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Design Indaba and Doors of Perception
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This article was written by Alex Steffen in March 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

I spent the last five weeks floating in a cloud of jet lag, cultural confusion and over-stimulation, on a series of trips that were the culmination of seven months spent mostly on the road, promoting our book, attending meetings and conferences and expanding our network of innovative collaborators. In other words, I've been flying constantly, staring sleep-deprived at hotel television screens, and talking with more worldchanging people than I ever suspected existed, most of whom are eagerly expanding their own universes of allies. I have seen the future, and it networks.

We've already written a lot about our travels -- from the streets of Berlin to the temples of Delhi -- but a combination of mild exhaustion and a jammed calendar have kept me from noting many of the exciting things I came across on this last leg of the journey. I'm about to take a couple days off, though, so I thought I'd share some impressions in a sort of free-form manner. Essentially transcribed from my notebooks, with apologies for their lack of style, here are some of my notes from the first two weeks of this trip:

Cape Town: For years I've dreamt of Africa, and now I'm here: in perhaps the least African corner of the continent, sure, but still, here.

What a strange place! On the one hand, a lovely city, full of good restaurants and awesome beaches and friendly, beautiful people; on the other hand, a city riven through with the old fault lines of Apartheid and oppression. Yet the people seem to be genuinely proud to have steered through the roughest part of the transition with peace and reconciliation, and to be moving forward together: cab drivers, grocers, security guards, art gallery owners, bartenders, businesspeople, government officials -- all use the same language about how things could have been much, much worse, and if crime can be brought under control, they will get much, much better.

One hot day, Cameron Sinclair and I drive out to Atlantis, a township about forty kilometers from Cape Town to which much of the city's "coloured" population was forcibly removed under Apartheid. Today, Atlantis is sunken in a waste of scrubby brush and blowing plastic garbage bags and sand, tucked away off the highway, behind barbed wire fences, where it is slowly falling to pieces.

100,000 people live here. Unemployment and poverty are rampant. Many of the streets are half-paved at best, and the old social housing is rundown, with rusting bars on the windows and faded white and pink paint chipping off the walls. Skinny dogs skulk in the empty yards. What industry was nearby is largely closing down, now that its divestment-era subsidies have collapsed. Our host calls it "one of the worst afflicted communities in the Western Cape, a suburban slum which condemns people to an eternal cycle of poverty." The blindingly bright sunshine and clear blue sky don't keep it from looking dusty and grim.

We're here to visit the United Sanctuary Against Abuse, the area's only domestic violence shelter. Kim, our guide, drives us up to small house, which though clearly not a home to riches, has a determined air of care: swept yard, tiled walk, flower beds, curtain, a tree under whose shade we park. It is run by two middle-aged women, Sofia and Margarita, who welcomed us into their living room to talk.

Margarita explained the situation: "The factories running short time, many people are just at home now. Many people here are unschooled. Some people are working outside the community, but there is much more abuse now. In this community the need is very, very great."

To meet that need, she and Sofia work nearly constantly, running a shelter for as many as 35 people in a tiny house for 5,500 rand a month (about $US 950). They attempt to do so in a worldchanging manner: Sofia says, "We want to make a difference in people's lives. We want to give them their dignity back: to stand on their feet, that's the important thing."

To make that dream a reality, the ladies have partnered with MaAfrika Tikkun, a Cape Town NGO, to design a new community center which will not only provide more (and longer-term) secure homes for battered women, but also incorporate child care and job training and community services. Their plan rocks, involving (for instance) an ingenious lay out which put layers of buildings and people between the women and the street (and those there who might wish to harm them). But raising the 4,000,000 rand needed to build the facility is, to put it mildly, a challenge.

These women truly humble me. They are working in an incredibly harsh place, under difficult conditions and for very little money, doing a job that is vital but that no one else wants, and they manage to remain cheerful and optimistic, laughing frequently even in the midst of telling the painful stories of work which involves trying to help those whose loved ones beat and abuse them, who are sometimes addicted, sometimes infected with HIV/AIDS, and who often just need space to feel human again. And, after grueling work weeks, they make the time to keep hoping and planning and building a better future. Women such as these hold the world together, though they rarely get medals or money for it.


I'm in South Africa to speak at Design Indaba, a fabulous conference run by Ravi Naidoo, a genial South African entrepreneur with a seemingly limitless supply of energy -- a guy I really like.

The conference itself was interesting and odd. My new friend Uleshka from Ping did a better job than I could have of summing up the conference's content.

For me the highlight was meeting so many South Africans who are trying to figure out how to make their country's rush towards development (development which is much needed in a nation with a housing shortfall of 300,000 homes and endemic poverty) a force which also fuels (and is fueled by) a real grasp of the principles of sustainability. It's no mean task.

