As a media partner for Design Indaba 2017, Nataal soaked up mind-blowing talks by the world’s most socially engaged design minds, and joined in honouring someone special…

Published on 19/03/2017

Now in its 22nd year, Design Indaba has nothing to prove as the finest creative conference on African soil. Nevertheless for its 2017 edition the event continued to reach new heights of quality, scope and re-invention by delivering non-stop, jaw-dropping moments from the first to last drop. Nataal joined Design Indaba as one of its international media partners and we fully immersed ourselves in three days of talks, performances and exhibitions at the Artscape in Cape Town. The main stage hosted over 40 presentations by design innovators from around the world ranging from young graduates to starchitects. While style and content ranged widely, recurring themes emphasised the importance of diversity and collaboration in order to break down walls in the face of 2017’s political and economic challenges, and the power of beauty and creativity to bring about social change.

Marko Ahtisaari, co-founder of The Sync Project, explained how music could be used as therapy and as precision medicine. We all turn to our favourite songs to alter our moods but his research goes further by using biometric data to map music that is responsive to our physiology. Through personalised playlists and generative music, Ahtisaari is tackling wellness and health concerns related to sleep, anxiety, relaxation and pain.

Yinka Ilori re-enacted a Nigerian house party to express how his upbringing on a north London council estate sewed the seeds of his career as a conceptual furniture designer. Specialising in chairs, he is inspired by traditional Nigerian parables, and the flamboyant wax print fabrics his family traditionally wear to church, to form pieces that tell stories about status, hierarchy and sexuality.

Chris Sheldrick introduced what3words, a geocoding system that has divided the surface of the planet into 3m x 3m squares, and given each one – all 57trillion – a unique three word reference. But why, you may well ask? What3words hopes to address the fact that over 70 per cent of the world is poorly addressed, making it hard for 4 billion people living in remote, informal or developing areas to communicate their location. This has implications for everything from postal systems to emergency services and is currently being used by ambulances in Durban, where the company has made physical house signs for the poorest neighbourhoods.

“Design is not about us and them, it’s a compassion-based strategy that does not polarise”

Professor Luis von Ahn concerns himself with global communication too. He is the genius behind reCAPTCHA, the anti-spam software that is digitising millions of books and educational texts onto the web, and the inventor of the online language learning system Duolingo. The free platform delivers in 34 hours of use the equivalent to one semester’s education and addresses the financial barriers faced by many when it comes to learning the language they need to get a job and rise above poverty. Ahn announced that Duolingo is expanding its languages offered to include Swahili and Zulu this year.

Olafur Eliasson delighted the audience with his philosophies on how public art can recalibrate our spatial awareness and remind us that our way of seeing the world is relative to our mind-set. Famed for his ephemeral, nature-inspired works such as The Weather Project at London’s Tate Modern and the New York City Waterfalls, the artist is also a professor at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Ababa. It’s here that he struck on the idea for Little Sun, a social business model providing pretty portable solar lamps to communities without electricity. In four years, 280,000 lights have reached 12 countries across Africa, creating an entrepreneurial network and saving $55million-worth of kerosene.

Eliasson chose Design Indaba to announce a new diamond-designed light that is more economical and greener to produce than the first, and also more aesthetically aspirational. “When we asked people what they needed the light for, the answer was often as much spiritual as practical,” he said. “As much a people need to read, they need to party too… Design is not about us and them, it’s a compassion-based strategy that does not polarise.”

Giorgia Lupi takes a similarly human approach to big data. The information designer uses hand drawing to personalise complex analysis of trends and behaviours. She is best known for Dear Data, for which she used weekly postcards of pretty data visualisations to get to know fellow designer Stefanie Posavec while living on opposite sides of the Atlantic (the project was subsequently acquired by MoMA). At Design Indaba she debuted her collaboration with genre-defying composer Kaki King aka “Dave Grohl’s favourite guitarist”. Together they created data flowers based on what King recorded as touching in her day to day life, from her daughter to door knobs, and those became a new and truly beautiful instrumentation.
Ekene Ijeoma also uses data to evoke empathy. The socially focused artist and designer urged creatives to “remember to treat people as citizens rather than consumers”. He outlined his recent concepts, including Wage Island, a physical model of New York that visualises salary and housing inequality in the city, and The Refugee Project, a digital map showing forced migration figures around the world and the stories behind the numbers.
Moving image moments came from Stuart Forrest of Triggerfish Productions, makers of South Africa’s two most successful animated films ever, Zhumba and Zambesia, and Pentagram partner Marina Willer, who outlined her design philosophy based around co-creation (“Me becomes We.”) before previewing her documentary about her father who escaped Nazi-occupied Prague to find a new life in Brazil. His was one of only 12 Jewish families to survive.

