We see a Greek in the heart of the most demanding entrepreneurship and innovative activity in Abu Dhabi, the Masdar city. Tell us about your presence here and the initiative to support local factors.
The Masdar Initiative is a very interesting experiment in diversifying the Abu Dhabi economy and offering alternatives beyond fossil fuels. It has certainly acted as a catalyst in the region and to an extent globally, influencing international efforts – like the sustainable energy for all (SE4ALL) initiative by the UN and the drafting of ambitious renewable energy plans for all the countries of the region. The existence of Masdar City also significantly contributed in winning the privilege to host the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the first international organization to be headquartered in the Middle East.
Having joined the Masdar Institute, a member of the Masdar family but quite independent from the corporate arm, as a faculty member since the beginning of this effort in 2008, I witnessed the growth and the changes in the past nine years. I have the privilege to teach and do research with exceptional students and faculty from across the world. Around 15 Greek students have so far joined and progressively graduated from the institute. The master’s and PhD programs that we offer focus on engineering and sustainability and since all the admitted students are supported by fellowships, they offer an attractive proposition for those who are “adventurous” enough to consider post-graduate education in such an “exotic country”.
Like most experiments and start-up efforts Masdar had to redefine itself, scrutinize missteps and adjust. Today renewable energy is a truly competitive resource that has levelized costs low enough to not need subsidies but rather a market system that is open to it and ready to accept it. The Emirati society is just now internalizing the importance of research and development, of fundamental research, and of entrepreneurship. As such the structures that are considered given in world-class universities and research systems are not mature yet in the UAE. For example, there is still no functioning federal research funding mechanism like the National Research Foundation in the US. Yet, it is clear that there is both a clear direction from the leadership towards supporting innovation and a genuine desire to learn and adopt best practices for endogenous development of capabilities rather than simply importing products from abroad.
The opportunities Abu Dhabi offers for entrepreneurs are significant
What are your expectations and personal plans for the future?
Having spent the better part of a decade in Abu Dhabi, we feel quite well integrated in the thriving communities around us. When asked about it, I jokingly say that it is like an acquired taste. Of course there are challenges. The lack of walkable spaces and the need to use the car for most activities, the difficulties in communication but these just add to the spice – making this relationship to the country one that you need to work for and not a one-sided affair. It is after the first year or so that life in a desert city reveals some of the secret gems of beauty and human touch. Slowly this relationship becomes deeper and stronger – the society is multicultural and quite open, the environment can be harsh but also very beautiful – the Liwa desert, the mangrove islands, and the beautiful mountains of the North. It becomes slowly home.
Perhaps this is a long winded introduction to say that I have enjoyed my moments so far. The challenges and opportunities here remain but I am a believer in the nomadic approach to life. Change of environs every few years provides new stimuli for further personal development. Given that I have been been at MI for 8 years the nomad inside me has started to get antsy. We will see. What I consider of utmost importance is to complete some of the critical research that I have started here and make a contribution, significant or not remains to be seen in the energy policy and planning approaches for the coming energy transition.
How important is the contribution of the Greeks in the technology in the Emirates and what competitive advantage they carry in their baggage?
Judging from my Greek students and colleagues I have interacted with in the US and the UAE, I have found in all of them a very high level of technical skills development. The majority has a desire to make a mark in the field they are working on. Also, Greeks seem to understand and integrate well with the Arabic culture which is quite close to us in the Mediterranean. I cannot claim that Greeks bring something unique in the technology arena of the Emirates, but they do bring a consistent quality and drive.
What would you suggest and encourage young people who graduate to pursue in life based on their qualifications and expectations?
I don’t think there is a single advice that fits all students. Each one of them has different capacities, interests, and personal drive. Though, one belief I want share with my students is to strive for something beyond themselves. For each one it may be different, but no matter what it is, the wellbeing of their family or saving humanity from its actions, our passions become meaningful when we strive to relate with the Other, to contribute to something collectively bigger than ourselves. Simply seeking out personal success, fortune, and gain is probably not the best counsel for a balanced and meaningful life.