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Why Dubai is a 'playground for design'

Dubai is establishing itself as a regional design hub. The 2018 edition of Dubai Design Week brought together 130 companies from 30 countries, combining headline names and future stars.

Posted: Nov 24, 2018 7:24 PM
Updated: Nov 24, 2018 7:57 PM

The Ig Nobel Prize -- an alternative, unofficial Nobel for improbable scientific research -- hands out awards for "achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think." Sometimes the esoteric world of design can feel the same way. The usefulness of design can be immediately apparent: a pen that can detect cancer mid-surgery, for example. But a musical instrument engineered for zero gravity? Perhaps less so. Nonetheless, both are driven by the desire to improve lives.

The pen, musical instrument and more could be found at the Global Grad Show, part of the fourth Dubai Design Week, which ran from November 13-17. The design week has rapidly become a regional networking opportunity with large commercial value, but that hasn't stopped grassroots innovation from pushing through.

The graduate show, curated by author and designer Brendan McGetrick, brought together 150 student projects from 100 universities including MIT, Harvard and the Royal College of Art, and countries as diverse as Jordan, Chile and Pakistan.

Schools, McGetrick told CNN, are "where one finds design in (its) purest and most potentially valuable form."

"Free from the commercial pressures of professional life, the next generation of designers is channeling their craft to improve the world," he added. "In the process, they provide a key to better understanding our environment and its enormous diversity of problems and opportunities."

McGetrick argues the current generation of political leaders lacks the skills or knowledge to tackle our most pressing challenges. Young designers, on the other hand, just might.

"The next generations do not have the luxury to hope that these issues will be solved," he said. "Lacking political and economic power, their response is to anticipate the worst and see how they might channel their talents and training to invent tools that we will need before we urgently need them."

And so, to this year's winner of the Global Grad Show's Progress Prize 2018: Mirjam de Bruijn of the Design Academy Eindhoven for "Twenty," a packaging system for dehydrated household products.

Figuring that most cleaning products were composed of "at least 80 percent water," she stripped it from the equation. Paired with reusable bottles, De Bruijn's solution reduces waste while in theory cutting shipping emissions by reducing product weight and volume.

Twenty has won multiple awards in the Netherlands and "every prize raises the hope that the market is ready for these kinds of sustainable products," said De Bruijn in an email to CNN.

"Exhibiting in Dubai offered us feedback from a completely different culture and gave insights in how design might need to be changed for different cultures," she added.

De Bruijn has enlisted social enterprise specialist Ilse Kwaaitaal to help develop the product range. They hope to finish further research within a year and launch products soon afterward. Whether De Bruijn will do this under the Twenty label or work with an existing brand is still to be decided.

So is this award-winning designer optimistic about the design community's ability to tackle society's biggest problems?

"I am sure we can," she said. "But I think we should stop thinking that we can do it on our own. I think designers, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs should start working together.

"As a designer, I see too many great solutions that are not being used because their design is bad, and I am sure that scientists or technologists (think) the same with some designs that look better than they actually work."

To see more of our favorite innovations from the Global Grad Show, and discover more about Dubai Design Week 2018, scroll through the gallery and watch the video above.

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