Gökçe Günel is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Rice University. Her latest book Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, & Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Duke University Press, 2019) focuses on the construction of renewable energy & clean technology infrastructures in the United Arab Emirates, more specifically concentrating on the Masdar City project. Her articles have been published and are forthcoming in Log, e-flux, Public Culture, Anthropological Quarterly, Engineering Studies, & South Atlantic Quarterly among others. Currently, she is working on a book on electricity production in Ghana, provisionally titled Energy Accumulation.
MF: Good morning. I am Mahnaz Fancy, the Communication & External Relations Manager at Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Today's podcast is a part of the third series of our SATtalks programme entitled Architecture+ Infrastructure and I'm very pleased to welcome today's guest Gökçe Günel who joins us from Houston.
As an introduction, Gökçe is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Rice University, her first book Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi published in 2019 focuses on renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures in the United Arab Emirates, and more specifically on the Masdar City project. Her articles have been published in Ephemera, Public Culture, Anthropological Quarterly, Avery Review and the Fiber Culture Journal.
Thank you for taking the time to join us today, Gökçe. We've enjoyed your publications and the important insight they offer into the roles that infrastructures play in the GCC and UAE. How, at one level, infrastructure supports the imaginary projection of Gulf cities as sites of “limitless” progress and human conquest over the natural limitations of the desert landscape, i.e the tabula rasa narrative. And, at the second level, how the delivery of these resources or utilities by infrastructure informs the relationship between the state and its citizens and inhabitants.
I'm looking forward to delving further into this in our conversation today. So, to start with, I'd like to get a better understanding of your disciplinary or methodological perspective as an anthropologist working on infrastructure. What is this field of "anthropology of infrastructure"? And, how do your specific disciplinary tools permit insight into infrastructure, which is usually presented through a discourse that relies on scientific, technological and statistical language?
GG: I'm an Anthropologist and the defining characteristic or method of Anthropology is ethnographic research. As ethnographers, we do participant observation in the communities that we study. Infrastructure has become a significant topic in Anthropology because by studying the infrastructures that make up a city or a country through garbage collection, transportation, water, electricity—these are all topics that have been studied in the last 20 years quite extensively—we can examine how social and economic relations make themselves known through seemingly technical assemblages.
So, infrastructure is usually taken up as a technological or scientific project, sometimes maybe an urban planning project but rarely does its social meaning come to the fore. Anthropologists initially started studying infrastructure through its breakdowns because they said people don't really notice that infrastructure even exists, but when in the moments of breakdown, all of a sudden, our reliance on that infrastructure becomes very explicit. How do people behave in those moments of failure, in moments when there's a power cut or when there's no access to water, et cetera. So, these are some of the larger questions that have shaped the discipline.
My specific interest lies more in the future of infrastructure and how decision-makers imagine the kinds of infrastructures that we will inhabit perhaps in 10 years or 20 years. I was interested in how decision makers are mainly climate change and energy experts who understand our future and react to future issues around environmental problems or energy scarcity. I thought that Masdar City was an ideal place for looking into these questions because the site is a place where we can actually think about how the future gets envisioned.
MF: You've actually brought me to exactly where I wanted to go next. A kind of science fiction future perspective was a really exciting part of your book on Masdar and it was impressive to see how you managed to put in so much research about the scientific and environmental aspects of this early and ambitious project for renewable energy future cities that was launched as early as 2006 in Abu Dhabi. One thing that I think we would be interested in finding out more about is what kind of "future city" was being imagined by Masdar? What were its intentions? And, in what ways did it succeed?
GG: In my work, I've described Masdar City as a "status quo utopia" and by status quo utopia, I mean a utopian city which actually aspires to keep present financial, political, and social relations intact. Masdar City was ambitious and visionary but its vision was actually a vision of conservation. I think decision makers in Abu Dhabi were aware of the fact that oil is going to run out or become less valuable and they wanted to safeguard their future by building an urban environment that would support a knowledge-based economy and that that knowledge-based economy would replace oil and would allow the citizens of the UAE to extend their current lifestyles into the future.
