In brief

Dependent on oil for too long, Abu Dhabi has invested US$15 billion in building Masdar City, a sustainable, low carbon eco-city in the desert. Considered to be either pioneering and visionary or a grandiose folly, depending on your point of view, it is scheduled for completion by 2025 when its green ambitions can be accurately judged.

The challenge

The economy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is heavily dependent on oil, and a lot of energy is employed on projects such as acclimatised beaches, ski slopes and an ice park in the desert. As a result, cities are being expanded towards the desert. The UAE wanted to invest more in greener energy while at the same time developing new facilities for its citizens.

The initiative

Masdar City was one such initiative, an ecology project in Abu Dhabi, which started construction in 2008. It is being designed by Foster and Partners and built by Masdar, a subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company and sited next to Abu Dhabi International Airport. It is intended that it will host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The city was originally intended to be completed by 2016 but, due to the impact of the global financial crisis, the date has now been pushed back to 2020-2025. The first six buildings of the city were completed and occupied in October 2010. The estimated construction cost of the city is between US$18.7 and US$19.8 billion.

It aims were to:

  • Specialise in greenhouse gas emission reduction projects and invest in and develop large-scale renewable energy projects.
  • Rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources.
  • Become a hub for cleantech companies.
  • Provide homes about 50,000 people.
  • Provide facilities for 1,500 businesses, primarily commercial and manufacturing firms specialising in environmentally friendly products, creating 10,000 new jobs, with more than 60,000 workers expected to commute to the city daily.
  • Create a new tertiary education institution, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), modelled on MIT, which was founded in 2007, a year after the Masdar initiative began, and admitted its first students in 2009.

The public impact

The projected impact is focused on making the urban environment cleaner and greener:

  • Net energy demand has been reduced by 70 percent, net water demand by 300 percent, and net waste production by 400 percent.
  • Nearly 1.5 gigawatts of clean energy is in operation or under development.
  • The design of the walls of the buildings (cushions of air limit heat-radiation) helps reduce demand for air conditioning by 55 percent and has also established a naturally cooler temperature by almost 10°C than elsewhere in Abu Dhabi.
  • The entire community of Masdar City is powered by a 22-hectare field of 87,777 solar panels with more on the roofs of the buildings.
  • Cars are replaced by a series of driverless electric vehicles.
  • There are no light switches or taps – sensors are used in their place, and this helps cut electricity consumption and water usage by about half.
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What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The majority of the seed capital (US$15 billion) was provided by the government of Abu Dhabi. Their fellow stakeholders in the Masdar City project are Consensus Business Group, Credit Suisse – who invested US $100 million – and Siemens Venture Capital.

The project is supported by the global conservation charity, World Wide Fund for Nature, and the sustainability group, BioRegional.

Political Commitment Strong

The Abu Dhabi government’s vast injection of seed capital is a forceful example of political commitment, as is the grand scale of the entire venture.

Public Confidence Good

There have been mixed opinions from the general public regarding the project, although 87 percent of people in the UAE are satisfied with the country's efforts to preserve the environment and the majority of the UAE’s population in UAE support the Masdar project.

However, critics question whether elements of the project are truly sustainable and speculate how useful the development will be as a model city. One criticism of the Masdar City project is that it is “inherently unsustainable because it involves constructing a brand new city in an unquestionably resource-intensive place, the desert”. [1]


Clear Objectives Good

The project initially aimed to be a sustainable, zero-carbon, car-free city, completed by 2016. However, due to the limitations found during the initial implementation, the city is now aiming to be only low-carbon, and financial constraints have pushed back the schedule by about 10 years.

The human aspects of the city – the homes, the businesses and the educational establishments were also clearly stated, and are either present, as in the case of MIST or on track.

Evidence Strong

The Masdar City project has invested extensively in pilot projects and feeds the results of those pilots into its wider implementation programme. For example:

  • There was a pilot of a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). The vehicles were entirely powered by battery, which allowed a range of 60 kilometres on a 90 minute charge. The initial design considered that cars would be banned within the city, as travel would be via public mass transit and PRT systems, with existing road and railways connecting to locations outside the city. However, in October 2010 it was announced the PRT would not expand beyond the pilot scheme, due to the cost of segregating the system from pedestrian traffic.
  • Subsequently, a test fleet of 10 Mitsubishi electric cars was deployed in 2011 as part of a one-year pilot to test a transport solution for the city as a complement to the PRT, which was to consist of driverless electric vehicles.

The Beam Down Project is a joint pilot project of MIST, Japan’s Cosmo Oil Company and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which works on the a ‘conventional concentrated’ solar power design. The project is aimed at converting sunlight into electricity in a more efficient, lower-cost way than other technologies.

Feasibility Fair

The Masdar City project had a feasibility test in place when construction was beginning. Masdar signed an agreement with Spain’s Instituto De Sistemas Fotovoltaicos de Concentración in 2009 to study concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) technologies to determine what effect the area’s climatic conditions would have on Masdar’s plans to install large-scale solar energy plants. However, significant doubts remain about the project's true sustainability, as discussed above.


Management Good

Masdar in its programme has dedicated units to manage each function. Each unit relies on the competencies and experience of the relevant specialists, whether investors, architects, builders or designers. This ensures that the delivery context is well understood. This makes it a good case for management. The various units of the project are outlined below:

  • Masdar Capital supports the development of technologies in order to generate positive returns for Abu Dhabi. The unit promotes and commercialises renewable technologies, and identifies synergies between its investments and other Masdar activities.
  • The Special Projects unit provides renewable energy and clean technology applications, project management, and consulting services.
  • Masdar Clean Energy is involved with innovative technology projects around the world. Its objective is to develop and invest in renewable energy projects, with a main focus on mature solar and wind technologies.
  • The research arm at MIST focuses on advanced study in the fields of renewable energy and sustainability.

Measurement Good

Masdar City has set various indicators to measure project performance. These include:

  • The embodied carbon of construction materials used in the construction of its buildings (30% reduction).
  • Energy consumption (40% reduction).
  • Interior water (40% reduction).
  • Overall construction of embodied carbon in materials (15% reduction).
  • The Sustainability Rating System (3 Pearl minimum).

These metrics are periodically assessed to keep track of progress.

Alignment Strong

Masdar collaborates and works with various other actors for the achievement of its objective, which indicates strong alignment between actors. There is evidence of several well-aligned initiatives undertaken for the success of the project:

  • Masdar worked with the Abu Dhabi government to co-design and implement the projects.
    Masdar uses advertisements, websites, press releases, and several financial engagements with others companies and with local media outlets to promote its project. The project’s promotion links itself to the global energy culture, to attract the emerging energy market.

MIST is a research facility which supports the country's strategic goals by developing sustainable bioenergy and food to help diversify the UAE economy. It also serves as a training ground for a new generation of innovators.

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