It seemed like the obvious path, but we didn’t want to jump in unprepared. Prior to launching Masdar, we went on a four-month fact-finding mission, starting in Europe and continuing on to the U.S., Canada, South America, Asia, and North Africa. The trip was an eye-opening experience. I went into it with the perception that renewable energy was very immature. Actually, though, we found that it was mature enough, but it was fragmented. The researchers at the labs, the academicians, the businesspeople, the incubators, the entrepreneurs, the banks, the policymakers, the regulators, the government officials — they were not talking to one another. Leaders in the private sector were asking, “Why should we take the risk if we’re not being offered any guarantees by the government?” At the same time, governments were saying, “We can put the policy together, but if the private sector isn’t participating, what’s the point?”
That’s when we saw an opportunity. We could be the first in the world to build an initiative that would cover the whole value chain, encompassing research, the development of human capital, financing through VC [venture capital] funds and our own direct investments, manufacturing, and large-scale deployment. We want Abu Dhabi to be the home of renewable energy.
S+B: Could the UAE’s talent shortages, especially in the sciences, hinder these goals?
AL JABER: Today, Abu Dhabi is largely an importer and a consumer of technology. Our goal is to develop the capabilities and infrastructure that will help us to become a technology developer and exporter in a sophisticated field like renewable energy.
To that end, we established the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. It is the world’s first graduate-level, research-driven university that is fully focused on alternative energy and sustainability. We’ve developed it in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; MIT’s faculty has advised us on our recruitment of faculty and administrators, the design of our curricula, and the development of joint research projects. Our admission criteria are the same as MIT’s.
Classes began in September 2009; we accepted 88 applicants out of more than 1,200. Several students are UAE nationals, which is important for us in terms of building a local talent pool. We also have research partnerships with universities around the world, and we ensure that UAE nationals are attached to those projects so that they are exposed to different approaches. Finally, we continue to work on our attraction and retention of talent from outside the region. We are really just starting to be on the radar screen of talented individuals around the world.
S+B: Will Masdar help the region be more integrated into global efforts toward sustainability?
AL JABER: Yes. Global problems require global cooperation; developing nations must be included in addressing climate change through renewable energy. However, developed nations have a greater responsibility in that regard, because they have contributed the most, as a group, to climate change. Developing nations that are just establishing their economies have to build their infrastructure; that requires technologies that currently generate carbon emissions. The best way forward is to advance the commercialization of technologies that would help reduce our carbon footprint, such as carbon capture and storage.
S+B: What leads you to think that the world is now ready for sustainability-related projects of this scale and scope?
AL JABER: I’ve seen meaningful change and a greater sense of urgency even in the time since we completed our fact-finding trip. At a United Nations meeting last fall, the secretary-general himself acknowledged that climate change, renewable energy, and energy-efficiency issues need to be high on the global agenda. Leaders from all over the world are seriously discussing their importance. I think we will begin to see a common understanding about how to move forward.