So, although Masdar City looks kind of futuristic when you first take a glance at it, when you study it more closely, what you realize is that it is an attempt at keeping the present as it is. That means preserving class relations as we understand it today, preserving relationships of consumption. In order to preserve the present as it is, the people at Masdar City came up with what I call in the book, "technical adjustments,” all kinds of inventions and interventions that allow humans to continue their lifestyles, while, at the same time, introducing a very small transformation or a very small adjustment. I don't think this is necessarily something that's unique to Masdar city. We see these kinds of adjustments everywhere as people try to convert to electric cars or try to use biodegradable plastic bags, all of these are attempts at preserving our lifestyles while at the same time recognizing climate change and energy scarcity as significant problems.
Of course, now talking about these issues during COVID-19 I think, we've seen that actually lifestyle change is possible. All of a sudden, we've all stopped flying, stopped using the resources that we used to use so intensively, and you're seeing a shift in how people imagine their cities, their a social relations, their financial futures. So, I think COVID-19 is actually quite instructive in allowing us to think about climate change mitigation methods that are not purely technological, that are not purely based on business models, that are not purely based on smart urban design solutions.
MF: So, it's the human response, the human behavior?
GG: Its the human response, a certain kind of ethical adjustment in regards to how we want to protect others in our communities, how we want to care for others in our communities. I think there's an ethical transformation that people are experiencing. I think it's opened up a conversation where we see that it's possible to change how we live.
MF: So, when you're talking about the technical adjustments, you're talking about these very small gestures and it seems like the scale of the project at Masdar was enormous. What happened between the projected ambitions of this project and this space of technical adjustments?
GG: I guess one of the ways in which we can understand Masdar is as an assemblage of technical adjustments at different scales. I think the city project itself is an attempt at the technical adjustments in thinking about urbanism. So, how do we think about cities in a climate-conscious, energy-conscious way? That was the question that drove the planning of Masdar. But, at the same time, there was an interest in producing a new business model and that business model could only be contained within the specific space that was going to be constructed for renewable energy and clean technology companies.
And, so by building a brand new city, a new way of occupying the space of the desert, in an oil producing country, and produce a showcase that could perhaps be packaged as a commodity and sold to other countries. The idea behind the project was if you could build it in the desert then you could build it anywhere. So, it was seen as a non-contextual project that could be implemented wherever. Which is why the metaphor of the "spaceship in the desert" stuck and because the city, was like a spaceship, a technological object in itself that could open up new frontiers and that could modify the political and economic conditions of Abu Dhabi during a period where oil resources would be, let's say, less valuable or unavailable.
MF: It's a fascinating concept, this idea of replicating this kind of city in a commercial way., Could you also talk a little bit about what “knowledge economy” means in the context of Masdar?
GG: One of the things that I heard from the experts at Masdar City was that they believed that oil is exportable but the sun is not. So, how can we make the sun, that we have some much of, exportable? So, in order to move “beyond the oil,” they thought, okay, we'll build a Silicon Valley of renewable energy and clean technology and instead of selling the raw or even refined oil, we'll sell renewable energies and clean technologies.
The idea was that: well, Abu Dhabi is already a big player in the energy sector, so Abu Dhabi would rebrand itself as an “energy hub.” And, in order to become an energy hub, it had to invest in solar and wind power, it had to build clean technology that it could export then to other countries around the world. And, it's not only technology: exports would range from consulting missions on how to apply for carbon credits to patents on different kinds of technological products. So, there's a range of things that were happening there.
I think that your scale question was very interesting because, in a way, Masdar City itself became a “technological product”. The scale, in that sense, collapsed to making Masdar City, the same kind of commodity than say, a novel solar panel might be.
MF: So, from what I understand, these kinds of massive and costly projects: Masdar, as well as all of the water and electricity-related infrastructure, are all related to what you just mentioned: the inevitable future when the GCC can no longer rely on oil as the primary economic driver. So, how does this infrastructure contribute to the value of these cities? i.e. making them more attractive to global investment, tourism, and migration, and then, also, related to your earlier point about technical adjustments, what kind of social or behavioral changes within the GCC might be necessary for sustained distribution of said resources in the future?
