This article was published in the Cape Argus on 24 June 2011


Lorelle Bell

Cape Town has been shortlisted for the World Design Capital 2014 award, one of three with Dublin and Bilbao out of 52 global cities chosen by Icsid (the International Council for Societies of Industrial Design). 

The implications of winning this award,  given to cities which use design in their social, economic and cultural development, are enormous.  Seoul, as World Design Capital 2010, underscored both the economic benefits from increased designer and general tourism flowing from the global exposure of its design capability, as well as an improvement in the quality of life for Seoul’s urban dwellers as a result of the enormous public investment in transforming into a greener, more culturally sensitive city.

Far beyond this kind of impact, World Design Capital status in 2014 could catalyse a major public assumption of design as a tool for tackling social and economic challenges in Cape Town, as well as throughout South Africa and continental Africa. Understanding design and its capacity for developing solutions is key to this.
Already there are significant design initiatives on the continent – many emanating from Cape Town – that illustrate our capacity for using design for transformation and in the realisation of our – and in fact Africa’s – enormous potential.
But, as Mugendi M’Rithaa, Kenyan-born Professor of Industrial Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and a member of Icsid’s board,  points out, “Africa doesn’t tell its own stories often enough, particularly its success stories”.
And that is true of Cape Town and South Africa. One of the implications of this tendency is the missed opportunity for learning from our successes and scaling them for wider application.
Cape Town, for example, is the home of …XYZ Design, Africa’s pre-eminent Industrial Design Consultancy, the only corporate member of Icsid on the continent and founder members, with M’Rithaa, of Design With Africa. 
Combining qualifications, skills and expertise in Design, Industrial Design, Engineering, Business and Information Technology, XYZ’s innovation has resulted in over 100 products in the company’s 10 years of existence, ranging from high-tech portable kiosks that allow wireless and cashless online transactions using bank cards for real-time payment in remote areas, to the Modular Traffic Lights System that collapses on impact making it arguably the safest of its kind in the world. Other innovations from the consultancy include a compact baby monitor that clips onto nappies, the 4SECS Condom Applicator in its funky packaging, and a wind-up radio.
Their designs are lauded internationally and form part of permanent collections at prestigious institutions like New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. Over the past decade they’ve received more than 20 awards from the South African Bureau of Standards’ (SABS) Design Institute. 
But it is their design methodology that resonates best with design’s capacity for transformation. XYZ follows the widely-recognised iterative design process that moves from a need to the consideration of all constraints to designing a solution which is communicated and tested, and ultimately refined. To this process, however, they add a design ethos that ensures that through in-depth research, the context is deeply understood; and then appropriate, effective, scalable designs are developed in response.
As proponents of socially-responsive and socially-responsible design, which emphasizes design that addresses social needs while remaining cognisant of the social, economic, cultural and geopolitical contexts of the communities in which they’re applied, XYZ favours participatory design and co-design methods. Illustrative of this is the team’s participation in Icsid InterDesign workshops. The last one held in South Africa was on sustainable rural transport, in Rustenburg in 2005, and resulted from a request by the North-West Provincial government to SABS’ Design Institute for assistance with developing tender specifications for a donkey cart for specific local uses. SABS facilitated a two-week workshop, Sustainable Rural Transport – Technology for Developing Countries, which involved designers from South Africa and 16 other countries looking at ways in which appropriate technology and good design could be harnessed to address mobility challenges of developing communities.
Participating designers worked with local communities, government institutions and industry.
The National Department of Transport provided valuable research data and information on issues surrounding rural transport and enabled contact with provincial and municipal structures. Experts in social, gender and technical topics and issues were consulted as were institutions like the CSIR, intellectual property lawyers, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty towards Animals (NSPCA), bicycle manufacturing companies and NGOs.Research revealed that for 60% of rural households in South Africa motorised public transport was either unavailable or inaccessible. Delivering effective rural transport could drive sustainable economic development and improve access to social services in rural areas.
Designers worked in three focus areas: Bicycles and TricyclesAnimal-drawn Carts and Alternative Modes of Transport. Roelf Mulder of XYZ led the Bicycles and Tricycles workshop. Participating rural communities originally involved in the design workshop tested prototypes for functionality and social acceptability. A number of the design concepts created were then developed into prototypes under SABS management with funding provided by the National Department of Transport.

