Designing a better South Africa

What if services were delivered seamlessly in all communities in South Africa? What if you never had  to queue for anything? What if potholes were fixed as they appeared, or even better, what if they never appeared at all? These are the kinds of questions that designers ask and it might be here, in  the design fraternity, that we would be able to design a better South Africa – 20 years into democracy. Read more 

The SABS Design Institute (DI) actively supports designers who come up with ideas that matter and co-opted the help industrial designer Tasos Calantzis of the design company Terrestrial and adviser to DI to present a workshop titled Designing a competitive South Africa. 

So how do we design a better South Africa? 

Here are a few pointers: 

At school we learn to become risk averse, because we are measured by mistakes. But creativity is allabout making mistakes, about trying. Questions to ask when taking on the task of designing a better South Africa are: Could we design a new education system? Could we design a new kind of insurance? Could we design a new police force? Could we design better banks? 

What is design? 

Design is a process, an activity, and not only the results of that activity; 

Design allows a broad range of considerations to be taken into account; 

Design is about products, services, systems, environments and communication; 

Design can be done well or it can be done poorly giving rise to the qualification: Good design produces things which are appropriate for their purpose. 

A definition of design could be: 

Design = How we create the things that we make. 

If you deconstruct this definition, the design process is explained as follows: 

‘How’ refers to the mind-set involved, an approach that asks: What if? ‘Create’ refers to the design process – disciplined problem-solving and iterative improvement. ‘Things’ refer to products, services, communication, experiences, processes, value chain, business model and strategy. And finally, ‘make’ refers to various forms of execution; design is incomplete without execution. 

So: Good design produces things which are appropriate for their purpose. 

The characteristics of good design 

Good design: 

Is deeply concerned with people; 

Is about making things better; 

Brings beauty and simplicity from complexity and chaos. 

What role does the SABS Design Institute (DI) play in all of this? 

The SABS Design Institute has gone through its own redesign and has set out to use design to create positive change for the organisation and for the nation. 

The DI intends carrying out its mandate through: 

Operations - Using design to create positive change for SABS partners and the nation. 

Policy - Creating a national design policy which integrates with the national innovation policy. 

Awareness - Coordinating the public understanding of the national system of innovation, and resenting design knowledge to the general public. 

Credibility – Increasing the credibility of design by integrating design with the national education system and launching projects to improve the impact of design on organisations 

The design process 

Design can be seen as a problem-solving process or an improvement process that can be applied to business, to civil society, to government. It involves thinking processes and addresses the innovation chasm by bridging the gap between R&D output and commercialised value. 

The design process is a user-centred approach with iterative prototyping that mitigates risk when commercialising ideas. It uses creativity and rational thinking at different points and is best done by a team of people, each bringing a specific set of skills to the table. 

The design process starts with a need that arises in a specific context. The first step in meeting this need is to understand it and to uncover user insights. Once the need is understood, a process of creating starts. This is where the rational side of the problem is put aside for a while and where anything is possible. 

Constraints are then added and ideas are filtered to see which ones are better than others. Then follows validation, which is essentially prototyping. Trial and error is very much part of the design process. It is important to create controlled failure. At the centre of the process is the idea that the progression is not linear, learning is not linear and mistakes must be made in a quantified, careful way to reduce risk and improve the chances of success. Prototyping is in fact a risk mitigation exercise. It is a very cheap and controllable way of proving that the fundamental principles are true or not in the real world. 

The design process then moves to consolidating or synthesising the ideas. The solution can then be engineered, implemented and finally operated. In this way the design process can be applied to a gadget, to a business process or a service delivery entity in government, for example. 

The design process can be broken up into nine steps, each with a keyword and a descriptor. The table below explains the design process at a glance: 

Step What? Key word(s)  Descriptor
1 Primary research 
Research & Development
R&D is the first step in the process. 
2 Design research  Understand
Gathering deep understanding and uncovering insights. 
3 Conceptual design Create
Create multiple solutions, converting the insight into an idea. 
4 Conceptual design Filter Critical thinking to select options.
Prototyping, iteration & engineering 
Prototype the fundamental working principles of the idea, turning the idea into an invention. 
6 Prototyping, iteration & engineering  Synthesise
Create alignment in the business model. 
7 Prototyping, iteration & engineering  Engineer Build for the real world.
8 Commercialisation Implement
Industrialise and go to market, transforming the invention into an innovation – a new idea that creates financial and social value. 
9 Commercialisation Operate
The final step in the design process.