by Esra LemmensDec 20, 2021
Pertinent design is oftentimes powerful, political, and penetrative, besides being functional and aesthetic – for to create, to truly make a difference, one must question everything, dive deep into human behaviour and ergonomics, to come up with designs that respond and lay solution to their needs.
Carrying a message of hope and a similar ethos, the last episode of the Dubai Design Week, its seventh and most comprehensive edition yet, on show from November 8-13, 2021 at the Dubai Design District in UAE, dove headfirst into themes of inclusivity, social change, activism, by supporting the local and the diverse creative design community at large, with a colourful programme of design events, conversations, exhibitions, stores, installations, and much more. Primarily, the MENA Grad Show remained a highlight in the week-long event with its powerful underlining message of responding to the global coronavirus pandemic as well as sustainability and health, with promising ideas, models, prototypes and theories, launched to display over 60 locally curated university projects from the Middle East and North Africa.
MENA Grad Show is part of Global Grad Show, the leading international platform supporting social impact innovators in universities across the world. The annual Global Grad Show usually takes place physically in Dubai, but happened online because of travel restrictions. The virtual exhibition was accompanied by a physical one called the MENA Grad Show at the Dubai Design Week 2021 venue, with stellar projects coming up with solutions for social, ethical and environmental challenges, such as NYMO, a robot that encourages self-care of the elderly, the Autism Hotel that ventures into adapted architecture for children with Autism and Bindaas Vellas, a brand that challenges patriarchal systems.
Towards empowering the world, one idea, one design at a time.
Tadeu Baldani Caravieri, Director, and Carlo Rizzo, Editor, of the Global Grad Show 2021 recall for STIR the immense activism of the exhibited projects at the design week late last year, how the platform gives an international stage to the region’s young talent and opens avenues for discovery and exchange between academic institutions and geographies. An active member of the international start-up ecosystem, Caravieri is a business professional and entrepreneur who has worked for the past 15 years between America, Europe and the Middle East in M&A, strategy and venture building and joined the Global Grad Show as director to launch its start-up programme in 2019. Rizzo is an independent curator, researcher and advisor based between Dubai and Milan. Outside his curatorial practice, he is an academic, researching contemporary Middle Eastern art collections in Western museums and their role in intercultural dialogue and cultural diplomacy.
Excerpts from the interview
Jincy Iype: Beneath the opulence of the now concluded Dubai Design Week, what underscored the significance and relevance of the MENA Grad Show?
Carlo Rizzo: The core inspiration behind the MENA, and indeed the Global Grad Show, is the belief that the future of social impact innovation is in the minds of the best design, engineering, architecture and art graduates of the world. The show is a platform to amplify their voices and connect their research and development efforts. We see ingenious local solutions to global challenges in healthcare, environment, urban living, waste management and more and want good ideas to travel fast and make a real difference.
Tadeu Baldani Caravieri: The inaugural edition of MENA Grad Show was launched in 2020 as an initiative by the Global Grad Show. It is held as a physical exhibition during Dubai Design Week and was established to celebrate and support regional talent from the Middle East and North Africa. The exhibition showcases social impact innovation projects in the fields of science, design, technology, and architecture by students in universities whose research and ideas offer solutions to help solve major social and environmental issues.
The initiative is founded under the principles of equality, innovation and creativity as catalysts for a better world. The projects were spread across five major themes - Caring for Others (healthcare services designed to reach the most vulnerable), A Fairer and Safer Society (ethics-focused solutions for a more equitable world), Building Resilient Communities (connecting people so that no one is at margins), City Living (transforming our urban experience for a better quality of life) and Design Against Waste (placing an impact on the planet first).
Jincy: Please share an insight into the curatorial and directorial aspects of the show, such as some parameters followed to shortlist the graduate projects.
Carlo: Projects are selected first and foremost on quality. Has the student identified a real, pressing challenge? Have they understood who can benefit from their solution and how to reach them? Have they tested their solution for impact? Projects that fit these criteria positively are listed, to arrive at the final selection by choosing the most diverse possible group and topics. We believe that high and low-tech solutions are equally interesting when the quality is there and that you do not need to study at a top university to have a great idea. So ultimately, we balance the final selection to achieve the best possible combination of quality and diversity.
Tadeu: This year we received the highest number of applications to date with more than 3,500 students from 70 countries applying to the Global Grad Show. Each year, the featured projects are selected based on their ability to make a positive impact on people, communities, and the planet, as well as the degree of innovation they offer, the use of technology and its relevance at a global scale. As in all previous editions of the Global Grad Show, shortlisted graduates demonstrated that they are ready to answer some of the most urgent questions in areas such as healthcare, design, architecture, nutrition and ethics. The show focused on discovering their priorities and solutions responding with great speed and empathy to an unpredictable world that feels too often like we are running on 'emergency mode'.
Jincy: How was this edition of the Grad Show different from the last one and from every other design week's?
Tadeu: This, I believe, was the first Global Grad Show to take place since the world gradually began emerging from the pandemic, and due to the scale of the programme, we had a unique birds-eye-view of the shared concerns among global academia, which highlights common themes between projects, approaches, and disciplines.
