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RIT Dubai: Building a culture of innovation

At its new state-of-the-art campus in Dubai Silicon Oasis, the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Dubai aims to build a culture of innovation. The university is working to realise this vision through a blend of advanced technology, a reworked co-op work programme and a host of strategic partnerships with corporations.

“Because innovation is a journey within the fabric of the curricula and extracurricular activities on the campus, we are designing it so that all students either have their own start-ups or when they join a company, they are already innovators and will be an asset to any organisation they join,” says Dr Yousef Al Assaf, President of RIT Dubai.

The university provides students with an American degree – it runs the same curricula as RIT New York – and programmes are constantly being modified based on what is happening in the US, a country Al Assaf believes offers more innovation than most through its publication of new concepts and discoveries. “RIT NY immediately implements these changes and, because we run the same curricula, we do too.”

Smart, connected innovative campus

The new $136-million campus even has a dedicated Innovation Hub, which Al Assaf likens to a “micro expo” in a nod to Dubai’s showcase event launching later this year. “Here, companies, people with ideas, start-ups, faculty and the community will come together to create solutions,” he says.

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There’s also a smart digital transformation lab, where strategic partners such as Dell and Cisco work with RIT students and faculty to develop smart solutions across industry verticals such as mobility and healthcare.

This is just one of many labs at the new campus, adds Al Assaf. “We have labs in AI, robotics, smart energy, as well as a large, advanced workshop with a range of 3D printers. We also have the human factors lab.” Packed with cutting-edge technology, these labs will help RIT Dubai develop a range of Industry 4.0-ready smart solutions, including self-driving vehicles and robotics.

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One of the core tenets of the new RIT Dubai campus is its function as an open lab, explains Al Assaf. “We use the campus to prove a concept, then deploy it outside.”

In the classroom, RIT Dubai has blended face-to-face and online learning tools to maximise student engagement and collaboration in both contexts. While Al Assaf believes remote learning can struggle to replicate some invaluable aspects of campus life – “It may be to do with research, innovation, working as a team, having a social life, the ability to discuss things with people, to live and work in a diverse environment” – he adds that online learning has offered key learnings for educators, and the technological solutions it has brought to the fore have aided efficiency.

“We learned from the pandemic that while physical location might not be so important, teamwork and mingling with others in an ecosystem is critical.”

Sustainable education

On the sustainability front, RIT faculty and students are putting in the research hours to develop an energy portfolio including solar, geothermal, wind and biomass energy, as well as solid-state batteries. Beyond solutions for generation of energy, the sustainable aspect comes into distribution as well.

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“We’re also working on cybersecurity to ensure that this energy is not only optimised but also secured.”

Sustainability is a key theme on the new campus and is a major part of RIT’s mechanical engineering programmes. “We teach all aspects of it, from environment to social to technological. When our students go to do their capstone projects, we ask those specialising in sustainability to work with companies involved in sustainable business, creating sustainable solutions.”

RIT Dubai is building a solar park, where students will learn to work with solutions by Johnson Controls, for example. “Students using these platforms will learn to optimise AI to develop sustainability-driven solutions.

“We’re using the campus as a platform to implement sustainability and create new solutions that can be sustainably deployed outside the campus.”

Innovation: the future of university education

There are a number of ways in which RIT Dubai has worked to inculcate habits of innovation in its students. The co-op programme is one of these. Students have the choice to do internships, ideate and launch a start-up, work at a consultancy bootcamp, team up with faculty members in applied research to create disruptive solutions, or gain industry-endorsed certifications.

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“We know that companies that don’t become innovative will die. They will be looking for people who understand the journey, requirements, skills of innovation and how to create a team of innovation.”

At the end of the day, adds Al Assaf, it doesn’t matter whether the students work for a company or run their own start-up – in both scenarios, they have to be innovative. “Everything we do on campus is geared towards helping them achieve this.

“We have an open innovation ecosystem where companies have a physical presence, working with our faculty, students and other partners in order to create an environment where students and faculty have an opportunity to do research, learn new things and be ready for the future.”

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