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Innovating with sustainable developments in UAE

Sustainable developments are becoming increasingly popular in UAE as the country transitions towards sustainability. The demand for a higher quality of life and the need to address environmental challenges are also fuelling this shift.

Today we are at the very early stages in the evolution of sustainable developments in UAE. Sustainability is rapidly evolving as urban challenges grow, lifestyle habits change, socio-economic challenges expand and new technologies emerge. The increase rate of climate change is also fuelling new thinking in the planning of the next generation of sustainable developments, for which benchmark models are emerging.

Agri Hub in Dubai | copyright URB

The environmental challenges that impact UAE cities (and all cities across the world), the need to make services more efficient at lower costs, as well as the demand for a higher quality of life are all fuelling opportunities for innovation; Smart Cities are thus on the rise. It is estimated that by 2025 there will be 88 smart cities in the world. By that time, urbanisation is expected to have grown significantly and will continue to grow for the remainder of this century. This increase in urbanisation will create severe pressure on our cities infrastructures as well as resources. Smart Cities can help mitigate this pressure by optimising the use of resources and services, such as water, energy and waste. Over the next several years, many cities will be using technology to move towards this direction.

Urban Tech District in Dubai | copyright URB

Smart cities

Dubai is a good example of a destination that is using innovation to become a smart city. Its ambition to become the world’s smartest city is empowering this transition. The city has launched various initiatives whilst integrating technologies such as Information Communication Technologies [ICT] and the Internet of Things [IoTs] into its hard and soft infrastructures. These initiatives and technologies will transform its networks and services into a more efficient, intelligent and collaborative ecosystem.

Smart cities can significantly shape the sustainability objectives of buildings.

The integration of sensors is a good illustration of this. For example, indoor lighting and temperature can automatically be adjusted based on various variables. These variables include the number of occupants in a room, the time of day as well as exterior weather and light conditions. Embedding sensors in buildings to detect motion, temperature, noise, moisture, fire, smoke, etc. will provide real-time data and help improve operational efficiency, safety and security.

Once these sensors are connected to the IoTs, buildings can communicate real-time data to various departments within the city. For example, waste can be collected upon receiving automatic notification that they are full. Real-time user data can be analysed to provide an estimate of the day and time of future waste collections. This will maximise efficiency and ensure that services are available exactly when they are needed. The possibilities of integrating sensors into many other “things” are endless. This information can be used by city officials or by applications to provide more efficient and improved services. Thus the IoTs will help reduce errors, increase efficiency, improve sustainability, and ensure that services are delivered in real-time. IoTs however are just one of many technological benefits.

Nexgen Sustainable City, Egypt | copyright URB


Technology is also helping to shape better models of sustainable cities. Technology is allowing us to constantly analyse designs and further optimise the building energy performance. The advancement of BIM [Building Information Modelling] is also allowing the entire project cycle become more intelligent, more efficient and more collaborative. As such today we are able to obtain a variety of advanced information quicker than before. Technology is also allowing us to use “what-if?” scenarios to see how a particular change can affect the total energy usage of a building.

There is also a demand for faster and accurate construction, reduced construction waste, reduced labor cost as well as reduced health and safety risks. These are all fueling the trend towards 3D construction printing which will bring many opportunities to cities.

As such in 2016, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy. This unique initiative aims to establish Dubai as a leading hub of 3D printing technology. The plan is to 3D print 25% of Dubai’s buildings by 2030. It is expected that the technology will cut construction costs by between 50% and 70%, and cut labour costs by 50% to 80%.

Speed, accuracy and economic benefits are not the only attractors of 3D printing. The technology is also providing more flexibility to the shape of buildings. For example, curvilinear structures can be achieved without having to worry about the extra costs of creating formworks. This provides opportunities for designers to build projects that may otherwise be too costly to build using conventional methods.

Advancement in modular construction is another innovation leading to sustainable development. Modular construction allows for shorter construction times, more consistent quality and more economic savings. Technology is also helping modular construction through parametric modelling which defines relationships among building elements. Parametric Modelling is making it possible to change one aspect and instantly understand its impact on the overall design. Thus technology is fuelling a more intelligent workflow in the development of sustainable cities. Opportunities such as economic benefits are another factor fuelling this trend.


For developers working in a highly competitive market, sustainable buildings can provide an opportunity as a unique selling point. It can add a competitive advantage to a developer’s project, as buyers look towards properties with access to a range of desirable amenities, as well as providing minimum maintenance fees and reduced energy bills.

