If attendees were to rate the annual 3-day Design Indaba pilgrimage to Cape Town each February on a scale of transformative experiences, there is no doubt it would be ranked in first place - ahead of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll … and religious conversion. So says Kathy Berman as she emerges glowing from the 21st Design Indaba… but for reasons that are as much about the SONA2016 and sustainable citizen-led interventions, as they are about pretty objects..
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If there was one consistent message emerging from over 60 speakers in nearly 40 formal presentations at the 3-day immersion that is the Design Indaba, it was: Change: Get out there and Change the world - For the Better! And there is no doubt that the credo of 21 Century designers - led by the industrial urban and architectural disciplines - is that the role of design is functionality: collaborative functionality … function for social good. And by that we mean: the people determine their own environment and create their own realities. At the extreme end: anarchically, in defiance of regulation and legislation, free of council/local government permission/largesse/strictures; somewhere towards the other end it is democracy in action - people-led housing, design and urban planning - in collaboration with Big Government and Big Business.
Speaker after speaker ably demonstrated how the numbers determine that by 2025, 1.5billion homeless will overwhelm us, if we don't act now, and work collaboratively with our fellow citizens to create better lives, and better realities. In short: Take the shack, the shanty town, the informal shelter and make it permanent - the people should dictate… #localcouncilhousingmustfall ..
It is this ethos that pervades contemporary design, lies at the heart of the new discipline of Innovation and has been driving the movement from Silicon Valley. While the [second and third] Industrial eras were about top-down invention, efficiency and functionality, the Fourth Industrial Revolution - popularised at the seat of top-down power - the World Economic Forum 2016 - is driven by people-centred design, client-led collaboration. [From WEF: The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.]
In short: Turning the patronage and permission-centred model of nations-states on its head: The new credo would be that there is no such thing as functional design without citizen / client involvement at the design stage, the prototyping phase and the execution phase - and finally the launch/sale/re-sale phase.
And so while the Design Indaba 2016 felt like a magnificent cocoon, sheltering an elite batch of about 10 000 paid attendees from a global sea of anarchy, homelessness, war, destruction, refugee migrations… it was, in a very design-centred way, mirroring the reality on the ground - publicising and proselytising about both functional and beautiful - but mainly democratically accessible - objects, systems and projects to better the life experiences of all - from the aesthetic and financial elite, to the the displaced and misplaced in our society.
And what a contrast this is to the millennia that preceded us where power relations between the haves and have nots reinforced autocratic patronage; what a contrast to top-down cloistered designing, prototyping and execution of the industrial era -which is currently resulting in anarchy and chaos on the ground.
For someone who has been sceptical of the patronage that goes with the Ideo methodology of design-centricity (which proposes people-inclusive design, somewhat engineered and contrived) the Design Indaba 2016 provided me with insight into how the opportunity to create the truly earth-shattering is just that much more possible - when the tools of the trade are handed to those who have the greatest need.
And so: On with the delights of the 3-day gourmet outing for art, architecture, industrial and product design nerds!
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Neatly sandwiched between what has sadly become the annual national opera, the State of the Nation Address (#SONA2016), and the sobering and sensible Budget Speech, is the Design Indaba. At 21 years this year, the #DI2016 remains as vital, vibrant and upbeat as the day it started. And - unlike #SONA2016 - a paean to African Best Practice… or, more precisely, Global Best Practice in its Cape Town home.
And so, sprinkled - or dolloped - through the event, were social innovators - or public activists - able to proudly celebrate their ideas being realised (globally) in collaboration with Design Indaba.
And this year marked the first where Design Indaba endowed not only a legacy that changes and challenges thought and creativity, but now a lasting and formidable imprint on the land, in print, in permanent structures.