Another highlight was getting a chance to meet the women of Front -- Sofia Lagerkvist, Charlotte von der Lancken, Anna Lindgren and Katja Sävström -- who are design rockstars for all the right reasons. Sure, they're all Swedish and beautiful, but more importantly, they're interested in trying to approach design with genuine curiosity and innovation. They've design wallpaper by letting rats nibble the material, used dynamite to craft forms for furniture, created lamps that fall down and sleep when not in use, have even launched an amazing "sketch" furniture line, which Front designs by using motion capture to translate freehand movements ("sketches") into instructions for fabbers. This kind of innovation has scored them wide acclaim, including a cover story in Icon, but it was a small aside in their presentation that impressed me most. For one exhibition, they went and interviewed a number of people about their favorite objects, learning the stories that connect these people to their things, then fabricating plastic copies of the things with the stories printed on their surfaces. This to me raised all sorts of interesting questions about the backstory of the objects we use, and of what sorts of objects demand ownership or usage and whether, actually, consumption makes us happier. (If I find a better link to this work, I'll post it here.)

The other highlights are almost pointless to share, since I can't do them justice here: dinner with Brian Eno, with whom I discussed the need for realistic compelling visions of a positive future (so that people have something to work towards) and the role of art in innovative politics; and Li Edelkoort's design futurism presentation, which was by far the coolest fashion show I've ever seen, and gave me a serious case of the present-future creeps.



The on to Delhi for Doors of Perception, the main event of which was introduced by host, John Thackara, a man I respect enormously. His opening talk began with a slide of two photographs juxtaposed: a fat-clogged artery next to a grease-clogged municipal water pipe. They looked frightfully alike with their toxic blockages, the point being that we are lining our bodies and our cities with extraneous waste from a poorly-designed food system. The talk included such facts as:

- The ratio of energy used to deliver food vs. calories eaten in the UK = 10:1
- 22% of all home energy use in France is food related.
- The vast amounts of energy used to power, heat, cool and light super markets

Food is enmeshed in a vast commercial web of transport, storage, processing, marketing, sales and cooking which dwarfs the already massive ecological impact of growing the food itself.

We've been having a lot of debate recently on the impacts and merits of international food production: Local? Global? International networks of local production?

The fact is that we don't know, but with food's environmental impacts making up one-fifth to one-third of our ecological impacts (depending on who we are and where we live and whose numbers we trust), we'd better start finding out. The future of food will play a large part in determining the nature of the future itself.


"Tradition is a creative alphabet." - Rajeev Sethi


Dawn is seeping through the fog outside my window this morning, cheered on by the clatter of birdsong, honking horns and sputtering motors. Morning in Delhi.

I've been sick. Terrible food poisoning. And while being sick alone in a foreign city makes for a lonesome night, it's also given me a chance to reflect on the education I've been getting.

What a gigantic task we face! I don't think I have truly grasped the implications of the billions more people we are welcoming to our world, and of their headlong rush to the emerging megacities of the Global South, until coming here. Delhi is a place completely out of control; dirty wild bedlam and crushing poverty and huge ambition all pureed at high speed, a place where, one of our Indian hosts insisted last night, almost one in ten of the city's 13 million residents is homeless; where the water can kill you (I know -- it's doing its best right to kill me right now); a city which swallows a massive river (the Yamuna) and sends out a smaller river of sewage and industrial waste; a city of unbelievable poverty and vitality and opportunity, where centuries separate the people walking in the same park. And this city, I'm told, will need to find homes for five million more people in the next 23 years.


The same is true, of course, all across the world. Billions of people moving to the cities, or being born there: the largest migration in human history, all disembarking on an unplanned, unanticipated shore -- a world of young people and slums and strained resources and patched-together systems, and people all eager to find some reasonable measure of prosperity and good fortune for themselves. What a gargantuan story!

In my fever-chills, I turn the TV to a best-of-Bollywood station (for the music) and I look out over the blood red sky, with the pollution alight in the glare of the rising tropical sun, and try to get my head around the task we have ahead of us -- a Seattle built every four days. Two-thirds of the world's cities as yet unbuilt.

What those cities will look like will depend in large part on how much the rest of us give a damn, and how brilliant all of us are willing to get. I sit here, looking into the future, racked with chills and yet somehow thrilled by the possibilities.


BioRegional has trademarked One Planet Living, and thus departed from usefulness. In an era of copyright crimes and intellectual property wars, folks who don't get the implications of their IP choices should be regarded as questionable allies.


John Thackara and I were just talking about the UK's historic carbon burden. (He says the UK has, over the years, emitted 15% of all the carbon ever pumped into the air.) Why have I never seen a chart of historic carbon burdens?


It's been an incredible couple of months and no doubt the wonder and learning that emerges from these exhausting journeys isn't even close to reaching an end. There are amazing networks of people out there banding together to form a framework for change -- cultural, social, environmental, technological. We'll continue to report on our travels and collaborations and we hope to keep hearing from you about the work you're all doing to make a better future possible.

Creative Commons Photo Credit
Creative Commons Photo Credit

Notes from the Road: Design Indaba and Doors of Perception is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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