BUSINESS DAY article published Friday 10 March 2017 included interview with visionary founder and director of the DESIGN INDABA, RAVI NAIDOO. This is an extended essay.
From shelter for displaced communities and digital design for differently-abled people; to sustainable megacities, LGBTI rights and, as always, a touch of magic and whimsy, the annual Design Indaba 2017, foregrounded social impact, innovation and social transformation. And this under the gathering clouds of global nationalism, populism, Trump and Brexit.
And for those desperate for a respite from Trump-mania, the annual Design Indaba conference now in its 22nd year, brought together an audience of 1500 to Cape Town’s Artscape theatre, and many more to eight simulcasts across South Africa, Kampala, Windhoek, and even Lausanne Switzerland. From digital visualisation to physical realisation, from big data and algorithms, to sustainable artisanry, each of the 51 speakers, performers and social/cultural/cyber activists from 21 countries was driven by passion, and a commitment to positive change. As always, the Conference was accompanied by an ‘overwhelm’ of exhibitions, events and happenings, including emerging creatives and nightscape performances
Once more the Design Indaba Conference reflected the prevailing Zeitgeist: At a time when the geographies of the world are being transformed by massive involuntary migration, it was inevitable that digital and design solutions to human displacement, alienation and isolation were recurring themes at this year’s Design Indaba 2017.
With over 65 million displaced people in 2016, and over 325 million projected to mid-century, the divide between physical and geographical, and social, security and insecurity grows ever narrower.
And in one of those decidedly Trumpian moments, when Travis Kalanick the CEO of that posterchild of the digital shared-services economy, Uber, was seen on video verbally abusing an Uber driver, thankfully DI2017 speaker Joe Gebbia, co-founder and CPO of that other poster child of the shared services digital era, Airbnb, proved to be committed to both sharing AND caring. Gebbia has spent some time in the seething migratory hot-points of the world. He soberly noted that “There are more displaced people in the world than ever. And the numbers are set to soar over the next century”, and was unequivocal that “It is the responsibility of the designer (Gebbia and co-founder, Brian Chesky, studied at the Rhode Island School of Design) to recognise the challenges – and opportunities - in society… and to help”.
With over 3 million listings in 191 countries, and “700 000 people sleeping in an Airbnb bed tonight – 15 000 in Cape Town”, Airbnb has extended the shared-services platform beyond matching those who choose to travel, and can afford to pay, to matching those who have been forced from their homes and might not be able to pay. Currently 15 000 volunteers have opened their homes to asylum seekers across the world on the new Airbnb .com/weaccept platform, with an envisaged 100 000 to follow. And for those refugees/immigrants who are still settling in to their communities in their adopted countries, Airbnb has created the Supper With Us model. And in cities like Amman Jordan, where 30% of all inhabitants are recent arrivals from war-torn countries, and are unable to work legally… Airbnb’s experience platform allows immigrants to generate income independently of arduous bureaucracy that usually delays legal work opportunities.
If the impact of migration required stark visualisation, enter Brooklyn-based Ekene Ijeoma who transforms data and facts into tactile, visceral installations, as well as digital ones. For the UNHCR Refugee Project interactively and digitally maps the growth and location of refugee populations from 1975 to 2015 – in ever increasing and intersecting circles. Extending further back in time was the ‘documemory’ film made by Brazilian Pentagram partner, Marina Willer of her father’s journey back to Poland where he was the one of 12 surviving Jewish families who made it out from the Nazi pogroms. In the footage of today, vast industrial workshops lie derelict, frozen in time.
And from forced nomads, to over 4 billion people across the globe living without a formally assigned, and easily locatable, address. what3words.com was devised by Chris Sheldrick, who made it his task to divide the entire globe into a grid of 57 trillion 3m x 3m blocks, assigning each one a unique 3-word address – diligently drawn from the Oxford English Dictionary (He personally sifted 40 000 of these after hours over six months). Now available in a range of languages. Leap on the site and see your own permanent address in 3 words: And if you are put off with the thought of living at the unique underhand.contributor.deactivate you could cheat 3meters and locate yourself at royalty.reconsidering.townsfolk. Novelty aside, with what3words, undocumented humanity takes one step closer to global recognition. Sheldrick shared a film shot in rural KZN where what3words visited, and created signs – permanent global addresses - for each and every homestead. He also referenced famed Peruvian Development Economist, Hernando de Soto, whose theory of the “barking dog” assigns legitimacy to inhabitants of informal settlements and formal houses alike. De Soto notes in one of his texts: The poor of the world — five-sixths of humanity — have things, but they lack the process to … create capital. They have houses but not titles; lands but not deeds; businesses but not statutes of incorporation. With titles, shares and property laws, people could [secure] things like credit to start or expand a business etc. De Soto visited South Africa some years back as a guest of the Treasury, and then-Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel!
