Without negating the powers of the high-tech, human-centric designs took the spotlight at Dubai Design Week this year. In the global context of increasingly divisive issues and ongoing humanitarian crises, the most innovative designs were concerned with community, connections, and human resilience.

Housed in OMA’s newly completed Concrete building at Alserkal Avenue, the While We Wait installation highlighted the tensions of the controversial separation wall in Palestine’s Cremisan Valley.

The towering structure by Bethlehem-based architects Elias and Yousef Anastas used stones quarried in various regions of Palestine, bringing in the infinite tones found in the landscape – from earthy red to pale limestone. With the closing of Dubai Design Week, the installation will now be relocated to the Cremisan Valley indefinitely.

Audio and visual depictions of the Cremisan Valley supported the structure on exhibit. Photo by Musthafa Aboobacker

Cut by robots in intricate shapes and then hand-finished by local artisans, the execution of the structure integrated the high-tech without compromising human craftsmanship. All the while, the architects highlighted the relationship between nature, architecture, and how claims over either or both could lead to the segregation of communities and sever the links between people and the landscape they inhabit.

Folks Kitchenware for the Blind by Kevin Chiam

Graduates from 92 universities from across the globe were invited to present their innovative prototypes in the Global Grad Show, focusing on themes of empowerment, connection, and sustainability. The curator of the exhibit, Brendan McGetrick, conveyed different messages through the graduate projects: innovation that transcends technology and exists independent of wealth; equality without hierarchy amongst universities, regions and designers; universal design opened to all types of projects; and impact on the world at large through solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The exhibition featured forward-thinking designs within specific contexts, such as kitchen utensils for the blind – reinvigorating the haptic experience in design – and a voice-assistance system to overcome language barriers faced in hospitals.

CoLife by Tuomas Burakowski and Tuomas Jussila is a portable water filtration system made of everyday objects such as soda bottles and bicycle pumps (right); Polyglossia by Tony Cho is a human-centred voice assistant designed to break down language barriers in hospitals to overcome miscommunication and misunderstandings in a time when migrants are a global phenomenon (left).

Stepping out of the design district, visitors of Dubai Design Week were greeted by a large cloud-like installation. Fahed and Architects constructed an ephemeral pavilion using recycled bedsprings, a material that supported us in our dreams and was now re-used to nurture a renewed message of hope.

Within the amorphous structure, the Abwab exhibition was the key event in highlighting regional design talent from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. The exhibition was curated through an innovative peer-selection process – dubbed ‘design dominoes’ – where each designer nominated the next participant.

Rasha Dakkak’s Prayer Mat

A key theme of the exhibition was the co-habitation of authenticity and modernism in a globalized context. In designing the Zawya coffee table for The Hub Interior Decoration, Yasmin Noureldin reinterpreted the symbol of the Islamic star through geometric principles. Its materiality caters to all tastes, while its form maintains a connection with Islamic heritage. In an attempt to reinterpret ritual aesthetics, Rasha Dakkak designed a new generation of prayer mats for the practicing Muslim. Indeed, current praying mats look like antiquated objects, which creates a distance between modern Muslims and the meaning the object represents.

the Sr (Secret) room divider by Loci Architecture and Design on the right; the dynamic Zawya coffee table designed by Yasmin Noureldin.

It’s evident that this year’s Dubai Design Week focused on designs that are innovative not just in a general sense, but in ways that are catered to the individual, the community, and the pressing issues faced by the global citizen. The showcased works attempt to overcome the stereotype that innovation necessarily involves high-tech robotics and machinery that disregards the needs of the individual. The message is loud and clear – the trend of technology for innovation’s sake is over; it’s time for design that serves humans.