How design can transform a post-pandemic UAE

Design can improve our lives even when dealing with pandemics and their aftermath

Dubai Economy is engaging with business groups and companies to gauge the impact of coronavirus pandemic on their businesses . Alamy
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Much has been said about how travel will change – and indeed already has – in the aftermath of the coronavirus. In the post-pandemic world, people may fear flying, they say. There will be other structural changes in our lives. As we continue to physically distance ourselves, restaurants and cafes may not be fully occupied in a hurry.

From the perspective of design, such challenges are an ideal exploratory terrain on multiple levels. For example, product designers have been experimenting with layouts for airplanes and seat designs that would ensure people feel safer. The hospitality industry has had to rethink its interiors and seat spacing. And as countries exit lockdowns, designers have envisioned cities with more bicycle lanes, as well as products that clearly signal physical distancing.

In terms of forward thinking and the use of imagination, the time is ripe – not only in Dubai and the UAE but also in the region – to shift our understanding; from design being a tool to produce only pleasing things to seeing it as a future-oriented discipline that can act as a catalyst for nations to transform their structures and physical spaces.

We do not wish to ignore the power of aesthetics as much as to draw attention to the other qualities design possesses. As some of the most important scholars have argued, design should be understood as a progressive practice, improving or challenging the status quo. We believe this approach is well in line with the UAE's National Agenda 2021.

Seen from this light, aesthetically pleasing products and services will be relevant but crucially, design could contribute to the creation of more resilient, creative and nourishing societies.

Fast fashion will be numbered

In fashion design, for example, researchers and practitioners have started to question conventions through which fast fashion operates. While urging consumers to update their wardrobes faster than necessary, companies consume vast amounts of natural resources. They employ people in questionable conditions in factories to produce garments that end up only being used until the next collections are launched.

There are many ways to change this: experimenting with more sustainable materials, focusing on designing timeless pieces, producing locally, as well as coming up with new business models to influence more sustainable behaviour in both designers and consumers.

Inventions by graduates from universities around the world at the Global Grad Show during the Dubai Design Week at the Dubai Design District, Dubai, UAE, on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. (Photos by Shruti Jain - The National)
Inventions by graduates from universities around the world at the Global Grad Show during the Dubai Design Week in November. Shruti Jain for The National

Public sector can do with collaborative design

Similarly, design’s transformative power has been evident in the public sector. Nordic countries have been developing their public services through what is called participatory or collaborative design. Citizens and residents alike are invited to have their say on new design concepts, sometimes even playing an active part throughout the process. For example, the new central library in Helsinki was designed by following these principles. And Denmark’s now defunct MindLab was aimed at supporting policy makers in creating better conditions for innovations to thrive in the country.

Examples such as these are also witnessed here in the UAE (Mobius Design Studio’s Design House project being a good case), yet the public awareness and engagement with this notion of design is limited.

Platforms such as Dubai Design Week's Global Grad Show annually showcases young innovators and their projects not only from the region but also on a global scale.

Recently the Dubai-based ARM Holding partnered with Global Grad Show by launching a fund worth Dh10 million to support design projects from the Global Grad Show, take these projects to market that could then contribute to a more prosperous future for the UAE.

Such investments are important for they can fund futuristic projects and turn them into a reality. We ought to devote time reflecting on the future we wish to achieve. And envisioning a city's collective future needs is where emerging design methods and practices will work best. In fact, using design to reimagine life and business in the post-pandemic UAE will generate viable alternatives to current lifestyle choices.

Shopper checking list in supermarket aisle
During this pandemic, we have witnessed a groundswell of support for a social model that is less focused on consumerism and more on need. Getty Images

Less consumerism, more need-based design

As things now stand and when it comes to social interaction, the post-pandemic world has been conceived as full of anxiety. Perhaps society will no longer take communal spaces for granted. Even as that fear exists, during this pandemic we have witnessed a groundswell of support for a social model that is less focused on consumerism and more on need.

Designing often means posing the right questions: do we really need to fly around the world as much as we did, or can we instead focus on implementing more remote working practices? Do we need to rely on daily food deliveries, or should we instead focus on re-designing our daily routines so that we can reclaim food preparation as a way to be together?

If approached socially and strategically, design can bring about long-lasting changes that improve not only how products and services look and feel, but interactions between people, the way in which businesses operate, and what kind of innovations we create and for what purposes.

Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Ruba Haza: Hamad Al Shehhi. RAK antiquities and museums department VR experience "A journey to the past through virtual reality" at UAE innovates, Ras Al Khaimah. Wednesday, February 19th, 2020. Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Hamad Al Shehhi trying out the pearl diving voyage VR experience at Corniche Al Qawasim Innovation Festival in Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Vision of the UAE

As members of the faculty of Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, we are exposed to design’s transformative capacities on a daily basis. We are witnessing how it has changed not only Dubai but the entire UAE’s social and cultural landscape.

The UAE's unique lead on innovation was established largely because of its Founding Father’s forward-thinking and resilient attitude. This legacy is evident in the UAE National Agenda 2021 that was launched in 2010 to usher in a new era. Now, with Covid-19 having perhaps permanently altered our social and economic systems, future-making has never been in such high demand.

This means that in the long term, as design turns into a sustainable discipline, capable of incorporating new ways of using resources, we can hope that younger generations become more mindful and resilient, and future organisations more responsive and innovative.

Studying changes in design and its implications is after all an opportunity to refine a way of thinking and being around each other.

Miikka J Lehtonen, Noorin Khamisani, Catherine Dunford are faculty members at the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation