01 October 2011


I have graduated from the Masdar Institute.  I'm living in Ghana right now, one day I'll start posting updates again...

13 April 2011

Masdar's first community event

Masdar has recently announced the inauguration of a reoccurring public community event "The Market@Masdar City."    The first one will be on Friday 29 April, from 10 am - 5pm. A recent email I received promised the event will "bring together artists, organic producers, food stalls, spas and entertainment."   Spas.  Not exactly what I think of when I think of markets or community events, but the rest sounds exciting. 

The event is completely open to the public, everyone is welcome.

More info about the event here.

Location map here.

It's been very interesting to see Masdar open itself up to the public. When my brother visited in January, he asked if he could blog about how other people could find their way to Masdar to explore it.  At the time, I told him no because it wasn't really clear whether Masdar was open to the public or not.  I suspected that security would likely turn away random people showing up to just look around.  However, shortly after that, at the end of January, random families started appearing on campus all the time.  I'd walk out of the library and dodge around toddlers playing around the fountain, or see couples lugging grocery bags from the Organic food store, families relaxing at Caribou Coffee or enjoying dinner at Sumo Sushi.

By the time my brother came back through the UAE in March after some epic traveling, I told him it was fine to blog about directions to Masdar as random families were showing up all the time, which seemed to be encouraged as they bring a lot of support for the businesses here which would otherwise have to rely on less than 300 students/faculty/admin who work and reside on campus.

I'm glad the campus feels more open now.  It's nice to have signs of life other than grad students toiling away in labs.

03 April 2011

Best class *ever*

Last week, I went to a giant extravaganza educational student conference dinner at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, and there of all places, I met someone from Southern Utah University.  She described to me basically what sounds like the most awesome class ever.

It's called PAM for "Passion Action Media", it's meant to be the little sister of TED

Lectures involve watching a TED talk, with some additional input added by a visiting speaker in the classroom who can comment on the subject from their own expertise. 

For homework, students choose any topic they want related to the topic and then research it on their own.
They turn in a 2-page paper that is graded pass/fail.

Then everyone discusses what they found in class.  If you did not turn in your paper, you are not allowed to participate in the discussion.

At the end of the semester, everyone presents their own PAM talk.

Another one of my favorite parts is that students are required to make a "concept map" that draws links they've found between all the TED talks, presentations, and discussions.

I would love to see this class model be copied in other places.
  1. TED provides some excellent learning material that is incredibly engaging
  2. The course enables students to pursue what they want to learn.
  3. Furthermore, students have excellent opportunities to learn from each other.  All too often, this aspect is quite limited in classes. 
  4. I think this is the type of course that maximizes the learning, inspiration, and understanding that students can get out of a course while requiring minimal input from the instructors.  (It's been my experience that many times awesome courses require an unsustainable amount of work from instructors.)

Here's a link to the syllabus for PAM.
And PAM's course website.

05 January 2011

One more to go

I didn't intend to imply in my last post that sustainable energy should be for the elite only.  Far from it, just the way that Coca-cola is an aspirational product and everyone can take part, it's a very accessible product.

I'm a bit sad that the fall semester is over.  It was my favorite semester at Masdar thus far, mainly because I loved my classes.  One was Distributed Generation, which teaches some of the basic electric power engineering principles behind adding renewable technologies to a grid in a decentralized way.  I've wanted to learn this stuff for so long, I'm really happy that I finally had a chance.

The other is Technology Strategy, where we studied a series of case studies about companies on the cutting edge of technology, particularly their successes and lessons learned.  For example, we looked at E-Ink (technology behind Kindle e-readers) and Apple.  During one of our assignments, I found this awesome paper by a couple of business professors at NYU that predict that wind and geothermal energy are on track to become less expensive than energy from fossil fuels within the near future.  They make a strong case that wind and geothermal are now a better R&D investment than fossil fuel technologies.  

There's a magazine article about this paper here. The original paper is here.

The reading assignments for class were fantastic, and really changed the way I think about start up companies.  In particular, I found "Crossing the Chasm" to be super useful.  The main premise is that there's a large gap between your first wave of customers and tapping into mainstream buyers. This transition is not smooth and companies need to fundamentally rework the way they sell their product.  Although the book is tailored for "high technology" industries, I thought its explanations were particularly fitting to Global Cycle Solutions and their bike powered corn sheller and cellphone chargers for Tanzanian farmers.  I was really excited to tell Dan and Jodie about this book, but a mentor from Echoing Green beat me to it.  =)

24 November 2010


Yesterday was the official Masdar inauguration.

Lab building by night. I recently learned that the long bubbles on the outside walls are filled with argon, a non-toxic, odorless, clear gas that makes a good insulator to keep outside heat from entering the building.
My favorite part is that the organic foods store just opened on campus! I've had various adventures trying to find organic food around Abu Dhabi, and now it's ridiculously easy, 1 minute of walking from my door. Other new additions include a sushi restaurant and a coffee shop.

One thing I've been thinking about a lot recently:

Renewable energy/sustainability has a major marketing problem.

Melinda Gates (yes, Bill Gates' wife) gave an excellent TEDtalk where she decribes lessons nonprofits should learn from the way Coca-Cola does business.

One of the main lessons - aspiration sells. Gloom and doom doesn't.

For example, many organizations try to help developing communities prevent water-borne disease with improved drinking water sources and hygiene programs (washing hands, better latrines.)   These type of programs are dependent on changing behavior, which can be tricky.  

