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Applying Anthropology in the Future: the future is now

3 March, 2008

I’m sure many of you have heard about Masdar, the ‘green city’ being built in Abu Dhabi.  For those of you that haven’t the city is touted as:

a world model of energy conservation with zero carbon emissions and zero waste. Compared to average urban levels, fossil fuel consumption will be reduced by 75%, water demand by 300% and waste production by 400%. Cycling and walking will be the most common means of travel.

Accoring to the city’s master plan, no one will be more than 200 meters from essential facilities, including shops selling locally grown produce. A fully automated, electric Personal Rapid Transit System will provide a flexible and comfortable alternative to private cars. A Light Railway Transport system will link the Masdar development to adjacent developments, the airport and in the future with the center of Abu Dhabi.

Through a micro-chip-like network of connections, developers plan to coalesce the expertise and resources to enable global technological breakthroughs in advanced energy technologies. There will be a university education and research center – the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (in partnership with MIT) – which will offer Masters and PhD programs in science and engineering disciplines focused on advanced energy and sustainability. Its research and educational institutions and partnerships will search for solutions to mankind’s most pressing problems: energy security, climate change and truly sustainable human development.

For the full story see –

While I applaud the effort to build more sustainable cities I recently came across an article which asks a provocative question; what impact will cities like Masdar have on cultural diversity?

If successful, Masdar City could act as a model for environmentally friendly urban planning and sustainable development. “Green cities,” such as Masdar, could become a future trend around the world. But are there unforeseen consequences for such initiatives? While the environmental advantages of promoting and constructing green cities are clear, such planning may also accelerate the homogenization of, and even destruction of, cultures around the world. Cultural diversity is currently in decline. Globalization and the dominance of Western (especially U.S.) economic and cultural practices have influenced and altered almost all regions of the world. Languages and cultural traditions are becoming extinct at greater rates than ever before.

For the full story see –


While there is arguably potential in the development of ‘green cities’ to accelerate cultural homogenization historically people have found an almost infinite number of ways to diversify and differentiate and I’m relatively confident this will  continue to be the case.  However, as planed cities ‘green cities’ offer anthropologists a unique opportunity/burden in influencing the future of culture and cultural diversity. 

It seems probable that governments and city planners will hire anthropological consultants to advise them on the design an implementation of ‘cultural spaces’ (for example) within ‘green cities’. So while anthropology has typically been directed at documenting, analysing and comparing culture, if we take on a role in helping to plan the cities of the future will we become instead the creators of culture? If so on model will we rely?  Will the ‘cultures’ anthropologists instil in these ‘green cities’ be based on notions of tradition, authenticity and existing diversity or on notions of progress and sustainability?  Ultimately will anthropologists ask what kind of cultures have there been or what kinds of cultures should/could there be?  And what are the potential benefits and risks associated with our choices now?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Third Tone Devil permalink
    5 March, 2008 12:34 pm

    Good questions. One such “green city” is now also much advertised around Shanghai. In that discussion, “culture” is absent, but the context is of course different.

  2. 3 April, 2009 9:07 am

    Pitching for some wayfinding work in masdar next week. Will be using design ethnographic methods as part of the work… Thoughts?

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