Published: 29/06/2012 - Filed under: Archive » 2012 » July / August 2012 » Destinations » Features » Features » Destinations » Archive » 2012 » July / August 2012 » Features » Destinations » Middle East and Africa »
From driverless cars to smart buildings that know your every move, Jenny Southan explores Abu Dhabi’s eco-city of the future.
The entry bay to Masdar City, a gated compound next door to Abu Dhabi International airport, is eerily quiet and the climate-controlled air borders on chilly. There is no other way of entering the city, as far as I can tell, than via one of the battery-powered driverless pod cars that glides up to the glass doors ahead of me. The space-age silver bubble, which was designed by Italian engineering firm Zagato, has feline headlights and streamlined sliding doors that open automatically. Once inside, a robotic voice welcomes me and within 60 seconds it is zipping along a concrete underpass.
The vehicles that make up the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system can travel at up to 40km/ph and employ virtual software to guide them over a network of magnets embedded in the road. The emission-free cars run on batteries, which are solar rechargeable, and are just one of the futuristic elements of Abu Dhabi’s pioneering eco-city, a place where only 180 overseas university students currently reside.
A few minutes later I arrive at my destination and am released from the vehicle into a dimly lit, expansive foyer. At one end, a white spiral staircase swirls upwards to reception, and emerging at the top I am no less convinced that I am not part of some kind of science fiction experiment. There is no one around except for a woman behind the desk, and as I wait for her to finish a call I notice that the yellow and white roses in the vase next to me have the city’s logo stamped on each of their outer petals.
Stepping outside, a warm wind blows through empty walkways, and strolling between the buildings I notice a strange juxtaposition between the undulating Arabic-style terracotta walls and the black solar panels that jut in a zigzag over the edges of the roofs.
The project was launched in 2006 by the Abu Dhabi government’s Mubadala Development Company (MDC), and since construction began two years later, Masdar is slowly bringing to life its ambitions to be one of the world’s first carbon-neutral cities – powered by the sun and other renewable energy sources, and designed to provide a 6 sqkm, fully self-sufficient community of 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters.
Typical of the wealthy emirate’s determination to bring in the best architects from all over the world for its projects – whether that’s Jean Nouvel for the upcoming Louvre gallery or Frank Gehry for the Guggenheim, the former due to open on Saadiyat Island by 2015, the latter by 2017 – it recruited Norman Foster and Partners to come up with the blueprints for Masdar.
Ahmed Baghoum, director of City Zone at Masdar City, says: “The architectural planning has been based on traditional Arabic towns, with narrow streets and low-rise buildings to allow people to walk during hot summer days. Smart buildings have the ability to monitor water consumption and power usage, and systems are able to turn off remotely whenever there is an overload or there are no people inside.”
A Green Data Centre will measure the energy and water usage of homes and offices so that whenever a fridge door is opened, a light left on, the air conditioning too high, or the water left running, the “eco police” will know and have the ability to respond to it.
Other features of the city include a 45-metre-tall wind tower that funnels air through the streets to help keep pedestrians cool, green materials such as sustainable Douglas fir and super-strong plastics to deflect sunlight and insulate the interiors, and a zero-waste approach to rubbish so that it is either recycled, composted or burnt to create power. Numerous solar energy projects include the Beam Down experiment, which uses heliostatic mirrors that generate temperatures equivalent to those found inside volcanoes to heat a steam turbine.
Conventional cars are limited to the city’s edges to encourage people to walk. Baghoum says: “Masdar is well designed to cater for the different requirements of workers and residents. Within 200 metres they can access a car park; they can walk 100 metres to their office building or a grocery shop. The whole purpose is to have the highest possible quality of life with the lowest possible environmental impact.”
He adds that in addition to the PRT system, Masdar is “looking into other mobility solutions” such as electric buses. A pilot project with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is also under way, supplying a fleet of i-MiEV new generation electric hatchbacks to whizz people around.
Masdar’s development has been hampered by the global economic downturn, however, which has meant that completion of the estimated US$20 billion initiative has been pushed back from 2016 to 2025, or even 2030. That said, the first phase of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology – which is comprised of a knowledge centre, labs, classrooms, offices and about 100 apartments – has been up and running since 2009, along with grocery stores, retail outlets, coffee shops, a sushi bar, launderette, bank, travel agency, and even a monthly organic food market and street fair. (No bars, though, of course.) Subsequent phases will see the addition of schools, a hospital, a clinic, sports facilities, offices, a hotel and possibly serviced apartments.
