Masdar City, a schientific utopia on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, was set to revolutionize urban planning by fusing many ground-breaking technologies such as solutions in clean energy, autonomous driving, and energy efficiency. 14 years after the project was announced we travelled to Masdar to see if it is as fancy as it is described in popular reviews.
Being one of the main points on a global tourist map, the UAE becomes largely empty during summertime. With temperatures sometimes rising to 55 °C, this place turns into a frying pan from June to August, chasing away rich expats that seek to spend their time in luxurious hotels and drive fast cars. The extreme heat has always plagued this part of the globe, and in the 2000s the UAE started looking for complex solutions to this issue.
This is how Masdar City project came into being. In 2006, Masdar, the parent company of Masdar City, was created in order to develop renewable energy solutions in the UAE. One year later it signed a contract with MIT to establish Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.
In 2008, Masdar broke ground on Masdar City, a new autonomous town, was set to revolutionize urban planning. Promoted as “a pioneer in sustainability and a hub for research and development, spearheading the innovations to realize greener, more sustainable urban living” the design of this place was devised with two main purposes – to protect people from heat and hot winds blowing from the desert and develop new energy efficiency solutions.
A large team of architects and engineers headed by brilliant Norman Foster worked on natural solutions that would help the city stay cool in the summer and, thus, preserve as much energy as possible. They studied designs of ancient Arab cities, like Cairo and Muscat, with their narrow winding streets, small windows and walls meant to preserve cool air inside.
The architects paired these old but gold solutions with new materials and technologies aimed at cutting CO2 emissions and decreasing energy consumption. They even built a wind tower – an ancient Arab concept of a tower that streams winds blowing high in the skies down to the city’s shaded paths.
Originally, Masdar was to become the first zero carbon city, thanks to the energy efficiency technologies and clean energy solutions. Masdar, thus, was to operate on its own grid, but in 2011 it was connected to the public system, with the city planners stating in 2016 Masdar would never be able to achieve net-zero carbon levels.
Situated on the outskirts of Abu-Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, in the middle of the desert neighboring the airport, Masdar City is intended to be a breakthrough. Funded by Mubadala, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, Masdar City is set to change urban planning and city development forever.
Inspired by the renders and bloggers’ reviews on YouTube, I decide to go and see if the city is as good as it is described.
Masdar City is located 17 kilometers south-east of Abu-Dhabi. A 40-minutes ride from the downtown sounds like a fantastic plan for the second half of the day, especially when the outside temperature rarely goes below 45 °C. I want to cool down in the shaded paths of the city and discover its brilliant architecture.
So, I open Careem app and order taxi, choosing Masdar City as the destination point. A big mistake, as I learn a bit later.
I sit in the taxi, open my laptop and delve into work. 40 minutes later I feel like we must be somewhere close and look out the window. To my great surprise, I see no futuristic architecture, no solar panels, no nothing. Just the desert and a narrow road covered with sand. The driver also seems to be a little bit confused, but still continues to follow the navigator’s instructions. Five nerve racking minutes later, l see some buildings on the horizon, but at that moment the artificially gentle voice of the Careem app tells me I have arrived at my destination.
The place, which is supposed to be the center of the city, is still just a desert with some parking space for old buses that bring construction workers to Masdar every day. Planned to be completed by 2020, currently Masdar City consists only of one quarter that includes Masdar Institute, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, Siemens regional headquarters and several residential buildings for students and professors. Since 2013 Masdar has also been home to the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), with its building located a little bit aside from the rest of the city.
There are a couple of other residential buildings nearby, they are also part of the project, but currently are populated by Etihad, the Abu Dhabi’s main airline, flight attendants. Luckily, the Abu Dhabi international airport is just five minutes away.
Even though, not even half of the project has been completed yet, from the architectural point of view, the city looks amazing. The engineering efforts have also been a success. In 2012, the Siemens headquarters won an award for best office building at the MIPIM Architectural Review Future Projects Awards, while the Middle East Architect Awards named it both the best and most sustainable office building the same year.
Today, the project is scheduled to be completed by 2030. However, there are little signs of new buildings being developed. The large part of the city is still just a desert.
We finally approach the town, making our way through the sands. I get out of the car and go towards the futuristic orange buildings that are to protect me from heat, I make my way through a little park, which turned out to be incomplete, as at the end of my ten-minute walk I find a low fence separating it from the part of the city already open to the public.
I look at the 4-storey orange buildings with intricate convoluted facades as a blessing. Even ten minutes in 45°C heat feel like a one-hour intense workout in the gym. To my disappointment, I find no shelter in the narrow streets of Masdar. It is still hot there. Extremely hot. A high wind tower provides only a tiny breath of fresh air, having no effect on the overall temperature in the city.
