Can design shape identity, health and housing?

PART 1: Design cannot save the city  here. 

On the 29th August 2013, Future Cape Town attended the Designing Democracy Seminar, held as part of the Open Design Cape Town Event. The event was hosted by DESIGNING_SOUTHAFRICA, and aimed to challenge creative professionals and specialists in other fields to engage in developing creative solutions and strategies for shaping a just, equitable, resilient and empowered nation.


Slave Lodge Museum

Prof. Nick Shepherd from the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town was next with a talk entitled “Designing Identity.” He began by talking about how Cape Town has a disjunctive experience in its urban identity, as there seems to be no way to reconcile the beauty of our city with its enormous social problems. He offered several frames through which this identity might be reconstituted:

  1. The City of Slavery: Early Cape homes had, on average, between four and five slaves. These were household rather than plantation slaves, as in the Americas. This form of slavery was accompanied by extraordinary cruelty and abuse, despite the intimacy of often sharing the same premises. Furthermore, many of these slaves had incredibly diasporic origins, from as far afield as Malaysia, China, India, and Japan, with an estimated 25 percent coming from Madagascar.
  2. The City of Forced Removals: Virtually every part of the city was affected by the forced removals during Apartheid, including: Simon’s Town, Bishopscourt, Mowbray and Fish Hoek, and the effects of this vast social engineering effort still lives with us today.
  3. The City of Forgetting: The illusion is created that one is in an international city, where our painful history is carefully excised from memory. This can be best seen by attempts to insert Cape Town into the mould of an imagined ‘global city,’ as evidenced by a shallow form of cosmopolitanism (including blue flag beaches, themed shopping malls, and international airports).
  4. The Creole City: Cape Town was a very creolized city previously, but was systematically divided up and separated under Apartheid. These divisions persist, and are exacerbated by the social, economic and political patterns of today.
  5. The Oceanic City: Cape Town is a crossroads on the world’s oceans, a strategic location of trade and trans-nationalism, allowing it to look both inwards and outwards.

In forging an identity for our city, we need to look at identities that take us away from banal replications of other cities’ character, as well as current conceptions, such as the dance of white guilt and black victimhood, which while holding a lot of truth, speaks to a particular form of stuckness.

In relation to design, we should consider how urban identity is incorporated into the creative processes. Does design enhance a people’s sense of identity, or does it take away? Do we have a national identity apart from ‘rainbow nations and bonding over beers?’



Thorsten Deckler from 26’10 South Architects, followed after lunch with a talk entitled “DESIGNING_housing.” He described his company’s work in education, arising out of an understanding that practical and embodied experience is currently missing from much of design training. His company engages with universities to take students to an informal settlement and involve them in a community redesign and re-blocking processes. He described the challenges young designers face in understanding community needs, putting aside deeply cherished design concepts, and working with the practical difficulties faced in these processes.

As a starting point, students had to develop a thorough understanding of how both the interior and exterior of shacks are used. A key finding was that often the expense in township reblocking processes is not the actual building materials as these are recyclable, but rather to do tool hire. Simple interventions, like having a tool lending service, can greatly decrease the cost of these processes for residents. Another obstacle the students encountered were the intense negotiations around which residents were to be moved, and whose plots were to be affected. Thankfully, the students were assisted in this by CORC and other community organisations.



The next speaker was Prof Harry Hausler, CEO of the TB/HIV Care Association, to speak on his organisation’s thinking around redesigning healthcare. In their understanding, health relates to complete well-being, and not simply the absence of illness. They have noted that there are significant problems within our current healthcare system, and that many of these can be solved with design. Examples of this were:

  • designing hospital ventilation systems so that airborne pathogens like TB cannot be not spread,
  • creating green spaces which can be seen by patients, an innovation which has been shown to have an effect on recovery,
  • creating mobile services to reach populations (such as sex workers) who may be stigmatized when they visit clinics,
  • Creating dedicated chronic medication dispensing units, so that people don’t have to endure lengthy queues within the hospital, simply to collect their medicine.


The last speaker for the day was Brad Brockman, General Secretary of community organisation Equal Education (EE). Beginning in 2008, EE has built a social movement to campaign for improvements in both individual schools as well as across the education system. Past campaigns have included textbook provision, exclusion based on language and religion, and corporal punishment in schools.

Brockman then went into greater detail about their current campaign aimed at getting the Minister of Basic Education to agree to minimum norms and standards for schools. These norms and standards, in part, are design guidelines which specify what sort of services should be provided as a minimum for schools. For example, where schools can be built, how many toilets should be provided per 100 students, what degree of electrification is needed, etc.

In the following question and answer session, Mbanga engaged with Brockman and expanded upon his earlier points. In particular, he spoke about how the allocation of power to national, provincial and municipal governments during the 1992 CODESA negotiations had unexpected consequences, in that authority and access to revenue streams failed to take into full cognizance the future growth patterns of the country, particularly in cities. The result is a situation where municipalities, in particular, are severely constrained in how they can act to remedy local problems. Power should reside where function is needed, and not require convoluted requests to national government. In consequence, while Mbanga agrees with what EE is doing, there is a larger picture of state transformation required, and until this is addressed, the progress EE hopes for will be slow in coming.

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