Baghoum explains why the institute – a graduate research facility run in conjunction with MIT that will eventually accommodate up to 200 faculty and 800 students, who receive a monthly stipend and have their travel expenses and tuition paid – was chosen to be the first tenant. “It is the core of our research and design. It is a magnet for talent from around the world as it is conducting masters and PhD programmes in green energy and clean technology. At this stage, it is our nucleus for building the clean technology hub and cluster that is Masdar City and Abu Dhabi.”
The emirate isn’t, perhaps, the most obvious candidate for being a global eco-leader – you only have to think of the gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives that careen down the roads, the air conditioning in every building and the amount of electricity required to light up the cities at night to understand why the UAE is one of the greatest energy consumers per capita in the world. And that Abu Dhabi wants to set itself up as a producer of renewable energy may sound contradictory given that its great wealth is founded on fossil fuel – it has almost 10 per cent of the planet’s proven crude oil reserves and 4 per cent of its natural gas.
But as the authorities are only too aware, these won’t last. In light of this, the emirate has committed more than US$15 billion to renewable energy programmes and placed a bid to host the World Energy Congress in 2016. UAE president and Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan have also drawn up a comprehensive long-term plan for a future that doesn’t rely on non-renewable resources.
The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 anticipates the “transformation of the emirate’s economy”, thanks, in part, to a “greater focus on knowledge-based industries”, and encompasses everything from healthcare, pharmaceuticals and IT to construction, culture and manufacturing. Some of the priorities identified include “building an open, efficient, effective and globally integrated business environment, developing a sufficient and resilient infrastructure capable of supporting anticipated economic growth, and developing a highly skilled and highly productive workforce” – all of which Masdar City will contribute to.
Gillian Taylor, business tourism manager for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, says: “All development in Abu Dhabi is involved with the 2030 plan, which is not something you could do in the UK because you vote in a new government every few years. It’s all about building a sustainable economy and ensuring social and regional economic development. There is a strong emphasis on investment opportunities but also opportunities for UAE nationals.”
Some of these opportunities will be related to Masdar but others will be in the oasis city of Al Ain, 160km from the capital. A 25 sqkm aviation cluster and logistics park is being constructed around its international airport, which is also being expanded. It is being jointly developed by Mubadala and the Abu Dhabi Airports Company to attract “world-class aerospace manufacturers, suppliers, and research and knowledge institutions”. As part of what Taylor calls “putting an aviation spotlight on Abu Dhabi”, the emirate hosted the Global Aerospace Summit in April and will welcome the World Route Development Forum in September.
Other initiatives under way include investment in nuclear power by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, under the guidance of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a 417 sqkm “industrial zone of tomorrow” known as Kizad (kizad.com). Located by Khalifa Port, it will have clusters dedicated to clean tech, aluminium, steel, petrochemicals, food, paper, printing and healthcare equipment. At the end of last year, it had already secured US$5 billion worth of projects from more than 30 companies, and by 2030 it is expected to comprise 15 per cent of Abu Dhabi’s non-oil GDP and have generated 15,000 jobs.
Back at Masdar, the second phase of the Science and Technology Institute is under development, which will enlarge the campus from 35,000 sqm to almost 80,000 sqm and add another 219 student apartments, two lab buildings, a multi-use hall with a swimming pool, more shops, streets and a 10,000 sqm commercial building – the Courtyard – to house 70 to 80 clean tech and sustainable energy clients. This should all be complete by the end of the year.
Siemens is also building a Centre of Excellence for Smart Buildings here, while General Electric will build an “eco-imagination centre”, and global energy management specialist Schneider a research and design base. The headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency will open at the end of next year, and by 2018 Masdar is expected to have 7,000 residents and 15,000 commuters coming in from downtown Abu Dhabi.
Baghoum says: “The first step is to attract companies. Masdar City is a special economic zone so we offer 100 per cent foreign ownership, plus there are customs exemptions and tax relaxation.” Add to this the expansion of Abu Dhabi International airport due to be complete by 2017, taking its passenger capacity from 12.5 million to 40 million, and there is little doubt that this sci-fi initiative is going to take off. You just might not want to live there.
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