Sustainable design has a great influence on the typology of a building.

Xzero Sustainable City, Kuwait | copyright URB

This creates an opportunity for designers to rethink the way people live and work. The typology of a building can improve the quality of life, whilst also helping to maximise the environmental gains through form, orientation and density. Sustainable design also provides opportunities to integrate nature into architecture, with the objective of making people feel healthier and happier. Nature has many benefits for our wellbeing; it makes us live in harmony, improves our memory, reduces depression, boosts workplace performance and bonds people together.

Another key opportunity is for governments to foster a bottom-up entrepreneurial spirit in sustainable development. This inward investment in people, businesses and organisations that are passionate about improving their own city is in my opinion the most passive way of achieving a green economy. This will create more green jobs & will most likely result in a new way of thinking about sustainable cities.

Another opportunity at a global scale is urban farming which can strengthen the resilience of cities, whilst also promoting healthy eating and healthy lifestyles.

Xzero Sustainable City, Kuwait | copyright URB

Urban farming can increase community cohesion and social interaction. Urban farms provide a great platform to help teach children about sustainable agriculture. They provide youth with a sense of environmental stewardship and better understanding of the food system.

The opportunities in sustainable design in UAE and the MENA region are endless. Whilst there are many opportunities, there are also equally as many challenges.


Knowledge on sustainable development for example is a key challenge facing urban metropolises in the MENA region. The key reasons why many developers are not adopting sustainable strategies are down to misperceived costs and knowledge gap. Contrary to common belief, sustainable design does not require an increase in client budget or construction cost.

Passive design strategies such as orientation, density and form will provide the biggest environmental gains, yet these require the least financial investment.

Xzero Sustainable City, Kuwait | copyright URB

These basic decisions must be addressed at the early stages of the project, to reduce a large amount of energy demand without the extra costs.

Thus it is of critical importance for the region to access relevant knowledge on affordable sustainable practices and solutions.

Sustainable urban mobility will be another key challenge in UAE. Today, there are many problems in the way we travel inside our dense cities. Congestion, safety, air pollution, noise emissions and high levels of CO2 are some of the key urban mobility challenges that our growing cities are struggling to cope with.

Another challenge is designing sustainable cities for inclusivity. There is a significant demand for affordable housing and any city which claims to be sustainable but does not integrate affordable housing into the heart of their communities, in my opinion is a failed concept of a sustainable city. The best models of Sustainable cities will provide housing for all types of people, without segregation or excuse about land prices. An inclusive city also values the needs of all people equally, including the workers who are contributing to their legacy. Today, there are many countries that do not see the long term social and economic benefits migrant workers bring to their cities, thus they fail at meeting the very basic needs to their livelihoods such as health & safety.

Another major challenge is designing projects that are fit for our needs for the next 30-50 years. How can we provide a holistic solution to development whilst also future proofing them at the same time? This means making sure that they are resilient. 

Xzero Sustainable City, Kuwait | copyright URB

A resilient city should have the capacity to maintain the same level of “quality of life”, should there be any future shocks and stresses to its environment. Most of our cities however, are far from resilient.

Final thoughts

The next generation of sustainable developments will be driven by new typologies that promote inclusivity, resilience, efficiency in services and greater protection of the environment. They will provide affordable housing for the many and instant access to key services for all. They will be very different to projects that have already been designed or are under development. This will require a significant shift in the planning of cities. This begins by thinking of future challenges as opportunities to shape smarter cities.

Ultimately, smart sustainable developments need to be truly holistic in their approach to planning. The basic idea of a holistic approach is to provide a whole solution rather than just dealing with one part. This means designing sustainable projects that address all the three key pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. It’s about designing developments that provide the highest quality of life together with the lowest environmental footprint, whilst ensuring the needs of future generations are not compromised.

About the author

Baharash Bagherian is the CEO of URB and has masterminded designs of various sustainable cities currently under construction. As a visionary changemaker, Baharash Bagherian founded URB with a sense of purpose to accelerate the world’s transition towards sustainable developments. He leads URB to develop the highest standards of sustainable destinations, through his unique expertise as well as sustainability know-how. He also heads the world’s first urban tech incubator for sustainable cities, which aims to foster a collaborative ecosystem of innovators, whilst investing in start-ups that are solving critical challenges related to urbanization & climate change.