Masdar’s dream fades out…exponentially

Masdar city, almost 15 km away for Abu-Dhabi, in UAE, was dreamed as the first zero carbon footprint city in the world. Ten years later, according a recent article in The Guardian “Now the world’s first planned sustainable city … could well be the world’s first green ghost town.” Masdar became a point of reference for the sustainability discussion, especially for the possibility to use advanced environmental friendly technologies for reducing or even eliminating the environmental footprint. Now it is time to reconsider some of the key-assumptions of its precious design.

The original scope of work, as it was described back to 2006, was to revolutionize thinking about cities and the built environment. It was designed to house 40,000 people, 1500 businesses and accommodate up to 50,000 commuters. The already built largest solar farm in Middle East would cover the city’s energy needs. No skyscrapers or cars will be allowed and the streets are designed for pedestrians. Boundary walls prevent urban sprawl and on the narrow streets, buildings are so closely aligned that they shade each other. High fences installed around the city will reduce the impact of hot blowing winds from the desert. Building units use solar glass whose composition is new materials that further reduce the heat burden. Building complexes have high efficiency cooling towers. Fountains and trees will be grown as an additional cooling device. Huge umbrellas unfold during the day and close up at night as shown in these photos. Well, that was the plan and its implementation required more than 22-25 billion dollars.

Back to reality: the project completion date was moved from 2020 to 2030. Although the core of the city (roughly 5% of its original plan) has been completed and despite the fact that more than 300 companies have an official presence, only 300 residents live in the city. Those 300 residents are all graduate students of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, who are given free tuition and accommodation. In addition, roughly 2,000 people are working in the city, according some unofficial sources.

So what went wrong? Well, it is too early for a complete assessment of the Masdar experiment and, there is still a possibility that the project will be, somehow, completed. Besides that, the data available does not allow a detailed assessment of the project’s failure. However, there are three points that attracted my curiosity and I believe that both of them provide very useful insights for the discussion about circular economy and the required transition of waste management to a resource – driven industrial paradigm.

First point (and probably the main one): you can’t deliver an isolated local zero footprint when your world is dominated by oil prices’ ups and downs, you can’t achieve a zero footprint with the current oil prices! Chris Wan, Masdar’s design manager said, “The original aim was to be net zero, yes, but that was when we were looking at the city in isolation. As of today, it’s not a net zero future. It’s about 50%.” What is the problem? As he explained, Masdar’s renewable energy production is much more than the city’s requirements (not only now, but even when the project will be completed). However, Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s state-owned investment company that manages Masdar has identified other, more cost effective ways to utilize the renewable energy generated and this is very important for the local economy during the current downturn of the oil prices. Masdar was an emblematic project for UAE’s efforts to decarbonize its economy and create a future less dependent on oil availability. The current oil prices do not allow the country to invest in its further greening and Masdar seems to be one of the first victims. For all of us who are involved in waste management and recycling, this is obvious from the difficulties we face in many plastic-recycling programs. Actually, the globalized recycling markets are more sensitive than Masdar in the fluctuations of oil prices, especially when the production of new plastic materials becomes much more cheaper than recycling.

Second point: “sustainable” islands are not possible in a world where the mainstream approach drives environmental degradation. Imagine that Masdar was designed to be free of cars. There is a bike-sharing station, however the city is about 10 miles away from Abu Dhabi, and there are no bike paths. So, even if the city would be free of cars, the expected 50,000 daily commuters would create an important carbon footprint. The problem of the boundaries is very important when we speak about zero waste and when we discuss about circular economy and material flows. We have to put the usually ignored question: in which area, geographically or physically, are we going to measure the zero waste and the closed loops? What will happen with the material flows at the boundaries and the interfaces with other systems?

Last but not least, there is third point of special interest for everyone that studies the dynamics of the current industrial revolution. One of the key-elements of the revolutionary design of Masdar was its pioneering autonomous transport system, originally supposed to stretch to 100 stations. Only two stations were constructed, because the ambitious system was completely overtaken by technological developments in the auto sector. The expensive purpose-built system no longer made sense in an era when zero-emission electric cars are widely available. As the design manager Chris Wan said “Five years ago it’s true that we did not perceive the speed with which the electric vehicle would be developed”. I believe that this as a proof for the rapid pace of change in our era. Think that in Masdar’s experiment, some of the most capable companies and engineers of the world were not capable to foresee the evolution of electrical cars in a time horizon of 5-10 years. And then you will understand why I insist to speak for the exponential technologies that are already delivering exponential changes. The era of disruption is running exponentially faster that our mind models.

Masdar should be considered as another step towards understanding both the barriers set by the global markets’ and the dynamics of the exponential technologies. It highlights that interconnectivity and interdependence might be a lethal noose for similar, isolated projects. But for sure, Masdar demonstrates that markets are not the solution for the cultivation of large-scale and long-term sustainability experiments.

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