Giant strides for the SABS Design Institute

It takes time and effort to turn a ship, but once turned, the new direction can be invigorating and could take you places that have seldom been reached.

This metaphor truly applies to the SABS Design Institute (DI). Since the SABS Board approved a new strategy for the DI in 2012, huge strides have been taken to keep the design ship on course.

Gavin Mageni, group manager of the DI, was appointed on 1 June to captain the DI ship and to activate the strategy approved by the board. The great challenge proposed by the strategic framework for design promotion in South Africa is to harness the power of design to generate a socio-economic impact. The framework calls for the DI to be a hub where design knowledge can be accessed and from where the country’s design process can be run to improve South Africa’s competitiveness.

To this end, the framework proposes identifying and enabling the  National Design System to address the innovation chasm by linking R&D with users, the market and the social environment for the benefit of the country’s socio-economic growth. The main elements of the National Design System to be activated are design awareness, design support, design education and design policy.

So what has been achieved in the past months since the implementation of the strategy? The greatest achievement has been creating visibility, forging partnerships amongst a variety of stakeholders, including designers, industry, the government, the SABS internally, and the media, as well as delivering focused messages to these groups.

Message 1: Actors in the National Design System should work together because good design is good business 
As newly appointed group manager of the DI, Gavin Mageni was introduced to the design fraternity on 28 June at a breakfast event, hosted in collaboration with the SA Innovation Network (SAINE) and Corba Watertech, themed “Good design is good business”. This event was very well attended by more than 100 guests interested in innovation and design.

Mageni spoke about the new course the DI was taking and mentioned that the Design Institute had a huge task on its shoulders. He introduced the concept of a National Design System to the audience at this event: “Before design promotion could be successful, the National Design System should be recognised and coordinated. This system needs to become part of policy and for that to happen a central policy-making platform should be created. This platform should ideally be interdepartmental and interdisciplinary so that everything that is needed can be done, and that there is not only a focus on what is prescribed by the present structures,” he said.

Message 2: Design without social or economic impact becomes a meaningless act
The DI participated in the Open Design Cape Town Festival in August as official partner and supporting the exhibition of the Mandela Poster Project where 95 posters of Madiba were on show. The Festival offered a platform to open minds to the possibilities of design; functioning as a core element within social, cultural and economic contexts. Here Mageni’s message was that design, without any social or economic impact, becomes a meaningless act.

Message 3: Design plays an essential role in the innovation value chain for the creation of social and economic impact 
By becoming the design partner of the 6th SA Innovation Summit, the DI positioned itself to create awareness of the essential role that design plays in the innovation value chain amongst innovators, as well as decision makers of some of the giants in the South African economy like the IDC, Telkom, Sasol, Eskom and more.

Message 4: The DI facilitates design interventions to enable social and economic impact through its Go-to-Hub programme
The Go-to-Hub programme for 360°Design for Competitive Business was announced at the 6th SA Innovation Summit. The programme offers a range of design support to assist high potential businesses to integrate design into all aspects of their operations. The Hub will be operational from October on a monthly basis. Under the auspices of the DI an expert panel will conduct a full assessment of an applicant’s enterprise capability and recommend opportunities to maximise design interventions for competitive advantage. Together with the applicant, the DI will then develop an action plan, contract design experts to execute aspects of the action plan and see to it that the success of the intervention will be measured in commercial terms.

Message 5: Implementing the design process in the innovation value chain is imperative to create a socio-economic impact
This message was delivered by the DI at the recent NSTF Science Council Symposium with the theme Achieving NDP 2030 targets: What skills are needed by Science, Technology and Innovation Institutions? 

The NSTF Science Councils and Statutory Bodies sector has been organising annual symposiums since 2009 where members and invited speakers share their experiences and plans. The NSTF is a stakeholders’ forum, representing more than a 100 science and technology related- institutions is a policy sounding board for science and technology matters, striving to keep its membership updated on policy developments and general science and technology news.

While researchers representing science councils and other statutory bodies were debating the skills challenges in their different technical fields, the DI, as part of the panel discussion on Skills for Innovation, delivered only one message: Knowing and applying the design process is imperative for reaching the National Development Plan targets.

Mageni emphasised the message that design is necessary to change research insight into innovation that will generate socio-economic impact, and Tasos Calantzis from Terrestrial Design Consultancy, elaborated on   the design process: that it is user-centred – making  products and processes and systems desirable and user-friendly -  that it is exploratory and iterative, that it  asks the crucial question “what if?”, is not afraid to make mistakes and carries on looking for solutions while getting rid of possible risks in the process.   

Above all, the design process has been found to be easily assimilated by technical experts to understand, apply and implement. It has also been found to build huge industries – Apple comes to mind. So why can it not be applied to design a new South Africa?

With these five crucial messages, the DI has set its ship on course to show that design can make a meaningful impact to South Africa’s socio-economic development.