Where Einstein Meets Edison

An MIT in the Middle East?

An MIT in the Middle East?

Apr 11, 2010

The Launch of the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology.

The past couple of years have laid waste to much of the global wealth created during the housing boom. The emirate of Dubai exemplified this wealth, with its opulent man-made islands jutting into the serene turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. Luxurious hotels were filled to capacity with deep-pocketed globetrotters and gargantuan Western-styled malls, where droves of tourists flocked to gorge on a consumption binge. Yet when the great economic tsunami began its sweep over the world in late 2008, Dubai’s quest to become a sun-drenched oasis for the rich came to a crashing halt. The once torrential building boom ceased. Many nervous expats fled the country rather than face the draconian punishment for their unpaid loans, and the relentless flow of foreign investment subsided altogether.

As Dubai faltered and its shaky financial foundation became exposed, Abu Dhabi, its larger and wealthier neighbor in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), kept pace with their plans to finish the construction of Masdar City — the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste metropolis. Masdar City will have at its core a newly established graduate-only research university, the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology (MIST), which is modeled on and developed in partnership with MIT. To an outsider, Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem to represent two divergent visions for economic growth in the 21st century: one modeled on speculative bubbles and financial risk management, the other on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Masdar City is but one element of the Masdar Initiative, a grander vision conceived by the Abu Dhabi government. Their aim to establish a knowledge economy based on renewable energy within a major OPEC country that is one of the leading exporters of petroleum1 is nothing short of spectacular. This initiative was borne out of a small Middle Eastern nation (comprised of a federation of seven emirates) that gained its independence in 1971. Today, it is among the world’s fastest growing economies, which speaks to the daring vision and unyielding determination of its rulers to assert national, cultural and regional supremacy in a variety of sectors, such as tourism, finance and education.

Abu Dhabi’s rulers are keenly aware that they will not be able to sustain their break-neck pace of development with petroleum alone. Shrewd planners are taking the steps initiated by the late founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and adopted by his bloodline successors, to sow the seeds for their society’s thrust towards technological innovation powered by world-class research institutions. Thus, it is no surprise that despite its large geographic footprint and wealth2, the UAE has carefully and deliberately planned to make renewable energy the focus of its future. Masdar City is a $22 billion, six square kilometer urban dwelling that will be sustained entirely by renewable resources (particularly solar). Once completed in 2016, the enclosed city will house 50,000 businessmen and academics living and working in an environment that is to become a model for sustainable infrastructure. MIST will form the city’s hub and serve as an engine for spawning solutions to the world’s most pressing energy problems by funding start-up ventures with hundreds of millions of dollars of seed capital. I had a chance to tour Masdar City during my trip the UAE last year. I witnessed firsthand the transformation that was occurring and was struck by the sight of the tangled concrete, steel and glass bubbling up from the barren desert landscape. A sea of migrant labor worked feverishly twenty-four hours a day in three shifts to meet the frenetic project deadlines. It was clear that change happened quickly in the UAE– unconstrained by budget ceilings and bureaucratic red tape, the local government was pursuing grand, bold projects with zeal. The newly paved superhighways, sprawling commercial real estate, exotic sports cars and gleaming skyscrapers no doubt epitomized a 21st century empire.

Abu Dhabi’s focus on innovative research at MIST is also embodied in the other regional heavyweight, Saudi Arabia’s newly opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Near the city of Jeddah, KAUST has completed construction of its sprawling seaside campus, hired a wide range of prolific scholars at the junior and senior faculty levels, and admitted its first crop of graduate students. The school boasts a staggering ten billion dollar endowment from King Abdullah, the current reigning monarch and namesake. KAUST’s rapid progress is a direct result of the stability and vision of its leadership committee, lead by President Choon Fong Shih3 and its highly esteemed Board of Directors, which includes the presidents of several world-class research universities. The leadership successfully endured, with minimal disruption, the unexpected departure of former Provost Fawwaz Ulaby, who was on the job less than a year. Moreover, KAUST has adopted a different approach to its development than MIST. KAUST is decentralized, and has formed multiple partnerships with individual institutions at the departmental level, whereas MIST is singularly reliant on MIT, which means it must compete with a multitude of other initiatives and projects for attention from the Institute. At KAUST, Stanford University is overseeing the Computer Science & Applied Mathematics programs, while the University of California at Berkeley is overseeing the establishment of the Mechanical Engineering department. Each school was selected after a competitive process and represents the best fit for each respective department.   This multilateral approach has allowed KAUST to leverage thestrengths of each partner school and focus on building several core competencies. To date, theresults have been remarkable and have already led to publications in top scientific journals:  the first in the January 29, 2010 issue of Science, involving a KAUST atmospheric science faculty member and collaborators at Rutgers University and the second in Nature, involving a chemical engineering faculty member and collaborators in Singapore.

