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Design Indaba 2010
Julia Levitt, 1 Mar 10

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Readers in the design world were no doubt following last week's events in Cape Town, South Africa, where emerging and established talents from all corners of the design industry gathered for the Design Indaba. The 3-day conference is one of the industry's leading annual events; a unique showcase where top minds in branding share the stage with graffiti artists and cutting-edge talents from the rapidly rising nations known collectively as BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). The event is also a source of pride and exposure for South Africa's burgeoning creative scene. As South Africans prepare to host the continent's first FIFA World Cup in less than four months, the energy and expectations are running high in Cape Town, and the Design Indaba spotlight offered a chance for some early energetic release.

One of my favorite onstage moments was a new addition to the program: Six accomplished graduates from leading design institutions around the globe presented their work in the Pecha Kucha format: each showed 20 slides for 20 seconds apiece, resulting in a reenergizing outburst of diverse creativity neatly contained in under 40 minutes. In the spirit of Pecha Kucha brevity, I've distilled the week's events into my own (albeit briefer) series of 15 sound bites, Worldchanging-style:

15 Worldchanging Observations from Design Indaba 2010

1. scenius: DI founder Ravi Naidoo and his team at Interactive Africa have built the Indaba into one of the world's definitive scenius events. While the design community at large comes to the conference for an expertly curated roster of industry who's-whos and who's-nexts, the DI staff also masters the art of hospitality, creating an offstage environment where leading minds can mingle and form new partnerships, most of them interdisciplinary.

2. whole-world awareness: Realizing that London/Paris/Tokyo/New York was no longer an accurate summation of global relevance, Conny Freyer, Sebastien Noel and Eva Rucki of Troika built a thought-provoking world time clock for London's Heathrow Airport that reports the hours from global destinations including Kilimanjaro and Tenochtitlan. (Fellow geeks: the team also showed their famous Newton Virus, a harmless bug that introduces physics to the Mac OS.)

ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD by TROIKA from Troika on Vimeo.

3. design for better business: According to leading U.S. design thinker/researcher/journalist Bruce Nussbaum, design is now more important to the bottom line than technology. Designers for the 21st Century will need to be more nimble than ever to address multiple global shifts, including the transfer of world power "from the West to the rest," the emergence of collaborative DIY-oriented Gen-Y, urbanization, global warming and the rise of thousands of social-media enabled digital cultures now taking their place among the world's many "real-world" cultures.

4. gaming for good: Michael Edwards, a researcher at Parsons, The New School for Design has used play and game principles to develop digital interactive tools that help schoolchildren learn (and love) fractions, and helps staff in under-resourced medical facilities to take patient records quickly and efficiently with unprecedented accuracy. I particularly loved one application based on the Manahatta Project: using this tool, kids (or anyone with an iPhone) can explore the Big Apple and connect their neighborhoods today with the region's natural ecosystems as they were in 1609.

Mannahatta, the Game - User Scenario from Simeon Poulin on Vimeo.

5. the backstory: Possibly the most entertaining, six-consecutive minutes of the conference belonged to Thomas Thwaites, a recent grad from the Royal Collage of Art in London. His "Toaster Project," born of a Hitchhiker's Guide reference, sought to examine how one man "left to his own devices," could build a seemingly simple industrial object from scratch. Thwaites mined and smelted iron ore and made potato starch plastic by hand in a months-long effort to reproduce a toaster he purchased off the shelf for the price of a latte. His process, captured here on video, is a concise and un-preachy window into the systems at work behind the objects that fill our lives.

6. the forwardstory: Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma throws the backstory principle in reverse with her second book, PIG 05049. Through exquisite photographs, the intriguing and unnerving tome catalogues the many hundreds of products – from bacon to crayons – made from the different parts of one industrial pig.

7. maker culture: Though nearly all of the speakers addressed this concept in one way or another, one surprising example came from an unlikely source: branding prodigy Manabu Mizuno of Tokyo-based Good Design Company. In one campaign created for Adidas, he placed tiny lapel pins in various locations around Tokyo, urging finders to key in a unique code for the opportunity to create a pair of shoes personalized with a photograph uploaded from their mobile phones. The interactive project cost the client less than a tenth of the price of a corresponding full-page newspaper ad, but generated nearly three times the website hits.

