Desert city grows into living laboratory: Masdar City

Desert city grows into living laboratory: Via:

By James Drummond

Masdar is best known as a futuristic car-free, carbon-neutral city, set to be the first of its kind in the world. The development in the Abu Dhabi desert, which is being built atop a four-metre high plinth, is supposed to combine high population densities with a combination of cutting-edge design and a nod to Middle Eastern building traditions.

The city is set to use unproved technology but the wider initiative has more tangible goals in the form of an investment arm that invests in renewable energy technology and a post-graduate research institute focusing on sustainable energy. All form part of Abu Dhabi’s bid to be a world leader in sustainable technologies – in spite of a poor environmental record of its own.

The United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital, has the world’s worst environmental footprint on a per capita basis, according to an index by the World Wildlife Fund.

“Some of the most exciting science is now at the interface of different disciplines – very much so in energy and environment,” says Tariq Ali, an astronomer formerly of Imperial College London, who is the Masdar Institute’s vicepresident in charge of research and industry relations.

“These kind of opportunities – the opportunity to create a legacy, to come along with a blank piece of paper – come along once in a lifetime,” he says.

By September the institute will have 100 students from 19 different countries selected from 1,000 applicants, says John Perkins, the institute’s provost.

About half of the students come from the Middle East and North Africa and about 10 per cent will be from the UAE. Prof Perkins himself is a former dean of the engineering faculty at Manchester university and director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute in Britain.

The college applies the same entry criteria as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with which it has a five-year co-operation agreement. The institute will first award masters degrees and a PhD programme will start in 2011. The budget over the initial five years is $1.2bn and the target is to have 800 students and 200 faculty staff.

The subjects covered range from mechanical engineering and water and environment to engineering systems and management.

The institute’s headquarters, designed by Foster & Partners, will be in the new city and are due to open later this year. The structure is intended to act as a “benchmark for other buildings to follow”.

Perhaps ironically, the research institute is currently housed in Abu Dhabi’s petroleum institute.

“I think one of the nice things about the Masdar intitiative is that it is an integrated approach. It is not just about knowledge, it is also about technology transfer . . . and commercialisation on an international scale,” Prof Perkins says.

“One of the real attractions is that it will be in Masdar City. It will be a living laboratory,” he says.

Dr Ali is in charge of the commercialisation programme, which is designed to take greenfield research and find development partners. The institute already has its first intellectual property claim pending.

Dr Ali is looking to set up a seed fund and a so-called proof of viability fund. “You can have a certain kind of conversation with a company at around the middle market level. This is what we are trying to recreate here,” he says. Masdar is aiming to “fill that valley of death where you’ve got basic research being done by governments but it is still at too early a stage for the private sector”.

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