Who will design the next iPad or create a successor to the Google search engine? The answer may lie in a laboratory at New York University Abu Dhabi, where a new generation of students are finding out if they have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of some of the world’s most brilliant minds.
The aim is to produce the next generation of super designers. And to do that, students must master the design X Factor.
“Traditionally, universities have been places where knowledge was just imparted to students, but more and more, knowledge is created at universities through projects and research,” says Sunil Kumar, the dean of engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“The next step is working out how you take this knowledge and directly impact society. This includes everything from integrating liberal arts into engineering and integrating innovation, invention and entrepreneurship. How do you train students with these things? How do you teach innovation?
“We are all innovative in one way or another but our frontal lobe creates an inhibition within us that stops us. We starting thinking ‘maybe someone else has done this already’ or ‘I’ll make a fool of myself’. These thoughts inhibit us.”
As part of NYU Abu Dhabi’s first-year engineering course, the students take an intensive course that forces them to become innovative.
Split into six teams of four, they work 14 hours a day, seven days a week for a two weeks to think up, design and build a communication device of the future.
The brief given to them this year was to design a tool to enhance a human relationship. But there was a catch. They were not allowed to use any voice or screen-based technology. “The experience is about immersing the students in a real world, high pressure design challenge,” says Stefan Agamanolis, visiting associate professor in engineering, who used to work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
“They can’t use voice or screens. How do you communicate something without this? How do you make a device with some kind of emotional impact that’s not just raw information?
“They had to think about not only the design of the product but the experience. That’s the leap we are trying to get them to make.”
Theo Ntawiheba, from Rwanda, looks visibly exhausted on the final day of the superlab challenge.
The 20-year-old is part of the Ration Shop group which has designed a communication tool to better manage the ration system in India.
“I’m tired, but it has been an amazing experience. It’s hard trying to think of an idea from nowhere, especially when you all have different ideas but that’s the point of the challenge.”
The group’s invention involves a shopping bag, which is kept by the customer, and an Appointment Verification System at the nearest shop. By connecting the two sides of the bag, the customer can send a signal to the shop to request an appointment.
If there is space for an appointment, a small LED light in the bag will flash green. The point of the system is to improve communication and save time by preventing wasted journeys.
Of course the purpose of the challenge is not necessarily to produce marketable products – though that is one of the bonuses, and some of the previous inventions have patents pending – it is to force the students to think outside of the box, literally training their brains to think in a less rigid manner as has been the tradition with engineering learning.
Regardless of whether they choose to pursue a career in product design specifically, this way of thinking will prove invaluable, their teachers say.