Is policy what design needs?

The first videos from the WDC2014 Design Policy Conference can now be viewed on Youtube. But, asks Cape Town Partnership project manager Didintle Ntsie, is design policy really what we need?

The Design Policy Conference, a World Design Capital 2014 signature event, was informed by the grand ambition of the need for a policy that would set out guidelines and strategies to foster an environment conducive to a more structured and coherent approach to design by the public sector.

“Make a Plan”, the theme of the conference, refers to many South Africans making things work in the face of difficult circumstances, while also acting as motivation to design practitioners and civil society to find a solution. Said WDC2014 programme director Nicky Swartz: “The conference theme of ‘Make a Plan’ stems from the overarching idea behind the WDC2014 programme and projects, which is to celebrate the inherent resourcefulness and resilience of people who find solutions to problems by making use of what they have within their immediate environment…”

In particular tapping into this theme, tutorial fellow, PhD candidate and director of promotions at Ogake, Lorraine Amollo Ambole, eloquently and playfully drew our attention to the already inherent ability in Africans to “make a plan”. She spoke of the multitude of microenterprise traders that take advantage of the less-than-desirable traffic congestion that is experienced in her home country of Kenya. She highlighted the convenience that the traders, who weave through traffic selling their wares – from apples and bananas to t-shirts and headphones – grant her.  With two hours spent in traffic suddenly turning into grocery and toiletry shopping, the situation ends up saving her time and effort.

Shifting the conversation from creating a system to rather understanding a system that looks like chaos from the outside but is in fact a well-functioning system, she emphasised the inherent value of our African systems, which we often overlook. This highlights the need to develop research means and teams that can dedicate time to taking a closer look into the yet-to-be-understood systems in slums and microenterprises.

Cape Town-based industrial designer, educator and researcher Mugendi K M’Rithaa posed an important question that lingered in the air for quite some time, piercing to the core of the conversation: “If necessity is the mother of inventions, then why isn’t Africa a superpower?”

In discussing the theme “make a plan”, Mugendi went on to emphasise that it would be impossible to ignore the question of sustainability, both of resources as well as of the industry.

In fact, “Are we ready to develop design policies in an African context?” design lecturer at the University of Botswana, Gabriel Mothibedi first articulated the vital question. The need for an inclusive process that deliberately involvs grassroots organisations and citizens in developing the policy, could not be underestimated, he went on. Not if we wanted pride and ownership over the end product.

And it was here that the Design Policy Conference’s objective, while well intentioned, fell short due to the lack of diversity in the room. The ticket price was the biggest barrier to entry at R2 000 per head for the two-day exchange. A few free tickets were given out to some attendees as an acknowledgement of the high cost, yet it was very obvious that the people who “make a plan” were not in the room. How is it possible to celebrate people in their absence?

There is no doubt that the “experts” that were invited were from all parts of the world, knowledgeable on the topic and keen to offer their learnings as a tool for the development of a design policy in South Africa. However, the experts at design thinking and “making a plan” are not limited to the established industry professionals. The experts are the people who, on a daily basis, are forced (as a consequence of poverty and economic inequality) to make a so-called plan!

After all, as Nicky said: “As a developing country and continent, our design journey does not have to replicate what has been done by other, more developed countries. We will make a plan with the context, skills and resources that we have. Thus, we need a design policy that is uniquely South African and which is informed by the learnings of other developing countries.” What would have achieved this and been really interesting would be to include the people who incorporate design in improving or overcoming their daily difficulties.

Given how much Johannesburg fashion designer Nkhensani Nkosi inspired the crowd with her personal story of growing up in the township of Soweto, more such stories would have been valuable. Nkhensani talked about using a design focus within the very complex context of the South African social and economic landscape, a South Africa she was a part of during apartheid and post-apartheid. This offers a realistic and relatable example of what is possible in the very unique context of South Africa.

Under the “About” section of the Design Policy Conference website, the introduction reads “Government policies have the power to stimulate and stifle potential, be it human, technological or the transformative application of design.” This is the crux of the matter and the biggest question I left the conference with: Is a design policy really what is needed, particularly in African and South African contexts?

The Design Policy Conference took a bold first step in creating a platform for conversations to be had in a central point with a shared focus. So we know it can be done, and we know that it is of importance. The next step would be to invite a larger group of South Africans – the ones who are truly “making a plan” – and allow them to share their motivations, strategies, and examples of how and when they have “made a plan” under difficult circumstances.

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