MIST has been beset by a number of key personnel and technical setbacks that have noticeably hindered its progress. The founding president Dr. Russel C. Jones, former president of the University of Delaware and dean of engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was dismissed from his position after several months on the job. This created a major void in the leadership structure of the organization in its key early stages that persisted for more than year. Jones’ departure shook up MIST’s organizational structure, and the President’s post has since been eliminated. The senior most executive role now falls to Provost Dr. John Perkins, former dean of engineering at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

Construction on the campus has fallen far behind schedule. The high-tech campus was originally slated to open in Fall 2009, but this date has been delayed indefinitely and MIST continues to operate out of the temporary facilities at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi (the irony is sublime). Faculty members and students at MIST have their share of complaints. Some have complained of difficulties in ordering and receiving deliveries of advanced scientific equipment from abroad as well as slow and highly censored internet connections. Others are more concerned with the strict social customs imposed on graduate students (where members of the opposite sex are forbidden from entering the others’ residence halls), and of course the blistering summer months that make being outdoors unbearable.

According to the MIST website, there are currently 20 full-time faculty members. This level is insufficient to provide the full range of graduate curricula originally envisioned. To compound the problem, attempts to attract quality candidates is proceeding at a snail’s pace. MIT’s Technology and Development Program has been at work for over three years trying to solve this problem by recruiting top talent. Perhaps the most perplexing issue in the attempts to realize a 21st century “green” oasis in the middle of the desert is the staggering energy consumption levels of UAE citizens. According to the Economist’s Pocket World of Figures 2010 Edition, the UAE has the fourth highest consumption of oil per person per year (11036 kilograms compared to the United States’ 7768), emits the second largest amount of carbon dioxide per person per year (30.1 tonnes compared to 19.5 for the United States), and ranks as the 36th worst in environmental performance index, ranking slightly higher than Tanzania & Cameroon. One can only imagine how truly out of place the Masdar Initiative must be in a society accustomed to burning large quantities of fossil fuels.

America’s premier research universities have become one of its greatest national resources. These are centers of scholarship, innovation and entrepreneurship and are the envy of the world. Every year, hundreds of thousands of the best and brightest young minds flock from around the globe to these institutions, seeking the immeasurable opportunities that an advanced degree affords. These talented foreign students bring with them a profound commitment to work hard and in so doing raise the standards of America’s vaunted research enterprise. According to a study published by the Kaufman Foundation, MIT arguably demonstrates the most successful model for university-based entrepreneurship as measured by the number of companies it has spun off, the amount of new jobs these companies have created and their overall economic impact. It is no surprise that in an age of intense globalized competition, other nations eagerly seek to emulate the MIT model of sustainable prosperity. For example, Singapore’s national government forged a relationship with MIT in 1998 to provide training, share curriculum and pursue joint research ventures. After more than ten years, Singapore now boasts one of the largest concentrations of researchers per capita in the world and is well on its way to becoming a center of regional innovation. The prospects for similar results on the Arabian peninsula might be harder to obtain, particularly in light of entrenched cultural attitudes towards science and technology. We shall explore this thought more fully in future articles.


Notes

  1. The UAE has 9% of the world’s oil reserves that are expected to last for another hundred years
  2. Abu Dhabi accounts for 87% of the UAE’s total land mass and almost all of its petroleum wealth
  3. Former President of the National University of Singapore and decades long Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Brown University

School::Masdar Institute of Technology

Website: www.mist.ac.ae

Concentration: graduate-only research institution

Industry: education

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