Ravi Naidoo: Reimagining Africa through design

Ravi Naidoo, founder and managing director of Design Indaba and Interactive Africa, believes in constant experimentation. Through bridging the theoretical and the practical he sees design as having a primal potency. Design, to Ravi Naidoo, may not serve as the singular remedy to all societal issues, yet, it has the potential to transform society with political and cultural interventions. Risk taking, social impact, and activism are central to Design Indaba’s “Think Tank & Do Tank” which link the three days the event takes place with a year full of action. The other 362 days are packed with ambitious projects from partnering up with IKEA, to promote young creatives from across Africa, to working on the First African in Space Mission. Naidoo hopes to use his platform to push creative talent and shed light on African designers that have not been celebrated to date. With a bit of patience and a collective effort, Ravi Naidoo predicts a shift in consciousness and anticipates a vibrant future for African Design.

Ravi, does design have the potential to transform society and to reimagine a sustainable future?

I never came at design in the classical sense. I am a scientist, holding a business degree, but I also consider myself an aesthete. I love beautiful things without going gaga over a new chair launch at Milan furniture fair. However, at the dawn of democracy, when this country was so pregnant with potential and we were all completely at gauge with Mandela and the possibilities that all of a sudden opened, we imagined a project that could possibly be beneficial in this whole idea of reimagining South Africa and, in fact, reimagining Africa. For us, Design Indaba comes from a more strategic place than color, texture or form. We wanted to subscribe to the classical definition of design, being the scale of facility to improve the quality of life. Back in 1995 when we founded Design Indaba, and way before it was fashionable to look at design for social impact, Design Indaba had the first mover advantage. We questioned if design can do more than just service brands and go beyond being a handmade consumption. We started to advance the idea that design can ultimately service people and started to develop strategies on how this could potentially be implemented.

Design Indaba puts a strong emphasis on both process and execution of design projects. How do you conceptualize the design process?

We are not event organizers in the classical sense. Nonetheless, we engaged in doing large-scale projects, such as the management of the First African in Space Mission, the marketing and pitching of South Africa’s bid to host the 2010 Football World Cup, or the direction of the 1999 African Connection Rally – all of which had a very activist orientation. We don’t intend to corral the speakers to merely talk, we commission the conference speakers to talk and do. Design Indaba established the world’s first “Think Tank & Do Tank”, a conference that entails three days of talking and 362 days of doing. We combined the theoretical with the active, the cerebral with the experimental. I believe that this is where true learning happens. We thereby don’t shy away from taking risks ourselves. It enhances Design Indaba’s credibility. From the moment you walk into the piazza, for instance, you can witness us practicing what we preach. There isn’t a single speaker that we didn’t create something with, whether it is an exhibition, an app, a work in progress or a new concept. We intend to bring ideas to life. Perhaps this follows my science background. Science practice is not merely about theory, but the most crucial aspect of it is to apply classical theories in the lab. We can’t afford to engage in design thinking from a sole academic perspective or in terms of a reportage. This morning, for example, I downloaded Zack Liebermann’s app, called “Weird Type” that he created in the course of this year’s conference.

Can design serve as the ultimate remedy, in the light of societal challenges?

We don’t live to serve our community itself, meaning our creative community. We perceive ourselves as part of a greater society. The idea of the genius leaving the building and settling in society goes way beyond the concept of a conference or event. The execution of this idea isn’t always easy. We, for example, engage in intensive production in the course of organizing our conference. We refer to it as “platform-thinking”, meaning that Design Indaba provides a platform as a progenitor for projects that leave the room.

Design certainly suffers from a high-class problem and is currently being outed in a big way. Design schools are spouting all over the place, likewise, companies are tapping into design thinking. It all seems gorgeous at first glance. However, we must be careful that we don’t create a bubble around design itself. We mustn’t serve design in an uncritical manner.

We constantly challenge ourselves in that regard: How can we stay relevant? We realized that so much in this world is pervasive. For instance, you can surf the internet and already see beautiful images of the finished product. Design Indaba rather focuses on both the process and the context. For me, beauty doesn’t necessarily lie in the end product alone, it essentially also lies in the process itself. Too often we engage in the objectification of design without understand that the design process is where true creativity and innovation lies.

