Author: Byron Qually
First published: The CapeTowner
It is well known that Cape Town was designed with division in mind. From the socio-political demarcations of apartheid to working within the city’s unique topography and coastline. The result is stark and seemingly inflexible. The deployment of design was implemented in a top-down approach, fashioned on colonial influences and national policies of segregation. With such a legacy, it is just that so many Capetonians’ question the overarching objective of a World Design Capital (WDC), with images of forced removals; looming gentrification and the unrelenting affects of modernisation that threaten their livelihoods. The affects are profound and can even strike at the heart of what it means to belong to a community or country. For example, I had a discussion with an elderly Capetonian recently regarding democracy and his life under apartheid. He mentioned that today he is unclear on who he is, and more specifically, what his identity is.
But just as design can deface identity and place a veneer across cultural heritage, it can also provide a means for emancipation. This is why I support the bid that the Cape Town Partnership (CTP) put together as it has positioned design as a mechanism to relay the untold narrative and history of Cape Town, not only to the world, but also to Capetonians themselves. It is a bottom-up approach that has the very real ability to document and highlight cultural traditions that have been overshadowed by our past, or are considered too difficult to convey via traditional mediums. South Africa has a history of importing design solutions, which in many cases are not suited to local conditions. This approach has also had the effect that we have been swayed to a nation of shop seekers, and not problem solvers.
In other words, we frequently retrofit incompatible solutions to suit our local needs, rather than firstly articulating the problem and then seeking solutions. Local designers are well aware of this historic trend, and the WDC is an opportune period to demonstrate the benefits of context driven design methodologies.
As a discipline, design has not been provided such a public platform to showcase its credibility. This places a large amount of responsibility on designers to not only live up to their claims, but also mediate between a variety if stakeholders. For example, designers need to be made acutely aware of the enormous amount of factors that have led to an import driven economy. I believe this will actually be the greatest benefit, as local designers will be interacting with individuals that they would not normally have met. Of course, the meeting of convergent and divergent perspectives around the same table is never easy, though the WDC theme is a collective goal that will hopefully guide the discussion, and encourage all to wander from their comfortable spaces into unfamiliar territory.
Good design requires in-depth research, and careful consideration on how technology is employed, however, it is ultimately about taking action through artefacts, systems, services and structures. To understand what action is desirable, robust debate on the composition of African-centric design, is required in order to outline what it can achieve, and ultimately identifying it’s limitations. This is an on-going and reflective process that will hopefully continue past the WDC 2014 date. Unfortunately, as a nation we have in many respects been paralyzed by the horrors of our past, and making change or attempting to make change, is a fraught and complicated process. Similarly, the understanding of design in South Africa is relatively new; with countless discourse still focusing on populist illusions of designer grandeur, coupled with a seemingly voyeuristic and distant pessimism that discounts it as an authentic discipline. Such a contested public image is understandable with our complex history and only recent open dialogue.
However, the polarised and deterministic approach that attempts to understanding design needs to be acknowledged and managed before any WDC projects commence. Similarly, the measurement and success criteria of design will be an important outcome. Far too often commentary on design has absolutist outcomes, with binary success or failure outcomes being declared. This has in many respects has placed pressure on large organisation, such as local government to mitigate potential failure by risk avoidance, and not risk management. The design process does cater for such concerns, due to its iterative approach repositioning failures as new learning’s that can be continuously integrated into a project. This is a primary foundation of innovation that success rarely emerges without failure. Perhaps if WDC projects are to be a success, we need to allow some room for failure as a means to learn.
How the WDC will affect the industry is a contested point, as many local industry practitioners and manufacturers are somewhat sceptical after the Soccer World Cup that alluded to investment in local design and industry, but largely failed to deliver. The WDC on the other hand should directly cater to this concern, as local industry is paramount for its success. This is also an opportune time to introduce and showcase industry stakeholders to the public at large. As Mokena Makeka has pointed out, countless design talent and exemplars reside in the origination and manufacturing processes, yet marketing collateral frequently focusses only on the end ‘product’. Cape Town has proven world-leading consultants, engineers and industries, and hopefully the WDC will provide the mechanism to ensure that dialogue does not stop at the factory gates.
Relatedly, discourse on industry appears to be dated, and not cognisant of the longitudinal data that has been made available since the industrial revolution, which is starting to reveal new and positive forms of social interaction and power relationships at the factory level that may have been overlooked. However, ultimately the World Design Capital is not about designers, industry partners, the CTP or the City. It is about the design process, and identifying appropriate design methodologies that are able to expressive the community’s aspirations and cultural heritage.
The views expressed in this article are entirely the views of the author or authors and are not necessarily those of DWA or its associates.