8. hackable structures: Eames Demetrios, grandson of midcentury American design icons Charles and Ray Eames, described one of the idiosyncrasies of his grandparents' California studio: the interior walls were clamped in place, allowing the designers to reconfigure the rooms they worked in as it suited their projects and their preferences. We've seen this idea popping up in contemporary projects, including the 99k House -- this kind of modular and customizable design has enormous potential to allow buildings to adapt to the changing needs of users with minimal cost and waste.

9. hackable furniture: A trio of students at the Carleton School of Industrial 2009-03-12-017-s.jpg Design in Ottawa, Canada worked in parallel with Design Indaba's 10 x 10 Housing Project, which has supported the creation of 100 affordable housing units designed by leading architects. The students designed furniture to allow families maximum flexibility, function and comfort on a limited budget: among the creations were a fabric sling-style sofa that could support four seated adults and transform easily into a twin bed and a modular wall-mounted bunk bed and personal storage system for a shared children's bedroom.

10. hackable bodies: London-based young designer/researcher Revital Cohen presented as part of Indaba's Protofarm 2050 project. She started with the idea of humans as homo evolutus, a species now capable of designing our own evolution, and creating body modification that was functional rather than merely aesthetic. Her project examined biological electricity: according to her research, the same biological wiring that generates sparks in electric eels could, theoretically, be used to engineer an electric organ to transplant in the human body. Cohen explored the functional and cultural/psychological implications of an electric appendix, an internal organ capable of transforming blood sugar into enough power to run a desk lamp or a laptop.

11. transformative spaces: DI emcee and kickoff speaker Michael Beirut of Pentagram discussed The L!BRARY Initiative, a privately funded effort organized by The Robin Hood Foundation to build new libraries designed by renowned architects in 56 public elementary schools in New York City. The individualized spaces created a foundation of pride and identity for some of the city's most downtrodden schools. The initiative has been a terrific success among students, parents, librarians, teachers and school administrators.

12. design for cultural preservation: Brazilian product/interior designer and television personality cap-marcelo.jpg
Marcelo Rosenbaum has convinced skeptical consumer goods clients to feature traditional bright colors and cultural designs like Brazilian renda (hand-crocheted lace) on functional objects from fine china to inexpensive plastic tablecloths. His creations, which embrace modern international functional design while celebrating national culture, will help maintain identity in the face of increasing cultural globalization. Rosenbaum is also celebrated in his hometown of Sao Paulo for his conscientious home makeover show, which transforms favela dwellings into sustainable, comfortable family homes.

13. unlikely public spaces: Called upon to design a new Cape Town police station, pioneering South African architect Mokena Makeka went against conventional opinion that the facade must be nearly windowless, gated off from the street and generally intimidating to guard against rioters. Makeka insisted that a building must welcome the community in order to be welcomed by the community, and built a bright, sunny and elegant structure instead. The new station has become a source of community pride, untouched by vandals since the day its doors opened.

14. design for future infill: Elemental2.pngRenowned Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena elicited one of the conference's only standing ovations when he presented a social housing project he'd worked on for his home country while at Harvard. Aravena was challenged to create livable housing for low-income residents within the city center on a limited subsidy budget. Single-family homes couldn't get enough value from the land, and community members rejected a high-rise solution. Aravena, determined not to move the project to the periphery far from jobs and services, came back with a thoughtful plan for two-story apartments. The units were strategically spaced widely enough apart so that Elemental2b.pngtheir walls and roofs could become infrastructure for a second phase of apartments, built at a fraction of the original price once the community needed to expand. As a result, the homes built equity for their owners and served as neighborhood-appropriate placeholders for future density. "If we can't identify that strategic first half," he said, "people will not stop moving to cities. People will still come in search of opportunities." Cities worldwide must be prepared to absorb the growth in a safe and healthy way.

15. "government by design": This phrase, possibly my favorite from the weekend, came from documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit, who spoke to the theater audience following a screening of Objectified (his second in what will be a trilogy of design documentaries). Designers, Hustwit explained, are people who are trained to solve problems and who are brilliant at it, and ideally we'd have more of them in public office. "I hope to have a designer for president."

(COI disclosure: Alex Steffen spoke at Design Indaba in 2007.) Many thanks to DI founder Ravi Naidoo for hosting Worldchanging this year.

Feature image credit: Mike Levitt
All other images are linked for credit

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