Made for Dubai Design Week

A New Experience


7 January 2019

Dubai Design Week’s annual showcase of graduate projects featured work by students from almost 100 schools in 45 countries across the world, with a strong focus on social and environmental impact. Disegno spoke to its curator Brendan McGetrick about the challenges of putting together an ambitious, international showcase in a nation that’s still widely associated with luxurious, rather than experimental, design

Arrranged! by Nashra Balagamwala of the Rhode Island School of Design: a board game that asks participants to engage with the difficulties experienced by young South-Asian women when faced by an arranged marriage.

What is the Global Grad Show and what are its aims?

It’s a collection of the strongest and, in my opinion, most interesting graduate projects from design, art and technology schools around the world. We tried to spread the net as wide as possible because the larger goal is to present projects in a way that's more inclusive than the traditional, mainstream understanding of design, which often is just about lamps, chairs, light fixtures and things like that. We’re trying to show that design can have a more profound social and environmental impact and redefine the idea of “innovation”. We are trying to emphasise that innovation isn't technology-dependent or wealth-dependent: it's about identifying a problem and coming up with an appropriate response. As long as design and innovation are associated with luxury and technology, it’s an extremely limited field in terms of who can participate in it. We're trying to open that up and show that interesting ideas are happening everywhere. And of course, they're shaped by culture, budget and programme, but none of those things are a limit on creativity, innovation or imagination. A lot of times [constraints], such as having a limited budget, actually produce more interesting projects that have more of an impact on a larger group of people.

Ripple by Team Ripple from the Royal College of Art: a wearable body extension whose tentacles react when two people are attracted to one another. The design is intended to engage with potential communication difficulties engendered by virtual reality.

What’s your understanding of innovation, because it’s one of those used and abused terms in design. It has somewhat become another phrase for “good”.

In the most basic sense, innovation is simply bringing something into existence that didn’t exist. The kind of innovation we focus on in the Global Grad Show is about trying to make a positive social or environmental impact. What you'll see in reports that say, “The 10 most innovative products of 2018" will, for example, be someone combining a candy bar with a sandwich. Yes, that’s innovative but ultimately the world doesn't need another sandwich – just as, in my opinion, it doesn't need another chair, unless it’s doing something new. In my opinion, innovation is building on something to provide a new experience or benefit compared with what’s already out there.

How is it producing a show based around that in Dubai – a place that, rightly or wrongly, isn’t necessarily thought as nurturing emerging designers or working with grassroots. Its reputation has been more based around glitzy, high-end design.

The short answer is that it's been very positive. In response to the glitziness you mentioned, that’s completely valid and that's why I said we're trying to provide an alternate understanding of design. But in my opinion, Dubai is actually an amazing place to do something like this, not just terms of terms of design, but because it’s a city that is obsessed with active, intelligence gatherings and bringing people together to understand best practices in different parts of the world. It really sees itself as a place where people can come together and discuss things in a forward-thinking way and it positions itself as a city focused on the future.

Toilet by Leo Schlumberger from Design Academy Eindhoven: a dry toilet that is intended to encourage discussion over water waste and to confront society's taboos surrounding sanitation.

You’ve previously argued that there is something interesting about Dubai in that, while it's perhaps not perfect, it is in some sense internationally open. That’s a state you have contrasted with cities such as New York or London, where recent politics suggests things are becoming less open.

Cities like London defined the 19th and 20th centuries by being cities that had a vision of the future – by assuming that the future would be better than the present, and applying the best brains and most imaginative, audacious visions to themselves. Now that's almost totally gone. I hope that's a temporary condition and that we're just living through a nostalgic, exhausted moment. But there's tremendous value in being in an environment where there's an expectation for improvement – that the future should be better than the present and that you should be working on yourself and trying to improve yourselves as a city or community. And you find that much more here in Dubai and obviously in places such as China. Whenever people ask me about these shows, they say, why would you go through all this effort to make the show in Dubai? But the reality is it makes much more sense to me to do it in a place that's intellectually fertile and forward-looking. I think there is something about Dubai, among other places, that don’t have a pessimistic view of what’s possible at this moment, when we really need positive thinking and we need to believe that it can be better.

From Nowhere With Love by Olga Zelenska from School of Form: a set of biodegradable postcards that contain plant seeds specific to the flora of the place from where they are purchased. The design is targeted towards migrants who might feel a sense of dislocation from their native lands.

Do you think there's a danger to that kind of optimism? For example, one of the criticisms when it comes to climate change is that, if people are holding out for some amazing design or technology solution, it prevents them from grappling with more difficult political or economic decisions that need to be made. Can optimism be distracting?

In general I would say, yes. But when I look at the projects in Global Grad Show, the feeling I get is that the students are not expecting some sort of miracle solution – they're actually preparing themselves for the inevitability of not having a solution. You can sense their feeling that the people running things have no idea what they're doing, which, if you’re 20, has very real effects. So, we have several projects that basically assume climate change and which ask how are we going to respond when, for example, we don't have bees anymore or when the Alps no longer have snow on them? A lot of projects are about changing our lifestyle – to reduce waste or prepare for a scenario where, for instance, we have dry toilets. They are much more about trying to figure out how things we already do can be made less wasteful; how what we use could be replaced; and, assuming we stay on the trajectory we're currently on, how we get in front of it so we're not constantly responding to one crisis after another. It makes perfect sense that this is coming from young people, because they're going to have to deal with it.