Masdar Institute, a graduate-level research center that focuses on renewable energy and clean technology, was designed by Foster + Partners. Photograph by Gökçe Günel. March 11 2014

Masdar Institute, a graduate-level research center that focuses on renewable energy and clean technology, was designed by Foster + Partners. Photo: Gökçe Günel, March 2014.

“When this year’s batch of new students at Masdar Institute signed up for their courses, they expected they would be there to learn and conduct research,” the English language United Arab Emirates newspaper the National wrote in August 2011.1 “They might not, however, have suspected that they would be the subjects of a Big Brother–style social experiment. Other researchers will be watching them closely; not for their personal interactions and flirtations, as in the popular television show, but something much simpler—their bills. They will be the subjects of a year-long investigation into which incentives encourage people to use less energy and water.”

Formally called the Demand and Response Study, this experiment would allow a team of researchers at Masdar Institute to measure electricity and water consumption among the students living on the new campus. Masdar Institute was founded in February 2007 under the supervision of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology and Development Program, and started offering master of science and doctoral degrees on renewable energy and clean technology at its Masdar City location in September 2010. The Demand and Response Study research team, which I joined as a research assistant in September 2010, believed that coupled with their move to the new building, this experiment would be a unique opportunity: given the anticipated Building Management System (BMS) with its smart-grid infrastructure, they could monitormonitor

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each student residence minute-by-minute for electricity consumption, cold water use, and hot water use.2

The “Big Brother–style social experiment” would demand the participation of all the Masdar students who were residing in the Masdar Institute building. The ecology blog “Green Prophet,” which closely followed developments at Masdar City, also wrote about the Demand and Response Study, agreeing with the Big Brother comment:3

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is aiming for carbon neutrality in an unforgivingly hot and dry environment teeming with young students. Naturally these twenty-somethings—among the world’s brightest—will strive to achieve the maximum amount of comfort in their spaceship home away from home even as they are participating in one of the most expensive carbon-less experiments on the planet. But now they are being watched! In an effort to understand what incentives and stimuli drive students to switch their lights and taps on or off, Masdar will track their energy and water consumption over the next year.

While the articles both acknowledged that there was a Big Brother element to the experiment, they also showcased how significant it was for energy consumption to be monitored. By pinpointing the kinds of incentives that actually work within the existing student body, researchers and professionals could develop tools for encouraging efficient consumption behavior in the future.

The Demand and Response Study would take dynamic pricing, a time-based pricing technique in which electricity generators have different rates for electricity at different times of the day, a step further by learning more about the incentives that shape consumption patterns. The researchers had devised the study with the intention of assessing the impact of different incentive schemes on the energy usage of the participants, intending to alter the timing, level of demand, or total electricity consumption through financial or social rewards.

In order to conduct this test they had to separate the students, who would act as surrogates of a larger group of future Masdar City residents, into four groups:

1. The first group, called “Real-Time Pricing,” would receive hourly signals that charted the price for consumption over the following hour. The researchers would add in price spikes and more volatility to the market, to adequately see how consumers respond to real-time pricing of energy.
2. The second group, “Energy Credits,” would be issued a balance of energy credits over a limited period. If the users did not spend all their credits, at the end of the limited period they would be able to sell them on a market managed by research administrators.
3. The “Flat-Rate Comparative” group, on the other hand, relied only on information about the energy consumption of their neighbors in making decisions, possibly shifting consumption habits after seeing how well or how badly they rank among peers.
4. Participants to the “Flat-Rate Control” group received no information at all and were able to freely adjust consumption.

Like the research team, the articles on the Demand and Response Study suggested that if the experiment was successfully implemented, the information from the study “could be widely distributedwidely distributed

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to help other countries develop proven programs that support energy and water conservation… .” While the social arrangement required for the information to be gained was criticized somewhat, the end goal of the experiment seemed to point to a higher good, which would benefit humanity as a whole in battling environmental problems.