Another hugely successful digital entrepreneur with deep social commitment and conscience is Guatemalan-born, Carnegie Mellon Professor, Luis von Ahn who gave the world CAPTCHA – and sold it on to Google. Voted one of 10 Most Brilliant Scientists by Popular Science Magazine, one of the 50 Best Brains in Science by Discover, one of the Top Young Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review, and one of the 100 Most Innovative People in Business by Fast Company Magazine, he revisited his first invention, which is used 200 million times a day: RECAPTCHA took on a social element. For those of us who spend at least 10 seconds once a day, or more, proving we are humans and not bots by typing out that squiggly, almost illegible word on digital forms, RECAPTCHA is translating unscannable / unrecognizable words from millions of books being converted into digital texts. But the project von Ahn is most proud of, is his “retirement’” baby: Duolingo, a language-learning platform created to bring free language education to the world. It has over 150 million users. As its inventor notes: We all believe that Education uplifts…but, actually, it perpetuates the divide - as the well-off can afford better education and the poor cannot access it. This is one way of facilitating a change to the system. Including providing online TOEFL tests – now recognized by most Ivy League universities. As for the fact that there are more Swedish students than ever before: You guessed it, Arab- and English-speaking immigrants settling in to their adopted homeland
Not that it was only on the stage that such discussions on involuntary migration, and statelessness occurred. In the audience with me, was a duo of designers working for NORAD (Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) in Uganda. Uganda, they mentioned, is one of the largest African migrant host countries and has effortlessly assimilated asylum seekers into their country – providing immigrants with land and homes in rural areas and immediate means to farm… and thrive. The two work with refugee populations on design-centred sustainable innovation. With our local Home Affairs depot for migrants meters from the Artscape, they, along with a team of young designers, have committed to my proposal for an Alumni of DI2017 African Refugee project.
And providing the light: for displaced persons, those in temporary shelters, or those living off the grid, or simply hiking, is the bright yellow solar-powered portable light/torch, Little Sun. Designed as a passion project by hugely acclaimed Danish-born, Berlin-based public artist and architect, Olafur Eliasson, whose massive installations have been seen at the major institutions of the world. Eliasson designed the Little Sun during his regular travels to Addis Ababa. The Little Sun project has expanded to include portable solar charging stations.
And from Little Suns in temporary shelters, to mass housing in megacities of the future – and present: Rotterdam-based architect, Professor Winy Maas, co-founder of the The Why Factory global think-tank focusing on urban solutions leverages digital techniques to re-envisage the form of the “boring” skyscraper. With their splendid colour-filled fantastical visionary Market Hall, Maas and his team from MVRDV studio have almost singlehandedly changed the economy and image of Rotterdam. The former industrial wasteland is now a home, commercial hub, and desirable destination for global tourists. And it is breathtakingly beautiful.
Recovering industrial wastelands and industrial - and human – waste, was another recurring theme. This included architectural projects sinking abandoned industrial cities under new waterways (Snøhetta Architects), and a campaign by CapeTonian Carina Bonse, Swimming In It, - including bracelets which alert locals to the amount of excrement they are (swimming) in off our gorgeous beaches – shockingly our urban planners of yore have ensured that hundreds of liters of raw sewerage spew into our ocean DAILY causing eColi-related illnesses. Acclaimed trend guru Li Edelkoort’s summary trend talk included evolving and revolutionary industrial processes to transform e-waste, urban waste and ocean pollution into useful objects, or aesthetic ones at the least.
But it was in the interface of digital (data) and design that the both creativity and innovation left us breathless. Ethereal was the feeling that the physical/digital/haptic work of Pauline Saglio evoked. Physical objects were combined with digital responses – blow through a bubble stick mounted on a stand, and the bubbles appear digitally against a wall alongside the exhibit; the patterns on a Pucci scarf light up in response to touch or sounds. A travelling retail shoe installation included digital patterns when touched, a wind-up sound-effects and so much more. Acclaimed Creative director of Google's Creative Lab in Sydney, T Uglow presented the most recent of a new series of books challenging the tyranny of the digital format. Seed is a non-linear book, organically mimicking its organic content.
