which we live.

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