Insights — 20 February 2022
by Charu Suri
To a large part of the world’s population, Dubai is “The Vegas of Arabia,” a place that takes pride in turning every notion previously held about the Middle East on its head. It’s a city that has, in the past 50 years, burst onto the global stage—powered by the oil royalties of the Fateh oilfield discovered in 1966—almost fully formed, ready for anything. Often literally.
In 1966 the Fateh oilfield was discovered off shore from Dubai. Following the discovery, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai from 1958 to 1990, initiated large-scale development programs.
Over the years, the city has made breaking world records a national pastime—tallest, longest, fastest, largest are just some of the words peppered through any article about the city.
But is that all?
Bold and bling put this city on the map. But balance and broadmindedness keep it there. Like the city itself, the people who live here are ambitious and keen to push the limits. From bespoke boutiques to fusion cafés, from farmers’ markets to local desert festivals, expats in collaboration with Emirati locals continuously invest in what they want Dubai to stand for.
And the ultimate culmination of this ambition? The Dubai Design District.
Now, here’s the multi-million-dollar question. The city already has niche art quarters—Alserkal Avenue and Meem house galleries for budding artists, and Bastakiya and Satwa delight visitors with their nostalgic architecture. So, was there really a need for a district dedicated to design? And a 21.5 million square foot one at that?
The short answer? Yes.
Granted, Dubai is not a city you would typically associate with design. Traditionally Dubai’s cultural offerings have been overshadowed by its financial, tourism and shopping facilities. While there has been culture and art in Dubai for decades, the infrastructure has not always been in place to give artists the best possible platform to make a living from it.
But the 2000s marked a time of intense artistic and cultural development in the UAE as a whole, with a sharp focus on Dubai—as evidenced by the creation of the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai. Launched more than a decade ago, the authority plays a critical part in achieving the vision in the Dubai Plan 2021 of establishing the city as a “vibrant, global Arabian metropolis that shapes culture and arts in the region and the world.”
This evolution has, over time, become an enabler for the UAE’s young people and a magnet for a cosmopolitan community of over 200 nationalities living together, contributing to the country’s ambitious targets, which have since been articulated in “Vision 2021” for the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the United Arab Emirates. Influenced by the visions of their respective rulers and arts patrons, the UAE’s three largest emirates have embraced the arts in different ways. Abu Dhabi has invested in international, large-scale collaborations (think Louvre and Guggenheim). Sharjah has connected local creators to an international fine arts scene. As for Dubai, it has taken the reins on incubating commercial art and design.
Fashioned after global creative hotspots such as London’s Shoreditch, Miami’s Design District and New York’s Meatpacking District, d3, as it is referred to by locals, is a purpose-built and master-planned community dedicated to promoting and nurturing emerging local talent while also providing a creative hub to established international design, luxury and fashion brands. Over the past five years, it has become the epicentre of design and art for the region, giving design entrepreneurs in the emirate a bona fide address.
As coveted as it is now, the address was, less than a decade ago, an arid, dusty sandlot, with the only thing in its favor being proximity to the mighty Burj Khalifa skyscraper and the Dubai Mall, two spectacular examples of the city’s (and the world’s) superlatives. In the early days, cynics and skeptics still categorized it as “another real estate development,” but slowly and steadily d3 has become an integral part of the artistic movement in the city, the permanent home of innovative events like Sole DXB, Dubai Design Week and more, attracting thousands of people from near and far. Lindsay Miller, who held the position of managing director for d3 until a couple of years ago, says “d3 started with the community and listening to people. They asked for the essence of the country, and this is what d3 is about. Our main ambition is for the place to act as a catalyst for the region’s design community, by creating an environment where local design talent can grow into successful brands.”
Since its opening in 2015, d3 has reinforced Dubai’s new status as a UNESCO “Creative City of Design,” an accolade that has so far celebrated 180 cities that use innovation to promote creative industries, culture and sustainable urban development, and to encourage cooperation between cities that share the title.
