Kathryn Larsen’s prototypes of washed-up eelgrass as insulation on roof thatch
Kathryn Larsen’s prototypes of washed-up eelgrass as insulation on roof thatch

As always, SA’s home-grown Design Indaba delivered top-echelon architects, dancers, filmmakers and artists to Cape Town and to simulcast audiences. But this year, there was an underlying message of change with a purpose — in data technology, medicine and science.

People power

The Indaba also made forays into more esoteric areas — using emotions and activism to navigate politics, for instance. Take the brazen, unconventional political Twitter campaign started anonymously by four London drinking buddies, annoyed about Brexit and the lack of accountability in statements of the UK’s political leaders. Delighted audiences heard that Led By Donkeys started as an after-work guerrilla billboard initiative, shared via Twitter. Visual messages from these witty activists snowballed into a national billboard campaign, social media phenomenon and the biggest crowdfunded campaign in British political history.

Anna Talvi wears her microgravity astronaut gear
Anna Talvi wears her microgravity astronaut gear

The screen flashed with the words: be radically empathetic. Hard to imagine in the context of SA’s explosive political environment, right? Enni-Kukka Tuomala explained that the global empathy deficit was growing as societies struggle to find deeper connections. Drawing on her experience of working with six Finnish parliament members across five parties, Tuomala’s solution to fight power is to "channel radical empathy" with pink balloons and other "empathy tools" in politics.

"Political culture isn’t built for empathy, connection and collaboration," she said. "But if parliament is the microcosm of our society, then what does it tell us about ourselves and our culture?"

Dutch fashion designer Bas Timmer had plenty of empathy when he created the Sheltersuit in the Netherlands. He was inspired by the death of a homeless man, the father of two friends. His robust, street-friendly design withstands extreme weather conditions.

Created from recycled tent fabric donations, the durable Sheltersuit is a waterproof, windproof jacket with a sleeping bag that zips off. Using skilled Syrian refugees to sew the outfits, the Sheltersuit Foundation has made 10,000 suits. Timmer says his warmer-weather suit, the Shelterbag, will now be manufactured locally for South Africans.

Greener futures

When designer Elissa Brunato worked in fashion, a river polluted with leaking dyes and chemicals was a common sight.

Elissa Brunato created bio-iridescent cellulose sequins
Elissa Brunato created bio-iridescent cellulose sequins

Tiny sequins at embroidery factories were also being swept out as waste.

Rejecting the petroleum-based micro-plastic sparkly specks, Brunato’s London research created bio-iridescent sequins from natural, biodegradable cellulose as an alternative.

Also tackling textile industry pollution, Zimbabwe-born Natsai Audrey Chieza founded London’s Faber Futures. She spent about four years developing sustainable recipes for dyeing fabric, using microbes growing on the surface to deposit the dye. "Synthetic biology is about designing organisms that have new functionality," she told audiences. "The advantages for the textile industry are huge, with 500 times less water than is typically used."

Pushing sustainable resource recovery at a more pragmatic level, University of Cape Town engineering master’s student Vukheta Mukhari caused chuckles with images of containers filling under urinals, superimposed on Cape Town office buildings. Mukhari is part of the research team designing the first bio-brick made from urine.

Chicago architect Jeanne Gang has built many skyscrapers, including New York’s Solar Carve Tower, where her team "carved" the building and shaped its glass façade to increase the sunlight hitting it.

Olimpia Zagnoli: ‘How to Eat Spaghetti Like a Lady’ series
Olimpia Zagnoli: ‘How to Eat Spaghetti Like a Lady’ series

This innovation added 800 more sunshine hours to the interior spaces of the structure a year.

Her current "actionable idealism" philosophy was developed as a response to the urban angst and anxiety many city dwellers feel.

"It was a small thing, but we created a green rooftop at our Chicago office with 48 different species from the local area," Gang proudly recalled. Chicago is on a flyway for migratory birds, so the roof’s glass spaces were adapted, resulting in zero bird deaths from flying into glass. The goal was to create a wild habitat — and happier humans too — within a concrete jungle.

The tech team

Technology by itself is nothing until it touches someone’s life in a way that’s useful, said Google Creative Lab director Robert Wong. Google’s live caption feature, accessed on phones for use by deaf people, will be out later this year.

Stanford University’s energetic physical biologist Manu Prakash and his postgrads are using technology for positive change in rural classrooms, and for medical advancement in remote field labs. The team developed a build-your-own Foldscope cardboard microscope through which children in remote communities can view organisms. Mitigating the spread of disease, the Foldscope also helps diagnose blood-borne diseases such as malaria.

Bas Timmer’sA sewer shows off Sheltersuit
Bas Timmer’sA sewer shows off Sheltersuit

Takram director and creative technologist Yosuke Ushigome showed data humanisation in action. Using an augmented reality experience to reflect fluctuating sea levels on a screen, participants raised colour-coded ping-pong bats to answer yes or no about their dinner choices, commuting options or responsible disposal of waste.

Ushigome used a nearly drowning virtual audience experience to drive home the point: our daily choices affect global sea levels and climate change.

Designing for planets beyond ours, Estonian designer-researcher Anna Talvi’s microgravity wear for astronauts explored why space explorers need clothes that are functional, safe, long-wearing and, as a bonus, comfortable. "Our bones and muscles should not waste away during a long stint at zero gravity," she said. "My work is to figure out how bone architecture is formed on earth. Then we try to reverse-engineer it to figure out how to do it noninvasively. The programming is bespoke tailored to each astronaut to keep their bones and muscles functioning healthily." Everything from Talvi’s exomuscle bodysuits to socks are designed for zero gravity, with fine membranes to withstand sweating.

International branding expert Debbie Millman said that in the past decade, the greatest innovations have been brands that create a difference in people’s lives and reflect a world they want to live in.

Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli used vivid colour to make the point that artists have a privilege and responsibility to be able to speak up. Recalling how the Barilla pasta manufacturer was boycotted over homophobic comments, Zagnoli said brands can be encouraged to change their views through design activism. Zagnoli later created Barilla’s brilliant pasta packaging design of a lesbian couple, sharing a single spaghetti strand.

Led By Donkeys put Twitter billboard activism into action
Led By Donkeys put Twitter billboard activism into action

Entrepreneur Mazbahul Islam demonstrated a sustainable solution to facilitate medical transportation to remote areas of Bangladesh. Moving wheels, saving lives — that’s the slogan of Safewheel transportation systems and ambulances, which Islam co-founded. With suspension to combat the bumps of rural roads, this tuk-tuk ambulance has reduced death rates by bringing medical attention to rural villages in time.

Cape Town audiences were offered a tasting box of African raw ingredients. Ghana-born and US-trained chef Selassie Atadika is on a mission to get African communities to use imported food less often.

She hopes to improve health and nutrition, and to stimulate local trade. She’s using dining experiences at her Midunu pop-up restaurant in Accra to expose expats to unfamiliar ingredients, including plantain and bitter kola nut. "It’s about opening people’s eyes and being curious about what we have. There is so much in Africa."

At Design Indaba 2020, that wisdom certainly rang true.