Interview: Steve Severance Makes the Business Case for Masdar City

Abu Dhabi’s sustainability week – one of the largest sustainability gatherings in the world – draws more than 30,000 participants from 150 countries. As a key organizer of the event, Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, receives a great deal of attention from visiting dignitaries, world leaders and media alike.

Yesterday, I had a chance to sit down with Steve Severance, manager of program management and investments for Masdar City, to discuss how the company is walking the fine line between sustainable innovation and savvy business management.

TriplePundit: Can you speak to how Masdar City balances its position as a trailblazer in sustainable innovation and design with its need to attract business interest and corporate tenants?

Steve Severance: You rightly point out that it’s one thing to use less energy, it’s another thing to create an attractive real estate development that uses less energy.

While using less energy is one facet of what companies need, they’re also looking for attractive office spaces they can use efficiently and pricing that’s competitive. But a lot of companies ask for some fairly mundane things, like where will my employees eat? Where are we going to park? Can I easily access the buildings? Where’s the one-stop-shop? How can I get my free zone license? How easy is it to process visas for my employees?

So, it’s a real full-service offering, and of those obviously the sustainability is the part that gets noise and the biggest global recognition. But without the rest of that and without the rest of the facilitation, very few people would come here.

3p: Moving forward, do you hope that attracting corporate and residential tenants will help Masdar recoup some of the investments it has made in the city and break even financially?

SS: I think a lot more than break even. No company comes in saying, “You know what would really help? We hope we can break even out there, recoup some of the investment.”

I think companies are coming to Masdar City because they want to do business in a sustainable method, not just with Masdar, because more companies will come here than will have contracts with Masdar. Certainly many of the companies we’ve worked with we’ve done partnerships with…but Masdar itself is not big enough for companies to come here only to do business with Masdar. You have to come here because you want to be part of the region and because you want to showcase your sustainability products and highlight that you can have an impact – not just with Masdar but across Abu Dhabi.2014-01-19 00.57.56

3p: Do you expect the employees of your forthcoming corporate tenants to live on-site?

SS: We certainly expect some of them to live on-site. I don’t believe that all of them will live on-site, as some of them will want a different type of service offering. But we certainly expect that we’ll be very attractive for people who are living here – including Masdar employees…and create an environment for them that they want to live in.

That has to do with not just sustainability but creating a really attractive real estate offering – that mixed use, walkable community. We think it’s going to have a lot of traction in the market.

The next announcement you’ll hear out of Masdar will be about residential. We want to really bring critical mass into the residential side, to give the city not just a business park and university feel, but a complete, well-rounded feel. We hope to develop a true mixed-use community.

3p: Masdar City has recently made a departure from the car-free model – allowing visitors, employees and residents to park their cars within the city limits. What other transportation options do you plan to explore as the city expands, especially given the fact that many Abu Dhabi residents rely on cars for the majority of their transportation?

You’re absolutely right, this is a very car-driven society – demand for cars comes from the low taxes, the price of gasoline but also the heat and the humidity and how a car protects you. There used to be a TV commercial in America – “It’s not just your car, it’s your freedom.” And that is very much true here as well. It is a lifestyle choice.

But we want to make Masdar City the most pedestrian-focused place in the Middle East. Walking is our primary mode of transportation in Masdar City. But that’s not really technology, and that’s not really innovation; it’s bringing back some of the old ways. We have the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system – the electric, driverless pod cars – which will be expanded to the central business district. So, the central urban core – Masdar headquarters, Masdar Institute and the most densely populated commercial areas – will be serviced by the PRT.

The more residential neighborhoods will have a sustainable system of electric buses, but really what we’re talking about is future-proofing. We expect Masdar to be here a long time. So, a technology that may be here for 10 or 15 years may not be here in 25 years.

So right now, yes, for accessibility reasons cars are coming into the city. Ten years from now, 20 years from now when we have a Metro, we have an LRT, we have significant Abu Dhabi transportation solutions that are both sustainable and convenient, you’ll see a lot fewer cars. You’ll really see over the next few years a transformation in transportation – not just in Masdar City. I think Masdar City will be a catalyst and a leader in this region, but the technology will be utilized worldwide.

3p: Right now, Dubai has an operational Metro, but Abu Dhabi does not. Do you expect to see a Metro in Abu Dhabi over the next decade?

SS: Absolutely. Abu Dhabi has plans to build one. We have a Metro stop and a Metro corridor through Masdar City planned. And it’s important to note that there are significant parts of the population here that don’t have cars, and the Metro is extremely popular in Dubai. In fact, much like every other place in the world where Metro comes in, real estate around the Metro stops becomes more valuable.

Steve Severance headshot courtesy of Masdar

Masdar City image: Mary Mazzoni

Ed Note: Travel expenses for the Author and TriplePundit were provided by Masdar.

Mary Mazzoni

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist with a passion for storytelling and sustainability. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, Earth911, the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands and the Daily Meal.

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian with an interest in climate resilience, clean tech and social justice. You can contact her at

3 responses

  1. We had been told that PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) was effectively dead in Masdar, given the city’s recent accommodation of conventional automobiles. It is exciting to hear that the system may actually be EXPANDED in the near future. But the overall statement is confusing: If LRT/Metro and electric buses are all in the offing, as well, that doesn’t seem to demonstrate much commitment to, or much acknowledgement of, the PRT system and its success. At very least, a smoothly functioning PRT system that is worth expanding should vastly reduce the demand for (and so, the cost-effectiveness of) the other modes of transport. Is the idea to put all viable alternatives in place and let the local market indicate public preference? Sounds fine to me, if they can afford it!

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