At a TEDx get-together held in Soweto in early November, Gavin Mageni, group manager of the Design Institute challenged the audience with two questions:

  • What if we had the power to design our roles as active citizens within a country full of possibilities? and;
  • What will happen if we all start thinking like designers and apply that thinking to everything we do?

Now in its fourth year, TEDx Soweto brought together a most extraordinary line-up of speakers - all movers and shakers in their own right – to ponder the premise that creativity is the answer to all questions.

TED started 25 years ago in California and is based on the concept of ideas worth spreading. Today TED talks are held across the world and independently organised events go under the banner of TEDx.

As speaker number two at TEDx Soweto, Mageni clarified what design is and how it fits in with the TEDx theme. He said that design as a profession has progressed radically in the public mind in recent decades from purely being engaged with aesthetics, practicality, marketing, commerce and propaganda that serve a small portion of the population, to a higher order of thinking that is more inclusive, democratic and most certainly totally ubiquitous. Today, design touches every moment and aspect of the lives of every being on planet Earth. Design humanises our interactions with technology, spaces, information, systems and the natural ecology to improve the human and planet Earth’s condition at every level.

He added that, in line a personal philosophy to improve the human condition through design, the designer’s trajectory of Listen, Create, Deliver thrives on the creating social, economic or socio-economic meaning.

The talk then moved on to the role of the SABS Design Institute as South Africa’s national design promotion body with the mandate of using design as a change agent; creating social and economic change; and being an active participant in the redesign of South Africa and the world.

Because of the state of our nation and the world in general, with unemployment, social ills, poverty and sluggish economic growth and financial instability since the advent of the global recession prevailing, the Design Institute suggests a redesign of the world in which we live.

Shared knowledge and co-creation
Mageni proposed that a redesign is possible through shared knowledge and co-creation. He used the Design Institute’s Interdesign intervention on Rural Transport as an example.

This intervention started off with a requirement to create a SABS national standard specification for building donkey carts for local uses. The key focus was making this mode of transport safer for all road users but it soon expanded to also include other societal needs once designers got involved.

In applying a design-thinking methodology, in essence taking a systems thinking approach – the broader issue surfaced which was that the lack of transportation resulted in people being omitted from basic social services, proper educational opportunities and the economic mainstream, keeping them bound within the poverty cycle. Designers and students from 15 countries worked together with villagers from Mathopestat, Syferbult and Pitsedisulejang in the North-West Province to redesign donkey carts, amongst other issues. Expertise was also drawn from the CSIR, intellectual property lawyers, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty towards Animals (NSPCA), welding companies and communication designers. Donkey carts were viewed multi-dimensionally, with special focus on contextual issues and realistic outcomes. Disciplines covered included social issues, transport management, standards, sustainability and environmental issues.

This group eventually found new and cheaper ways to make harnesses. This was done in consultation with the NSPCA who tested the harnesses in the field. More profoundly, this process resulted in many other ideas and prototypes being developed which included new ideas for bicycle and tricycle designs, trolleys, other modes of human powered transport, as well as community information systems regarding transportation information.

Kick-starting the traditional medicines industry
The second idea Mageni highlighted was the Design Institute’s initiative in 2013 to kick-start the African Traditional Medicines industry.

This industry is a focus of the Presidency and other national government departments; it serves 36 million consumers, offers a livelihood to hundreds of thousands of South Africans and has the potential to contribute billions of Rand to the GDP of South Africa. However, the African Traditional Medicines industry is hampered by many long-standing and interrelated problems ranging from unsustainable harvesting to a lack of market knowledge. It suffers from poor communication, distrust amongst stakeholders and a lack of coordination. This has resulted in an industry that is not empowered and that cannot contribute fully to the growth of our nation.

It was stated that the design process begins with the end users - identifying what they need now and in the future. It shows the commercial viability of meeting these needs with natural plant medicines. It also offers examples of how these medicines can be processed into safe, hygienic and convenient products that fetch good prices. Examples are provided of how these plant medicines should be labelled, classified, tested and quality assured. It is in this sense that it surfaced that this is an industry that has a R27 billion propensity.

The TEDx talk concluded with a challenge: Identify 20 design ideas to celebrate 20 years of democracy in South Africa, through the 20x20 Design Democracy Project. Start asking the right questions: What are the need(s)? What if?  What could be?
In forming a partnership with local designers, the Design Institute has embraced this project that aims to bring together the design and related disciplines to activate 20 design ideas that would support nation building and social upliftment through design.

Sharing the stage with more than 25 inspiring speakers, the Design Institute used TEDx Soweto to spread the word that anything is possible through design.