Delivered in multiple phases, this district is a “free zone” business park, a special economic area set up with the objective of offering tax concessions and customs duty benefits to expatriate investors. There are about 30 free zones operating in Dubai, and d3 is run by the TECOM Group, an organization that supports the operation and evolution of diverse business communities within sector-focused areas.
d3 is also a pilot for the ambitious Dubai Plan 2021, which established Smart Dubai, an initiative founded following the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to make Dubai the happiest city on earth. Collaborating with the private sector and government partners, Smart Dubai is a government office charged with facilitating a citywide smart transformation using technology and policies to change the way residents and visitors experience the city. The government chose d3 to “beta test” 21 new initiatives, which are built around Smart Dubai’s pillars of being efficient, seamless, safe and impactful, and span six dimensions including Smart Economy, Smart Living, Smart Environment, Smart Governance, Smart People and Smart Mobility. Some of the new initiatives include electric vehicle charging, smart meters, solar rooftops and energy dashboards that collectively reduce energy consumption, smart wifi systems that allow the monitoring of crowd location and movement for events management, and self-driving cars. They’ll also be introducing an incentivized recycling program, cashless payment, a loyalty program and a d3 augmented reality tour, among other things.
A PHASED, CALCULATED APPROACH
Khadija Al Bastaki, the new executive director of d3, feels that, commercial success of the space notwithstanding, it is the energy and vibe of the people that sets it apart. “The pool of talent, designers and creative minds all around is what makes this venue so iconic,” she says. “Even the product offerings at d3 are unique, from the point of view of established companies, start-ups and students. Ranging from world-class infrastructure to co-working and commercial spaces, as well as plots of land and warehouse facilities, the framework offers everything which businesses need to set-up and grow.”
The first phase of the master plan was focused on brands and established studios—a whopping 220 businesses were signed up to move into the district, from luxury companies like La Perla and Hugo Boss to architects and designers including Viktor Udzenija and Wanders Wagner Architects.
Future phases will be geared toward attracting start-up companies and emerging artists and designers with a thoughtful mix of flexible contemporary offices and communal working facilities around a series of pedestrianized streets and outdoor events spaces. Ultimately, the project will hold workspace for 6,000 designers, artists and fashion designers and other creatives, in addition to commercial spaces, hospitality destinations, residences and social gathering places. All of this to be clustered around the thriving heart of the community, Hai d3.
Initially conceived to be the incubator space for the development of emerging local creative talents, Hai d3 was meant to be a provisional facility with a five-year program of use and an eight-month construction schedule.
Over time, the temporary space took on a more permanent role within d3, resulting in the expansion of the development from a basic space for offices and workshops to a real creative hub capable of becoming a lively event venue, bustling with activity. The project is a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional Arabic neighborhood, composed as a modular system of 40-foot shipping containers. With 75 containers and six different stacking arrangements, the layout captures the expansion and contraction of streets in a traditional Arabic city, and is punctuated by public plazas for neighborhood interaction, activity and gathering. Annex buildings (really just 20-foot containers) are located in several areas and serve as bathrooms, storage and a multipurpose entrance area that welcomes visitors and hosts gatherings. The space has already been the site of numerous workshops and pop-up exhibitions, including renowned Parisian jewelry school L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels.
DUBAI’S GOT TALENT (BUT NEEDS MORE)
So far, d3 has become the space of choice for fashion houses like Amato, Maison Yeya and Montroi and firms like Zaha Hadid Architects, Foster + Partners and Santiago Calatrava, as well as innumerable design studios and start-ups.
