DIDI latest: new Dean, familiar President

Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation is starting to take shape – literally as well as metaphorically, for the groundwork is actually well under way for the next phase of Dubai Design District that will include the Foster + Partners design for DIDI.

Meanwhile the AED 270m institution itself has acquired a board, it has appointed a Dean, there are staff on board (including a COO and a marketing director), and the syllabus for the four-year Bachelor’s course is being accredited.

From the top:

The board of directors DIDI is a private, not-for-profit education institution, established by its main shareholders Tecom Group and Dubai Creative Clusters Authority. Tecom is the developer behind d3 and indeed eight other free zones; the Authority is the regulator that exists solely to oversee those Tecom developments.

Dr Amina Al Rustamani: President of DIDI

So in one of the year’s least surprising announcements, Dr Amina Al Rustamani has been named as DIDI’s president. She is group CEO of Tecom, and she founded (and is chair of) DDFC, the Dubai Design and Fashion Council. She always figures in lists of top Arab businesswomen – 13th in CEO Middle East’s 2016 list of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women, for instance. This is one strong, well-connected woman.

Her board of directors includes a clutch of familiar names:

Ali BuRuhaima, deputy director general of Dubai Creative Cluster Authority

Ali Jaber, Group TV director at MBC and the public face of DIDI when the project was announced last October

Nisha Jagtiani, director at Landmark Group (indeed, the daughter of the billionaire who runs Landmark) and a long-term DDFC member

Ghassan Harfouche, group CEO of MCN and head of McCann Worldgroup’s MENA network of 14 different advertising, media and PR agency brands in 13 countries. He’s another member of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council

Silvo Scaglia, the Italian telecoms entrepreneur who is also the founder and current chairman of Pacific Global – the company that runs the Elite World modelling agency network and the La Perla lingerie brand.

The founding Dean The job of fronting DIDI has gone to Sass Brown – journalist, blogger, published author (check out Eco Fashion from 2010 and 2013’s ReFashioned), fashion designer, researcher, activist (for ecologically sensitive fashion) and educator.

She was previously Interim Dean for the School of Art and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and she’d been associated with FIT (initially as a lecturer) for 16 years.

Originally from London, Sass established herself in the 90s as a designer with her own signature collections. She has become a major force for sustainability in fashion design, advocating the essentials from ‘slow design’ and craft skills to the importance of new business models for the industry. She’s also very receptive to innovation in fashion design, provided there’s an ethical/sustainable dimension.

The syllabus DIDI’s collaborators on the development of the syllabus – MIT and Parsons – have produced to a first-of-its-kind curriculum that is currently being vetted by the Ministry of Higher Education.

It’s a four-year course. Students will complete a mandatory foundation year before they select modules from the “concentrations” in Product Design, Strategic Design Management, Media, Visual Art and Fashion Design. The principle is that the student effectively designs their own course, mixing and matching from disciplines that in most design institutions are jealousy guarded territories; the innovation in DIDI’s name applies both to outward-looking content and to the way the design education is delivered.

It’s early days yet, but Sass Brown told us that there will be “conversations” about visiting lecturers and secondments from MIT and Parsons – maybe even student exchanges.

The team Well, it’s a modest enough group at the moment – though clearly staffing up will be a major task for the rest of the year. The Chief Operating Officer is Leigh Ann Jones-Khosla, formerly of Tecom and DDFC. And Brett Kershaw, DIDI’s Strategy and Marketing Director since the start of March, was most recently Director of Marketing and Admissions at the North London Collegiate School, an independent (ie fee-paying) girls’ school with a thousand students.

Kershaw’s background in top-level management around education looks very relevant. His LinkedIn page proclaims “more than eight years of experience in key leadership roles within the marketing, communications, student recruitment and admissions fields” – all of which sounds essential for DIDI to get off the ground.

magpie’s take  The public statements, the curriculum’s outlines, and even Sass Brown’s enthusiasm are all impressive: DIDI will be a beacon for design in general, expanding the what, how and why of design and fostering a creative environment in d3 and Dubai generally.

