Creative Dubai series: Mohammad Abdullah, President, DIDI

Creative Dubai series: Mohammad Abdullah, President, DIDI

Commercial Interior Design interviews key individuals from Dubai's creative community, featuring professionals working in creative bodies, initiatives, and design exhibitions.

Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, Design education, Mohammad Abdullah
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Dubai continues to leverage design and innovation to transform into a knowledge-based economy. We speak to the individuals helming the entities who are aiming to catapult the city into the region's foremost design destination with a global reckoning. In our third interview, we speak to Mohammad Abdullah, president of DIDI. 

What is the mandate for the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI)?

As you can tell from the name, design and innovation are the hallmarks of our institution. Two years ago, the size of the design market — globally and regionally — was estimated to be $100bn with 20% growth expected every year. It is an important industry and economic gain is an impetus, fuelling it further.

Another important consideration is innovation. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is making innovation the emirate's top priority.

These two are the drivers behind the institute. Quality is of great importance, so we have partnered with MIT and Parsons, two top-ranked universities in terms of design thinking and innovation, to set up the current and the long-term objectives for DIDI.

We’re a not-for-profit organisation; DCCA and TECOM group are the main stakeholders in this initiative. The main industries under this partnership are media, ICT, science, education, industry, and design under the 11 business parks. Since 2008, there was a discussion on building a city with a vibrant design scene. But due to an economic downturn, the idea was postponed but not shelved.

Two years after the establishment of Dubai Design District, there was a discussion on launching an insitute to nurture local talent, but one that would have a global approach. This is to develop our local talent, which understands local challenges and cultural sensibilities with a homegrown focus.

Please tell us more about DIDI’s multi-disciplinary approach.

Besides the partnership, we’ve also created the first inter-disciplinary programme, so each student will graduate with two majors. Product design was missing from the curriculum of most design schools in the region. So we felt the need to fill this gap. Partnership is not only important within the design sector, but also in areas such as transportation, aviation, security and agriculture, especially when it comes to product design. These fields directly impact people and communities, so laying emphasis on inventions that solve problems is the underlying basis of education at DIDI. We're trying to reinventing the traditional classroom learning environment.

The collaboration among different sectors is happening but within d3, this is already entrenched. It’s helping us a lot and our students also by creating an ecosystem of design firms, service providers, and now DIDI.

The same thing happened with Dubai Media City and Internet City, 18 years ago, when they became a hub for all media- and technology-related activities and helped the industry grow not only in the city, but also regionally.

At the end of the day, we want to have a variety of experiences and voices, so we have faculty coming from Latin America, Asia and the MENA region, with expertise in subjects as varied as 3D-printing techniques to researching life on Mars. We’re thinking not only about academics, but also from a social responsibility point of view. For example, sustainability is a big part of our focus.

What are some of the investments that Dubai is making in design infrastructure?

The recent appointment of Dubai as a UNESCO Creative City of Design (UCCN) reflects the creative contribution and the infrastructure the city has invested in. Authorities such as Dubai Culture, Dubai Municipality and other entities have banded together to work towards this goal. The focus has gradually shifted from being a trade and commerce hub into a knowledge-based economy. What you see today is the result of all the development that has taken place over the past 18-20 years.

Earlier, we used to import talents, but now it’s the opposite. Regional companies are now coming into Dubai to recruit talent from here. That knowledge-based economy model has spawned new sectors such as design.

Other countries have built up their infrastructure to become part of the UCCN, whereas Dubai became a member of the network because it met all the pre-requisites. This has been an organic growth.

For the last two years, our deans, Sass Brown and Hani Asfour, have been going to local schools to determine how prepared are the students to embrace design thinking and present solutions to the challenges in the society. Today, design is on the curriculum of schools, so students learn about it even before they go to universities. Innovation has become a key factor in both private and public sectors.

What would you say are Dubai's strengths in becoming a hub for the international design industry?

Dubai is very strategically located between the East and the West. It becomes the bridge through which knowledge is transmitted. All the different influences come here and add to the cultural melting pot.

The social environment such as tolerance and respect for different cultures, safety and security makes this city an attractive destination for people from around the world. Being an academic institution, we have students from different parts of the world. In Dubai Academic City alone, we have 27,000 students, in 28 universities, from 150 countries. This diversity leads to new ideas and innovative thinking.

What is your vision for the future of DIDI?

We need to educate our populace that design is not just fashion and architecture. It encompasses every realm. There has to be a sense of responsibility for all those involved in this initiative. We’ve been very selective about the curriculum, partnerships, faculty  and the intake of students. 

Today, we’re focusing on take-off. We want to play a pivotal role in the society and create a grassroots movement. We don’t just want our students to graduate with a degree, we would like them to create something that has an impact on the society.

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