While Day 2 billed a presentation by Thomas Chapman of Local Studio, based in Brixton Johannesburg, on their public design portfolio of significant sustainable projects …. not even they would have envisaged that the Design Indaba ‘Genie’ would provide funding just 2 weeks prior to #DI2016 to allow them to complete an outstanding feature of The Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre , which celebrates the life of that famous human rights activist and theologian whose name has become synonymous with 1950s Sophiatown - established in the still-standing house of ANC founder Dr. Alfred Bitini Xuma. The custom canopy / sunscreen which wraps around the building, is constructed from metal lace and is designed to support an abstracted map of original Sophiatown. commemorating original homes - marked with plaques by former inhabitants. To cap the moment: A guest appearance by Father Huddlestone’s most celebrate protege - Bra Hugh Masekela… with meandering but lingering anecdotes and, of course, a moving musical memorial!
This followed on a pervasive theme that started early on Day 1 with the appearance of the Turner Prize winners for 2016, Assemble, the urban design/architectural collective whose work has been committed to ensuring that the urban landscape is not only more user-friendly, but community-co-created. And it was these phrases: humanity, human-centred, social, functional, citizen-, user-, and design-led collaboration… that populated the sound-cloud of the conference.
Speaker after speaker spoke with integrity and passion about their collaborative projects generated in, from and for, their own communities - and serving, celebrating and uplifting these communities: Christian Benimana, of MASS Design Group, visiting on a diplomatic visa (the only way to get him from his home in Rwanda to the Design Indaba) brought the audience to its feet with his inspirational introduction to a African lo-fab construction - extraordinary beautiful hospitals, schools and community centres in rural Rwanda. Former DI speaker Alfredo Brillembourg of Urban Think Tank (U-TT), inspired by the spirit of Cape Town, had returned to collaborate with the community, and local design partners, on a prototype Empower Shack - in construction in BT Section Khayelitsha. And Studio [D]Tale, a collaborative spanning London, Cape Town and Harare, founded by Safia Qureshi and Maxwell Mutanda, showed us their globally acclaimed work - now including a cool urban app: mapping alternative transport routes digitally radiating out from Harare city centre.
In case, the message is not yet clear: Far from being a gathering of effete creatives, ruminating on divine inspiration, god-given talents, and writer’s block, the #DI is a showcase for social activists committed to making/building the world we live into a better place for all of its citizens - primarily in urban design, social entrepreneurialism and human-centred innovation.
Mumbai-based, Parsons product design graduate, Yogita Agrawal, winner of the UNICEF Wearables For Good competition truly proved the case for trans-global and Millenial design success. With her fellow graduates, she developed SoaPen, an accessible soap in a tube that allows kids to draw patterns on their hands (washable soap inspired by traditional henna painting?) making washing fun for kids - and ensuring the reduction of disease and mortality from hygiene-related causes. This followed on a beautiful, energy-generating, culture-sensitive, Wearable designed to light up homes, Jhoule - which harnesses energy from the action of a moving leg or arm. The energy harvested during the day is stored and used to power the embedded LEDs, providing an additional 3-4 hours of light after the sun sets.
Twins Cartoon are accomplished socially conscious cartoonists - and brave: Very. Reminiscent of the 1980s in South Africa, these Cairo-based twins, have been at the forefront of the revolution to depict local history in graphic for mats… and in the process seen their colleagues struck down by political happenings. Their first book in English was sponsored by… Design Indaba and launched ate #DI2016
And yes, of course there were jaw-dropping moments of inspired live performance - commencing with excerpts from the pidgin opera of Nigerian London-based composer and performance poet Helen Isibor-Epega, who has collaborated with the luminaries of design and performance; through to the glorious Cape Mongo (an object discarded) creatures constructed from indestructible waste product by local Francois Knoetze for the Grahamstown Festival 2015; and ending with the global tech-music icon - the epitome of digital electronic emancipation - Imogen Heap, who closed the formal conference with a rousing final concert.
