A Rare Tour Of Masdar, The Failed Smart City In The Arabian Desert

Envisioned as Abu Dhabi’s zero-carbon “ecotopia,” today’s Masdar is incomplete–and still far from its sustainability goals.

When it was conceived over a decade ago by the Abu Dhabi government, Masdar City was envisioned as a blueprint for the sustainable city of the future. The plan was to combat the United Arab Emirate’s large ecological footprint with a completely carbon-neutral metropolis: it would be a global hub for the cleantech industry, powered by solar panels and wind tunnels, with a system of driverless electric cars taking the place of mass transit.


But building the “city of possibilities” proved to be, well, kind of impossible.

Ten years later–the year that the city was originally scheduled for completion–only a fraction of the city plan has been developed. Masdar hasn’t yet zeroed out on greenhouse emissions, and city officials have recently admitted that it’s not going to.

Last year, French photographer Etienne Malapert traveled to Masdar to document this incomplete city, which now has a population of about 287 permanent residents (the original plan was for 50,000 permanent residents and 40,000 commuters). In his photo series, which is also published as a book, the desert development looks like a ghost town. Solar panels glisten behind a chain-linked fence, a sand storm blows through empty streets, and brand-new buildings appear completely devoid of people.

When the city was conceived, British architects Foster + Partners designed a master plan for the futuristic city that combined the principles of traditional Arab settlements with cutting-edge technology. Crews broke ground in 2008, but when the recession hit its investors put everything on hold. The Masdar City that Malapert documents has only a handful of the high-tech buildings planned. Advancements in autonomous cars has also made the infrastructure for the city’s autonomous transport system seem useless and cumbersome. The system would have shuttled people to and from designated stations, which would no longer make sense as personal driverless cars become more widely available.

Today, Masdar’s future is unclear. City officials claim that the city will still be developed, albeit not exactly as planned–and it will not be carbon neutral. As Julien Eymeri wrote for Co.Exist in 2014, the country is unlikely to admit defeat and abandon the project all together, what with its announced dedication to environmental sustainability. At this point, as Malapert’s photos show, it’s still a city of possibilities unfulfilled.

[All Photos: Etienne Malapert]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.