XYZ was commissioned to develop the modular bicycle idea. The design criteria were that the bicycle had to be easily built with simple, accessible components, and without gears, and easily maintained and repaired in an isolated rural environment. XYZ’s modular bicycle can be assembled in a variety of ways, depending on the user’s needs. For example, the bike can be a conventional two-wheeler, it can transform into a tricycle, a tandem, or even two side-by-side bicycles with a materials-carrying platform bolted between them. Many of the materials suggested by the bicycle’s designers are recycled. Another feature of the bicycle is that it can be built for both male and female cyclists.
According to Mulder, “The idea lends itself to a franchise operation geared towards rural entrepreneurial development. A franchisee could open a shop stocked with the bicycle’s components and assemble them to order.“With basic welding skills, the franchisee could repair the bicycles as well,” he adds. The bicycles must continue to be useable if factory-made components are unavailable,” says Mulder. He further adds that “. . . with our structured Western thinking we like to package everything but why can’t we leave creativity to be creative?” In keeping with the non-prescriptive approach of participatory and co-design methods,  the modular bicycle is not a polished solution but a solution that respects the ingenuity of the user, allowing the user to construct a bicycle that addresses his/her specific needs at that time. “We see these bicycles being used to carry water containers, building materials, or patients to clinics and goods to market. People’s livelihoods will depend on them so they cannot remain idle because a component is unavailable”. The Department of Transport is keen for successful prototypes to be commercialised, and has expressed a willingness to facilitate the process where needed. 
XYZ’s commitment to Africa’s design capability is manifest in its initiation and founding of Design With Africa (DWA) in 2009 as a platform for sharing, debate and cooperation among designers on the continent as well as DWA’s partners and designers all over the world, who have an interest in Africa. Its focus is on promoting design as a strategic tool for development in Africa and for showcasing African design talent and success stories. DWA favours a non-prescriptive approach which allows African problems to be solved in a uniquely African manner. 
Designers from Europe and the US are increasingly looking to Africa, South America and Asia for opportunities to design solutions for developing economies, as changing economic and ecological environments around the globe increasingly require socially responsive, responsible design. Africa’s development, as M’Rithaaattests, is a wonderful sandbox in which to discover and develop design solutions. But Africa needs to guard against being a sandbox in which its own designers do not get to play.
Against the prevailing negative perception of Africa, Africa’s advances are often overlooked. As M’Rithaa writes on Design With Africa, “Ours is arguably the richest continent in terms of natural resources with some of the world’s fastest growing economies located here. For example, Ghana is expected to lead the pack in actual GDP growth of about 20% in 2011 – a growth ostensibly driven by newly discovered oil finds. Not all of Africa’s economic growth is linked to the extraction of raw materials. For example, Ethiopia, which until recently was devastated by perennial drought and pervasive famine, is projected to increase its GDP on the strength of its agricultural sector. 
Interestingly, approximately half of the top 12 fastest growing economies this year are from our continent. Similarly, Africa has the fastest growing ICT and mobile telephony markets anywhere in the world with exciting Internet-based developments happening in cities like Nairobi.”Yet the perception of Africa’s weakness and failures persist.”
Being the custodians and channels of our own stories and ensuring that our design assets and successes are shared in the public domain, are critical to us assuming a leadership position in socially responsive, responsible design.

Becoming World Design Capital in 2014 needs to mean more than an increase in exposure and visitor numbers for Cape Town in that year. Public understanding of design and public sector recognition of design’s transformative potential can mean that we benefit from design thinking for decades to come.