Yet even before the experiment was publicized, the students at Masdar Institute frequently acknowledged that their daily life was a comprehensive experiment. For instance, Laura, who was among the first students to settle in the Masdar Institute building, wrote on her blog:4

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.

Laura was not the only one who suggested that she felt like being in an experiment. Emma, who was Laura’s classmate, also suggested that she felt like a test subjecttest subject

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but was rarely credited for it. She argued that this feeling was related to being part of an institution that was just being set up and that did not yet have a strong working infrastructure. The students were encouraged to partake in the making of this new system, in some sense coproducing Abu Dhabi’s sustainability measures, but Emma did not know if the administration truly cared about their reactions. Another student from the same class stated that they were simply being experimented on “what happens when technology dictates actions.” What kind of a prototype is Masdar City? he asked—that must be what they’re trying to test.

For the student body, the Demand and Response Study somehow lost its specificities and became grouped with a series of experiments unfolding at Masdar City. What mattered more to the students was that this was an experiment on “how technology dictates behavior,” just like many others that they had to experience during their time at Masdar. For them, Masdar City as a whole had become an experiment, which used the students as test subjects. While arguing for the abstraction of a better world with more attention on energy production and consumption, the experiments seemed to neglect the immediate social conditionssocial conditions

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they produced. The students were expected to unlearn certain social habits during the time they spent in Masdar City and take on new sustainable ones.

Photo: Gökçe Günel, March 2014

Photo: Gökçe Günel, November 2010.

In order for the Demand and Response Study to start, specific technical facilities had to be installed in the Masdar Institute buildings. Faculty, students, and postdoctoral researchers from the institute met with energy efficiency engineers to discuss how and when the BMS, what Rowan Moore, an architecture critic at the Observer, referred to as the “hidden brain” of the Masdar Institute building, would be completed.5 6 Given how the building machinery sought to remain outside the conscious awareness of its residents, while having a decisive effect on how they live, perhaps the analogy of the “hidden brain” is not so misplaced.7

At Masdar, however, the intended BMS was still not functional and could not yet “know when you enter your building, so that your flat can be cooled before you arrive,” as publicized in the article by Rowan Moore. Engineers explained that there was a half-working BMS in the Masdar Institute building, which had to be fine-tuned and improved so they could manage to form a database by using the “raw values” that it fabricated. Here, raw values referred to the values that “the building produced without any intervention on the energy consumption of its residents.” For the raw values to be made available, the Masdar Institute building needed either an Intelligent BMS, which included Web services and infinite access to a database, or an Extended BMS that still provided minimum access to databases but no Web services. The Extended BMS would allow the Masdar team to actually collect data on electricity and water consumption, though not to the extent that was imagined or expected.

The implementation of the desired BMS machinery would breathe life into the Masdar Institute building, augmenting its capacities of automation and control. It would not only contribute to the centralization of decision-making power and facilitate the dominance of an optimizationoptimization

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logic within the building environment, but it would also prohibit the occupants from interfering with the system as much as they would like to. Thus, once the BMS was fully functional, the raw values that the database comprised would be values produced by the “building” and not by its occupants. Unless the occupants matched the profile determined by the BMS control panel, they would have to come to terms with the discomforts of the building environment. As Catherine Fennell8 also shows in her ethnography of Project Heat, “mandates to control…heat also involved compulsions to manage subjective senses of comfort.” In the case of Masdar, the discomforts of the building environment would translate to an inflexible sustainability, which would not only decrease the energy demands of the building but also dictate certain types of behaviortypes of behavior

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for building residents.

