International Youth Day: Region’s only design varsity contributes to UAE's innovation and entrepreneurial spirit

Hani Asfour, dean of Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, explains how the institute nurtures young talent


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Fri 12 Aug 2022, 9:33 AM

Last updated: Fri 12 Aug 2022, 9:34 AM

The Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI), the Middle East’s first and only university exclusively dedicated to design and innovation, offers the region’s first integrated Bachelor of Design degree in collaboration with MIT and Parsons School of Design — two world-leading universities exploring technological innovation, creativity, and human-centric design.

The aim of the institute is to nurture young local and regional talent in the fled of design, unlocking their creative and entrepreneurial potential. Coinciding with the occasion of International Youth Day today, Khaleej Times spoke with Hani Asfour, the dean of DIDI, about a raft of issues, such as how the UAE is a fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship.

The academician held forth on the future of education, job prospects, the fifth Industrial Revolution, and key principles such as entrepreneurship and innovation. Asfour is best suited to speak about these issues because of his stellar academic credentials. He is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard-trained architect. He received his BSAD in Architecture from MIT in 1988, and his MArch terminal degree in Architecture with Distinction from Harvard University in 1994.

He has over 22 years of experience as a practising architect, designer and educator, and has taught architecture and design in the US, Lebanon and the UAE. He is Founding President of the Beirut Creative Cluster and Founding Partner of Polypod, an international award-winning, multidisciplinary, collaborative design studio in Beirut, Lebanon.

Here are some edited excerpts from the interview, on the occasion of Youth Day:

The creative economy is seen as an engine of growth and major contributor to the UAE’s bid to diversify its economy. What is DIDI’s role in creating a new cadre of highly skilled designers and innovators for the creative industries in the region?

The Dubai Creative Economy Strategy represents the strong visionary approach of the UAE leadership. An innovative economy requires three pillars: mindset, infrastructure, and talent. The UAE’s strategy amplifies the creative industries as a major contributor to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), which serves as a magnet to attract, retain and nurture global and local talent being nurtured by DIDI. With the digital and physical world increasingly intertwining, designers — as complex problem solvers and entrepreneurs — must be equally educated in visual literacy, technological fluency and strategic proficiency, the convergence of which defines our academic programme.

Education must evolve to adequately prepare future generations for the world they will live in. How is DIDI future-proofing the next generation of designers and empowering students with the skills of the future?

As we enter the world of machine learning and augmented reality (AR), we’re in urgent need to humanise technology. Thoughtful and impactful design occupies the heart of this challenge, so we need to train well-rounded problem solvers, critical thinkers and strategic decision-makers. Human-centred design thinking begins with empathy as it seeks to sincerely provide meaningful and desirable solutions that profoundly resolve the end-user’s pain points.

We offer four disciplines: Product Design, Multimedia Design, Fashion Design and Strategic Design Management. Over the course of four years, students combine two design disciplines that enable them to be flexible and adaptive in the face of the uncertainties of our future world. The hands-on curriculum trains the students in a variety of essential technical and technological skills, from advanced conceptualisation to rapid prototyping, illustration and visualisation, applying Arduino — an open-source electronic prototyping platform enabling users to create interactive electronic objects — and robotics, as well as developing user interfaces and front-end design.

Design education also provides critical soft and transferable skills, such as creative problem solving, advanced communication and empathetic listening, maintaining a growth-orientated mindset to help them become fearless leaders.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are abstract concepts, yet they define so many of the UAE’s national agendas and global economies. Can youth be taught these principles and still participate in modern work cultures and careers?

Innovation, as the implementation of creativity, and entrepreneurship, as the monetisation of innovation, are integral to the positive advancement of economies. With such relevant skills, implementable solutions, sustainable responsibility and socially aware innovations, it has not been a surprise to see how our alumni are rapidly finding opportunities post-graduation in some of the worlds’ most reputable organisations, including the Venice Biennale and Imperial College as well as leading local and global corporations.

Besides, in collaboration with in5, we’ve launched the DIDI Startup Programme that allows eligible students and alumni to incubate their inventions in our joint Fabrication Lab. The one-year programme is free of charge and provides our community with key entrepreneurship support, including professional mentorship, intensive and targeted workshops, continued access to fabrication equipment and, most importantly, access to investors and venture capitalists.

Recent UAE educational reforms, announced by the President, His Highness Sheikh Mohmed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, on May 22, will empower future generations of independent thinkers and innovators. How is DIDI’s vision and teaching aligned with this major development?

The new reforms aim to make students more future-ready than ever before and capable of succeeding in a competitive global workforce. DIDI was founded with design education at its base and has been aligned with the leadership’s knowledge and innovation-based economic aspirations from the beginning. We empower students to tap into their passion to create and conceive solutions that add value and reshape the future – socially, digitally and responsibly. This is integral to our vision as we strive to make digital life more meaningful and productive.

Could you tell us more about DIDI’s curriculum and the admissions process?

The four-year programme begins with an immersive year exposing students to basic visual, digital and entrepreneurship skills. Then, from their second year onwards, students combine two disciplines to create their own educational journey. The programme combines visual literacy, technological fluency and strategic proficiency.

The process for applying is straightforward. It begins with an online application available on our website, which includes a 500-word statement of purpose describing the applicant’s life aspirations and motivation for applying.

We require standard documents, such as high school transcripts and records. More details are available on our website, We will be hosting a two-day orientation session on August 17 and 18 to introduce new students and their families to the resources and opportunities available at DIDI.

What scholarship opportunities are available to students?

DIDI provides up to 50 per cent scholarships to students based on merit and financial need, and full scholarships for Emirati students. Applications for the upcoming intake’s scholarships close at the end of August.


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