Design is often popularly associated with expensive ‘lifestyle’ commodities. Fundamentally, however, it should be understood in terms of its solution-finding, problem-solving, transformative potential.  In an emerging society like ours, this potential is critical. Design understanding and skills can help Cape Town to address challenges created by its past and enhance the standard of living for everyone into the future.

(an excerpt from an opinion piece  which was published in the Cape Argus on 1 September 2010.)

Cape Town really is a tale of two cities, one a postcard narrative of wild beauty and sophisticated cosmopolitanism, the other a story of poverty and urban degradation. 

What links the two is the people of the city, some four million inhabitants who share much the same hopes, depend on the same resources and whose future prospects are inseparable. If in the past they were divided by design, it is by design – a reshaping of the cityscape – that a safer, more efficient and fairer home for all its residents can be forged. The potential was no better illustrated than in the way the people of Cape Town rediscovered their city and one another during the World Cup, mingling and celebrating together in public spaces, stadiums, dedicated walkways, trains and buses. But it will take more than a soccer tournament to overcome the structural fragmentation of the Cape Town apartheid planners designed, a sprawling city in which the majority of citizens were – still are – cut off from one another, and from resources and opportunities.

Like many cities the world over, Cape Town is grappling with the needs of a burgeoning urban population on one hand, and on the other of the investors and businesses which are indispensable to fueling the economic growth the whole population depends on. What we know is that cities that work are sustainable ones which prioritise people – their engagement with the city and their connection with and ease of access to jobs, services, education and cultural and leisure activities. Key issues are public transport, denser and safer accommodation, and vibrant public spaces. And design is at the heart of all these things, using design thinking and processes to assure a sustainable future.

Cape Town’s unique setting  – cupped between two national heritage sites, the iconic Table Mountain and the symbol of fortitude and idealism in Robben Island, just off the coast – is complemented by its culturally diverse population, which gives the city its rich creolised character. Cape Town’s cuisine, music, dance and language reflect this rich variety, as does its wealth of good designers and designs.  The CBD alone is home to more than a thousand creative industry enterprises, nearly a half of which are design-related. The leading-edge design conference and expo, Design Indaba, has been held annually in Cape Town for the past 14 years and the annual Toffie Popular Culture Festival, launched in 2009, offers workshops on a wide range of design disciplines. Many Cape Town designers have been awarded global design awards.

But Cape Town’s compelling design story is how the city is using design to overcome the huge challenges created or deepened by apartheid. After a long past of divisiveness, the story of Cape Town since 1994 has been about learning to reconnect. At the end of the 1900s, the city was a relatively contained port city with a diverse population of just over 100 000, most living between  Table Mountain and the sea. While racial prejudice was already deeply rooted in colonial-era town planning, the 20th century saw this prejudice codified in law, most ruthlessly in the Group Areas Act of the 1950s, which carved the city into racial blocs. The net outcome of this programme of discrimination denied black South Africans the opportunity to live and work in the city, and forced out others who were not white. Residential segregation became a fixed feature of Cape Town and its ‘solution’ of developing sub-economic housing on the Cape Flats. A once vibrant Cape Town closed in on itself, shutting out its citizens and, by default, encouraging decay, degeneration and crime.

As the political tide turned, however, so the city began slowly to reconnect. For the past decade the inner city itself has been the centre of a major regeneration project that has created a safe, clean environment. The restoration of District Six to its historic claimants and redevelopment of the area is underway, albeit painstakingly slowly and beset with political challenges. The area linking it to the Central City is, however, enjoying a rapid reawakening. The Fringe, as it’s called, is occupied by an increasing number creative industry enterprises, as well as artists, musicians and writers, and theatres, coffee shops and restaurants – reprising the precinct’s role as the centre of creativity in the city. What was once the Cape Technikon is now a campus of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology where the unique Faculty of Informatics and Design promotes socially conscious design, and staff and students collaborate with communities in finding design solutions to social challenges.

For decades the clothing and textile sector, with a base in the suburbs of Salt River and Woodstock, was a robust industry and a major contributor to the Cape economy. When this failed, the area degenerated. But, like many cities worldwide that have used design to revive locales, this precinct is experiencing a process of regeneration, led in large part by the presence of designers and design-related businesses. Furniture designers Pedersen+Lennard and Haldane Martin, lighting designers Heath Nash and Brett Murray, and fashion design company Darkie Clothing all have studios here. The area has also witnessed a proliferation of art galleries, advertising agencies and design shops. In the old clothing and textile district, a cosmopolitan environment has arisen, where design and lifestyle are key elements of its character.

Cape Town is a city with a cosmopolitan offering of art, culture, entertainment and leisure, adding another string to Cape Town’s marketing bow as a destination. It has also recently benefited from the beginnings of an Integrated Rapid Transport (IRT) system. A network of road, rail, pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths, it has the potential of connecting people and giving them greater access to different areas, resources and opportunities. Through the application of design, the IRT could potentially unleash sustainable economic development and densification in the nodes surrounding stations. 

Beyond the central city, there have been other initiatives that reflect Cape Town’s commitment to addressing the fragmentation of its layout. One example is the municipality’s Dignified Places Programme which aims to create positive, inspiring, safe spaces in the most under-resourced areas of the city for people to meet, trade and relax.

Cape Town needs to get better at communicating its design assets and achievements and sharing its design know-how so that best practices can be replicated. 

Design is often popularly associated with expensive ‘lifestyle’ commodities. Fundamentally, however, it should be understood in terms of its solution-finding, problem-solving, transformative potential.  In an emerging society like ours, this potential is critical. Design understanding and skills can help Cape Town to address challenges created by its past and enhance the standard of living for everyone into the future.

Design begins with a problem, interrogates and understands it, then proceeds to developing and evaluating ideas and processes to solve it. Take for example some design innovations in the health sector. In South Africa, where cervical cancer is responsible for 25% of cancer deaths among black women, Pap smears are expensive. There is also no public Pap smear programme. Professor Lynn Denny, head of the Gynaecological Oncology unit at the University of Cape Town, has designed a cheap, low-tech alternative for screening for cervical cancer at clinics in under-resourced communities. Nurses use acetic acid swabs, which cause abnormalities in the cervix to show up white. Abnormalities are then treated by freezing them with liquid nitrogen.  The alternative is no treatment at all. With a vaccine still several years away, this method saves lives.

Another example that draws from knowhow developed in under-resourced communities is a response to the high incidence of diseases like TB and HIV. The IT department in CPUT’s Faculty of Informatics and Design has been working with community- and home-based health carers to develop a programme of support. Using cell phone technology, the students have developed and tested a programme that helps health practitioners to access support and information to assist them in their work.

These are instances of design being used to identify the most effective, efficient, appropriate, and broadly applicable solutions, whether for products, systems or services.

The message is simple: a commitment to design, and design knowledge and training, will benefit us all.