Fittingly, the building’s temperature had been a topic of heated debate on the Masdar Institute campus. During a long interview on the Masdar Institute campus, Brad, an executive from Masdar City, asked me, “Temperature and air conditioning change your mood when you’re in a building. But people have different senses of temperature. Would you like to inhabit a room that is 23, 24, or 26 degrees Celsius?” Some architects summed up the discussion on temperature as one occurring between the Emiratis and the non-Emiratis. According to them, the Emirati students had become used to occupying buildings that remained firmly set to 21 degrees Celsius, or even less. “Don’t you freeze when you go to shopping malls in this country?” one of the architects asked me, thereby problematizing temperature as a matter of cultural concern. However, stabilizing the temperature at the desired 21 degrees Celsius level would increase the Masdar Institute building’s energy demands significantly. The architects knew the temperature would be somewhere between 21 and 26 degrees, and after weeks of deliberations, another on-site architect explained, they had decided to settle on 24 degrees Celsius. The decision upset some of the occupants, they suggested, but was implemented anyway. One architect added that the compromise is between maximum flexibility and sustainability. “It’s not possible to have both at the same time,” he underlined.

The architects were not the only ones who pointed to the unavoidable tension between maximum flexibility and sustainability. Martyn Potter, then the facilities manager of Masdar Institute, at times referred to as the “green policeman,” also wanted to make sure that the theoretical notions of sustainability would not be compromised at Masdar City, though this would often require a surrendering of flexibility. According to him, this would be the future of energy management in the United States and Europe as well. An article in Time magazine9 suggested for instance:

Martyn Potter, Masdar’s director of operations and facilities, noted that most Abu Dhabi citizens are used to keeping their air-conditioning as low as 60°F (15.5°C)—it helps that electricity is heavily subsidized—but in Masdar, AC needs to be set closer to 77°F (25°C) to keep within its efficiency targets. With the ability to monitor exactly how much electricity every room in the city is using, Potter can keep citizens in line. “It’s name and shame,” he says. “I’m a green policeman.”

Another article in the Guardian10 added:

Here, residents live with driverless electric cars, shaded streets cooled by a huge wind tower and a Big Brother–style “green policeman” monitoring their energy use…. “The city is a laboratory for the future,” says Martyn Potter, director of operations at the institute and dubbed the “green policeman.” The Big Brother approach to cutting energy is likely to become the norm as computerised smart grids are rolled out in Europe and the U.S., he adds. “I want to know exactly how these buildings work. I can pinpoint who is using the most energy and water, whether in an apartment or the academy. Certain students have been used to having the air conditioning on at 16°C (61°F), here it is 24°C. Yes, they complain. But I have told them that’s how it is.”

When I asked Brad, the executive from Masdar City, what he thinks about these ongoing complaints from the building residents, he said as he sipped iced coffee, “but that’s exactly why we have to implement dummy controls.” Laying out how dummy controls are used, he recapitulated, “You get up and change the environment psychologically. And that saves so much energy.” Kareem, a young energy efficiency engineer also told me that building occupants were more satisfied with their living situations when they believed they could change temperatures, even if they were not really doing it. He superficially referred to a study in China, in which engineers had implemented dummy thermostats in rooms in response to repeated protests by the residents of an office block regarding their lack of control. “The dummy thermostats made everyone much happier,” Kareem reported. In the industry, this placebo effect was argued to provide the illusion of control to tenants without compromising on the system’s efficiency.

At Masdar Institute, the “hidden brain” of the building would serve as a discrete sense-making apparatussense-making apparatus

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. In her book on the emergence of sick building syndrome, Michelle Murphy11 touches upon such sense-making capacities and proposes the concept of “regimes of perceptibility” to describe the ways in which certain phenomenological conditions become blocked while others are accentuated, thus creating a definitive methodology for the building occupant to relate to his or her environment. In the China example proposed by Kareem, the dummy thermostats had served as material manifestations of the desired “regime of perceptibility” within the building environment. If they were implemented in the Masdar Institute building, the subjects who privileged sight over thermoception would easily be manipulated into believing that their environment had been improved when, in fact, the thermostat remained fixed at the temperature that they had determined. The ability to determine temperature would equip them with the capacity to prove their mastery of the building machinery, while the building machinery worked in what one may call a deceptive manner, forever debilitating the occupants’ capacities to steer its directions.

