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Masdar City

Illustration 1: An artist’s impression of the future Masdar City

By Behlol Nawaz

Masdar (an Arabic word meaning “source”), is the name of a project, which aims to construct a city of the same name, that is environmentally sustainable by reducing the waste and carbon emissions to almost zero. With this, Masdar intends to become a model of an “eco-city” for the future. But most important of all, through this project, different “green” ideas and technologies will be tried, tested and further developed. It would be a large incubation center for clean tech.

United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the largest exporters of oil, launched this project in 2006 with a budget of 22 billion dollars to be spent over a period of nineteen years. It is planned to be completed by 2025. The site for the project is a few kilometers outside Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE.

A city from the future

The initial plan for the city was truly ambitious.

The city’s power is going to be exclusively from renewable energy sources. The largest photo-voltaic solar power plant of Middle East is one of its power sources. A 10MW solar farm built over an area of 22 hectares. The roofs of the buildings were initially planned to be covered by solar panels, generating a fraction of the city’s power itself.

Normal carbon emitting vehicles are not allowed in the city. Initially, it was planned to have an entire network of electrical pods beneath the city (named “Personal Rapid Transit System”), transporting people between different locations.

Personal Rapid Transit System

Illustration 2: A pod from the Personal Rapid Transit System

As you probably know, currently renewable energy sources are neither very efficient nor very reliable. So, in order to make the city sustainable on clean energy sources, the use of electricity also has to be minimized. All sorts of active and passive methods are planned to reduce the use of power and water.

The buildings and streets are planned keeping in view the directions of winds and the sun. The buildings’ façades are designed to minimize the overall heat gained from the sun. Traditional Arab wind towers (modified for efficiency) and longer and narrower streets facilitate an almost constant breeze.

Masdar Institute

Illustration 3: Wind tower in the main courtyard of the Masdar Institute


The combination of such passive methods are reported to have a great effect on the average temperature of the city, reducing the need for cooling. In addition to this, strict building efficiency guidelines, smart appliances, smart meters, smart building management systems and a city-wide energy monitoring and management system, will make the power consumption of the city substantially lesser than normal cities.

The use of water is monitored and all waste is going to be recycled as much as possible, once the recycling facility outside the city is completed.

Current situation and the changing plans

A city without pollution, self-sufficient on energy, having sci-fi looking transport and erected right in the middle of a desert sounds almost like a fantasy. But work began with the main university as the focus and things started to take shape.

Currently, a few of the university’s (Masdar Institute of Science and Technology) buildings have been completed along with residential spaces for its faculty, staff and students and a few other buildings which house a restaurant, a general purpose store, a cellular network’s office, the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) headquarters, the Middle East headquarters of Siemens Inc. and regional offices of various other companies. A small section of the Personal Rapid Transit system has been built, that operates between the university and the main car park outside the city. Most of the current buildings have the roofs covered by solar panels.

A street in the Institute

Illustration 4: A street in the Institute

Like any practical project, modifications were made in the original design, as the work proceeded, to meet the challenges of changing economic situations and new, unforeseen technical hurdles. For example, the electrical pods and solar paneled roofs have been abandoned for the rest of the city, mostly due to their cost and some technical difficulties.

The city is developing slower than planned and although the government is encouraging investment in the city, the investment isn’t coming with the volume and speed they would have hoped. Due to the recent financial crises, the budget has been reduced to 18 billion dollars, which has been one of the reasons for leaving out some of the features. At least in appearance, the city might not become as impressive as it was supposed to be.

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

The university (Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, MIST ) was set up and is now run with help and guidance from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIST focuses on research that is relevant to the Masdar City’s goals. Most of the research is about making renewable energy sources more efficient, reliable, making energy consuming devices more efficient and working on different systems that can reduce the usage of different resources in our current lifestyles. Currently the university only has Graduate and Doctoral students. More than half of the faculty and students are from outside the UAE.

A Lab in the Masdar Institute

Illustration 5: A Lab in the Masdar Institute

The Future:

Solar farm

Illustration 6: An artist’s impression. Solar farm visible in the background

Despite the budget cuts and the slower than expected pace of development, the city is gradually moving towards its targets. Many governments and organizations either praise, endorse or support the effort. Some critics are of the opinion that the city will not even prove to be economically sustainable. Of course, it remains to be seen how successful this venture is for the UAE government’s stated goal of becoming a market leader in the future energy market as well. Although the completion of this project might be slightly delayed and the targets for the city might not be completely met, but the lessons learnt and technologies developed over the course of this project would be invaluable in the future not only to UAE, but to the world.

On a side note, it is also good to see that a government in this particular part of the world recognizes a future problem and is willing to spend such a large sum of money on scientific research and development, in an effort to find solutions. Large expenditures on research aren’t exactly yet a norm in the most of Middle East, Africa or South Asia. I hope ventures of this sort will also spur other countries in the region to spend on research in order to find solutions to their problems.

Official site:


(Contains information on the project. All images are from this site.)


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