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Seven years have passed since EPFL first opened its Middle Eastern antenna in Ras Al Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates. In an interview, Franco Vigliotti, Dean of EPFL Middle East, talks about some of the achievements of an audacious academic project.

Paint us a picture of EPFL Middle East, seven years into the partnership between EPFL and the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. 

Franco Vigliotti: This month, it has been exactly seven years since EPFL Middle East was created. When I arrived, we didn’t have any facilities or a research program. All we had was a roadmap based on the intentions of our initial agreement with the local government. In 2009, the financial crisis forced our partners and us to revisit our plans: the construction of the campus would have to wait. We however decided to move quickly on the non-structural parts of the academic plan, developing a Master’s program in Energy Management and Sustainability, an internship program in the UAE, and Master’s and doctorate level research projects in, and focused on, Ras Al Khaimah and the UAE. We also launched executive education courses for the region. Today we can say that, although the campus has yet to materialize, academic developments have been very solid.

 

How has the partnership between Switzerland and the UAE evolved over the past seven years? 

The partnership began on a base of strong mutual trust and a shared vision for the development of a research and innovation base in Ras Al Khaimah. At the time, other major initiatives were being launched in the UAE, mainly in Abu Dhabi. The financial crisis may have disrupted our plans, but ultimately it strengthened our partnership. Together, we created a new roadmap, which we have since largely carried out. The local government acknowledges EPFL’s genuine intentions in the partnership and now sees the fruits of seven years’ of investment, vision, and perseverance in hard times. As a result, it has expressed its desire to renew the partnership for an extended period of time.

 

What are some of the achievements of EPFL Middle East?

First and foremost, I would mention our Master’s program in Energy Management and Sustainability. Now in its sixth year, with close to one hundred graduates, it attracts top students from the best institutions from around the world. Then, we’ve had more than 50 internships in the UAE as part of the program, in collaboration with over 30 local partners in government and in industry, from start-ups to SMEs to multinationals.

Twelve PhD theses, some focused on topics relevant to the UAE and Ras Al Khaimah, have been carried out with the support of EPFL Middle East and Ras Al Khaimah, two of which laid the foundation for high impact projects and reforms here in Ras Al Khaimah, notably in the field of waste-to-energy strategies and energy efficient construction.

Furthermore, through the Master’s program and PhD research, EPFL Middle East has contributed to the creation of two start-up companies, one in Dubai and one in Lausanne.

These and other activities – for example our executive education program and our contributions in scientific conferences and journals – have had a very positive impact on the local perception of Switzerland and EPFL as leaders in science, technology and innovation.

 

The Master’s program in Energy Management and Sustainability has created a whole new breed of young professionals...

Yes it has, in a number of ways. First, there is the topic. With Prof. Kayal, who directs the Master’s program, we shared the vision that energy management would become an important topic, particularly in the Gulf countries, where energy is produced with conventional sources, mostly oil and gas. Initially, our ideas met with a mix of skepticism from some and enthusiasm from others, which we took as a sign that we were doing something new and difficult, but also with great potential. When Fukushima happened and governments started questioning their relationship with energy, our program was already up and running. Since then, energy management has become mainstream, and is one of the three pillars of the Swiss Federal Council’s energy strategy for 2050.

 

A second interesting aspect is the program’s form. Students work on projects in multidisciplinary teams and are provided a general, but far from superficial, introduction to important energy concepts that include energy management, energy generation, transportation, and distribution. Of course, the litmus test is the employability of our graduates. And here we’ve seen that, as with all other programs of EPFL, the MES program opens diverse and rich professional opportunities. Many students land their first jobs before even finishing their Master’s thesis.

 

Through its research, EPFL Middle East set out to build a bridge between cultures and climates. Has it achieved its aim?

It certainly has. We see it in the number of active industrial relations and in the way that companies receive our students for internships and research projects. An excellent illustration for this is a project that adatped the Swiss Minergie standard to the UAE. It began with local companies providing access to construction details, blueprints and lists of equipment, and data on energy consumption. These elements were then used in collaborations between EPFL, EPFL Middle East, UAE SMEs and Swiss organizations. The final step was the adoption of the research results by local investors to build better buildings. As a result, there is a school in Dubai that hosts over 600 children, teachers, and staff. With less than 40 kWh/m2 per year, it consumes less than half the energy compared with the best buildings in the UAE.

 

And beyond science?

Beyond science, we see how the bilateral relations between Switzerland and the UAE have benefitted from the presence of EPFL in Ras Al Khaimah. For example through graduate research conferences that have taken place both in Switzerland and in the UAE. In Lausanne, no less than 50 students and faculty showed up from the UAE, often with their families. The last two Emirati-Swiss Friendship Forums were organized around the youth, essentially through the efforts and participation of EPFL, both in Lausanne and in the UAE.

 

To close, what was it like to see the Swiss Solar Impulse plane land on what is now your home soil?

This was clearly a moment of rare emotion, and awe. I was there when it took off from Abu Dhabi, and when it returned. It was a moment that cast Switzerland in a very positive light: a country that dares to dream big dreams, that is capable of finding technological solutions to what at first appear to be insurmountable challenges, with a field of action that goes beyond its borders. The activities of EPFL in Ras Al Khaimah are pushed by the same spirit, and in many ways, carry the same message.