Dubai Design Week: How to design ourselves well again

With a focus on transforming healthcare through design, local researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators are tapping into previously unknown opportunities and creating solutions to global healthcare problems. Laura Egerton presents the exciting projects set to boost the wellness of the world

“A great design delivers both a diagnosis and a cure,” says Brendan McGetrick last week.

As the curator of Global Grad Show - the world’s largest showcase of graduate work and part of Dubai Design Week - McGetrick is responsible for inviting 145 young designers from 50 leading design schools to Dubai to present projects that “identify an unseen opportunity or unexpressed need, and suggest a solution.”

The desire to use intelligent design to change lives was central to every aspect of Dubai Design Week. Martin McGinn, a designer and educator based at Belfast’s Ulster University, presented his current research for the first time at the American University during the week.

His software ‘Meducate’ was developed with two clinical oncologists, and improves the experience of prostate cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. “It reaffirms, re-informs and makes you more aware of what is happening to you, bespoke to the way you take in information at all times,” says McGinn.

The software uses a combination of 3D models, video clips, interactive designs and illustrations to explain the condition and treatment in both a reassuring and a scientific manner.

Speaking from personal experience – his family members suffered with the condition that affects one in eight men – McGinn says he felt there must be a better way to communicate obtuse information to patients.

The pilot initiative, starting imminently, could be adapted for other conditions such as asthma, diabetes, strokes, heart disease and other cancers. The programme also acts as a data collection point and includes a journal asking for a daily emoji response, giving patients a broader understanding of complex conditions.

Beyond the Design Week, local entrepreneurs are also exploring healthcare. Dubai 100 is a pre-accelerator programme and global platform that gives young entrepreneurs market insight, practical experience, training and mentorship.

“Design is very important when tackling a literally vital industry like healthcare,” says Roland Daher, head of the project. “Healthcare is different from consumer technologies which have one user. You are operating in a difficult environment, where a lot of people with conflicting priorities and challenges have to work together. A multi-disciplinary approach is essential.”

A team from Dubai 100’s first iteration showcased this multi-disciplinary approach with its ‘OTTAA Project’ at Gitex Technology Week as part of the Etisalat Innovation Pavilion. Based in Argentina, they created an alternative communication system for speech-impaired patients, which uses pictograms to build sentences, allowing a quicker, deeper level of interaction.

Chief executive Costa Carlos Guillermo tells us that participating in Dubai 100 and learning the principles of design thinking led to significant breakthroughs. Working in a Dubai hospital, for example, gave this team the opportunity to meet car accident victims who had suffered severe physical injuries, making the team realise the wider possible application of the product. Guillermo’s brother and colleague, Hector, says the programme “totally changed our impression of what design can be and its role in the process of creating something new.”

“Design thinking is (now) at the heart of why people want to buy a product and why they aren’t,” says Herve Collignon, founder of Hooks, an innovation consultancy in Dubai. “In order to do this you need to understand who is the true potential user, to find a complete solution and frame the problem using a cross-disciplinary team. It’s a wonderful new tool.”

This ‘design thinking’ is implicit in McGinn’s methodology. He asks his students to consider: ‘where is there an intervention point, a place where a certain product could serve a purpose?’

McGinn’s university has developed close links with local industry in Belfast, and gives his students live briefs and projects. “It allows students to investigate real life events, to understand human needs. They explore new avenues of process, thought, material, manufacturing, go back to the company and try and improve their products,” he says.

One such company is Leckey, a global leader in making wheelchairs and clinically focused aids for children with special needs. One of McGinn’s product and furniture design students Lucy Mulholland, was awarded a Red Dot Award for her work on ‘Scoot’, a mobility platform designed to help young children with neurological conditions. Through time spent at Mencap children’s homes, Mulholland, who is now studying for a master’s degree in London, developed the seat into a three-in-one design allowing children to crawl, scoot and ride on the one gadget. 

In certain cases then, a design can both increase awareness about disease and act as a therapeutic tool to minimise other medication patients may need to take to reduce stress and anxiety.

Giving researchers and entrepreneurs practical experience with experts, then, is key. By identifying real problems to which they can find feasible solutions, designers are to improve the wellness of the world.