Next-gen problem solvers: biggest ever Project Design Space competition, says DIDI

One of the final Project Design Space presentations from 2019

The Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation reports that participation in its annual Project Design Space competition for schools is higher than ever for its sixth edition. More than 2,500 students are taking part, not least because the contest has been expanded to include schools from India as well as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Oman.

“When we launched in 2017, Project Design Space engaged a hundred students from five schools in Dubai,” DIDI’s Dean Hani Asfour (right) told us. “Today it is a mature, established design competition that welcomes students from the ages of 14-18 and has seen participation from more than 12,000 students and over 110 schools from the UAE, the GCC countries, and beyond.”

Project Design Space aims to build design mindsets and specific skills, particularly to give students the idea of design (or at least problem-solving) as a career. It claims to be unique in the way it presents the opportunity to solve problems for real life clients – five of them each year, with the current group being Louvre Abu Dhabi, Mubadala Health, Hunter Foods, Schneider Electric and HP – and indeed we don’t know of any other design competition that has school students engaging with actual businesses like this.

The competition runs over six months, mostly via digital interrelations – in past (pre-Covid) years there were a lot of in-person workshops and meetings – with the DIDI faculty sourcing client briefs, enrolling schools and running online workshops for teachers and students covering design thinking skills, applied problem solving, prototyping, teamwork and pitching.

On the client front, students join briefing sessions to understand the business’ objectives to ensure their prototypes effectively solve the challenge at hand. “It’s a uniquely immersive experience that not only pushes students to think innovatively, but also upskills them in the process,” said Hani Asfour.

Given that design in the real world has to cope with the vagaries of corporate budgets and return on investment, we asked DIDI how much emphasis is put on establishing a business case as well as a design solution. We didn’t get an exact answer to that; DIDI did tell us the competition places equal emphasis on “finding an innovative solution to clients’ challenges and embedding design thinking and creative problem-solving”, neither of which necessarily involves the nitty-gritty of budgets and justifying expense. But “we work closely with each one of DIDI’s clients to ensure that the design briefs help build the skills of the future whilst providing innovative solutions to real-life business challenges,” said Asfour.

“This is precisely why our clients have always come from different sectors to ensure that we have a balanced offering and in turn, introduce high school students to an eclectic array of challenges … Students are introduced to diverse industries and learn, first-hand, how design impacts businesses in different ways.”

DIDI’s press release also quotes the Institute’s president Mohammad Abdullah (right). “Project Design Space has created unrivalled opportunities for creative thinkers to conceptualise, problem solve and turn ideas into impact … We look forward to supporting our clients with innovative solutions to potentially contribute to their growth in the UAE and beyond.”

He might be overstating the case there. The competition isn’t really about inviting the participating businesses to adopt the competition results as actual implementable solutions – it’s not impossible, but in practice it’s unlikely that high-school STEM students will have the experience or the vocabulary to present a business case as well as an effective design solution.

The companies appear to recognise this, seeing the CSR value in their contribution while being circumspect about the outcomes. Mubadala Health for instance said “we will certainly consider the implementation of ideas that we feel could be impactful on our communities” and “if a campaign idea is delivered that is impactful and meets our objectives, we may certainly consider putting it to use”.

Hunter Foods took much the same view – “if there is something practical solution/design/recommendation from this project, of course, we would like to work with the team/students to possibly implementing it” but did emphasise that “we hope that [students] have put in as much thoughts as they could on all the different aspects of food/food packaging and food production; and not taking any daily items, so ubiquitous, for granted”.

Was the Hunter design brief realistic? “It is realistic enough for them to come up with their own designs and ideas, and broad enough not to limit their creativity and imagination.” That was also the view of Mubadala: “since the challenge is the development of a marketing campaign, it leaves the door open for creativity”.

They also seem to value the competition highly enough to commit resources to it. Hunter for instance told us they’d be putting 50-100 (wo)man hours into the project, including top-level management involvement (Managing Director and Marketing Manager among them).

We asked whether any of the design solutions proposed over the years by competitors have actually been implemented by participating businesses, and Hani Asfour cited a 2018 project for Adidas which did result in a real-world awareness campaign about reducing ocean pollution.

But as he said, “the primary objective of Project Design Space is to future proof the next generation of designers” and “our role entails arming high school students with the skills of the future” – not to fix issues which might be hampering the putative clients.

You can see that in this year’s design briefs, all of them laudable, interesting and practical without necessarily being core business issues (though two do relate to money-making new projects, all are concerned with image and visibility):

  • Design a ‘by youth, for youth’ course on entrepreneurship for the HP LIFE platform (free training courses for business and 21st century skills). Content-wise this sounds tricky – how much experience of entrepreneurship can high school students claim? – but there should be some good ideas about delivery and feedback.
  • Design an “intervention” in one of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s spaces to engages young people with the museum’s identity, narrative, architecture and collections – could be a physical installation, event, performance or a digital component. It seems a bit vague, but we haven’t seen the detail so maybe it’s more focussed than it sounds.
  • Design an awareness campaign for Mubadala Health that will encourage more people to attend an annual physical check-up. This looks like a solid, practical project, albeit one where the ‘design’ element emphasises influence and promotion rather than physical solutions.
  • Design a smart home that harnesses the power of technology to enable “sustainable, personalised and connected living” for energy management and automation specialist Schneider Electric. Or as the company’s HR VP for Gulf Countries, Natalja Kissina, put it: “This competition provides youth an exciting platform to create their very own home automation design of the future using Schneider Electric’s energy efficient products and solutions.” There’s been so much work on smart home products and systems that it would be impressive if any of the projects came up with original thinking, but that’s not the point – and how a team of teenagers envisages a ‘smart home’ might be instructive in itself.
  • Design a ‘universal’ potato chip product for Hunter Foods – a packaged snack with no geographical restrictions or preferences. Said MD Ananya Narayan: “What we do has to connect with today’s and tomorrow’s youth … We would love to learn from them, to see the world from their angle and perspectives, and how they like to see and taste their favourite snacks”. Given the bad press that such snacks have sometimes received, it will be interesting to see if the proposed shapes, flavours and packaging incorporate anything related to healthy lifestyles …

Overall, the competition absolutely must be an effective way to engage school students with the principles of design, especially product design, and the wider application of the problem-solving approach.

Participating teams submitted their proposals as video presentations to DIDI during March. Shortlisted teams are being invited to attend bootcamp sessions to gain some feedback on how to enhance their ideas; final presentations will then take place between May and June.

A Project Design Space presentation from 2019

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