Time To Chat

A Chat with Mohammad Saeed Al-shehhi: D3’s Chief Operating Officer (Coo) Lights the Path

The new design super-hub in Dubai, the Dubai Design District (d3), didn’t just appear out of thin air, nor is it a mirage. A collective of visionaries, intellectuals and forward thinkers were behind this extraordinary design micro-city that was launched last April – to unprecedented success. Fast gaining international traction, d3’s total dedication to all facets of design and its entire value chain, from housing designers to selling their products, means that the world is swiftly changing the way it views this famed UAE city.

Yes, Dubai is famous, but up until recently, it was chiefly thus because of its top calibre tourist industry. The icing is the fact that Dubai is one of the few conflict-free cities in the Middle Eastern North African Region (MENA), making it a magnet for holiday seekers. Given this, the city planners could have rested on their laurels and traded off the status quo quite happily – and most certainly profitably.   

Yet, a few enlightened minds realised that the city had much more to offer the world, especially in the world of design. They also cast their eye to diversifying their petroleum-based economy, a genius masterstroke considering the peaks, troughs and general instability of the oil industry. At the forefront of this was UAE’s Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Deeply in touch with his subjects, Sheikh al Maktoum recognised the depth of creative talent that was present in the region, yet struggling to find its footing. He decided to move these enormous talents from obscurity and give them an opportunity to create and then to conduct a business, underpinned by constant mentoring and support.    

In 2013, he announced his goal to make Dubai the “emerging design capital of the world”. Its mandate was to provide a home for the region’s growing community of creative thinkers and d3 was born. Mohammad Saeed Al-Shehhi, d3’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) is clear about this design hub’s importance: “d3 is providing a platform to showcase Arab creativity to a larger, global audience. It also plays a key element in Dubai’s vision to transform into an innovation-led economy and it aims to engage, inspire and enable emerging talent.”

Dr. Amina Al Rustamani, Tecom’s Group Chief Executive and Chairperson and Head of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council, quickly came on board to help turn vision into reality. Her involvement is invaluable: one of the world’s most powerful people, her commitment to education is legendary and has become her living legacy.  

Other like-minded partners joined, including Not Just a Label (NJAL), the website that offers emerging talent a platform from which they can promote themselves and conduct business. At last April’s ‘Meet d3’ event, NJAL held a pavilion that showcased the work of 200 designers, half from the region. It was a Cinderella moment as so many otherwise-unknown designers from the MENA were brought out of obscurity and into the spotlight. As Stefan Siegel, CEO and founder of NJAL says: “NJAL’s goal is to unite and champion some of the region’s top creative talent that up until now has been largely scattered. Our partnership with d3 provides a definitive platform to build on this initiative.”

But it’s not just fashion designers who are involved. From interior and graphic designers, to architects, chefs, photographers and more, these creatives have happily ensconced themselves in d3, where their ideas bloom, cross-germinate and take flight. Here, we talk to d3’s COO, Mr. al-Shehhi about the future of d3 and design in Dubai. 

What were your first goals and priorities for d3 when you were appointed as COO?

Our vision is for d3 to become the heart of the Arab world’s design scene. It should be a place where the world’s leading creative talent and brands want to be and a place where emerging regional talent goes to be inspired. 

Our priority has always been to build and establish a dedicated creative destination for the region. d3 answers a growing need for the regional design industry, ensuring that this important sector is able to develop and thrive. It provides businesses, entrepreneurs and creatives from across the design value chain with an ideally located, purpose-built and sustainable ecosystem, which leverages technology to integrate ‘smart’ solutions throughout the development. 

The community is closely aligned with Dubai’s 2021 Plan, another major objective and focus for our strategy. We designed d3 to underpin Dubai’s wider ambitions, by providing a dedicated hub for the creative community, to transform Dubai into an innovation-driven, knowledge-led economy. It fits within Dubai’s 2021 plan as it is designed to become a thriving eco-system that caters for the full value chain of the design, fashion, art and luxury industry. It will also include everything from cutting-edge design institutes to residential facilities, hospitality, retail and office space.

What kind of spirit/professional qualities did you seek when you were assembling your team?

Our community is centered on creativity and dynamism; therefore these are the key qualities I look for, as I view them as crucial to adding to the ability to deliver our ambitions. Our team is a true mix of individuals with a wide range of extensive experience, including design industry veterans, experts in property development and project execution. There are also those with experience in building industries such as the TECOM Group, who have previously worked across landmark Dubai properties like Media City, Internet City and Dubai Science Park. 

The key trait they share is ambition, drive and commitment to making d3 a success. I believe it is this ethos that has enabled us to achieve as much as we have in such a short space of time.

