Inside UAE's superlab: the ideas hothouse forcing innovation

How to teach students to think as well as learn is the challenge of a New York Abu Dhabi course that brings innovation into the curriculum.

Who will design the next iPad or create a successor to the Google search engine? The answer may lie in a laboratory at New York University Abu Dhabi, where a new generation of students are finding out if they have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of some of the world’s most brilliant minds.

The aim is to produce the next generation of super designers. And to do that, students must master the design X Factor.

“Traditionally, universities have been places where knowledge was just imparted to students, but more and more, knowledge is created at universities through projects and research,” says Sunil Kumar, the dean of engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi.

“The next step is working out how you take this knowledge and directly impact society. This includes everything from integrating liberal arts into engineering and integrating innovation, invention and entrepreneurship. How do you train students with these things? How do you teach innovation?

“We are all innovative in one way or another but our frontal lobe creates an inhibition within us that stops us. We starting thinking ‘maybe someone else has done this already’ or ‘I’ll make a fool of myself’. These thoughts inhibit us.”

As part of NYU Abu Dhabi’s first-year engineering course, the students take an intensive course that forces them to become innovative.

Split into six teams of four, they work 14 hours a day, seven days a week for a two weeks to think up, design and build a communication device of the future.

The brief given to them this year was to design a tool to enhance a human relationship. But there was a catch. They were not allowed to use any voice or screen-based technology. “The experience is about immersing the students in a real world, high pressure design challenge,” says Stefan Agamanolis, visiting associate professor in engineering, who used to work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

“They can’t use voice or screens. How do you communicate something without this? How do you make a device with some kind of emotional impact that’s not just raw information?

“They had to think about not only the design of the product but the experience. That’s the leap we are trying to get them to make.”

Theo Ntawiheba, from Rwanda, looks visibly exhausted on the final day of the superlab challenge.

The 20-year-old is part of the Ration Shop group which has designed a communication tool to better manage the ration system in India.

“I’m tired, but it has been an amazing experience. It’s hard trying to think of an idea from nowhere, especially when you all have different ideas but that’s the point of the challenge.”

The group’s invention involves a shopping bag, which is kept by the customer, and an Appointment Verification System at the nearest shop. By connecting the two sides of the bag, the customer can send a signal to the shop to request an appointment.

If there is space for an appointment, a small LED light in the bag will flash green. The point of the system is to improve communication and save time by preventing wasted journeys.

Of course the purpose of the challenge is not necessarily to produce marketable products – though that is one of the bonuses, and some of the previous inventions have patents pending – it is to force the students to think outside of the box, literally training their brains to think in a less rigid manner as has been the tradition with engineering learning.

Regardless of whether they choose to pursue a career in product design specifically, this way of thinking will prove invaluable, their teachers say.

“If you look at engineers and look at the profession and our aspirations as a society and what we need, nothing can be pigeon holed,” says Mr Kumar, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering. “Maybe at one time we needed a mechanical or a chemical or an electrical engineer. But today’s applications and everything that we need, integrate all of these skills.”

At 18, Abdullah Mahomed, a South African who grew up in Saudi Arabia, is one of the younger students in the superlab. He and his teammates have created BePresent – a shirt that uses motor senses and heart-rate monitors to send signals to a an identical shirt, allowing the wearer to “feel” the emotions of the other shirt wearer.

“When we started this we didn’t imagine we could come up something like this,” Abdullah says. “We were totally overwhelmed by it. Some are strong with computer programmes, not imagination, and you have to work as a team together, it’s really hard.”

The technology uses vibration and heat to transmit “emotions” between the shirts. It may sound far fetched, but 20 years ago much of the technology we use today would have been unimaginable.

The future, it seems, lies in expanding imagination of these young engineers-in-training.

“There’s a specific kind of person who can think creatively and work with ideas in an effortless way,” says Mr Agamanolis, who has a doctorate in Media Arts and Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They are very skilled in one particular area, so they might know about electronics, but they can also speak the language to business people and other designers. That is the kind of person that conventional universities don’t produce.”

Nahal Mustafa, from Karachi, Pakistan, is one of the students with the potential to become such a person. The 20-year-old switched from a visual arts degree to the engineering faculty this year because she wanted “a bigger challenge”.

Speaking about her intensive two weeks in the superlab challenge, she sounds both exasperated but elated.

“At times it was very frustrating but I believe, when we’re done, it has been one of the most precious experiences of my life. It feels like we’re on The Apprentice. It’s very intense.”

Her group has created Eyesense, a communication tool to help newly blind people learn how to navigate their surroundings.

A guide, in this case Nahal, wears a cap with a sensor sewed into it. The blindfolded person wears a sort of necklace of vibrating receivers which, depending on whether Nahal moves her head up, down, left or right, will vibrate in different places to indicate which way she is looking.

“When someone is newly blind their other senses aren’t sharp enough yet. So if someone was talking for example, it would be much easier to hear them if they are facing them, as they would if they could see,” she explains. “The guide can help the person tune their senses by showing them, without speaking, which way to face.”

The technology, she says, is similar to that of a smartphone which is able to change from landscape to portrait depending on which way the phone is held.

The superlab, in Mussaffah, is an engineer’s playroom, equipped with the latest technology to allow the students free reign with their ideas.

There are 3D printers, which use layers of glue to print 3D images on paper, flexible conductive copper tape and laser cutters which use a computer programme to carve out detailed shapes.

Eder Munyampenda, who is originally from Rwanda but grew up in Toronto, Canada, hopes to one day work with the same impressive technologies to help “rebuild” his country.

"I'd like to go back to Rwanda," he says. "I'd like to rebuild my country and have a positive impact. The learning here is amazing, it's first class and I want to use what I learn to do good."