Desperate to cool down, I find a half-empty café with air-conditioning and spend the next hour enjoying a cup of cappuccino and free Wi-Fi. I ask the cashier what all these buildings around me are intended for, and she tells me they are for students. But there were no students on the street. I know it’s August and students might be on vacation, but when I finally feel ready to go out, I hardly meet anyone in the street, even gardeners and technicians.
Masdar looks like a ghost town. The buildings seem to be inhabitable, and the community spaces (or so-called Majlises) are empty. As empty are the office spaces on the ground floor. There is only one café here, one restaurant, one supermarket and… that’s it. Oh, there’s also an abandoned Etisalat store, the main telecom provider in the UAE.
I then try to find a way to the city’s main tourist attraction – self-driving cars, aka Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). These are tiny cabs carrying up to four passengers around the town. To my astonishment, I see only a handful of gulf-cars carrying one, rarely two passengers. And yes, they have a driver!
Later, I learn that the original idea that the city’s transport system would rely solely on PRTs was revised back in 2010 due to the cost of creating the undercroft to segregate the system from pedestrian traffic. The revised public transport concept allowed other electric vehicles to operate in the city, so gulf-cars have been part of Masdar for more than 10 years.
But I’m still eager to see the PRTs. To my disappointment, guards and technicians have no idea how to access them, most of them telling me they are new here. After 20 minutes of fruitless wandering, I finally find a guy who shows me the way to the tourist center (which is in no way designated as such from the outside). I go down the stairs, to the ground floor that hosts a well-designed exhibition telling the history of the project. A great, meticulously-detailed diorama presents the bird’s-eye view of the city at its completion. This is impressive, it looks like a real science oasis in the desert driving the knowledge-based economy of Abu Dhabi. But there is still a long way to go.
On the opposite side of the hall, I finally see what I came here for – a couple of Personal Rapid Transits. It feels almost like an elevator: you push the button, doors open, you enter the cabin and that’s it. I sit back in a cabin and prepare for one of the most exciting journeys in my life. Having no idea where we are going, I tap “go” on a laptop in the cabin and doors close.
The cab speeds up and maneuvers between dark grey columns that support the city above me. I feel thrilled and cannot stop taking pictures and making videos is if it was my first time in the Disneyland.
In five minutes, we arrive at our destination, which turns out to be an underground car parking. I go out and ask the guards if there are some other routes. They tell there is only one, so I decide to go back. Again, I feel excited and cannot stop making videos and sending them to friends.
I climb the staircase and leave the tourist center. The sun is setting down and the orange curving facades look even more amazing in its rays. But the heat is still there. I’m still in the Arabian desert, no matter what advanced technologies the city uses. Also, the humidity level rises sharply in the evening, so it feels like walking in a hammam, just a very big one.
I find the only supermarket in the city, buy two bottles of water and drink them straight. On my way to the taxi station, I spot an intricate building with orange curving walls. It turns out to be a would-be visitor center which, I remember, I found on the diorama in the tourist center. Its doors are closed, however. The construction works are still going.
Masdar City has a long way to go. Look at the photo of the diorama below. The red line shows what has been already built. The rest is still no more than desert. At its completion, the city will cover 6 square kilometers and be home for 45 to 50 thousand people. Such ambitious plans demand a lot of money, of course. In 2008 the total cost of the project stood at $18-22 billion.
But it is not just about the buildings. Having almost $300 billion in assets, Mubadala can allow to build a couple of new quarters. The question is: Who is going to live there? Abu Dhabi is just starting its way as a global tech and innovation hub, with Dubai being years ahead. Currently, Abu Dhabi just cannot attract as many companies and as much talent as Dubai does. Masdar is a little oasis in the desert, while Dubai is a huge vibrant metropolis. Masdar’s location and the lack of tech ecosystem in Abu Dhabi make this project a white elephant that Mubadala continues to feed.
A few years ago, Mubadala launched Hub71 – a great accelerator that brings promising start-ups to the emirate. Residents of Hub71 told us, one needs to prove how their company can benefit Abu Dhabi, rather than all the UAE, so probably their technologies will be used in Masdar as well.
Abu Dhabi, however, has one, but significant advantage over Dubai – immense financial resources, which it gains thanks to oil production. In 2009, Abu Dhabi even bailed out Dubai with a $10 billion government loan, after the latter found itself on the brink of bankruptcy due to the global financial crisis. May be in a dozen years, Abu Dhabi will be able to rival Dubai, but today there is little chance Masdar can become the true city of the future.
It has become a great testing ground, though. Hundreds of new technologies have been brought into life and what is more important, many of them have been for the first time brought together in one place - PRTs, energy efficiency solutions, architectural design, public spaces etc. All that has provided many insights for future generations.
Now, Masdar City needs companies of the future and enthusiasts of the future that will be able to bring life to the town.