Yet Brad did not think this was a troubling development. The individuals inhabiting the building would be led to consume less energy and therefore contribute to a higher good. They would be doing this rather unknowingly, but Brad argued this could well be beside the point. As such, dummy thermostats, and the imperceptibility produced through them, seemed like an ideal scenario for the time being, until consumers became more aware of the urgency of energy conservation and efficiency. Brad did not talk about how building occupants would become more aware of their consumption if they were consistently manipulated by a technological infrastructure. In some sense, the dummy thermostats would prevent the inhabitants from taking responsibility for their habits, as they were consistently dependent on the technologies of the building rather than being motivated to become more conscious of their energy consumption.

“But tech-cities may begin to use even more resources, and in this way, Masdar could be part of the paradox,” Brad then pointed out. “This place looks like Star Trek, but maybe ecological places must be low-tech, passive houses. Here, we go high-tech and we pay for efficiency, but that may not work either,” he added. The possible realization that Masdar could constitute a paradox, as provocative as it may be, did not necessarily mean the people at Masdar City should reconsider their involvement in the project. Everyday discussions and practices consumed the individuals working within Masdar City and allowed them to live with the paradoxes that they passingly identified.

Yet for now, an energy efficiency engineer confirmed, there were no thermostats within the rooms at Masdar Institute. A meeting on BMS implementation, which took place in a meeting room inside the makeshift offices of Masdar City, continued with how the absence of thermostats prevented the building residents from tinkering with central environmental conditions, dictated by the half-working BMS. Two Masdar Institute students, who attended the meeting as research assistants, shyly provided some feedback to the remaining nine participants, underlining that despite their beautiful spacious design, the rooms were mostly cold and uncomfortable. The students’ complaints were noted. The energy efficiency engineers working with Masdar City promised the building would soon be improved.

“You guys are learning how to use controls learning how to use controls

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—we need a booklet on how all systems work; it’s weird that you never get a how-to-use book for buildings,” Daniel, an on-site architect, announced during an on-campus presentation to the Masdar students. “The BMS system is not functioning properly,” he said, “and BMS runs this building like a ship, and when you don’t maintain the BMS system then you can’t run the ship properly. Imagine the BMS as the management unit of the ship,” he emphasized. The ship—a life-supporting environment amid an ocean where human life is constantly in danger—was put at risk due to the malfunctioning BMS but would soon be improved with students’ cooperation.

The BMS meetings often resulted in discussions on how the third-party contractors were not working properly. The workers were underpaid and not well-trained; the material used was not chosen correctly or did not reflect the priorities of the subcontractors. Yet these inconveniences were instrumental in pushing researchers and professionals working with Masdar to concentrate on short-term problems and solutions, thereby giving them the capacity to leave aside the larger questions regarding their work. The tensions between different technical layers, which caused delays in implementing the BMS, were critical in pushing the project forward and in increasing the level of anticipation for its imminent launch. The potential paradoxes of the project, passingly acknowledged, then became secondary to minute material victories. The idea of serving a higher good by helping humanity in its quest for energy also enabled the project to continue on a steady course. On the other hand, these preparations produced Masdar Institute students as subjects within an experiment, continuously tested on issues ranging from building design to climatic conditions.

photo: Gökçe Günel, March 2014.

photo: Gökçe Günel, March 2014.

Overall, the related discussions on the Demand and Response Study and the BMS infrastructure indicated an understanding of sustainability that relied entirely on emergent technological artifacts. In the meantime, the students became test subjects for an array of malfunctioning infrastructures. While the building automation system attempted to stay outside the conscious awareness of its residents, the constant problems with the system prohibited such invisibility or, to use China Miéville’s vocabulary,12 a form of “unsensing.” The test subjects of Masdar Institute could not help but to always “sense” the BMS. As Susan Leigh Star13 writes, “The normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks: the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout.” In the case of the BMS, however, it wasn’t that the BMS was breaking down but that it was never really coming to life. The system seemed to define the project of building an eco-city, where energy and water consumption is monitored, but was consistently postponed. At stake, then, were not only the functionality of this infrastructure but the feasibility of a whole ideology. The students accordingly asked, could sustainability be defined through a set of inflexible technologies?

