Is the ‘city of the future’ about to become an option for the SME business of today?

Masdar City: making the dream real

The cranes are – finally – back in action at one of the UAE’s most misunderstood business locations; Masdar City on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. Some ten years on from the original launch of this ‘future city’, has its time as a serious option for local SMEs finally come?

When Masdar City first appeared, its bold promises seized the public’s imagination. This was going to be a completely ‘carbon free’ city, where automated transport whizzed residents and workers between futuristic hi-tech buildings: energy-efficient, sustainable and unlike anything else in the world.

Over the years, however, the City struggled to live up to that vision. While several hi-tech and award-winning buildings were built, the number of commercial tenants remained low, and no-one actually moved there, beyond students at the project’s own university, the Masdar Institute.

While it became easy to see the City as a failure, the truth was that the parameters for the project had changed almost immediately – and dramatically. The global crash, combined with rapid growth in the renewable energy sector that its parent company operated in, meant that the focus at Masdar shifted: from building a city, to becoming a viable commercial player – making money and pioneering solutions in solar, wind and other power technologies around the globe. The City aspect was, in effect, put on the back burner.

But over the past few months, that story has changed, and a new chapter begun. The project is effectively back on, with construction underway and a detailed masterplan now fully fleshed out. With the project ultimately part of the Mubadala Group – and thus firmly linked to Abu Dhabi’s larger vision – there’s every reason to pay attention this time round. Over the next few years, a phased sequence of districts will be built, as the City finally starts to grow. This time, the offer is more grounded in reality, yet still has enough that’s different about it to make this an intriguing location to consider.

Attracting residential customers is one part of this, but another key audience is the SME market. The first point many companies don’t realise is that the City is also a free zone in its own right. Incentives, support systems, competitive rates, full service packages and more are available to SMEs, with a dedicated team and ‘one-stop shop’ at the City working to help them locate there.

Secondly, there’s the fact there are premises available today, with more planned. Several hundred companies are already based at Masdar City. Moreover, every building has to comply to the very highest sustainability standards, resulting in lower utility bills for tenants.

Thirdly, there’s a definite focus to the kind of business beginning to base itself there. Innovative companies in energy, technology, R&D, computing and so on are coalescing around the ‘ecosystem’ that Masdar City provides. There’s much to be said for being based somewhere your peers are, that has a R&D-led university on site (twinned with MIT in America), and that regularly attracts global visitors keen to see the latest technologies in action.

Finally, the location – often the deciding factor for many businesses – is appealing. While the City may have felt ‘hidden’ for many years, can you now ignore a site that’s next door to Abu Dhabi’s booming airport, a short drive to downtown Abu Dhabi and only 40 minutes from Dubai?

While Masdar City may have started as somewhere ‘for the future’, SMEs may well be wise to take a look at it now.


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