GG: In order to be able to inhabit the GCC, the people who migrated there or who were living there from the start, had to build technological infrastructure that would push the heat out, create extra water resources, allow air conditioning to function as planned, et cetera. Water infrastructure and electricity infrastructure—just as they are anywhere else around the world—are vital to the existence of the GCC as it is.
One issue that emerges now is: once this infrastructure is built, how do you maintain it? How do you ensure that “limitless” water and “limitless” electricity is available to everyone living in the UAE and other GCC countries for the foreseeable future? One of the reasons why this becomes an issue in GCC countries is because of this promise that people came here believing that “infinite water” and “infinite electricity” would be available. So, the moment water, all of a sudden, is no longer free or there's an electricity price increase, then there's a drive to keep the population happy and in order to keep the population happy, it's critical to produce infinite water, infinite electricity. It's important to also keep in mind that infinite electricity means infinite air conditioning because 70% of the electricity that's produced in the GCC is used for air conditioning.
People have written about—and I've written about this myself as well—there's an attachment to a specific temperature as being a signifier of a "thermal modernity". At Masdar City, some of the inhabitants wanted to inhabit rooms that were 17 degrees Celsius, but the architects and the engineers who were part of the project said, “This is impossible, we're going to set it to 24 degrees Celsius.” So, there's a social significance to the temperature we choose to set in our ACs in our homes. These things are not necessarily “essential” to our existence as humans, but we come to expect these things in order to see ourselves as being “modern”, right? Or, from the perspective of the state, it becomes a way of legitimizing its existence as a modern state. When I wrote about water, I wanted to foreground how the seemingly “natural” qualities of water are left behind in the case of the UAE and in other GCC countries.
MF: As you're talking, I feel that that this whole narrative is always about separating the human from their body... that even temperature that you want to live in is a “social” thing. This is why I was fascinated by your article about the “Backbone”, your 2018 article about this incredible electrical grid that the GCC countries went into together. Could you tell us about what the strategic goals of this backbone were and what concerns brought about this level of regional cooperation?
GG: The Backbone literally acts as a backbone bringing the countries of the GCC together into one body and, in that sense, the electricity infrastructure serves a very significant political purpose of keeping these countries attached to one another. And, allowing electricity trade between these countries. So, let's say: the nuclear power, that's producing electricity in Abu Dhabi now, could theoretically be sold on this grid and power other GCC citizens elsewhere. This kind of political investment in the GCC also allows different countries to build electricity generation facilities that might serve populations that are larger than their own populations. One of the other reasons why the backbone was built was so that the electricity produced in the GCC countries could be used to then rebuild Syria or Iraq. So, there's an expectation of a potential market in countries that have been devastated by conflict. Because once the Backbone is there it's relatively easy to extend it.
And, therefore, there's a sort of a logic of a market as well. Electricity is a very special commodity: you can't put it in a box and ship it, you have to sell it on the grid, through the grid. So, having an electricity grid is like having a highway on which you can send trucks and trucks of electricity to other places. And, this is an important financial investment beyond being a political investment in the unity of the GCC. It's a way in which GCC countries open up a new market for themselves where they're not necessarily exporting oil. And, once they're connected to the Turkish grid, they can be connected to the European grid, which generates this whole new scale of electricity exports.
MF: This exporting to Turkey and Egypt and Syria and Iraq has any of this happened? Once you understand how much energy is used in Saudi Arabia and in the UAE in comparison to other countries, it's hard to imagine that, at the same time as meeting their own needs--and those demands for electricity are growing as well in these countries--and then to produce enough to create a international market.
GG: I think the nuclear project in Abu Dhabi is a great example for this. When I was doing research in the UAE in 2010 and 2011, renewable energy and clean technology were mainly referred to (at least amongst the experts that I was studying) solar power and wind power. Now, when I visited the UAE earlier this year in February 2020, the first place I went to was the Abu Dhabi nuclear energy headquarters and we were there on the day when the first fuel arrived in the nuclear power plants to now start a different kind of renewable energy future.
