Expo 2017 in Astana showcases the partnership between the UAE and Kazakhstan in knowledge building and real-world innovation
Two nations charting a course towards a prosperous future by tapping into human energy
One is the world’s largest land-locked country, whose capital city is officially the second-coldest on Earth; the other, a seafaring nation located in the sub-tropical Arabian Gulf. Yet, both Kazakhstan and the UAE have built their respective economies on oil and gas, and today are pursuing closer ties in numerous fields, including clean energy.
Securing safe and sustainable access to energy while reducing carbon emissions is one of the key challenges under the spotlight at Expo 2017 in the Kazakh capital Astana. An international exhibition on the theme “Future Energy”, Expo 2017 hopes to attract as many as five million visitors before it closes on September 10.
Like the UAE, Kazakhstan wants to produce 50 per cent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2050. It has introduced competitive feed-in tariffs, a green-economy law and just last month announced funding for a new 50-megawatt solar park.
The global economy of the 20th century was largely driven by the production and processing of hydrocarbons. And the economy of the future will be equally dependent on commodities; specifically, fresh water, clean air, reliable electricity and unpolluted Earth.
Socioeconomic progress was - and continues to be - defined by technological innovation, of which the fundamental component is, of course, people. That is why “human energy” is the theme of the UAE national pavilion at Expo 2017.
As Reem Al Hashimy, UAE's Minister of State for International Cooperation, has remarked: “Success comes from people and nations creating inspirational experiences and forging transformative relationships.”
The vision for sustainable development of Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of this country, inspired a generation of people who modernised the country through the responsible development of its conventional energy resources.
Today, it guides those UAE-based innovators at the forefront of cutting-edge knowledge industries, such as energy-efficient seawater desalination, solar-energy storage and low-carbon urban development – initiatives on show at the UAE’s Expo 2017 pavilion.
Charting a course towards a prosperous future, therefore, is fundamentally a question of how we empower our people, not merely of how we overcome the technical hurdle of shifting our economies away from hydrocarbons to renewable energy.
It concerns education, training, jobs and communities, among a myriad of human resources challenges. We must ensure that our school-leavers and university graduates are equipped to succeed in a new and rapidly changing environment, and that parts of the existing workforce are, where necessary, retrained.
To put this into perspective, consider the energy transition taking place in China. While China’s installed solar and wind capacity is expected to grow five fold by 2030, its efforts to scale back coal production will close an estimated 5,600 mines with the potential loss of 1.3 million jobs, according to a report recently published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena).
It may have a fraction of its population, but delivering technological innovation in order to achieve viable knowledge industries and sustainable employment for its people is as critical for the UAE as it is for China.
At Masdar, creating knowledge capital in support of the Vision 2021 is central to our mandate. Over the past decade, we have striven to do this in three ways.
First, we have continuously invested in recruiting and nurturing talent. Masdar ran no fewer than 83 training sessions for its staff last year, and this month launched a leadership programme for middle managers in partnership with the Harvard Business School. Tailoring course content to reach every level of the organisation has been key.
Second, we have expanded the commercial renewable-energy sector by investing in the deployment of advanced technologies at scale, such as Shams 1 (one of the world’s largest concentrated solar power plants) and the London Array (the largest offshore wind farm in operation).
Third, we have taken lab-tested technologies into the field to conduct applied research, collaborating with the private sector and world-class institutions such as the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, part of the Khalifa University of Science and Technology. Five technology startups have been launched by MI graduates to date and seven “pre-spin off” companies are being developed.
The Masdar Renewable Energy Desalination Programme is an example of this third strategy in action. It is testing alternatives to the energy-intensive desalination techniques commonly used in the Gulf and is now seeing projects being commissioned by third-party developers.
While the initial investment is relatively small, the ultimate pay-off for Masdar, and the UAE, is a stake in intellectual property that has the potential to be applied commercially on a much larger scale.
All these lessons in knowledge building and real-world innovation can be applied to Kazakhstan, and indeed many other countries. That was my message when I visited Expo 2017 recently, and it will be part of the UAE’s message to the world when Dubai hosts its World Expo on the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” in 2020.
Positive human energy is the commodity all countries should aspire to trade.
Mohamed Jameel Al Ramahi is chief executive officer of Masdar