x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Trailblazers on Masdar's frontier

The mission of Abu Dhabi's carbon-friendly business and residential development is coming closer to fruition. Unlike efforts by other countries that failed, experts say the capital's ambitious project two factors in its favour - time and money.

One of Masdar City's major buildings, the Siemens headquarters, is under construction at the Masdar City near Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National
One of Masdar City's major buildings, the Siemens headquarters, is under construction at the Masdar City near Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National

A trailer on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi is named SAF-1, short for "sustainable administrative facility". Its amenities include air conditioning, a parking lot and proximity to a Caribou Coffee, the only one in this stretch of desert near Abu Dhabi International Airport.

It is also the home to a cluster of optimistic entrepreneurs who want to help create the Silicon Valley of the Middle East.

The prefabricated building is a temporary office in Masdar City, the emirate's carbon-friendly business and residential development scheduled to be completed by 2030. Adjoining it are the temporary offices of Masdar's ventures in carbon trading and green building, and a few minutes away is a small campus where scientists and students experiment with lasers and reflective towers as part of their solar energy research.

Masdar City has faced challenges, since plans for it were unveiled in 2006, from the economy's squeeze on housing demand to evolving technology.

The original US$22 billion (Dh91.83bn) master plan for the world's first carbon-neutral community was to cater to 90,000 residents and workers who would zoom around in driverless pod cars reminiscent of those in Woody Allen's Sleeper.

Planners at Masdar, which is owned by Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, have cut the budget to $16bn, extended the timetable by as much as nine years and changed the carbon-neutral target in favour of carbon-friendly.

"When you're on the leading edge, you're taking on some real challenges," says Lee McIntire, the chief executive of CH2M Hill, a project management company based in Colorado that worked on the Masdar master plan. "Some things are working better than others - but I think it was a really courageous programme."

Today - two years after many of the major adjustments to the Masdar dream were made - construction is picking up, a Masdar-owned university is filing patents, and a community of entrepreneurs are moving in.

Electric-powered Mitsubishi vehicles transport visitors from construction sites to a campus designed by the renowned British architect Lord Foster, and teams of workers from as far as South East Asia can be found taking a break on the shaded paths between university buildings.

One of the entrepreneurs is Jourdan Younis, who launched a cleantech and sustainability company this year called Alpin that is meant to capitalise on the opportunities to consult on green buildings inspired by Masdar City elsewhere in the region as well as the research capabilities at the Masdar Institute, a long-term partner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"What we've seen over the last six months or a year is things are really coming back online for this city," said Mr Younis, who is from Silicon Valley. "It is a viable city.

"We believe in the growth of Masdar City. There's been a lot of talk about maybe not going forward in this, but what we've seen from the inside perspective - it is moving forward.

"It's moving forward with the right players and partners - you have Siemens opening up, you have the Irena [International Renewable Energy Agency] headquarters. The trees haven't borne fruit yet.

"You have some nice little buds shooting up. But we think that it will be there and that's why we decided to commit to this place and Masdar City." A veritable graveyard of failed eco-utopias precede Masdar. There was China's Dongfan, an island twice the size of Manhattan near Shanghai meant to house 500,000 people and open by 2010. The Spanish island of Mallorca planned a technology innovation hub called Parcbit that turned out to be too early for its time.

And a plan floated by Senegal in 2010 for a solar and wind-powered community of beehive-shaped structures of sand and metal that has received no public financial commitments.

Masdar, however, has two things on its side - time and money. It has also adopted a more measured approach, breaking ground on its first commercial building only after recruiting tenants for half the floor space and making extra revenue by marketing the knowledge it has gained in sustainable building to other developers.

"What a test tube," says Mr McIntire. "We've learned so much about what worked and doesn't work. I think the world owes them a little debt for investing in that."

Construction cranes and workers from as far as South East Asia are bringing the dream closer to reality.

A cluster of buildings are scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, including the regional headquarters of the German conglomerate Siemens and Masdar's first commercial building, which is to house start-ups and other businesses eager for Masdar's free zone-like privileges, such as a licence to operate throughout the region and 100 per cent foreign ownership.

"There's some other places where you don't need to create a hub - they just naturally exist," says Mr Younis. "Silicon Valley didn't come because it wanted to create a special hub there, it just had the right industry, the right students from the universities there. Here, it's more that they really needed to prime the pump in order to get things going. If the Government hadn't invested in Masdar City, you would not have any clean-tech going on here."

The adjustments to the Masdar City master plan include requiring new rental space have a comparable price to traditional property in downtown Abu Dhabi. That has made it possible for more entrepreneurs to join.

"If it was five times as expensive, or even three times or two times as expensive, you would not have a clean-tech start-up like ours here - no way," says Mr Younis.

The cost-per-square-foot guideline also applies to the Siemens headquarters, one of the anchor tenants alongside the UN's Irena and a GE innovation centre.

David Ardill, the architect who led the design of the Siemens offices, imagined the headquarters would be flanked by similar sized buildings and a square with a light-rail station between the airport and downtown, although there's no official date for their arrival.

The more modestly paced buildout plan and changing sustainability targets could lead to a place richer in history and personality, he says.

"If you look at old cities, they have depth, and the depth comes out of change - versus when you look at other cities which haven't developed to respond to themselves, and without having that time maybe become soulless," Mr Ardill says, sitting at the edge of the Masdar Institute that overlooks the construction sites in the desert.

"You can't speed up the growth of the soul. It just comes with time."

ayee@thenational.ae