UAE Design Students Rise to the Gensler DE&I University Challenge 2022

Global design firm Gensler kicked off their first annual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion University Challenge in 2022, bringing together the UAE’s top Design Departments to compete in a unique fashion – one where they were integrated into mixed college groups working towards a single vision.

‘Every Design Tells A Story’

Global design firm Gensler has been fierce in their commitment to creating a just and equitable future. The firm’s strategies to fight against discrimination include

Putting the wheels in high gear this year, the Gensler Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) regional competition, in particular, falls under their efforts towards creating education opportunities for under-represented groups.

“Our aim was to do a couple of things,” explains Djan Javier, part of the DEI team at Gensler. “Start and encourage DEI conversations with young talent, educate students on what DEI is, and what building an inclusive culture truly means, introduce real-life scenarios of working within diverse teams, and engaging young talent and the design/art community through design, which we truly believe to be a universal language.”

For Gensler Middle East, the motivation for initiatives, such as the DEI University Challenge, was to highlight diversity and bridge social gaps to promote strong business relationships. Their mission statement clearly dictates their aim to raise awareness, and shape and lead Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Middle East.

A little more than a month before the run up to the culminating awards ceremony on March 28, the team at Gensler kicked off a mass online conference which included students from five local universities, their design faculty and heads, the five build partners, and Love That Design guiding the media build-up and final handling final coverage.

The team at Gensler explained their vision and mission, taking great pains to truly drill in the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion.

So what is Diversity, Equity & Inclusion?

Gensler explains it as the varied ways in which people from different social, ethnic, gender and orientation differ and the acknowledgement of these differences. The quality of fair and impartial opportunity, access and treatment of all within a group or structure. The practice or policy that provides equal access to resources and opportunity to avoid marginalisation, exclusion or unconscious bias in the workplace (such as that which can be extended towards members of minority groups, or those with physical or mental disabilities).


Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is a key and aspect that needed to be addressed, and the interuniversity competition tackled this wonderfully by ensuring that rather than have students competing with others from their alma mater, mixed uni groups were created instead whereby each group represented multiple universities working towards a singular project and goal. This allowed for breakdown of barriers, socially, culturally and geographically.

Some points that were highlighted right at the start of the workshop to help overcome unconscious bias included actively listening, having empathy and being mindful of others, checking in with your emotional self-awareness, spending time with people who are different from you, researching and reading about the others’ perspectives, and being aware and proactive towards inclusivity.

The Competition

The five participating universities included DIDI, American University in Dubai, Ajman University, Heriot Watt University, and Abu Dhabi University. The build partners pairing up with each design group included Designsmith, Plumsheep, Al Design Studio, BW Interiors and Divine Flowers Dubai.

Students were grouped into diverse teams from multiple universities and tasked with harnessing creativity and expression from their different backgrounds. The project would run over a course of five weeks with weekly workshops with their assigned partner. A Gensler mentor was also allocated to each team.

After the initial kickoff, there were the expected teething problems, settling in pains and general chaos, all of which was a perfect example of an exercise in diversity and inclusion taking effect. However, as we all had hoped, over the course of the few weeks and the ongoing weekly workshops, the various teams settled into each other and came together smoothly to deliver fantastic, creative results that displayed incredibly deep thought and ideology.

The Awards Night & Winner

There was a hum of excitement and energy as all the participants, along with their mentors, partners, and guiding faculty gathered at the Gensler space in Al Serkal avenue. Each group of students were given a five minute window to present their project, with a total of 10 groups all vying for the winning spot. Each final piece was to be provocative and raise awareness to the issue of DEI, and we were left amazed at the depth of expression and discovery displayed by each group.

The winning entry was Group 7’s Interwoven Voices, a sculpture concept that derived its inspiration from voices. ‘Voices can be used to create change, as they are a means through which we are able to communicate with the outside world. It is important to be aware of the unheard voice, and to amplify them.’

This idea was given visual form through sound waves in the different colours for each of the representing countries within the group, the final prototype to be suspended from the ceiling using fish wires and ropes incorporating the waves of the poems from each language and culture. A truly potent message.

The build partner and mentor for this project was Nisha Sood, a craft expert and basket weaver who launched Divine Flowers in 2016. She guided the students through the various methods of stitching and colour weaving to arrive at the final piece.

The winning entry will have their piece come to life and displayed proudly in physical form.

The evening ended on a high note amidst much celebrating, refreshments and canapes, and the team at Gensler could not have been more proud.

“It was really inspiring to see all the students, partners, and faculty members come together so beautifully for such an important initiative,” says Seima Dandan, Interior Designer at Gensler and one of the mentors. “The stories surrounding DE&I constructed by the students came about as a result of the recurrent discussions and exchange of ideas amongst all parties involved, and this is a testament to the elevated design thinking ensuing from the creative synergy within an diverse group of people.”

“As Gensler we are excited to support and raise awareness of the unconscious bias we face in our design industry through this annual university competition exploring how we as a community can bring about change,” says Diane Thorsen, Principal, Hospitality and Residential Design Director at Gensler. “The designs produced by the students are thought provoking and inspiring, and the manufactured pieces when displayed will encourage further conversations. We plan to expand this to a regional competition and eventually an international competition where our voices around diversity, equity and inclusion will ensure we connect all people.”

“Part of our Gensler DE&I strategy was to partner and engage with local universities across the UAE to raise awareness on the importance of DE&I by walking the talk,” says Nour Toubia, Senior Interior Design at Gensler. “For this first edition of our university competition, a total of 60 students from five different universities were mixed together to design a piece around the meaning of DE&I. Working alongside colleagues, professors, students and design partners, and seeing how design could bring people together and connect them regardless of who they are and their differences, was just beautiful, as design is for everyone and every design will tell a story.”


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