But more talent is needed. A recent industry study undertaken by Dubai Design & Fashion Council (DDFC) and d3 estimated that, in addition to the existing residents of the district, at least 30,000 design graduates would be needed to support the growth projected for the sector. Toward this end, d3, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Parsons School of Design, created a platform that is strategically critical for talent development with the establishment of Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI). The first multidisciplinary design university of its kind in the region, it offers an innovatively flexible bachelor of design course that allows students to combine two design concentrations from four focuses (Product Design, Multimedia Design, Fashion Design and Strategic Design Management) to create a “cross-concentration” study path in place of a single major. Housed within an immersive creative setting inspired by the school’s educational program, the campus design incorporates a “mega studio” spanning a million square feet. Concepted as a “creative community” rather than just an academic facility, the institution will act as a cultural epicenter, with flexible offices, co-working communal facilities, outdoor display venues and pedestrianized, landscaped spaces.
“We have worked with leading global figures as well as local talent from across the spectrum of the creative industries to ensure we can provide the right facilities and infrastructure suitable for both international brands and emerging regional designers. The fashion community is growing in a significant way and the interest in design, even of the wider society, is growing, so it is now the matter of keeping pace with the potential that we have here,” says Dr. Amina Al Rustamani, group CEO of TECOM and one of the key champions of this project.
The success of d3 positions Dubai’s creative class—which, apart from a handful of cases, still struggles to be taken seriously—as a consistent player on the world stage. Its collective growth stems from the fact that most of the businesses in d3 feed into each other, with a strong collaboration initiative among design companies and suppliers.
The Swarovski Creative Center is a great example of this collaborative spirit in action, an inspiring and educational co-working platform where both professionals and students can experiment with a wide variety of crystal cuts, colors and application techniques, connect with other designers, manufacturers, buyers and patrons for creative partnerships—even to host independent exhibitions.
Of course, the event that has become synonymous with d3 is Sole DXB, an annual footwear, music, art and lifestyle festival that is part street party, part design celebration. Over the years, it has become the most anticipated event in the district, a platform where brands like Nike and Puma debut new offerings, as well as unveil special limited- edition lines.
THE FUTURE IS COLLABORATION
But what truly sets d3 apart is its ability to unite the design community at large for the greater good—like with its 2018 initiative Design for Good, created as a series of events and competitions to connect the design community through creative collaborations. One project invited designers from across the country to create a piece of furniture or a functional object. The winning design was then mass-produced, with all proceeds of sales allocated to Dubai Cares to benefit Syrian refugees.
The second project, called the Mesh, was a collaboration between Emirati designer Roudha Alshamsi and the Fatima Bint Mohamed Bin Zayed Initiative (FBMI), spearheaded by the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to provide almost 3,000 Afghans with a source of income and access to health care. d3 commissioned Alshamsi to design three shading structures for the community, which were produced by women from Afghanistan through FBMI and purchased by d3, with all proceeds going to the education of the women to further develop their skills.
To date, a number of brands have made d3 their permanent home, showcasing innovative ideas driven by design and culture in an urban setting. Among them are Closet Case, a multi-brand menswear concept store; Lighthouse, a restaurant and boutique featuring both an eclectic menu and a curated selection of gifts; and Espresso Lab, an artisan roastery that celebrates the Emiratis’ love of coffee.
“Our objective is to bridge our business partners by creating a platform for them to engage with each other and international firms,” says d3 executive director Bastaki, adding that a large part of this initiative is to provide support to homegrown SMEs and boutique practices. One of the companies that follows through on this mandate is the Re: Urban Studio, a business incubator that gives a boost to the small and medium enterprises sector. It will provide a full program for developing business ideas as well as new companies in the field of design and innovation, in addition to complementary services such as licensing support and an open workspace.
For a development that’s been around for a few years, d3 has already carved out a unique identity. Inspired by its core values of unity, inspiration and creation, it is well on its way to becoming the cultural and design capital of the Middle East, providing a framework to grow and sustain a new design ecosystem. More importantly, it positions Dubai, a city up until now known for its skyscrapers, sandy beaches and shopping malls, as a global hub for diverse knowledge-based sectors, an incubator for creative ideas and professionals.