TOA Podcast Studio: Building a sustainable city w/Karim El-Jisr
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TOA Podcast Studio: Building a sustainable city w/Karim El-Jisr

When you think of the ideal environment to build a green, environmentally sustainable city, you might not expect to place it in the middle of the desert. But that’s exactly what Karim El-Jisr, chief innovation officer at the Sustainable City Institute, is doing by creating an oasis right in the heart of Dubai.

Karim spoke as part of the final installment of our TOA Podcast Studio series at this year’s Tech Open Air 2019 conference in Berlin. Karim’s goal isn’t just to build a space to live filled with typical “green” features, such as solar panels, electric cars, and recycling bins. He wants to take an even more holistic approach to construct sustainable communities, and he believes Dubai is the perfect laboratory to experiment.

During the podcast, Karim explained his background and experience that’s inspired his work at the Sustainable City Institute, how the organization is tackling some of the toughest environmental challenges in novel ways, and why the initiative promises to become a model for social and economic sustainability.

Making Dubai a laboratory for sustainability
Karim’s background is quite unique. He was born in Lebanon but is part Danish. He spent most of his upbringing in the Arab world, but also lived in Denmark for a time. That’s where he learned about the value of green initiatives and sustainability. Since moving to Dubai in 2016, he’s been able to apply what he’s learned from both cultures to his current work.

“I was drawn to Dubai while I was living in Lebanon because it seemed almost like a mirage, but also somewhere where a sustainable future was emerging,” Karim explains. “I know it’s a bit of a contradiction, but for me, that was the appeal.”

Dubai offered Karim a unique opportunity to partner with developers on innovative real-estate developments. Early on, potential partners were interested in ideas that, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, would insulate them from downturns in the construction industry.

Karim began working with developers to brainstorm ideas for real-estate models that would be “future-proof” their plans, and the concept of sustainable cities and communities quickly became popular.

“We examined many successful communities during that time. From Germany to Japan and California,” Karim says. “We looked at the Eden Project in the UK and similar ones in Denmark. And all these communities shared something unique — they stood out in a green, social way.”

Inspired by what they’d seen, Karim and his development partner took their first steps towards making the Sustainable City a reality by acquiring a plot of land in 2013. By 2014, their master plan was approved, and they were ready to begin construction.

Bringing a sustainable city to life
What makes Karim’s vision different from most other so-called sustainable developments is the idea of integrating traditionally “upstream” activities — such as food production and waste management — into the community itself. The goal is to eliminate environmentally unfriendly problems that are often out of the control of residents and developers.

“We have bring food production and farming into the city,” he explains. “It’s also about water management, which is why we desalinate. The buildings as well, materials, walls, flooring – where do those come from and what’s the carbon footprint?”

Karim is also focused on how to make community necessities, such as transportation and waste disposal, even more environmentally friendly — and closer to zero emissions. That’s why the Sustainable City includes other innovations, like electric buggies and electric vehicle concierge services, and green spaces with lakes that use recycled gray water.

“So we have all those components blended and woven together into a community that covers half a square kilometer,” he says. “We have 3,000 people live there, 2,000 workers, a school, a mosque, and even an equestrian center. And now we have Institute – which is a bit like icing on the cake – but something we want to scale up and share.”

Making both economic and social sense
Karim says one of the most important components of the Sustainable City initiative is to make sure projects are economically sustainable for everyone. Not only do developers need to be able to afford construction and sales of the units, but living there also has to make economic sense and provide cost-savings to the end-user.

“Some people still believe that sustainability is expensive, that it’s a luxury for only a small segment of society,” he says. “We say ‘no,’ and that we’ve got to flip that around. Sustainability has to become accessible for all. That includes green jobs and startups that also support economic sustainability.”

Karim believes the Sustainable City is a step in the right direction and can serve as a kind of open-source model that countries and developers can pull great ideas from and tailor to their own communities. In fact, another goal of the Sustainable City Institute is to promote what’s going on in Dubai in terms of sustainable development and to help the rest of the world move in a similar direction.

“The Institute is a vehicle for making sustainability knowledge accessible,” he says. “But things then need to be tweaked and adapted for other climates and cultures. A sustainable community in Freiburg or southern France will look very different than one in Dubai.”

Moreover, he adds, “You also have to think about the cultural context. What are their definitions and expectations for livability, and how do they define happiness? Those things are elastic and can be very different between societies.”

Overall, Karim’s work with the Sustainable City has made him optimistic about what can be achieved not just in Dubai, but in communities around the world.

“I feel pumped because there’s so much we can do, and that there’s also been a shift in media coverage when it comes to things like emissions and plastics, ” he says. “We’ve faced these problems for decades, but now there’s the recognition that we have to do something. We’re personalizing these problems in our everyday lives, and that’s what we have to do for people to change.”


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