Carlo: It is incredible how responsive graduates have been to some of the most pressing, recent social challenges. While we continue to see a steady flow of applications dealing with the ongoing climate emergency, some new solutions clearly emerged in other areas. As the world faced over the last 12-18 months unprecedented challenges in healthcare access, mental wellbeing, migration and the rights of minorities, we saw students picking up new developments in these fields and tackling them head-on.
Jincy: Many of the chosen projects focus on healthcare – do you think this was a direct result of the prevailing coronavirus pandemic?
Tadeu: Yes. Last year there was a shift in themes, with a focus on healthcare and wellbeing, safety and emergency, and enabling and empowering communities to thrive, which we believe is a direct result of the pandemic. Out of the 150 featured projects in Global Grad Show, 44 entries focused on healthcare which addressed issues such as access to healthcare, mental and physical health and providing health-tech solutions to people.
The variety of solutions within the healthcare group also highlights the complexity of the problem. Projects range from tech-enabled detection of malnutrition in children to a smart communication system to support mental health among the elderly.
Jincy: What were some other issues addressed?
Tadeu: There were 60 projects featured in the MENA Grad Show of which several addressed concerns for children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, autism and ADHD. Solutions ranged from providing enabling environments for them to thrive, an AR (augmented reality) game to help diagnose whether a child has learning disabilities to an e-reader that assists dyslexics with reading and comprehension. Several projects also addressed the topic of building resilient cities, from designing a serene rest stop for delivery drivers to reduce their stress levels to integrating food and agricultural patches into city infrastructure to reforming urban architecture for a more inclusive, communal wellbeing. A few also looked at how to help crisis-affected communities with architectural and urban planning solutions to foster recovery and create a better communal life.
Carlo: Healthcare was the top theme for applications in 2020 as well. However, while last year, the focus of applications was to develop patient-centric approaches to improve the quality of life for those living with illness and disability, the 2021 edition focused primarily on access. Remote diagnosis systems, solutions for home therapies, new services to support carers - the majority of healthcare projects focused on these challenges, and this was definitely new. Graduates, like the rest of us I believe, witnessed the challenges and sometimes the collapse of fragile healthcare systems, so they are working to radically reshape how healthcare is delivered.
Carlo: Another key theme - broadly speaking – was ‘ethics’. From the ethics of language and political correctness to gender equality and the safety of women. More than ever, we saw projects picking up the narrative of many prevalent activist movements across the world and developing solutions for a safer and more equitable society.
Jincy: What were some highlights (and your favourites) from the lineup?
Tadeu: A'Seedbot is a small autonomous and solar powered robot that plants seed in the desert to cultivate its landscape.
Themis is an AI (artificial intelligence) enabled device that reacts to offensive speech, as a socially conscious and personification of political correctness.
EcoPhil is a filter for microplastic pollution at home level, developed to reduce water and marine pollution caused by plastics in laundry wastewater.
Assistive Magnetic Skin allows quadriplegics to move around more autonomously, aided by research on advancement in wearable artificial skins and the Internet-of-Things.
Carlo: Bo.by is a communication system connecting parents with premature babies in incubators.
Photodermis reimagines our skin as a technology to harvest renewable energy.
Tolife is a life detection system enabling faster and targeted rescue efforts in hard-to-reach areas.
Algae Grower is a home device to encourage sustainable growing and collection of fresh spirulina, producing about five grams per day which is the recommended amount for an adult.
Jincy: More than ideating solutions and creating prototypes, these projects become powerful when realised. Why, and what are some key issues faced to make it happen, and is there a need for them to be usable and made available?
Carlo: Some should, and I trust they will. This is the reason why we do not just show projects but have created an entrepreneurship programme to support the most talented graduates in realising their ideas and taking them to market. However, I really want to emphasise that universities are testing grounds, not start-up incubators. If a project we show does not become the next
Tadeu: Academia has always been one of the most prolific sources of social impact innovation and the Global Grad Show programme is committed to supporting university students who are working to change the world.
We offer the opportunity for all applying students to join Global Grad Show’s Entrepreneurship Programme, a four-month development route to bring venture-building thinking and opportunities to applicants who want to take their projects forward. Since 2019, it has welcomed over 1,000 participants. The programme has three phases giving projects access to training, mentorship, network with industry specialists and the opportunity to pitch for investors, including A.R.M. Holding, which pledged an AED 10 million fund dedicated to startups from the programme.
Jincy: Why is it deemed important for students of architecture and design to inculcate from the get-go, a sensitive and comprehensive approach to designing, keeping in mind social and ecological upliftment, as is the underlying message of the Global Grad Show?
Carlo: I do not believe we need to influence or encourage students at all, the shift in design and architecture towards greater empathy and greater attention to environmental impact is coming from the students themselves. They understand the societies they live in very well and know what needs to change, so they are doing just that.
Jincy: What can we look forward to for the next episode of the Global Grad Show?
Carlo: Hard to say, I learned that we can always be surprised by the ingenuity of young people. My guess is that the mixed outcomes of COP26 will keep the attention of universities high on climate and that we will see projects addressing the perceived failures of governments in that space. And of course, the pandemic is not over, so I am prepared to see more amazing solutions to help doctors and health professionals be more effective in their work.