Towards a Sustainable Luxury

by Emanuela Corti

Compasses Magazine

The area of the Arab Emirates was known as an important regional trading center until the late 19th century but, with the acquisition of oil wealth, the Arab Gulf state saw a rapid economic transformation and in 1971 the federation of the seven Emirates was founded. Since then the country has seen massive and rapid development; Dubai especially is known for its construction projects and the real estate market. In fifty years, the whole region changed completely and people came from all over the world to participate in the development. 

2021 marks a very important year for the Arab Emirates: besides being the year of Expo 2020, which sees light after a long wait due to the pandemic, it’s the Golden Jubilee of the Union and expectations grow. In 2010, at the closing of a Cabinet meeting, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched UAE Vision 2021, which aimed at making the UAE among the best countries in the world. In order to translate the Vision into reality, its pillars have been mapped into six national priorities which represent the key focus sectors of government action and in the last decade, a lot has been done to achieve the vision. Challenges related to economy, national identity, health, education, environment, and wellbeing. Although significant improvements in environmental management have been made, in 2016 the World Wildlife Fund estimated that the United Arab Emirates is still amongst the countries with the highest ecological footprint in the world (World Wildlife Fund, 2016). 

The objectives of the more recent Vision 2030 of the Government are aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and UAE is taking several steps to achieve them. New strategies focus on infrastructure, transportation, environment and the industry.

Among many initiatives, the Industrial Strategy 2030 was set to elevate Dubai into a global platform for industries based on knowledge, innovation and sustainability. Although most products are still imported and the industrial production is minimized despite the Government’s vision. Perhaps someone is paving the change. Dubai As we have seen in recent years things can move very fast in the Emirates and we hope all goals could be achieved even prior to 2030.

In recent years, we have seen a new generation of homegrown designers eager to explore sustainable indigenous material, products developed through unexpected natural resources or reprocessed waste. A good example is Ammar Kalo, whom completed several commissions for Bee’ah, the UAE’s leading waste management company. Sustainability and circular economy are important aspects of contemporary design, and regional designers are very well aware of the importance of integrating those aspects in their projects. The curious aspect is that they are introducing locally sourced material, giving sustainability an unexpected Middle Eastern twist.

The UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2021 is the perfect example of a new scientific approach: the installation has been awarded the Golden Lion, for being «“a bold experiment that encourages us to think about the relationship between waste and production on a local and global scale, and opens us to new construction possibilities between craft and high-technology»”, as Kazuyo Sejima, President of this year’s jury, said during the ceremony.  Curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, Wetland presents a large-scale prototype structure created from an innovative, environmentally friendly cement made of recycled industrial waste brine which could reduce the climate impact of the construction industry. 

The impression of Wetland is certainly going to impact future generation’s designers, although we see that those themes are already close to emerging designers in the region, working on projects that define a sustainable future.

The Abwab Pavilion at the Dubai Design Week 2021, features an exhibition called ‘Pulp Fusion,’ which explores a fully compostable material made out of recycled paper and organic materials by Beirut-based architecture studio Bits to Atoms: their long-term research project consists of a material made out of a pulp of papers mixed with seeds and nutrients, that would blossom with water. The aim of ‘Pulp Fusion’ is to abolish plastics: instead of harming the environment when products are no longer in use, this eco-friendly version would sit in nature for a little while until moist enough to degrade and nourish the soil, providing along with its deterioration, new growth, and new life.

Bits to Atoms has been experimenting with the recycling of paper to develop a sustainable recipe, and to find the right production process to create a chair that is both sufficiently structurally resistant, yet entirely compostable. 

Similarly, Dubai-based startup Dateform is committed to reducing plastic pollution, developing compostable food packaging solutions made out of date seeds, a nutrient-rich natural resource widely available due to its high consumption and production within the region. Date seeds can be an effective catalyst for social, economic, and environmental sustainability according to Dateform co-founders (Alhaan Ahmed, Heba Naji, and Abdulaziz Al Zamil) who also hope that their innovation will encourage designers to rethink how natural resources and locally-produced waste by-products can be repurposed to help move the world towards a circular economy and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Consumption & Production.

The Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi announced a policy to reduce the amount of single-use plastic material and mitigate its harmful effects. The policy aims to keep plastics out of the environment and eliminate the use of avoidable single-use plastic materials by 2021 through fostering a culture of recycling and re-use and encouraging more sustainable practices in the community. Unfortunately, not an easy task, since certain habits are rooted in the middle eastern way of living but we believe that Dateform is going to support the change through a product that carries cultural values and iconic symbols.

Indigenous natural resources are also the core of UAE-based Nuhayr Zein Elmessalami’s work. The Egyptian architect and designer who focus on a symbiosis between nature and design, is developing a plant-based leather alternative material for furniture and other products, using non-processed local dried plant pods. Nuhayr’s practice is rooted in culture and identity, drawing inspiration from the surrounding natural context to create environmentally responsible designs and material solutions. To the designer, the Arab region has seen a positive shift towards a design style that responds to its context in terms of the environment and culture, raising awareness among people about the importance of identity, which was a push for designers to work along with local materials and manufacturers.

Nuhayr’s latest work, the Seeds, presented at the Dubai Design Week 2021, is developed within Tanween, a professional training program by Tashkeel, which aim is to help new creatives enhance their research capabilities, knowledge, and understanding of sustainable and problem-solving design, through the support of UAE-based engineers and scientists. The Seeds Series represents Tashkeel’s commitment to developing innovative, sustainable, contemporary product designs informed by the heritage, identity, and natural environment of the United Arab Emirates. Nuhayr aims at creating a balance by fusing machine-made with nature-made, modern with traditional, and present with past in one intricately made piece. This duality is reflected in the choice of materials used, where digitally carved oak wood is contrasted by Leukeather, a sustainable plant-based and naturally textured material developed by Nuhayr as an alternative to exotic leather. Ottoman from The Seeds Series draws inspiration from the familiarity and complexity of trees, resulting in a familiar ottoman design, rich with intricate digital and natural textures and patterns. 

Identity is the core of Emirati interior designer Khawla Mohammed Al Balushi’s work, whose work is inspired by the natural environment and the Emirate’s culture. Khawla’s work is currently focusing on indigenous techniques with the aim of integrating them into contemporary design products through innovative sustainable processes.
Her most recent work, also developed within Tanween Program, is based on the Ghaf tree (Prosopis Cineraria) also known as ‘Shami’ or ‘Khejri’, which was declared the national tree of the UAE in 2008. A popular Emirati saying goes, “Death will not visit a man, even at the time of a famine, if he has a ghaf, a goat and a camel, since the three together will sustain a man even under the most trying conditions.” An integral part of the natural food chain, ghaf provides food and shelter for wildlife and livestock. Historically, it was an early source of nourishment, building material, firewood, and medicine for communities. Now protected by the Government, waste Ghaf has been collected by the Dubai Municipality for this study.

Khawla worked along with scientists to make the Ghaf tree stronger and translucent and produced a lighting fixture called Oud (which in Emirati dialect means a group of Ghaf trees combined in one area) that is going to be presented during the Dubai Design Week 2021.

In order to preserve its biodiversity and protect and restore the natural habitats of its local plants, the UAE created a database of local plant species and made it available to the public through an app titled Gherasuae. In line with the 2021 Vision, the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi (EAD) is set to document and preserve plants by establishing Abu Dhabi Plant Genetics Resources Centre. 

Identity goes through different aspects of  society and young designers are keen to explore opportunities that the country is offering. Industrial production might be at its dawn but Vision 2030 is expected to support through several initiatives’ new technologies and sustainability and we are set to see what new generations can bring. Certainly, a fertile ground for innovation that the Emirates are offering opportunities that we believe designers will embrace.

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