Urban Experiments: Trial and Error that Result in Progress for Cities

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on December 12, 2017
Traver Kennedy
Home  / Blog  /  Urban Experiments: Trial and Error that Result in Progress for Cities

This week, we continue our exploration of urban experiments in sustainable energy and transportation at the large, city-scale. As we wrote last week, any world-changing initiative designed for global impact—whether in the areas of sustainability, communications or transportation—must start at the city level. Cities are the hubs of human industry and, since 2008 when we surpassed the mark whereby half of all humanity became urban dwellers, they are now also hubs for social interaction.

Since the world’s population growth is projected to be concentrated in cities, initiatives to make them more livable and sustainable abound everywhere. From urban planning blueprints that allocate ample spaces for walking and bicycle sharing systems to stricter laws on industry and transportation emissions, local governments, businesses, entrepreneurs, and citizens everywhere are collaborating to co-create initiatives that improve their standard of living.

The desert can be, once again, a hub for urban progress and ingenuity.

Urban Hope from the Desert

Energy is at the center of nearly every experiment in designing sustainable cities of the future. CNN framed the critical nature of the problem in a recent story about one ambitious urban experiment in the Middle East saying, “Around the world, access to a reliable and plentiful energy supply is becoming increasingly critical. Urban populations continue to grow and demand even more energy. At the same time, vital resources such as water are becoming increasingly scarce, and rising levels of CO₂ and a warming global climate are adding to the stress on the Earth’s system.”

The CNN article was about Masdar, a city in the United Arab Emirates that was created from nothing. The city describes itself as a place “where sustainability is a way of life,” with the mission of “enabling innovation and sustainable urban development in a modern, clean tech cluster and free economic zone.” Interestingly, the path to making this experiment work has not been a straight line, which in itself, provides valuable learnings for other experiments around the world.

A Tale of an Experiment on Its Way to Success

Two articles, one by CNN and one by WIRED, written a year ago at roughly the same time, offer opposing views on whether Masdar, by then ten years old, is a successful experiment. CNN reported on the conclusions of a study by ScienceDirect titled, “A Comparison of Energy systems in Birmingham, UK, with Masdar City, an Embryonic City in the Abu Dhabi Emirates.” According to their conclusions, Masdar is on its way to becoming a model city.

Some of the initiatives that CNN used to illustrate the success of the Masdar urban experiment included sustainable energy technology from two solar plants (one that uses concentrated solar power to magnify the heat from the sun and convert it to energy, and another that uses photovoltaic technology) and a 45-meter wind cooling tower. Other experiments in urban sustainability being tested in Masdar include the city’s actual geographic location, which takes advantage of cooling winds, and smart electric transportation.

A Tale of a Failed Experiment

In contrast, the WIRED article tells the opposite story, “Inside Masdar City, the UAE’s Zero-Carbon City That Will Never Be.” From WIRED’s perspective, “Building the world’s first sustainable metropolis proved far trickier than anyone anticipated.” Their story is based upon a photo journal of French photographer Etienne Malapert, who cautions his work by saying that the lack of life is “deliberately magnified” in his photography.

The WIRED article reported on a city with several dozen buildings instead of the hundreds originally expected by 2016. They wrote, “Despite the constant clamor of construction, the future is uncertain,” and quoted Malapert as saying, “It is hard to tell whether or not it is going to work out, but the people working there are very confident.” The article concludes that the recession in the UAE, which pushed the no carbon emission’s target to 2030, points to the ultimate failure of this experiment.

Can Both Conclusions be Right?

If one considers experiments to be a series of trial-and-error initiatives designed to see what works and what does not, then both articles are right. WIRED focused on what the photographer captured at a moment in time: not too many people around, rusting building materials, and exhausted construction workers. They saw a city with ambitious plans slowed down by an economic downturn and extrapolated the present to conclude a failed initiative. In contrast, CNN saw new energy technology working, citizens going about their business, a startup incubator and an innovation institute flourishing. Their article underscored, “There is still room for improvement. It needs to establish more permanent residents who can contribute to its growth and development,” and “further work is required on transportation.” They concluded, however, that the foundation for an ultimately successful experiment was present. Both articles pointed to the fact that construction was active and citizens were optimistic, which does not typically happen in failed cities. WIRED even referred to the “constant clamor of construction” in Masdar and how people living there were confident their experiment would pan out.

Today, the fact remains that the Masdar experiment is still inconclusive. Building a city from nothing takes significant resources and time. Furthermore, when experimenting with technology, some things will work and others will not, resulting in budget uncertainties. Masdar, the oasis in the desert designed by Renowned British architecture firm Foster+Partners, is not yet what the blueprints envisioned, but is far from being an abandoned city that never was.

Learning from Experiments in Urban Sustainability

One of the initiatives that points to a positive future for this experiment is the creation of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which CNN referred to as a way to treat Masdar as a “living laboratory to conduct research on sustainable urban development.” An organization like this can ensure that other urban experiments, such as the one by being led by Bill Gates in Arizona (which we wrote about last week), can benefit from the on-going learnings from Masdar, both positive and negative.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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