So, I think now the investments is very much, at least in the UAE, in nuclear power production. As a component of the renewable energy landscape, it is a departure from oil and from natural gas and it’s an efficient resource. Now, I think that the massive electricity consumption in the GCC will be satisfied through the expansion of nuclear infrastructure. I don't know the planning in other GCC countries in this regard but, perhaps we can see the development in Abu Dhabi as an indicator of other developments that might take place in other GCC countries.
MF: As you talk, I realize that maybe in all of this innovation in electricity production, they are creating the same kind of "infinity of energy" that you speak about in your work on water. So, shifting to water, when you come to the 2016 essay, The Infinity of Water, you detail the desalination infrastructure and how it produces this illusion of infinity despite the fact that water scarcity is one of the most urgent issues in this region. Considering that climate change means that all the other issues are only going to get exacerbated over the coming decades and desalination has already proven to a have significant negative environmental impact, how are these costs, both literal and environmental, weighed against the benefits of desalination?
GG: That's a great question and one of the things that I found fascinating when I was doing research at Masdar was the “imagination of externalities.” And, I'll use the Masdar example to respond to these larger scale questions, because, when Masdar City was first built, it was branded a "zero carbon city." No one really knew what zero carbon meant but in late 2010, when people started moving into Masdar City and living in the Masdar Institute dormitories, students and faculty came together to discuss how they defined zero carbon.
And, this is mainly a calculation problem because the kinds of decisions that have to be made were: whose emissions do we count as the emissions of Masdar City? We have all these employees that are from other countries that want to go see their families every three, four months, do we count their flights back home as part of our emissions? Many of our employees live in Dubai and commute to Masdar City every day, do we include their commute as part of our emissions here? We have apples, pears, and oranges being sold in the organic grocery store and we eat those fruits that have been produced elsewhere, do we have to take into consideration the emissions that were produced in cultivating those fruits and bringing them all the way to our grocery store here?
So, when you lay out all the things that actually make up a city—all the things that sustain its population—you realize that it's very hard to actually produce a zero carbon city. And, it's very hard to lay out the boundaries of where that city ends and where the rest of the world begins. And we're having the same kind of issues at the larger scale when we think about nation states: where we think about, okay, the UAE is producing x number of carbon emissions and how should it contain its emissions? A lot of the kinds of waste products that we produce in these countries are not necessarily taken into consideration in the national planning or financial considerations for these countries and instead they become “externalities.”
So, this is one of the issues that's happening. Yes, desalination is causing temperature change, it's changing the level of salinity in the water, its causing red tide. It has all these effects, but we can take them as externalities—basically, a side effect of any kind of financial activity that doesn't necessarily affect the financial activity itself, but affects other parties.
MF: In that same Infinity of Water essay, I want to pull out a quote where you say that “the perceptions of climate change mitigation and adaptation shape and become reshaped by the social context in which they are interpreted. Therefore, it is necessary to compliment the scientific reports on the environmental conditions of the region with how and why questions that delve into the social, political, and economic context." So, what are these questions in the GCC (these oil rich states) and what particular challenges exist here?
GG: Perhaps the why and how questions would be related to consumption here. Why do we have to keep our rooms at low temperatures? Why do we have to water our lawns? Why do we have to consume resources in the extent that we consume?
One of the things I wanted to say in the Infinity of Water piece is that the water problems in the GCC or in the UAE are not necessarily all caused by climate change. A lot of these problems are caused by using up resources that don't get replenished in time and not necessarily taking responsibility for the use of those resources. And so, although climate change adaptation tools are useful in thinking about water-related problems, those climate change adaptation tools can't solve all of our problems. Humans also have to think about the ways in which they consume the resources, the ways in which they expect resources to be available at all times. Although we rely on an imagination of the “infinity of water” or the “infinity of energy” we're also seeing that those imaginations or those beliefs are not necessarily sustainable.
MF: It makes me want to ask about the part of your book on Masdar that talks about the particular kind of “science fiction architecture” and that 1950s to 70s imaginary. It's a very interesting image of us in the future. So, could you talk about the architecture part of it as well?
