In late November, 60 students from eight universities within the UAE convened for the second Sila Conference. Selected from a total of 122 applicants, delegates from Abu Dhabi University, Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), Khalifa University, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), the Petroleum Institute, Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (PSUAD), and Zayed University formed 12 five-member teams to brainstorm how to preserve Arab culture and identity as the Abu Dhabi Government proceeds with Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, a long-term city development project.
The team received USD 5,000 as seed money from the NYUAD Institute to carry out their project in the coming months.
Second place was awarded to the "Mobile Bubble" project presented by Team Al Reem, composed of NYUAD senior HyunKyung Park and NYUAD freshman Issa Nasr, Edgar Eugenio Samano Baca from Masdar, Syed Mohamid Raza Quadri from the Petroleum Institute, and Farah Abdel-Rahman from PSUAD. The project aims to tackle the problem of underutilized space in the city, such as parking lots, by spontaneously setting up bubble-shaped transparent tents where individuals can engage in art workshops. Reflecting the diversity of the city, the Mobile Bubbles would offer a range of cultural arts workshops from Arabic calligraphy to origami and contribute to creating a vibrant art scene in Abu Dhabi while also facilitating social interaction and building a sense of community.
"I'm a senior at NYUAD and I wanted to do something for myself and the community before I leave," said Park. "It was fun not only meeting fellow NYUAD students that I didn't know, but I also got to meet a PSUAD student, a Petroleum Institute student, and a Masdar student. It's rare for university students to get together and really focus on one common goal for two days."
"I think the conference itself is what is important because it's the start of really integrating with the community. You're really doing something for the city and you're doing it together," said NYUAD sophomore and conference organizer Kimberly Rodriguez.
Following a mixer event a week before the conference, teams had 48 hours at NYUAD's Downtown Campus to formulate an action plan to propose to a panel of judges at the final presentation, held in the capital's Intercontinental Hotel auditorium. An advisory panel — including Jacob Schmutz from PSUAD, Mable So from Gensler, Yasser Sheshtawy from UAE University, Khaled Al Awadi from Masdar, and Lukas Sokol from the Urban Planning Council — mentored the students throughout the two days in polishing their ideas. This year's Sila Conference also hosted the founders of social travel series Peeta Planet, Mohamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadi, as its opening speakers.
Team Arzanah, consisting of NYUAD sophomore Layan Abu Yassin and NYUAD freshman Rita Akroush, Alberto Crespo Iniesta from Masdar, Mathilde Panneau from PSUAD, and Ali Al Afeef from HCT, took first place with their project "Once Upon A Time," which proposes to designate the landmarks throughout the city and, at each location, place a bench decorated with calligraphy displaying facts about the city as well as a monument describing the history of the landmark. In addition, all landmarks would be connected by a line on a sidewalk that pedestrians can follow.
"The aim of the project is to bring together the past landmarks of Abu Dhabi with the present ones so that people don't feel that the city doesn't have a past," said Abu Yassin. "I felt that we got to appreciate Abu Dhabi as a city more because we got to look into it and see what the problems are and how we can fix them."
It's rare for university students to get together and really focus on one common goal for two days.