  1. 1. Vesela Todorova, “Masdar students’ energy and water use monitored,” The National (August 28, 2011), last accessed March 17, 2014, link. ^
  2. 2. As a research assistant for the project, I was mainly responsible for organizing a survey, which would test students’ ecological and financial sensitivity by relying on a series of indicators. Once the BMS was up and running, the research team would not only collect data from the sensors, but also ask students questions that would represent their choices and experiences so that they could correlate the two types of information. The survey was not administered during the year that I spent at Masdar Institute (September 2010- June 2011) due to technical problems with the BMS. For more information on the anticipated results of the Demand and Response Study, please see Gökçe Günel, “Ergos: A New Energy Currency,” Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 87, no. 2 (2014): p. 359-380. ^
  3. 3. Tafline Laylin, “Big Brother? Madsdar Monitors Student Energy & Water Consumption,” Green Prophet, (August 30, 2011), Last accessed March 17, 2014, link. ^
  4. 4. “I live in a spaceship in the middle of the desert,” in Rants and Rambles (September 25, 2010), Last accessed March 17, 2014, link. ^
  5. 5. Rowan Moore wrote, “There is something spooky in the controls [Masdar] employs in the name of the environment—a touch of eco-Orwell or at least eco-Huxley. A hidden brain, for example, knows when you enter your building, so that your flat can be cooled before you arrive, while in public places flat screens broadcast uplifting news on the environmental performance of the complex.” Rowan Moore, “Masdar City, Abu Dhabi: the gulf between wisdom and folly,” The Observer (December 18, 2010), last accessed April 23, 2014, link. While on-site architects suggested that what they called “the intelligent system” would eventually enable such controls to be implemented, specifying that “when you’re entering the building the entrance recognizes you and you walk into a room that’s 24 degrees Celsius, and when you’re out it goes up to 28 again,” the system had not yet been put into use when my fieldwork ended at the end of May 2011.  ^
  6. 6. See, for instance: Shengwei Wang,. Intelligent Buildings and Building Automation. London: Spon Press. ^
  7. 7. Building Management Systems (BMS) are common technological infrastructures that have been implemented in large buildings since the late 1960s, mostly to control the building’s indoor environment. Due to the decreasing price of hardware required for their manufacturing, these systems became further popularized during the 1970s. In addition to managing the building’s environment by keeping track of heating, lighting, ventilation, air conditioning systems, or window opening and shading, such systems administer security, fire protection, lift operations, and surveillance mechanisms. Experts on building automation also stress that the historical development of building management systems is interlaced with improvements in technologies of computation, wherein the incorporation of computers, on top of various optimization techniques, provides opportunities to further complicate the machineries of control within large buildings today. ^
  8. 8. Catherine,Fennell 2011. “‘Project heat’ and sensory politics in redeveloping Chicago public housing,” Ethnography 12: 40–64, p. 42. ^
  9. 9. Bryan Walsh, “Masdar City: The World’s Greenest City,” Time, (January 25, 2011), Last accessed March 16, 2014, link. ^
  10. 10. John Vidal, “Masdar City – a glimpse of the future in the desert,” The Guardian, (April 26, 2011), Last accessed March 16, 2014, link. ^
  11. 11. Michelle Murphy, Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). ^
  12. 12. China Miéville. The City and the City, (New York: Random House, 2010). ^
  13. 13. Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43(3) (1999): 377–391, p. 382.  ^

Gökçe Günel holds the position of ACLS New Faculty Fellow in Anthropology at Columbia University. Her current book manuscript, titled “Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change and Green Business in Abu Dhabi,” focuses on the construction of renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures in the UAE, more specifically concentrating on Masdar City.

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