Telling people that they'll get diarrhea and die if they don't wash their hands or chlorinate their water is not very effective or appealing.  That would be like Coke trying to sell by saying "drink sugar water, and maybe you won't feel sad."

Just like the sustainability movement is  saying "reduce fossil fuel use or the whole world is going to burn and die."

Recently, researchers at the UC Berkeley  found that such  doom and gloom climate messages can backfire. Instead of pushing people into taking action, negative messages can push people toward not believing the evidence for climate change is real.

On the other hand, Coca-cola uses an aspirational approach - they associate their drinks with the kind of life that people want to live.  They know that happiness means something different in every country, so they tailor their marketing messages to those aspirations in each location.  Coke ads are full of dancing, singing people, happy families, beautiful women, dashing young men, etc. 

People complain that renewable energy is still too expensive, but I don't think that's the heart of the problem.

Does a Rolex provide anymore functionality than a cheap, plastic $1 wristwatch? Why do people buy Rolexes?

What if, instead, renewable energy and sustainability were associated with the highest quality of life? 

I've worked on a few projects in Zambia and many of my friends there live on a few dollars a day, they face many challenges.  If you ask them what their dreams are, they talk about lots of cars and large houses, hoping for the environmentally disastrous lifestyle that Americans live.

Imagine if part of the viral American dream was low-impact living, and the whole world was instead straining to achieve the social status of a carbon-neutral life.

Likewise, the United Arab Emirates also has one of the highest per person carbon footprints in the world.  Perhaps one of the most significant contributions Masdar can give is to change the marketing message here.  Make sustainability synonymous with a better life. 

25 September 2010

I live in a spaceship in the middle of the desert

Students have been living in Masdar City for about a week, so I've had the chance to settle and form some impressions.

The first day felt like culture shock.  The buildings are beautiful here, and they look so different from anything I've ever seen, anywhere.  My brain really struggled to believe what it was seeing.  Is this real?  What reality am I in?

Masdar student apartments. See the solar panels peeking out over the roof?

A computer generated graphic of the original vision for a part of the city.
My friend Ilham moving in.

Students walking toward the library
The first night of living in a Masdar apartment was hilarious.  I didn't understand how anything worked: the stove, the lights, the bathroom faucet, the cabinets, and I couldn't figure out how to turn off the AC. Most of the cabinets and closets everywhere here don't have handles on them, so they look like flat plain wall panels. The secret way to open these secret doors is to press into them, which releases a catch and the door swings out.  I also thought I would do some laundry the first night, but in the laundry room I couldn't figure out how to turn on the machines. And of course, the user manuals in the laundry room were written in Russian and Polish.*

[*Apparently, the power had not been connected to the laundry room for the first few nights.  After the power was connected, turning them on became obvious, but I still was relieved to receive an English user's manual to wade through all the settings on the laundry machines.]

I keep telling people that it feels like I'm living in a psychology experiment.  Every time I flip a light switch in the living room and the faucet in the bathroom starts running, or I desperately push all buttons on the stove to try to turn on a burner, I can't help looking over my shoulder and wondering if there's a scientist observing my behavior and reactions in this strange environment.  Especially when I go around pressing all the walls to see if there are more secret doors, or I stare up in bewilderment at the kitchen cabinet shelves that are so tall and far off the ground that I doubt the tallest human on earth could use them effectively. Or the time I was working in the lab, a short alarm went off on the loudspeakers, and a male voice said something official-sounding in Arabic with a French accent.

The Masdar Institute is the first part of the city to be completed, it includes the library, laboratory buildings, and the student residences.  And all these buildings fit together in a cube.  And this cube is located in the middle of what is still a giant, flat, dusty, deserty construction site as progress on other phases of the city continues. It's quite a mind flip to be in such a strangely beautiful environment, then look a window and see flat dusty landscape stretching out to the horizon.  It really feels like I'm living in a spaceship in the middle of the desert.

Masdar from the outside.
The library is on the right, student residences on the left.
The bedroom in my apartment.  See? It looks like a spaceship. Actually, this is quite a lot of space for a bedroom on a spaceship.
So we are finally taking our classes in Masdar city, and the faculty and students are working to get the labs set up and running.  But it definitely feels like the students, faculty, and staff are far outnumbered by the security guards and construction crew on the site.  This place is a non-stop hive of activity, construction workers are everywhere in neon yellow and orange vests, fixing wiring, testing systems, installing fixtures. On my way to class or the labs, I dodge neon-vested work crews carrying tables and climbing ladders to tinker with pipes and wires in the ceiling.

Workers outside at night. I swear I can wake up at any time and look outside and see someone working on something.

In fact, the barrenness of the landscape contrasted with the lush architecture inside, plus the whole vision of building a completely renewable energy city makes me feel like I'm living in a science fiction novel.

The library by moonlight.  I swear I took this picture myself.

The view from my apartment window.  On the right is the 10 MW solar photovoltaic array.  On the left is the site where all the construction waste is carefully sorted into piles for reuse and recycle.

Sometimes this place just doesn't seem real.

View from the library window.  Construction materials and wasteland.
On the second day I was sitting in my apartment when I heard a noise.  "I swear that sounds like a landspeeder," I thought.  Turning and looking out the window, I laughed out loud. There was some sort of elongated construction vehicle cruising down the road.  Not quite a landspeeder, but the sound is really similar.

Here's the construction vehicle:

Compare to the following.  (At least the lab environment here is a bit more civil than Mos Eisley.)