Design Indaba 11, Cape Town 2008

The global design community turns its attention to New York next week for ICFF, but earlier this spring, Cape Town brought a distinguished group of international speakers to Design Indaba, a three-day conference and South African design exposition. The au courant theme of socially responsible design was the tagline for the event: conference participants could donate a vegetable seedling to a gardening program in local schools, post ideas about sustainability and design for other attendees, or sport a complimentary tote bag emblazoned with the question, “Will designers save the world?”

The buzz and optimism of Design Indaba radiates from its founder, Ravi Naidoo, who is rallying the creative industries in South Africa into a formidable lobbying force. Although relatively few of the international speakers at Design Indaba presented work that directly engaged social or environmental issues, Naidoo’s insistence that design remains an untapped engine for change in South Africa has teeth.

Naidoo argues that South Africa must cease to live off natural resources like gold and platinum, and instead seek sustainable economic growth through value-added products and services. Creativity and innovation, he believes, must fuel South Africa’s “next revolution” so that the country will be able to cope with such problems as AIDS and unemployment.

The social potential of design was most apparent in the Design Indaba Expo—a lively mix of high-end design and craft market offerings from South African firms. Alongside the organic textiles of Ronel Jordaan, the sculptural furniture of Egg Designs, and Willowlamp’s collection of luminaires inspired by South African indigenous flowers, were booths displaying the jewelry and “little traveler” pins of the Hillcrest AIDS Centre, and the wire and bead art of Streetwires, a business assisting the unemployed.

From among the forty international speakers invited to Design Indaba (including Gert Dunbar, Bill Moggridge, Maxim Velcovsky, Ilse Crawford, Ivan Chermayeff, and DJ Spooky), it was Shin-ichi Takemura’s poetic marriage of “digital technology and analog tactility” that best embodied design’s potential for social transformation. Takemura’s Tangible Earth, a rotating digital globe with an interactive, touch-sensitive surface , visualizes various kinds of information — from the increase in global warming and the trajectory of a tsunami, to the changing migratory patterns of birds. A magnifying glass allows the user to extract up-to-date information about any place on the globe, including live video feeds of political and humanitarian crises. Takemura’s poignant rendering of our planet reminds us that we are all connected and encourages us to take our place as responsible and enlightened global citizens.

Categories: Cities