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Design Indaba Joins TED and Davos As Top Global Conference

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on March 01, 2010

I just returned from South Africa and the Design Indaba conference and if you are interested in creativity, innovation and design, put it on your list of “must-go” annual confabs. Putting an incredible array of brilliant speakers including Stephan Bucher, J. Craig Venter, Han Feng, Piyush Pandy, Li Edelkoort and Christien Meindertsma in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Cape Town, in a truly emergent country context (the shantytowns are a few miles out of the city-center near the airport), makes for an experience unlike any you’ve had in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum or Long Beach, California for TED. At Davos and TED, people talk about social innovation and designing solutions for the poor but the poor are absent and invisible. At Design Indaba, they are THERE. The problems are in your face. The need for innovation/design-generated economic growth and jobs is clear, not abstract.

Moreover, a creativity conference inside a hugely creative emergent society like South Africa generates a whole new level of ideas and conversation. South Africa has a deep, rich, varied culture that hits you the moment you get off the plane. This is quite unlike Singapore or Shanghai which face you as supremely “modern” first world cities. African culture is a huge resource that is just beginning to be commercialized and sold in world markets (much like India’s). Music is leading, but South African textiles and fashion are amazing, the food is incredible, the graphic and product design unique and appealing, the furniture is different. South Africa has retained it craft traditions while plugging in to the most modern technology. In an interview, I talk a bit about the potential to generate economic growth from the rich South African culture.

Morevoer, the hunger to hear and see some of the world’s best creative talent present by the near-2000 Design Indaba audience of business people, designers, government policy-makers, students and design educators was palpable, not jaded. This was the warmest big audience I have ever engaged with.

I will post more about the speakers at Design Indaba 2010 over the week and will put up their presentations as they become available but I want

to talk about one, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, right now. One of the most powerful observations I made going through the poor townships at the outskirts of Cape Town, was how people tried to design their own lives under the worst of conditions. Under apartheid, thousands of people were uprooted from their homes in the center of Cape Town and sent to the flatlands out at the airport to form new neighborhoods. I saw two--the poorest shantytowns where people lived in tin houses, maybe 6 feet by 8 feet and more modern neighborhoods composed of government-provided houses that were several times larger plus a small yard in the back. Around the world, in Lagos and Rio, there are slums where people live but have jobs and a chance at upward mobility. In the Cape Town shantytowns, there are very few outside jobs and even fewer opportunities.

In Cape Town, at many of the new, modern houses built by the government for the poor, I saw that people had punched holes in the back and built new shanties. They rented out the modern houses and lived in the back in the shanty. The people had taken government charity in the mode of housing and turned it into income-producing rental property. They took charity and transformed it into money-making entrepreneurship.

Alejandro Aravena presented at Design Indaba his work that delibertately did just that. The architect and executive director of Elemental, a "do-tank," not a think-tank, is building housing platforms for people in Latin American favelas that are half-finished. People can add walls, change rooms and "co-create" their house. They can commercialize the dwelling with stores, rent out portions of it or simply make it larger to accomodate more family members. In short, Alejandro is building enabling platforms in housing for poor people, just as Apple builds enabling platforms in the iPhone for richer people.

Decades ago when I was in the Peace Corps and moved in the Development Set circles, the talk was of giving people a hook, not a fish, of offering tools not charity. Alejandro is doing that in a most remarkable way, through architecture. Cape Towns poor are doing just that in their own way in their townships.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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