Design Indaba Dreaming

Who needs to travel for inspiration, when some of the most creative minds on the planet arrive on your doorstop every summer?

Drawn by the opportunity to share their insights at a conference judged the best in the world, which also happens to fall in the sizzling southern hemisphere month of February, polymaths ranging from futurists to performance artists don’t hesitate when an invitation comes from the Design Indaba founder, the charismatic Ravi Naidoo – or, as he was dubbed today, the Minister of Audacious Projects.

This was the 25th incarnation of Design Indaba, where guests were invited to “think tank with the super creatives who are changing the world.” Three days of immersive talks encouraged not only thinking, but doing. If this first day’s line-up has been a yardstick, this is one of the best programmes ever.

A key sponsor is SA Tourism. As their spokesperson said, you can’t run a successful business in an unsuccessful country. For us in South Africa, getting the economy right is not a spectator job, and tourism is one of the few global sectors growing at a rapid clip of 8%.  We now need ideas that give us a quantum leap – in the words of Ravi, “we can’t just have a whinge and a cappuccino.” The best promotional idea for the most creative tourism project will net a R50 000 prize.

Musician, writer, performer and cultural activist Sho Madjozi kicked off proceedings with a captivating performance focusing the spotlight on xibelani skirts – a tiered Tsonga staple that she has single-handedly made fun and fashionable. With pink hair matching her pink skirt, bouncing lightly on the transparent plastic soles of her dancing shoes, she reminded us that “this culture will be preserved while being lived, which means being changed.”

From booty shaking to bacteria, which “are the architects of the future”, according to UCT researcher Vukheta Mukha. He soon won the audience over to the virtues of biobricks made from human urine. Currently construction mops up 12% of global water and contributes significantly to emissions. The biobricks, however, can be moulded at a normal temperature, and waterless urinals that collect human urine could change our planet. “It’s all about collaboration: we have beaten up the earth a bit.”

Innovator Kathryn Larsen not only celebrated her 25th birthday on stage but explained how eelgrass, which washed up on the remote Danish island of Læsø, was traditionally used to thatch houses in Denmark from the Middle Ages. She’s now exploring prefabricated seaweed thatch panels as well as experimenting with other forms of algae.

I didn’t realise that a structural engineer could be a rock star until we were introduced to Hanif Kuta, who has enabled the designs of Zaha Hadid, Thomas Heatherwick and other luminaries to become technically feasible. He’s worked on the longest piece of concrete in the world that has no join, and his projects have involved considerations from making plastic bricks, to how differently-weighted people impact on the honeycomb structure of his public centrepiece Vessel at Hudson Yards, New York. This has 154 flights and almost 2500 steps and is as technically demanding as his other projects that range from the Serpentine Pavilion to the UK Pavilion in Shanghai at Expo 2010. Colloquially known as the ‘seed cathedral’ it sported 60,000 plant seeds on acrylic optic fibres.

“I have been many people in the last couple of years; some have lived on, others not,” mused Sunny Dolat, Nairobi-based photographer, fashion designer, stylist and performer. Challenging notions of African masculinity, work with his NEST Collective is underpinned by a core belief that beauty is dignifying. To be in the presence of beauty is to be in the presence of a deep and profound spiritual force. The film Stories of our Lives – banned in Kenya – portrays black queer Africans NOT as struggling, unhappy and diseased, but living authentic lives.

Seeking African fashion to encompass not only the capitals of Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos, he initiated the ‘In their finest robes the children shall return’ project. Aiming for a representative garment from every single African country – plus one for the diaspora – his project thought big and inclusive.  His latest cotton and sisal textiles were elevated in a live performance taking place in a baptismal pool encircled with flowers, based on a Maasai naming tradition: Elders speak the name, and say: “May the name dwell in you.”

From tender to high tech: Takram design innovation studio lives and breathes data humanisation and showcased its RESAS project. This offers a coherent, accessible and interactive vision of national big data and is leveraged by policy-makers in Japan’s prefectures. A more recent experimental project ‒ RISAR ‒augments reality; it’s based on everyday actions – putting food waste in organic recycling, or dumping it in the rubbish bin – and such actions either raise or lower the virtual sea levels in homes and working spaces.

Brand guru and podcaster Debbie Millman extolled cultural universals such as religious symbols which enable groups to feel more comfortable knowing they fall within the fold – or don’t . She believes that we have evolved far from brands being used to push down, to sell more products. Rather, brands are being pushed up to change our world for the better and to unite people. The 2011 Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and BlackLivesMatter movements reveal that “branding can be a profound manifestation of the human spirit.” They reflect the condition of our culture, and we must design the world we want to live in, together.

Antya Waegemannis’ exploratory MA project – she was en route to present it to Silicon Valley bosses – is based on ‘design for when no one believes you.’ Some 60% of the world’s women have been affected by sexual violence, including Antya herself. In South Africa, a woman is assaulted every 26 seconds. While power, silence and fear have limited justice, the world is waking up. Antya explained how rape kits (to collect evidence of a rape) can take 2-10 hours to prepare for a case, and in only 13% of assaults are they handled by properly trained staff. Her RNA redesigned rape kit and app make the process of evidence collection easier for both medical personnel and survivors.

Alexandra Genis uses food as a biochemical and visual tool. She revealed her colourful representations of the flavouring molecules in strawberries – just a few in the family of 11000 flavouring molecules:  “When food is art, people change their minds.”

And on to politics and Brexit. How did four young British fathers become cunning undercover activists, pushing for a second vote over Brexit? Fired up  to “respond to the lies propagated by pro-Brexit politicians…the mechanisms of accountability were broken and we wanted to elevate different voices,”  their initial appropriation of empty billboards with enlarged Twitter messages morphed into projecting visuals onto Buckingham Palace and the white cliffs of Dover, no less.

And this is only day one…

Find out more on and take the opportunity to watch podcasts from previous years.

Photographs copyright Judy Bryant.