And of course we were assailed with prodigious portfolios of breathtakingly brilliant design - digital, graphic, industrial, urban: the still overawed winner of the Rio Olympic 2016 branding, the ebullient Fred Gelli of Tatil design, whose 3000 applications for his primary designs will grace everything from beach sands to bottle tops; the irrepressible gut-splittingly funny graphic designer Eric Kessels who established his irreverent brand, KesselsKramer, with the worst hotel in the world - which they branded as such.
And talking of irreverent and irrepressible: Swedish global creative agency Snask whose commitment to rock ’n’ roll is so intense that the founder purchased a rock band in a drunken evening out - and performed their manifesto for us live - the payoff line being: How to Make Enemies and Gain Fans. Judging by the formidable client list, this works.
And etherial spiritual perfection : From Japan, Sou Fujimoto; and design supremacy: Star Spanish industrial and interior designer, who combines humour with class: Jaime Hayon … And talking of Spanish: Elena Arzak, award winning chef resident at the 3-Michelin-Star Century-old family owned dynastic restaurant that revels in Basque signature epicurean delights, the eponymous Arzak was complemented by the Spanish-Dutch duo who represented Lava Lab - definitive leaders in the contemporary, evolving practice of Innovation.
The most deserving standing ovation from the non-agist, socially-conscious audience - which included an astounding 20% global attendee profile was that for South African born, British design icon, octogenarian Margaret Calvert - who, with Jock Kinneir established the rigorous typographic system for enduring British (and global) road-signage, decades ahead of electronic lettering. And not to forget Hilary Cottam whose commitment to people centred design has been guided by the mantra of ensuring that dignity - and user-initiated projects - is at the heart of restoring meaning to marginalised populations - the aged; disabled; impaired.
Providing perspective on the career choices of industrial designers was the numbers-led presentation by Benjamin Hubert of Layer. 1 of 150 graduates from Loughborough University (one of many institutions globally specialising in the industrial and product design disciplines), he rolled the stats up: Of 1040 applications for positions in his firm, 3 were employed; 3075 intern applications; 1323 brands launching new products in Milan per annum… the strike rate and ability to contribute to established design practice works out at 0.0015% - and, as he noted wittily, we have already solved the matter of how to design an object for sitting on - years ago. He, in line with all #DI2016 speakers is an advocate for socially relevant Industrial Design
The statistics are scary and sent me reeling back to a cocktail party discussion a decade ago: An embittered lecturer in industrial design: His contention: The dawn of democracy saw the virtual ousting of Industrial Design as a curriculum choice. Thankfully, SABS - former sponsors of DI among many current sponsors (Department of Arts and Culture, DTI) - have committed our country to clawing back… with precious decades lost.
With 1 billion Africans, 1 billion Indians and 1 billion Chinese largely marginalised from the mainstream, and 1,5 billion people across the globe destined to be homeless, or living in temporary shelters, by 2025, with squatter camps on our urban doorsteps; and families living rough on the steps of the Artscape each night; and the Department of Home Affairs hidden under the bridge behind the Artscape building - with hundreds of African refugees lining up in the heat of the day served by just eight visible portaloos, the key message of #DI2016 is that the time of top-down design has long passed. #thepeopleshalldesignandimplement
So what are the outtakes?
One could not help but believe that the 21st Design Indaba marks the gathering momentum of formidable Citizens Movement. While civil society has been interpolating in the [in]action of our Government and tax-funded institutions over the past years, the global design fraternity- led by industrial, architectural and urban design fraternities - are [advocating] getting on with changing the face of civil society - independently of local government.
And, as our resilient consummate Finance Minister Gordhan prepares his budget 2016, in the wake of the tragic #SONA2016 opera, one can’t help but wish he had been a fly on the wall at this gathering of local/global movers and shakers - an inclusive alternative to the World Economic Forum that the wealthy and powerful flock to - and will find a way to ensure truly citizen-centred/designed/driven/implemented budgeting for a sustainable fabulous future [South] Africa.