How Innovation and Design can lead South Africa’s Development Agenda

It was sometime during early 2015 that I had stumbled across what has now become one of my dearest passions, social design.

By this I mean the forms of design that directly impact the lives of ordinary people, be it architecture, urban planning, interior design, and some sections of tech design. But what struck me most about this new field was the massive influence it had over the formation of countries, and more importantly, ideas.

So what possibilities could a steady emphasis on design hold for South Africa? Well if you critically assess South African history its not hard to find out that the policy that came to define most of the 20th Century for the country, Apartheid, was the implementation of rigorous social design.

So if design got us here, could it get us out? I certainly believe so.

Before we discuss design, let me clear up some of the economics and politics at play here. It goes without saying that South Africa is on the brink of a very tough ten years.

A looming credit downgrade, stagnant and stubborn unemployment, low–to-non-existent growth prospects in the short term, business failure in manufacturing and mining, and global instability are just few of the truck-load of problems facing the South African economy.

Furthermore, there is the visible gap between policy promises made in the NDP (National Development Plan) and actual governance on the ground. Add to this the constraints on the fiscus and a lack of confidence from both citizens and investors in government competency and it doesn’t leave a lot of legroom for movement on our economic situation.

There’s also leadership issues. But that’s a story for another day.


Beyond the social impact this has had, I believe it has revitalized a sense of introspection in South African industry that has resulted in some major restructuring. But what does that have to do with design, well, everything really.


In 2013 I attended a lecture at the University of Pretoria by Japanese Architect Kengo Kuma. During the lecture he answered a question on how he felt the financial crisis had affected his job as an architect. He mentioned that although he had fewer contacts it gave him more time to focus on the projects he did have running, and that when resources were sparse, creativity became abundant.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Is that not the exact opportunity open to South Africa right now? The possibility to truly impact challenges facing us structurally.

A lack of resources could lead to a larger focus on small to medium sized projects that have a knack for engaging communities. This does not only have the potential for overcoming historical issues, but potentially could lay the groundwork for South Africa 2.0.We’ve already seen this trend begin in the new agency with which major metros champion their own initiatives.

The Tshwane Municipality has been lauded for its innovative approach to make wifi readily available in the metro.

And regardless of whether we agree with the decision-making we cannot ignore the importance cities may start playing on the national, and even global, arena. Especially since innovation is often sparked by the activities of smaller groupings, such as city projects.


This type of thinking may yet prove to revitalize our struggling construction industry, that has sought larger and more profitable business elsewhere. Perhaps, as the profit scale for South Africa shrinks, the urgency for more skilled and innovative firms to work on smaller, more specialised, projects may prove to further the evolution of South Africa’s markets. We already boast a fairly large and diverse property market, depending on whom you ask.

Becoming the home of African design could prove an extremely profitable route for SA, and you have to applaud the steps taken by initiatives such as the Design Indaba to accomplish this.



But a social revolution of this scale must come from the lowest forms of societal interactions. That means that in order for South Africa to become a design driven country and economy, South Africa must be a design driven culture.

That means education that aims to create critically thinking individuals that seek to enhance and further industries, rather than just being bottom level role players. This means encouraging entrepreneurship beyond simple programs aimed at creating 5-minute startups, but seek to promote our brightest thinkers to world class inventors.

And finally, it needs a culture that fully supports its own, and is unashamedly unique.

I leave you with a quote from Franklin Lloyd Wright:

“If we’re ever going to amount to anything it’s there now, and all we have to do is develop it”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s