On the one hand, we ask our collaborators to take the audience into their confidence. We ask them to give us the unvarnished story, to tell us about the screw-ups and fuck-ups. We want to know their come-back story; and we want to know about all the issues around the process – the doldrums as well as the stagnations. We can’t present design as some kind of universal remedy. Because it isn’t. Naturally, we do not purport the “how” of a conference speaker’s execution. But what we can do is invite the speaker into a society of peers, create an open environment and share as candidly and as honestly as possible our own personal journeys. And if you go really deep on the personal, it starts to become universal, because it will resonate with my own reality.

On the other hand, we place a lot of faith in the audience by not buying into a theme. A theme is often accompanied by curatorial conceit. We do not want to shift the attention away from the artists to the curator. Our goal is rather to emphasize the importance of an emerging theme. In this regard, we ask the audience to meet us halfway. We don’t offer lists and transcripts but invite the conference participants to draw the dots themselves. Hence, we created a conference that is emotional, uplifting and optimistic. To me, the ultimate joy is to offer an active learning experience.

Many speakers of this year’s Design Indaba emphasized design’s potential in solving societal issues. Do emerging creatives play a key role in unleashing that potential?

Emerging creatives are a crucial part in staying relevant to society. This is definitely a continental obsession of ours. All of this energy would be pointless, if it wasn’t concentrated and served up to the community that really needs it. I believe that we must increasingly do this for across Africa. Our project with IKEA is testing this momentarily. IKEA and Design Indaba are currently working in collaboration on a new Africa design collection due to launch in 2019. Our goal is to curate ten sets of designs by African designers. Our team flies across Africa and spends a week in Accra, a week in Lagos, a week in Dakar and finally corrals the creative community together in order to find out what is on the rise in Africa’s creative communities. This embodies Design Indaba’s credo that we carry throughout the whole year: to utilize our platform in order to push creative talent and throw the light on designers that have not been celebrated to date. The talents are sitting in Marrakech, in Kigali, in Abidjan. And if you go onto designindaba.com, beyond accessing information about the annual conference, you will find emerging talents being showcased on our website.

In the light of the ongoing water crisis in Cape Town, can design shift Africa’s narrative?

I think it is absolutely crucial that design focuses on the crisis de jure, whether it is low-cost housing, whether it’s sanitation, whether it is water. Design Indaba tapped into the general semantics of global commons and how me must be protective of resources such as air, water or soil. Peter Veenstra, for example, converted the entire bridge across Artscape and the Cape Town Civic Centre into a beautiful landscape garden. All of a sudden, it become a communications platform to inform people about issues around conservation of water, alternative solutions and the management of this process. The platform also conveys the message: Our city has been concretized! We need to lift up the pavement and start to plant again, so that water remains in the cycle and doesn’t run off into the stone-water drains and eventually into the ocean.

So far, it remains a privilege to access the spilled water. To be honest, I am a concerned, with the lack of regulation, as to how we deplete the water table and as to how we replenish it. We are in need of strategies. We implemented some strategies at Design Indaba, chemical toilets at the piazza, sustainable water bottles, presentations on our water footprint – this followed the idea of conscientization. We wanted the audience to grasp some of the unintended consequences of our consumption habits and how it affects our total water overhead. Through providing information, we hope that our audience becomes more conscious with regard to its water consumption that potentially exceeds the 50 liters consumption limit here in Cape Town. While we do want to approach this challenge holistically, we don’t want to preach, but rather use creativity, metaphors and playful examples in order to make the message more accessible.

Cape Town could serve as a pilot project for South Africa, or even for planet earth. I believe that we should not waste a good crisis, but rather hard wire some of the lessons and make sure that this becomes the new normal. I can’t even picture myself going back to my old ways of showering. Water is a global issue and I think it will be quite democratic in how it will affect us all. It gives us a reason to pause. But it also encourages us to look at the entire area of global commons. In order to really make an impact, we have to be patience. It takes a long time to shift both behavior and consciousness, in fact it takes a whole generation. The real value is staying in the course, and doing it by iteration, repetition and reinforcement, year after year. It took 23 years so far, and it may take us another 23 years before we are satisfied with shifting the narrative – we keep trying.