South Africa’s design fest celebrates inclusiveness

I was fortunate to attend Design Indaba in Cape Town last week, my fourth of the eight events that have constituted South Africa’s annual design fest. Since my first visit in 1999, it has grown into a world class forum for creativity, attracting speakers – and an audience – from across the globe.

It is the kind of event where lives are changed by the people and ideas on and off the podium, and it has been heartening to see South Africa’s creative community harness Design Indaba – meaning celebration – to explore their national identity. It is, after all, a new country in constitution and spirit, with apartheid a mere 11 years in the past.

It is interesting that the organisers focused this year on architecture, jewellery and fashion as the three pillars on which they see the creative economy – and, perhaps, the nation’s identity – being built. Previously, the emphasis was on advertising, graphics and digital design, all of which remain in the conference mix.

But there was more to it than that, with debates that have implications for the global design community. One thing brought home was the increasing social responsibility demonstrated by most top designers. You might expect ad agency Network to create outstanding ads to encourage donations of clothing for South Africa’s homeless, given the poverty of many there. But when it applies the same tactics to issues such as engine emissions and smoking, it puts itself on a world stage.

It wasn’t the only one doing it. Product designers as diverse as the German master Dieter Rams and the UK’s Richard Seymour spoke about sustainability in their field, with Seymour opening the hearts and minds of the audience to social ills, such as homelessness, through a touching video with an eight-year-old Irish boy on a fact-finding mission to London.

For the affluent West, sustainability hasn’t been such a concern till recently – indeed, built-in obsolescence was key in developing product styling to create fashion and boost sales. But the so-called Third World is starting with a different view – as the Brazilian Campana Brothers showed in their work with the favelas, or shanty towns, of their country. Inclusiveness is genuine in their work, not just the stuff of focus groups.

In architecture, Will Alsop spoke of his practice’s public consultations over projects such as Peckham Library. However, local husband and wife team Silvio Rech & Lesley Carstens go one step further, using local people to build their hotel projects.

Design Indaba was set up to bring the world to South Africa as it went through a difficult rebirth. However, it is showing that we all have much to learn from each other – and that the shapers of the future aren’t just from the First World.

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