Our special Arch: A prototype of an arch designed by Swedish architects Snøhettain in collaboration with Local Studio to pay tribute to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was unveiled at the 2017 Design Indaba. Picture: SUPPLIED
Our special Arch: A prototype of an arch designed by Swedish architects Snøhettain in collaboration with Local Studio to pay tribute to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was unveiled at the 2017 Design Indaba. Picture: SUPPLIED

From shelters for displaced communities and digital design for differently abled people to sustainable megacities, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and/or intersex) rights and — as always — a touch of art, magic and whimsy, Design Indaba 2017 foregrounded social impact, innovation and social transformation.

"Ours is not a boiler-plate, cookie-cutter methodology. That is too reductionist," Design Indaba founder and director Ravi Naidoo said after the event concluded in Cape Town.

The finale at the annual gathering was the unveiling of a prototype for a commemorative arch for Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. He was in attendance with Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, along with Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, who commissioned the work.

The arch — designed by Swedish architects Snøhettain in collaboration with Local Studio — will grace the south entrance of the Company’s Garden near St George’s Cathedral.

The structure is composed of 14 woven strands representing the 14 chapters of the constitution. It will be unveiled on Tutu’s 86th birthday in October 2017 and the prototype will be housed at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.

The arch is one more example of the "beyond the conference walls" approach of Naidoo and his team.

"Our first responsibility is to push out ideas — to the ether, the community. We aren’t impresarios or conference organisers but a platform; an incubator for ideas," he says.

"Ideas are strange. They sit there out on the edge; they sometimes hibernate. Some have the propensity to germinate — sometimes they fall on fertile soil … and are converted into reality."

Now in its 22nd year, the recent Design Indaba conference attracted 1,500 people in Cape Town and 6,000 followers in simulcasts across SA and in Kampala, Windhoek and Lausanne, Switzerland.

Each of the 51 speakers, performers and social, cultural and cyber activists from 21 countries was driven by a passion for social change.

As always, the conference was accompanied by the Design Indaba Festival — a whirlwind of events and exhibitions. On the sidelines was a maker-space featuring leading global brands such as Ikea.

On Monday, Naidoo and his team were back at work, preparing to bring more good ideas into reality.

"We are at it constantly, obsessively. The Design Indaba is an antidote to what is going on in our politics. And it gives us extra impetus to throw ourselves into this beautiful work – which goes beyond the theatre building into the public square," he says.

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which is opening at the Waterfront later in 2017, was unveiled in a rousing presentation at Design Indaba by Thomas Heatherwick, the British architect commissioned to lead the project.

This edition of the indaba also saw the realisation of the Little Sun solar energy project by Danish-born, Berlin-based, public artist and architect Olafur Eliasson, whose installations are housed at major institutions around the world.

Eliasson designed the Little Sun during his regular travels to Addis Ababa. For displaced people, hikers or those living off the grid, the Little Sun is a portable solar-powered light and torch with a solar charging station. He had barely finished demonstrating his product when the Design Indaba Foundation introduced him to a local retailer and a solar-powered project at a local school, aptly named Sonop, in Klein Drakenstein.

Another scalable social initiative was born.

"We can’t be insular about the world we live in. To survive in the new world, you need to expand your scope of possibility, make connections to disparate things," Naidoo says.

It was inevitable that the digital and design solutions and recurring themes and memes of the 2017 indaba reflected the zeitgeist of human displacement, alienation and isolation.

US-based Ekene Ijeoma, who transforms data and facts into tactile, visceral and digital installations, provided a stark realisation of the effects of migration. The Refugee Project of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees interactively maps the growth and location of refugee populations — from 1975 to 2015 — in ever-increasing and intersecting circles.

More than 4-billion people across the globe live in shelters without a formally assigned or locatable address.

Help is at hand for them from what3words.com, devised by Chris Sheldrick, who divided the globe into a grid of 57-trillion 3x3 blocks, assigning each one a unique three-word address. It is available in a range of languages.

Sheldrick is encouraging politicians to implement Peruvian development economist Hernando de Soto’s theory of the "barking dog". By assigning legitimacy (title deeds) to informal settlements and formal houses, every inhabitant will have the means to create capital and secure credit to start or expand a business.

Voted one of 10 most brilliant scientists by Popular Science Magazine, Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn gave the world CAPTCHA — and then sold it to Google. It is used 2-trillion times a day to sort bots from humans.

The project he is most proud of is his retirement baby, Duolingo, a free language learning platform with more than 150-million users.

Rotterdam-based architect Prof Winy Maas, co-founder of The Why Factory global think-tank on urban solutions, leverages digital techniques to re-envisage the form and construction of "boring" skyscrapers. With their colour-filled Market Hall, Maas and his team at MVRDV Studio transformed Rotterdam from industrial city to desirable tourist destination.

Capetonian Carina Bonse presented Swimming In It — bracelets that alert swimmers to the amount of sewage in sea water — to Design Indaba. Also at the indaba were displays of the digital-design interface. Pauline Saglio demonstrated physical objects combined with digital responses. Blow through a bubble stick mounted on a stand and the bubbles appear digitally on a wall; the patterns on a Pucci scarf light up in response to touch or sound.

The acclaimed creative director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, Tea Uglow, presented a new series of books challenging the tyranny of the digital format. Seed is a nonlinear book, organically mimicking its evolving content.

Data visualisation artist Giorgia Lupi declared at the indaba: "We have to reclaim how data is used in a personal way."

Arjun Harrison-Mann is doing just that, his activism motivated by the recent exclusion in the UK of 65% of former recipients of social grants for the differently abled and disabled. He took to "dialogical design" through algorithmic interventions – radical ones. He hacked the system to assist people in need, rehumanising the data systems of the bureaucracy.

Naidoo describes this as "the nexus where technology and humanity meet, where we find true social innovation".

From Afrofuturism in the glorious furniture of Yinka Ilor, the dystopian fictional photography of Kenyan Osborne Macharia, the wit of free-form rappers Freestyle Love Supreme and the satire of graphic designers Lernert and Sander, collaboration and surprise were hallmarks of presentations at the 2017 indaba.

"In this overcommunicated, overproduced and overengineered word, isn’t it amazing to be an intellectual explorer, feeling that you tripped over something astounding?" Naidoo asks.

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