GG: Sure. One of the, engineers at Masdar early on in the project gave an interview and said, “what we're trying to build here is Blade Runner.” And, this comment was mocked all over. Everyone said, well, Blade Runner is not something we should aspire to, Blade Runner is a dystopia and it's a dystopia where none of the problems that were intended to be resolved have not been resolved. So, we are seeing that actually, despite all the sort of technological innovation, despite all the new business models, et cetera, the problems still persist.
But, many of the references that were used during the construction of Masdar City were references from the 1960s till the 1980s. An imagination of a world that can be isolated and have a kind of insulation from all the global problems. It's ability to insulate itself was interesting to this engineer and so many of the references for building Masdar City came from that imagination of building a city that can withstand all kinds of environmental problems through cutting itself off from its environment. This is why the image of the spaceship is so important because the spaceship is sort of the ultimate vehicle or ultimate vessel that manages to exist in a vacuum.
And, of course, we've seen many other examples of this. Other, even older symbols of such isolation would be things like Noah's Ark. And, so references to science fiction were not only significant in thinking about the specific technical adjustments that were taking place up Masdar, such as, driverless pod cars but they were also really significant in outlining the imagination of this installation, the imagination of a possible insulated space.
MF: I love the idea of this, and yet at the same time your native informants, the people you spoke to who lived in Masdar, there's actually a community that's held together by beliefs and there is a small utopic element in there as well. Or was I wrong to read it that way? What do you think?
GG: Of course, I think that you're right in saying that, but I think maybe, then it's important to ask who's not welcome in that community. So, who are the people who can get in? Who are the people who can't get into that community? So, again, the metaphor of the spaceship is really useful in explaining this because the only people are allowed into the spaceship are astronauts who are there because they have a specific function and access to specific forms of expertise.
One of the most telling examples of this was when I was doing field work at Masdar city, one of the engineers took me out on a tour of the solar power station. As we were walking around, he told me that actually solar panels are not as efficient as they expected them to be because dust and mud covered the solar panels and diminished their ability to produce electricity. And, so he said, “But, don't worry we found a solution to this problem, we call it "man with a brush." And the man with the brush walks around most of the Masdar City site cleaning solar panels on a daily basis. So, if you think about it, the man with a brush is fundamental to the existence of Masdar city. Even if Masdar City is able to achieve its ambitions to become zero carbon that only relies on solar panels to produce electricity the man with the brush has to be there in order to clean those solar panels.
But the man of the brush has never seen as one of the members of that community, right? He's never going to be a member of that utopic sort of a group that comes together to inhabit this space, although he is fundamental to the functioning of this community. And, I think it's a very telling example. And so, I think it's a question of who gets to be saved in a spaceship or in a Noah's ark kind of situation and who gets left out.
MF: That's a really important way to recognize not only what Masdar as a project tried to do and some of its limitations.
As a final question, I'd love to touch on the environmental questions, the ecology in a place like the GCC is fragile, right? And all of this technology puts stress on this fragile ecosystem. In your opinion, having looked at these various infrastructure projects, where do you see the most urgent needs?
GG: These last few months I've been looking at the growth of mangroves on the coast of Abu Dhabi and I have colleagues who are doing research on the proliferation of mangrove forests. I think it is interesting to study these because they exist as, again, another form of externality because they're fed by the sewage plants and the desalination plants. So, the urban waste of Abu Dhabi has created this new sort of environment that transforms the way in which the residents of the city understand let's say "nature" they have access to. And, I'm finding it interesting to look at the new ecologies that are born in these unexpected ways. So, perhaps, rather than a technical adjustment, I think one thing that's probably useful in thinking about infrastructure in a place like Abu Dhabi is to meticulously track the places the things that infrastructure touches to be able to follow the different kinds of objects that circulate within those infrastructures from beginning to end—there's a temporal dimension to these infrastructures, that these infrastructures don't necessarily always function in the same way every day, or they don't necessarily function in the same context every day: they change their context and their context is going to change them. And, so I think that kind of methodological care will help us think about infrastructures and urbanism in a more careful manner.
(Visual ID credit: SAT, Image credit: Gökçe Günel, Podcast soundtrack credit: Rambling by Blue Dot Sessions)