Here in Dubai, there are fully recyclable football boots from Switzerland; a living sea defence system from Taiwan; textiles that turn pollution into water from the Netherlands; and a brilliantly low-tech terracotta water purifier from Peru, to name just a few. Full of enthusiasm and not yet jaded by experience, these young designers aren’t afraid to tackle the big issues.

The projects are presented together, snaking across a vast tent in a sort of zig-zagging corridor, and sorted under three themes: empower, connect and sustain. There are graduates here from almost 100 design schools spanning 43 countries and every continent - each one intelligently and elegantly tackling a global environmental or social issue.

Recyclable PET trainers by Jules Was, ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne [Lausanne, Switzerland]
‘One of the great benefits about design coming from schools is that it’s not commercially driven, so there’s an opportunity to address a lot of unmet needs and a lot of unsolved problems,’ says the show’s curator, Brendan McGetrick, who has been pioneering the Grad Show since its inception at Dubai Design Week three years ago. ‘These are the experiences that get absolutely no attention in the market or in the media. Here, we try to encourage an understanding of design that is more urgent and vital then just a cool looking lamp or chair.

‘One of the things I find super interesting is the way they deal with climate change,’ continues McGetrick. ‘Because they’re young, they don’t have the luxury to worry about climate change and then do nothing about it. There are a number of projects here this year that are assuming climate change is going to happen and asking what do we do after it happens, as opposed to fanciful notions of somehow changing the way the world works.’

Global Grad Show curator, Brendan McGetrick, photo Bessaam El-Asmar
Grouped together in the tent, it’s interesting to see how common threads emerge from different countries: the impending water crisis being one that resonates across the globe. In New Dehli, French student Marie Etlin from the L’École de Design Nantes Atlantique, devised a system for recycling water from the city’s buildings using microalgae. Large cellular trays, attached to a building, cultivate microalgae that feeds on the waste water collected by the water tanks on the building’s roof. Essentially, the algae purifies the water, enabling its re-use while also providing thermal insulation.

Meanwhile in Helsinki, another low-tech water purification solution comes courtesy of Tuomas Burakowski and Tuomas Jussila at the Aalto University. This one is portable, and can be made from easy-to-find items, such as soft drink bottles and a bicycle pump. Pressure provided by the pump compresses the water in the dirty half of the unit, forcing it through a low-cost ceramic filter that removes harmful microbes and bacteria. The purified water is then collected in the ‘clean’ half of the device.

MIKO+, a medical juwellery collection by Ewa Dulcet and Martyna Świerczyńska, School of Form [Poznan, Poland], winners of GGS Progress Prize
MIKO+, a medical juwellery collection by Ewa Dulcet and Martyna Świerczyńska, School of Form [Poznan, Poland], winners of GGS Progress Prize
Of course, the irony of these projects being exhibited in an air-conditioned tent in the middle of the desert is the rather large and unavoidable elephant in the room. However, the show’s organisers argue that the show’s location is driven by practicalities.

‘There are two reasons why Dubai is such a good venue for a graduation show like this,’ explains McGetrick. ‘One is, is that it doesn’t have a big established design school, so it’s mutual territory. If you did it in London, one of the big schools would dominate. There would be an imbalance. Here it’s a totally level playing field. The other thing is that logistically, for visas, it’s much easier to arrange the show here than London or the US, or the EU in general.’

While McGetrick admits that manufacturers scouting for talent aren’t visiting the show, unlike trade shows such as the Salone del Mobile, the opportunity for the students to gain press coverage and meet like-minded peers is invaluable.

‘We did a survey last year asking the graduates what they would want out of this experience, and the vast majority said contact with each other,’ says McGetrick. ‘What they want is to meet their peers from all around the world. I don’ t think many people are exhibiting here and hoping to meet manufacturers. Having said that, it happened last year, there were five or six projects that people wanted to invest in and take to the next level.’

Now in its third year, the Grad Show’s organisers are beginning to explore ways in which they can continue to support designers long after the show has finished. While the Grad Show has always helped designers with advice on funding and mentorship on a case by case basis, this year saw the introduction of a Progress Prize – an international award with a $10000 reward, that will be presented to one Global Grad Show exhibitor each year to create a lasting legacy.

Polish design duo, Ewa Dulcet and Martyna Świerczyńska, both graduates of the Domestic Design course at the School of Form in Poznan, Poland, were this year’s winners with a medical jewellery collection. The elegant pieces, realised in gilded pink brass and mineral acrylic composite, function as a brace for those with wrist injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome. ‘We’ll be in conversation with the winners Ewa and Martyna as they develop their next round of prototypes,’ says McGetrick.

In addition, discussions about touring the show to events in other countries are currently underway. ‘Yes, this is part of our plan for the future,’ confirms McGetrick. ‘We’re in touch with a couple of institutions about featuring a selection of GGS.’

‘I think the future of design is super hopeful,’ he concludes. ‘There are some major problems that are being referenced within these projects and I don’t think these problems are going away. There’s a huge amount of fresh thinking here – something the world is in great need of at the moment.’

UNU water purifier by Franco La Puente, Pontificia Universidad
Folks Kitchenware for the Blind
Living sea defense system from Taiwan - Tetrapot by by Sheng-Hung Lee and Wan Kee Lee National Cheng Kung University [Taiwan]