Data visualization artist Giorgia Lupi declared that “We have to reclaim how data is used in a personal way… we need to approach data in an analogue way”. Her year-long collaboration with Stefanie Posavec, Dear Data, was acquired by MoMA. For Design Indaba, she collaborated with composer and guitarist Kaki King, providing live imagery in floral formats - a new musical notation they created based on Kaki’s every hand movement.
Reclaiming data was Arjun Harrison-Mann of Studio Hyte whose activism is motivated by the exclusion of 65% of former recipients of social grants for the differently-abled and disabled. And so he took to “dialogical design“, through algorithmic interventions – radical ones. He hacked the system to assist those who need to get into the system to get INTO the system -rehumanising the data systems of bureaucracies.
And to art – mass and fine art: Kate Moross has her antecedents in an illustrious family from South Africa, but has made her way in England as massive music industry designer – starting small with nostalgic vinyl albums and now designing massive road shows for the top pop bands. Where Kate has moved from success to success, the Triggerfish story was as tragic as the most heart-wrenching animated movie plot: Founder and director of South Africa’s most famous animation story, Stuart Forrest, shared an honest and scary story of the rollercoaster ride that has been the history of his commitment to animated filmmaking - From the early days to the highs of Zambezia which saw distribution and translation in scores of countries, a studio of 80 animators and the development of a talent base of 1200 animated writers across Africa … to the lows - the sticky patches in between when all staff were let off, Forrest’s house sold, and… the vagaries of the creative industries. Ayse Birsel of the brilliantly talented team of Birsel + Seck, whose furniture collection for Morosso is a classic of Afrofuturism, also shared the dark lows of the post-2008 downturn, and her guide to Design the Life you Love which emerged from that.
Afrofuturism delights sparkled in African furniture of Yinka Ilori, while Kenyan photographer Osborne Macharia shocked with his brilliantly styled photographic subjects. The unequalled wit of the brilliant freeform improv rappers Freestyle Love Supreme, and the rollicking satire of Lernert and Sander punctuated the proceedings with side-splitting humour.
Finally, collaboration was a recurring refrain. It ranged from projects between chicken and mushroom farmers, perfumers and designers, and designers and perfomers (Dokter and Misses). But, the ultimate collaboration occurred in true Design Indaba style.
Four years ago, in the closing moments of the Design Indaba, the visionary and genius founder and director of the Design Indaba, Ravi Naidoo, launched the permanent gift to the city of Cape Town of Jochen Zeitz’ Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in the old grain Silos in the Waterfront, following a lecture by acclaimed British architect, Thomas Heatherwick - designed by Heatherwick, and due to open this year.
This year, the ‘Grace’ of collaboration, communality, reconciliation, forgiveness and tolerance was embodied in the ultimate commemorative gift to the city of Cape Town, a collaboration between Snøhetta architects and Local Architects, whose project last year in Sophiatown received Design Indaba backing. This year it was : An ARCH commemorating the life of our beloved Arch, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Twelve woven strands create the structure and represent the twelve chapters and clauses of the Constitution and its preamble.
And in the usual magical flourish that depicts the “RaviMeister” as MC Michele Constant affectionately labelled him: The Arch himself and two other arch’s – emeritus and current: Ndungane and Makgoba – appeared on stage at the conclusion of the conference with the Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille and a glorious choir - a truly transcendent end to another unequalled year. The Arch’s Arch will be unveiled outside St George’s Cathedral, along with a restyled urban area, on the Arch’s 86th birthday on 7 October this year. The maquette that appeared on stage will be unveiled at Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.
From the rapper who feared returning to his homeland in a post-Trump era (a US-born citizen of Indian origin), to blonde Dutch Li Edelkoort, there was an overriding gratitude for this fantastical three-day excursion into a land of warmth, comfort, unity and temporary protection from the savagery and brutality of the Trumpian world. Even the South Africans in the audience forgot about Zuptagate, SASSAgate and more, and began to believe that the South could rise again and conquer all.
 de Soto, Hernando. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In the West and Fails Everywhere Else, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000. pp6,7.