Jabu Nadia Newman introduced her online TV series The Foxy Five, which delves into issues of race, class and gender through the lens of intersectional feminism. In doing so she confronts the danger of being “both the victim and the oppressor”. Fellow South African image-maker Thandiwe Msebenzi was driven by her personal experiences of sexual harassment in public spaces to break society’s complicity of silent consent through her latest body of work. Shooting in and around her home, her photographs rally for resistance and female agency.

Lernert & Sander delivered the funniest talk of Design Indaba, outing the many copycats and flagrant plagiarists of their designs. Channelling wise words about forgiveness by sages including Nelson Mandela and Beyoncé, they invited a church choir to perform a song of clemency before sending a group email to all perpetrators with a video of their presentation. Nelly Ben Hayoun also raised a smile with The Life, The Sea and The Space Viking. The extreme experience designer uses a technique she calls “total bombardment” to bring science and ideas of the future to the public, with a little help from experts at institutions such as NASA and SETI. Her chaotic expedition took us 11km below the Earth’s surface in search of worms that will allow humans to live on Mars, or something... Equally colourful was Kate Moross’s rules for a happy and productive design agency, including “Failure is cool”, “Go to Disneyland” and “It’s better to have a hole in your team than an asshole”. Amen to all of that.

Osborne Macharia hoodwinked us by presenting his fictional Afrofuturist images as documentary photography. The artist’s co-conspirators, including The League of Extravagant Grannies and Kenya’s short stature fight club, joined him for his fantastical storytelling. Robin Rhode also brought his art to life by daubing moving walls with charcoal, chalk and spray paint before hacking through them with axes and finally using his own body as a canvas. Originally inspired by South Africa’s Bushmen cave paintings to engage with prejudice and inequality through his street-based practice, Rhodes’ urgent, physical performance drew on collective energies and histories.

Among the global graduates were many fresh voices, including Shoko Tamura’s approach to “street hactivism” through wearable technology, Bo Wan Keum’s involvement in a books for prisoners programme, Isabel Mager’s visualisations of how many human hands go into making our most prized digital devises, and Kaja Dahl’s Tapputi And The Sea – a solid perfume inspired by Cape Town and ancient scent rituals.

By the close of the final day of talks, Nataal was high on bright ideas, intelligent interventions and rebellious sentiments. But the most poignant moment was yet to come. Snøhetta co-founder Craig Dykers, whose firm creates habitats ranging from urban beehives to the National September 11 Museum Pavilion, unveiled his latest project for the conference’s grand finale. Dreamed up with Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo and Local Studio’s Thomas Chapman and sponsored by Liberty, they have commemorated Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with an architectural arch made from 14 wooden strands representing the 14 lines in the South African constitution’s preamble and 14 chapters thereafter. The unveiled prototype will find a home in Johannesburg, and the final arch will be placed in Company’s Garden near St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, where it will remind us all of Tutu’s keystone role in ending Apartheid.

Dykers read a letter of honour from the Nobel Prize committee and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille put her weight behind the scheme. But all were eclipsed by Tutu himself, who joined the gathering to give the project his personal blessing, and in doing so there was not a dry eye in the house. Let us then leave the last words to the father, who addressed those present, and all South Africans, as follows: “God is immensely proud of you. You destroyed a vicious system and today we are free… All that we did was articulate your aspirations and remind you that you are not second hand. You are not a feeble copy but a glorious creature. God is looking down and saying to Madiba, ‘Just look at them now’.”

Read about the Design Indaba 2017 special projects here

Photography John Pillemer
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