How much do you think/hope that d3 will impact the design industry within MENA?

d3 is set to be a living, breathing fashion and design community - the hearth of the Arab world. It has been designed to encapsulate all the needs of the design industry with a truly multi-purpose approach. By creating a genuine home for designers, we hope to create to a sustainable industry that puts Dubai on the map in terms of genuine international designs hubs.

Innovation is a key part of the d3 concept. Not just in the strategy of developing an entire design community from scratch but also in the conceptual design of the project. There are a number of architectural elements that will be unique in Dubai and indeed, across the MENA region. Our vision is not just to create an innovative space for designers and retail outlets, we have come up with a way of allowing emerging regional designers to sit alongside internationally leading brands to create an ecosystem thriving on creativity.

By listening to feedback from those we are targeting with this project, we are able to create a space that provides exactly what is needed to help all types of designers succeed. If we get that right, the shoppers and tourists we hope to attract to the district will also come. The community will be a place people are drawn to not just to shop but to spend time and enjoy the atmosphere.

Forbes Magazine says Dubai will be one of the "smartest" cities in the world by 2017, with d3 leading the charge. What are your future plans to incorporate even more tech to what currently exists?

d3 is built around “Smart Dubai’s” four pillars: efficiency, seamlessness, safety and impact. There are also six dimensions that we pivot around in the tech category: Smart Economy, Smart Living, Smart Environment, Smart Governance, Smart People and Smart Mobility. So you can see d3’s initiatives are wide ranging and are intelligently leveraging technology to help drive an unparalleled quality of experience for its creative tenants and visitors.

As a greenfield project in Dubai, d3 will play host to a number of different, life enhancing initiatives that will benefit both business partners and visitors alike. An array of smart service initiatives including Smart Parking Meters, Smart Energy Meters, and Smart Waste Management combine to truly bring a new degree of sustainability, resource management and energy efficiency to life at d3. 

With additional security through Smart Access Control and more innovative ways of utilising data through data virtualisation, d3 stays ahead of customer and market trends. This will ultimately enhance the experience of its commercial and retail business partners and better serves d3 as a community. 

In your opinion, how key is the educational aspect of d3? 

Education is critical. d3 is home to designers, artists and creative thinkers who are committed to playing an active role in the realisation of Dubai’s Fashion 2020 strategy and the Emirate’s vision to transform into an innovation-led economy. 

Over the past few months, we have announced a partnership with the University of the Arts London (UAL) incorporating London College of Fashion (LCF) and Chelsea College of Arts (CCA) as they delivered their latest of short course programmes for regional design talent at d3.

We are acutely aware of our responsibility to nurture and guide emerging talent in this industry. Therefore, since our official launch in April 2015, we have organised a number of education initiatives, which to date have included panel discussions, international talent exchange and mentorship opportunities. We will expand these in 2016 to include a growing number of formal programmes and partnerships with major international players. 

Alongside the educational side, we have also developed the Creative Community concept, a specific centre for emerging designers at d3 that is made up of shared work spaces developed to inspire collaboration, knowledge-sharing and creativity through cross-pollination of disciplines.  

What is your marketing and PR strategy to ensure the world will know that Dubai is not just famed for its tourism but design as well?

Since inception, we have focused on the design community, championing the excellent work being produced and raising awareness of the amazing breadth of design in the region. We see our role as the platform from where these designers can launch their brand, products and careers and therefore our PR and marketing campaign has focused on delivering this message and hosting and partnering with events that mirror this ethos. As a result, we are getting excellent feedback from both the community and the industry and are already seeing success in the form of regional designers reaching global markets. 

We’re very much engaged in supporting these designers on a global level as well as a local level – last year, for example, we worked with Wallpaper* magazine on an exhibition for both London Design Festival and Salone del Mobile in Milan entitled ‘Middle East Revealed’. Here, we showcased some of the best of our talents at two key global design fairs. We’re committed to doing this in the future and will again be working with one of our business partners during this year’s Salone del Mobile.

On the ground, we’re committed to supporting both Design Days Dubai and Downtown Design, both of which have established themselves firmly on the global design event calendar and bring our regional talent to the fore.

With the current fashion months already in overkill, exhausting press and buyers alike, what is your strategy to attract top fashion industry people to d3?

It’s important for the business side of the fashion industry to meet with the designers and this is something that we’re very keen to happen.  This is why we encourage our events to integrate within programming and outreach. We’re already in talks with leading fashion retailers in the region about how they can support the fashion designers here at d3 and we will continue to work with platforms such as NJAL to enable us to continue these discussions.

Do you think d3 can produce the next Zaha Hadid, Elie Saab or Rifat Ozbek?

Absolutely, as we’ve discussed, this is ultimately our vision. To build and support our regional designers to enable them to reach and achieve global success. We want the Middle East to be firmly placed on the global map of design and the best way to do this is by demonstrating the strength of our talent. 

This is our ambition and we will continue to work with the community to design a space and a home for them that helps achieve this goal.