Now under construction using state-of-the-art technology, Abu Dhabi’s ‘concept city’ Masdar is incorporating all the advanced features of a smart eco-city.
Over half the world’s population currently live in towns, although urban settlements cover only a fraction of the planet’s surface. Cities consume three quarters of all energy produced on Earth, and the United Nations is predicting that urban living will have risen to 70% by 2050, by which time there are projected to be two billion extra people in the world With the arrival of the digital era and Big Data, the idea of creating ‘smart’ cities has emerged very quickly but the concept is still very broad and difficult to define precisely, given the complex impact of digital systems and tools on the various aspects of a city – resource optimisation, citizen collaboration, governance, environmentally-friendly transport, etc. This has become a matter of the utmost importance for both central and local government given that smart cities are seen as real drivers for growth and a basis for sustainable development. According to New York-based market research and market intelligence firm ABI Research, smart cities are set to attract increasing investment in the coming years, up to $39.5 billion by 2016. Masdar City, a smart city under construction since 2008 just outside Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a truly new eco-city, serving as a valuable testing ground for various different aspects of smart city living.
Resource optimisation first priority
The Masdar City project, initiated by Abu Dhabi’s ruling family and spearheaded by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, is basically a showcase project. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), of which Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest Emirate, are members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), founded in 1960, which controls petroleum reserves estimated at 1,206 billion barrels of oil. Abu Dhabi owns the lion’s share of UAE hydrocarbon resources, with an estimated 98.2bn barrels of proven reserves at end-2013. So in setting out to build a smart environmentally-friendly city, using state-of-the-art green technology, this major oil producing country is sending a strong signal to the world. Designed by the UK-based architectural firm Foster and Partners, Masdar City is intended to become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of the energy sector, experimenting with technologies for the energy systems of the future and setting a goal of becoming ‘zero waste, zero carbon, fossil free’. The city is laid out in energy-saving and environmentally sound districts, and aims long term to be energy positive – i.e. generating more energy than it consumes.
At its present stage of development, Masdar City is not yet a real inhabited city but a sort of business park-cum cleantech cluster out in the desert, with the central focus on sustainable energy use. Two onsite entities are devoted respectively to the exploitation of renewable energy and to reducing the environmental footprint. Masdar Power is a construction and production company which builds electric power plants based on renewable energy: photovoltaic and solar thermal panels, plus wind turbines installed on land and sea. Masdar Carbon runs projects designed to reduce CO2 emissions by the twin thrust of improving energy and resource efficiency on the one hand – aiming inter alia to reduce water and power consumption in buildings by 40% – and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) systems on the other. The long term aim is to achieve an unprecedented degree of sustainability, for example using solar energy as practically the only source of power.
‘City of the future’ laboratory
Aside from the energy aspect, the Masdar City project is basically a vast experiment in what it is possible to achieve with the smart city concept. The three other entities working there are Masdar City, which runs the adminstration; Masdar Capital –comprising international partners such as Deutsche Bank and Crédit Suisse – which provides the financial structure; and the Masdar Institute, the city’s graduate university and research centre. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE Minister of State who chairs Masdar, sees the experimental city as a prototype for cities of the future and indeed the range of partners that have come on board the project indicate its potential as a ‘future lab’. The Masdar Institute, which was set up in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has the capacity to train 600 - 800 Masters and PhD students. The campus comprises six buildings that are intended to be the intellectual heart of the city. The fields of research undertaken there have been carefully chosen as being strongly geared to the future of urban life, including, health and the environment as well as complex energy systems. German multinational Siemens, which has established its Middle East headquarters there, is helping to build on-site infrastructure. Meanwhile Masdar Capital is planning to invest in key areas for sustainable development that are also essential to the city’s basic organisation: renewable energy, energy storage and carbon-free transport. The city will encourage walking and cycling and the public transport system will be based on the Personal Rapid Transit approach.
The full plans for Masdar City, calling for a $15 billion investment, will cover an area of 6 square kilometres. By 2020 it is hoped that the new town will have 50,000 inhabitants, plus 40,000 non-resident workers. It is certainly one of the most radical smart city projects. With its ambitious energy policy, meticulous architecture and high quality research and innovation centre, Masdar could become a model for future town planning from scratch, although it might not be feasible to apply all aspects of the project to the re-development of traditional cities.