x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Playground no child's play for competitors

The winner will be chosen from two design teams of students drawn from nine universities in a competition that challenges young minds to work together as they would in a real workplace, on a project that could become a reality.

Azza al Shamsi, left, and Afnan Saeed from Zayed University explain their urban playground design at the Interior Design Show 2010 in Dubai.
Azza al Shamsi, left, and Afnan Saeed from Zayed University explain their urban playground design at the Interior Design Show 2010 in Dubai.

DUBAI // "Who's good at visualising large plans? Who will get the materials?" one girl yells out to her seemingly confused group of peers.

"Just write the names and stop explaining," one of her teammates snaps.

"Everyone is just … " another says, throwing her hands up in frustration.

Picture 40 ambitious design students with different backgrounds and different styles, and give them four days to meld into two polished teams capable of producing a concept professional enough for two big companies to take on and create .

It sounds like the nightmare scenario from a reality TV show, but in fact it is very much a real-world competition, the winners of which will be decided this afternoon.

The two teams from nine universities are designing an indoor playground that could become an actual recreation space in Dubai.

The decision will be made by two sponsors of the competition, Al Habtoor Group and ISG Middle East.

To add to the pressure, the students are working on the showroom floor of the biggest industry event in the region, the Interior Design Show - or Index - where 1,000-plus vendors from Spain to Singapore have gathered this week.

While the corporate stands are filled with ballroom chandeliers and fancy fireplaces, the students' workspaces by contrast consist of two wide tables crowded with sketches, pencils, laptops and cameras.

For the past three days, they have tackled problems they do not face in the classroom. They have had real clients and have had to create designs that can actually be built.

Then there is the toughest real-world challenge: getting such a large team of strangers to agree on one idea - and carry it out.

"Working with this big group is the hardest thing," says Amal al Marri, an Emirati student at Zayed University, as her classmate next to her nods in agreement. "We need to put my design with her design, with other people's designs."

Still, the potential prize is worth it, she says. "Our projects are conceptual. But this one is real. When we grow up, our kids are going to play with it."

Agreeing on the design took a day. The students had to pick from projects they had worked on for the past month and submitted to qualify for the competition.

"It was three hours of screaming and shouting," says Oonagh McDonnell, an instructor at the Higher Colleges of Technology.

"Sometimes everyone's talking at the same time," adds Hamda Mohammad, one of her students. They ended up keeping elements from each design, she says. "We didn't want anyone to feel sad."

One of their final products - the bumper bike - drew inspiration from the bike of one project, the mechanics of another and the water feature of a third.

On day three, yesterday, the teams had to prepare their presentation for today.

After a bout of organised chaos, Team B breaks into groups that will draw sketches, pick materials and integrate the design into the floor plan of the mall. Several crowd around the table sketching with coloured pencils and drawing on the computer.

"How high is the fountain?" one student asks,as the group sits on a floor covered with paper.

"It doesn't matter; the fountain's outside," answers another.

A debate follows. "That's why we should go back there," one says.

"There's no time," the others hiss.

Learning to work as a group is the most difficult skill for entering the real world - and the most important, says Nasreen al Tamimi, a co-ordinator for the non-profit group Tasmena, another co-sponsor.

"When you leave school and join a company, you will have no idea who you'll be sitting next to and who your boss is, and you need to learn to deal with these people," she tells students who had complained about the team dynamics.

To help them think about other real-world issues, the sponsors invited professionals to come throughout the week and speak on topics like business plans and manufacturing.

The projects must be practical enough to be built, says Paul Boldy, the construction director of ISG Middle East.

"There's a 50-50 chance, hopefully a little bit more," he says. "If we get something feasible, we'll do it."