Dubai: The City in the Desert

A few months ago, I found out that one of my projects was accepted to be showcased at the Dubai Design Week. This was exciting for a couple of reasons. First of all, people like my project. Second, I would be going to Dubai, a place that I wanted to go to, but didn’t really have plans to go to anytime soon.

Being from the Western World, the view of the Middle East that we are presented with is often skewed, to say the least. Dubai is in an interesting spot though, since it’s probably the most commercialized city in the Middle East with a relatively liberal society. As a result, I had no idea what to expect going into this trip.

The only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to a desert country.
The only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to a desert country.

It was an interesting trip, because probably every expectation I had about the city was both true and false at the same time. It was a case where the expectation was technically true, but there were aspects about it that were completely unexpected.

The first thing people normally think about when they think about Dubai is the luxury and the grandness of the place. You know, the Burj Khalifa, the “seven star hotel”, luxury cars, gold plated everything. People think of all the money that gets poured into the development of the city, and as a result, the people as well.

I can’t say that’s not true, but it turns out that’s a pretty naive view of the city. Yes, the city is unbelievably grand. The downtown city area was built relatively recently and you can tell a lot of money was spent on designing and constructing the buildings. Normally when you go to a city, most of the buildings just look like generic buildings with a few landmarks. But not Dubai.

It's very obvious which parts of the city they focused on developing first.
It’s very obvious which parts of the city they focused on developing first.

I don’t have a good skyline picture of Dubai, but you can kinda get what I’m talking about from that picture. For one, the density in Dubai is weird. It looks like they just focused all of their major developments along those two roads that intersect on the bottom left there. And if you look at those buildings, they’re all different. There’s really no copy-paste syndrome like you might find in other cities like Seoul. You have different types of architectural styles found very close together.

But once you leave the city center, the feeling of the city changes drastically. Gone are the fancy cars and the modern buildings. In fact, gone are all the Arab people. Once you take the subway out a couple stops into the older districts, everything is different. It’s primarily populated by immigrant workers, mainly South Asian males, and the dichotomy is so real.

Abras, a cheap way to cross the Dubai Creek.
Abras, a cheap way to cross the Dubai Creek.

It’s interesting to note that according to Wikipedia, only 15% of the population in Dubai are UAE nationals. That’s a fun fact that can be clearly seen the moment you even get on the metro, since the number of people you see wearing Kandorahs or Abayas drops dramatically.

Normally, each city has different facets to it which adds to the character of the city. Dubai is no exception to this rule, but where most other cities feel like the evolved somewhat organically, Dubai feels very artificial. When you’re out of the city center, the roads sprawl out and the buildings feel like they are a part of the surroundings. But the moment you re-enter the city center, everything feels so planned and forced. Like they just cleared out a giant chunk of the city and plopped down this mega-city.

How many construction cranes can you see?
How many construction cranes can you see?

The entire downtown area is like, under construction. And we’re not even talking about road work or anything either. We’re talking bridges and canals, skyscrapers and towers, entire districts. It’s kind of amazing actually how much stuff they are concurrently building.

Like the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall are respectively the tallest building and the largest mall in the world, and they’re currently in the development of a taller building and a larger mall. That’s incredible. If you have the excess money to spend, Dubai is a fantastic place to just spend money and feel amazing about it. It felt grand to even just lay eyes on the Burj Khalifa and the Burj Al Arab, let alone eat meals or spend the night in them.

Essentially a tourist resort designed as a traditional souk.
Essentially a tourist resort designed as a traditional souk.

So in short, would I go back to Dubai? Yes. Definitely. But I don’t want to go back anytime soon. Maybe in like a decade from now or so. I feel like Dubai is a city that is constantly evolving, especially with the amount of construction going on. Ten years from now it’s going to be a completely different experience, and I think that’s really exciting. I’m very curious to see what it turns into.

If you are interested in seeing traditional culture and sights, then I might not recommend Dubai that highly. But if you are interested in seeing a city built to be luxurious that also has a lot of visible contrast, then Dubai is definitely worth visiting. Just be warned, it’ll be hot in the summer and things aren’t that cheap (in the city center at least).

Global Grad Show 2016

When I was younger, whenever I thought about the word design, I thought of stuff like, fashion design. You know, more artsy, kinda fancy stuff. As I got a bit older that perspective changed a bit, but not by much. I became a programmer and aligned myself with the developer side of things, and you poke fun at designers a bit because that’s kinda just what you do.

Programmers laugh at designers because designers just have these crazy ideas they can’t actually create and then designers laugh at programmers because everything they make isn’t user friendly or like, good, just functional. It’s kind of a fun little dynamic that I’m sure a lot of people in the industry can kinda understand.

So it’s a bit weird how I’m in a design program now and I guess I can be considered a designer. My studies at KAIST have changed the way I think about both designers and design in general and I’m actually really thankful for that. It’s still a bit surreal really, especially since I just got back from a design exhibition where I was invited to showcase some of my work.

The Dubai Design District, a series of ice cube looking buildings in the middle of the desert.
The Dubai Design District, a series of ice cube looking buildings in the middle of the desert.

I honestly never thought that I would be invited to present anything at a design exhibition. At most I thought I’d be invite to present something at a random game convention or tech conference or something. But a design exhibition, wow, that was unexpected.

Unexpected but really cool though.

I was invited to present some work at the Global Grad Show, which was an event held during the Dubai Design Week. The Global Grad Show is an event where they invite students from universities all around the world to showcase their designs. Our school was one of the schools that was invited to participate and somehow our project was selected to be a representative of our school.

Yes, it's a mat.
Yes, it’s a mat.

The project we ended up showcasing is called Tip Tap Mat. It’s essentially a door mat that allows you to unlock doors with your feet. Most things nowadays are designed for your hands so they’re often fairly busy. And when they are, it makes opening locked doors a hassle so we designed a system that moves the interaction from your hands to your feet.

It’s actually quite a simple project, and considering how we managed to get our demo prototype working like the day we flew out do Dubai, I was actually really surprised that it not only worked fairly well, but was also fairly well received at the event.

We even made a tiny door to showcase the interaction.
We even made a tiny door to showcase the interaction.

The event was actually pretty cool. There were 145 projects from 50 universities around the world so there was a lot of diversity in the types of projects as well as the designers working on them. Honestly I thought I was like, the most random person there with the most random project. Everyone else felt so pro, especially those with projects that were pretty much production ready.

It was really interesting to just talk to people and look around the show. Everyone has their own motivations and passion so it was really neat to get some different perspectives while knowing that we’re all joined together by this abstract concept called design.

One of the biggest takeaways I had from the event actually wasn’t the projects themselves but the designers. The show was called the Global Grad Show after all, so you’d expect people from around the world. But the interesting thing was that there were a lot of people that were like me, students that decided to study abroad.

Truly a global event.
Truly a global event.

I mean I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. I am an international student after all and I’m not even all that unique. But it was an idea that really hit me during the event. We had people from schools all around the world, but there were many students that weren’t originally from the country that school was in, making it even more diverse that I originally thought.

It was nice. I’ve realized over the last few years that I’m a really big fan of multiculturalism. People from all over, regardless of ethnicity, religion, etc, getting together and just, co-existing is something I really like. As someone in a creative field, I feel like having all of these different people allows for your own thoughts and ideas to be challenged by different perspectives, as well as giving you new ideas that you might just not have thought of before. Plus it’s just more interesting to have like, differences. Life gets boring when everything and everyone is the same.

Also, as my first content post on this new blog this already feels like a pretty long entry. And I don’t even think I really talked about the actual show that much haha. But hey, Gary’s Rambles right? Haha.