Design Indaba: ‘We face two groups: those we’re trying to empower and those who can afford the experience’ 20.04.17

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The managing editor of the Cape Town design extravaganza responds to Icon’s doubts about the extent of its social impact in South Africa

Design in service of the people is a noble goal, but one that unfortunately lends itself to the PR machine that is corporate social activism. It makes my skin crawl: not because I don’t believe in the good born from the confines of a boardroom or a conference hall, but because the good often feels like a by-product of a business agenda, an agenda disconnected from the people. At the Design Indaba Conference, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting young designers and industry heavyweights whose sole interest is in people. But I’m acutely aware that the Design Indaba speaker roster would be inaccessible to me were I not Design Indaba staff. This is the reality for many South Africans.

The home of the conference, Cape Town, is still segregated by income and, consequently, by race – a remnant of Apartheid-era spatial planning reinforced by a lack of transformation. As a whole, Africa and other formerly colonised regions have similar income disparities. Premier events, such as a three-day ticketed conference, are out of the reach of many young creatives who have the most to gain from talks by pioneers in various industries. So how is it then that at Design Indaba we make the claim that our work and the work we champion is in service of the people? How do we justify the pomp of the event in light of the city’s challenges without seeming selective in our pursuit of equality through design?

These questions have bugged me since joining the company two years ago. The easy answer is that the knowledge shared during the conference is made accessible through a live simulcast at a reduced price and then, later, for free online. Those who pay a premium to be there, pay for an experience. The fact is, flying the best designers from around the world to Cape Town is prohibitively expensive. Design Indaba secures corporate partners who subsidise our ticket price, and make it pound-for-pound the best value in the world. Sometimes, this extends to underwriting our social impact projects too. But we are still faced with two groups of people: those we are trying to empower with design and those who can afford the experience. Thinking about it in these terms elicits a visceral reaction, because which side of the line you’re on is not just the luck of the draw. Poverty is historical and the factors that perpetuate inequality still exist.

So how do I come to work every day without raging against the system? I’ve come to the understanding that social design only matters if it affects the material circumstances of people without sacrificing their dignity through poverty porn or forcing onto them solutions that were derived in isolation from the community it seeks to help. Finding this balance is something Design Indaba does well.

In 2014, Design Indaba launched a project to install a streetlight system into one of Cape Town's more dangerous neighbourhoods. In partnership with the organisation VPUU (Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading), street artist Faith47 and design company ThingKing, Design Indaba’s #ANOTHERLIGHTUP initiative used public art as the catalyst for a crowd-funding campaign that went on to successfully build streetlights along a pathway in the informal settlement of Monwabisi Park in Khayelitsha, making the area a little safer for its residents. The project also led to a community-run safety patrol group who say they feel empowered and are better able to ensure the safety of their neighbours who walk the well-lit streets.

Previously, the 10x10 Housing project challenged 10 architectural teams made up of local talent and Design Indaba Conference alumni to provide affordable and sustainable design solutions for the low-cost housing sector on a pro bono basis. Situated in the informal settlement of Freedom Park on the outskirts of the township of Mitchell's Plain, the 10 homes, based on a design by Cape Town architect Luyanda Mpahlwa, are an exploratory look at the methods, materials and needs associated with low-cost housing in a country plagued by a housing crisis.

Annually, the Emerging Creatives campaign chooses 40 of the country’s young designers and artists from various industries to showcase at the conference. The aim is to give young creatives a platform with which to expand their budding creative businesses, whether it be through editorial coverage, exposure or to share in the social capital that an established brand affords.

Most recently, Design Indaba approached SONOP primary school in Paarl, near Cape Town, to assess the school’s energy needs. By partnering with solar installation company On Track and solar technology providers SolarWorld Africa, Design Indaba was able to facilitate the installation of solar systems at the under-resourced school in an effort to bring the area some socio-economic relief.

What I find telling about these initiatives is that, other than the Emerging Creatives campaign, which is a conference offering as much as it is a social impact programme, our public-facing communications are not saturated with content about our behind-the-scenes work. Design Indaba quietly works to chip away at inequality where it can, as is our responsibility as South Africans, without seeking adulation. When it’s looked at in isolation, the conference might not always get the balance right between our social-impact programmes and the broader aspirational appeal of the presentations, but the real work is beyond the event's boundaries. I think our founder Ravi Naidoo captured it best in a recent reflection on the SONOP project: ‘We utilise design as that skill or facility to improve the quality of life. A lot of what we’re trying to do is to let the genius leave the building.’

Jamie Matroos was responding to John Jervis's review of the Design Indaba 2017 conference – read the original article here



Jamie Leigh Matroos


Above: 10x10 housing project on the outskirts of the Mitchell's Plain township, based on designs by architect Luyanda Mpahlwa

quotes story

I’ve come to the understanding that social design only matters if it affects the material circumstances of people without sacrificing their dignity through poverty porn

AnotherLightUp Mural design indaba

Part of the #ANOTHERLIGHTUP project, Faith47’s artwork, 'Harvest' sits astride one of Cape Town's main inner-city highways

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