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. Masdar city is an ongoing project of the Abu Dhabi government to learn how to build sustainably and become independent from oil in the long run.

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 is an ecology project in Abu Dhabi which started construction in 2008. It was designed by Foster and Partners and built by Masdar, a subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company, which in turn is a state-owned holding company of the Abu Dhabi government. The city sits next to Abu Dhabi International Airport. It hosts 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. However, according to Chris Wan, head of design management at Masdar City, “we will complete as fast or as slow as the rest of the economic environment of Abu Dhabi. […] If the economy is very strong, then we'll finish earlier. If it's not so strong, then it'll take longer. We're building to a demand - we don't build empty buildings and then try to find people to fill them up”. 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.

The aim of Masdar City were to:

  • Specialise in greenhouse gas emission reduction projects 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 for about 50,000 people.
  • Provide facilities for 1,500 businesses, primarily commercial and manufacturing firms specialising in environmentally friendly products, and create 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:

  • Compared to American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards, the buildings in Masdar City consume 40% less energy and water
  • Buildings in Masdar are designed in accordance with Estidama Pearl Building Rating System baselines.
  • 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, almost 10°C less than in the rest of 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.
  • There are no light switches or taps – sensors are used in their place, which helps cut electricity consumption and water usage by almost half.
  • Masdar City was named “Best Free Zone for Start Up Support” in 2017 by fDi magazine, part of the FDI intelligence services portfolio provided by the UK’s Financial Times

This enhanced case study is part of our policymaker interview series. For the series, we talked to policymakers and key protagonists from across the world about their policies, policy-making and life in government. The interviewed protagonists for this case study are Chris Wan, Design Manager at Masdar City and Gerard Evenden, Senior Executive Partner at Foster + Partners, the architectural firm that led Masdar City.

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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.

Legitimacy

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The stakeholder of Masdar City are the residents of Abu Dhabi and future residents of Masdar City, business owners in the area as well as the funders of the project.

Masdar, the company behind Masdar City, is officially committed to “respond to the issues, needs and expectations of our internal and external stakeholders through regular consultation, collaboration and on-going dialogue.” Masdar also has an online portal where key stakeholders can register for meetings to discuss specific business engagements and register for a tour of Masdar City.

The majority of the seed capital (US$15 billion) was provided by the government of Abu Dhabi. Their fellow investment 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 Good

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. Although the global economic recession of 2008 significantly slowed down the project, the government is still committed to following through and continued investment in green energy projects at scale, albeit at a slightly slower pace.

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] However, according to Gerard Evenden, senior executive partner at Foster + Partners and leading architect at Masdar City, the reason for building in the desert was about seeing if it was possible to do so; “if you can do it in the desert, which is such an extreme environment, you could actually make this happen anywhere in the world. You could make it happen on the moon.”

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The project initially aimed to be a sustainable, zero-carbon, car-free city, completed by 2016. However, due to the limitations encountered during the initial implementation, the city is now aiming to be only low-carbon, and financial constraints have pushed back the schedule. Nonetheless, the government admitted to this change in objectives and clearly communicated them to the public and fellow stakeholders.

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

Additionally, Gerard Evenden believed in a clear, overarching objective - to put environmental issues at the forefront: “There's too many people building around the round world ignoring the [environmental] issues, which absolutely exist. […] Governments need to make these issues we were tackling a priority in their spending and in their budgets.”

Evidence Strong

Masdar City is the first project of its kind, so there exists no evidence on how to successfully build a low-carbon city from scratch. However, 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.

Evidence was also used in the urban planning design. Gerard Evenden stated that in the designing of the project “we were encouraged not to just look at future technology coming on the market, we were also told very clearly to go and look back and look at how people had survived in the desert. And there was an incredible understanding from some of the members [of the teams] of their environment because they'd lived through a transition of a bedouin environment to something that was westernized in terms of its construction.”

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 well as feasibility, given the enormous scale of the project and the large economic commitment connected to it. As a consequence of the global financial crisis, the Abu Dhabi government adapted Masdar’s business model. “Since, then our market plan has gone through several iterations. One of the iteration is that we have opened up the market plan to allow in third party developers. […] These third party developers are usually very commercially oriented. So they come in and they usually have little or no knowledge of sustainable design. That's where we come in, we help them to build in accordance with our sustainable guidelines. We work really closely with them to bring their building up to the same standard. […] Everyone that works with us starts off with the mindset of, "Green is too costly," but once they get through the design process they realize that there is a way to design and build in a green way and be cost effective at the same time.” [Interview with Chris Wan, head of design management at Masdar City]

Nevertheless, the feasibility issues are reflected in the fact that out of the 50,000 people that were planned to inhabit Masdar City, only about 1,300 were actually living in it in 2017.

Action

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. 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 Abu Dhabi government units 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.