Admittedly it won’t do much to fix the shortfall of local design talent that will supposedly be required in the MENA region in the next few years – 30,000 designers will be needed by 2019, says the MENA Design Education Outlook report commissioned for DDFC. But Sass Brown believes that the interaction between DIDI and d3’s tenants, particularly those in the easy-enter low-cost fast-turnover studio spaces that have been promised, will have effects well beyond the modest annual intake of 120 or so students.

And those names do sound good. The board is predictably made up of DDFC stalwarts, people who have proved themselves competent councillors who are clearly able to work with each other.

The new Dean, Sass Brown, looks to be an articulate and enthusiastic leader with the kind of commitment to ethical design that bodes well. It’s all too easy for designers to look for commercial success without taking in the bigger picture – which should include an understanding of the responsibility that design carries. It will be good to have this kind of advocacy at the top.

But there are no contrarians or dissenters on that board (yet?) and sometimes you do need an argumentative voice rather than well-oiled agreement. Maybe the awkward squad will be drafted in later to provide some debate and leftfield thinking, though this isn’t normally the UAE way of doing things …

More immediately worrying is the apparent overload of fashion. Sass Brown’s professional background combined with the overwhelming bias of the DDFC towards the ‘fashion’ component rather than ‘design’ might suggest that the emphasis at DIDI is going to be on design for clothes. Fashion in general is legitimately perceived as a luxury and somewhat exclusive, which after all is why Dubai has become so heavily identified with this sector. But the need for more and better design applies much more widely, across products, signage and graphics, interiors … and it should be DIDI’s remit to explore all the possibilities.

Of course Fashion Design is only one of the five design concentrations, and we’re assured that these will all be equal in status and emphasis –”there is no greater emphasis on fashion than on any of the other concentrations”. All students select two of them in which to specialise after their first year, so at best fashion will be no more than 50 percent of the degree. The faculty staff and assistants will surely come from a broader catchment, too. Sass Brown told us that the Institute is keen to emphasise that it is not perceived as fashion first: “indeed the entire focus of the curriculum is cross disciplinary, so that it is not and could not be a ‘fashion school’”. 

The nature of the relationships DIDI can forge – with product designers and architect studios in d3, and with the d3 design shows Downtown Design and Design Days – will tell us more. Perhaps there might be room on the board for a product or industrial or graphic designer (or two) just to leaven the mix.

But enough of the caveats: magpie thinks DIDI is a great idea in principle, both for design (in terms of its syllabus and educational approach) and for Dubai. We look forward to watching the project unfold.

Getting started  Actually DIDI has already started doing Good Things, with its pilot Project Design Space for local high schools. Teams worked for around a month after school on the same design brief, an awareness campaign to educate the UAE public about the importance of design and its impact on society. Results were then presented to a panel of judges.

Five schools were selected from 14 applications. Among the proposals were a 3D print café, a youth festival featuring design workshops, and interactive design booths in strategic locations.

The stated aim was “to further enhance high school students’ knowledge of design as an academic discipline and potential career path” but obviously there’s the equally important opportunity to give DIDI some visibility and entrench the Institute in Dubai’s design ecosystem.

Said Dr Al Rustamani: “The UAE has set ambitious goals to strengthen its position as an innovation-led, knowledge-based economy, and it’s our responsibility to support these goals by developing talented youth and inspiring creativity”.

Project Design Space looks like a sound initiative. Teachers from the participating schools attending a workshop to hone “design thinking modes”, the teams worked in a simulated studio environment, the final presentations weren’t too dissimilar to client presentations.

GEMS International School Al Khail was selected as the winner, and the school’s Head of Design and Innovation Evo Hannan was suitably complimentary about the exercise. “We consider real world learning experiences as a key vehicle to help students understand global perspectives. I’m pleased to see DIDI offer opportunities to high school students to stretch their ability to problem solve, create and innovate within a real world context.

“The Project Design Space program has provided a unique chance for our students to think about the impact they could make on society as designers and creative thinkers. As a result, our students feel more confident with their creative abilities and have a greater understanding of how design and innovation projects are developed professionally.”

DIDI plans to expand Project Design Space in autumn 2017 to more than 30 schools. A call for applications will be issued in September.

What do you think?

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