‘The best way to predict the future,’ wrote legendary design thinker and innovator Richard Buckminster Fuller, ‘is to design it.’ And that’s precisely what Design Indaba (DI) did in the mid-1990s as the Cape Town-based conference provided much-needed inspiration and ideas to South Africa’s creative community. Soon, the Indaba expanded from an annual conference into the Design Indaba Expo, which acted as a product showcase for local designers. Here, design talent was celebrated in a way that had never been done before, and concepts such as the Emerging Creatives initiative and Most Beautiful Object in South Africa competition brought original South African design to the forefront.
It’s easy to forget that the local design sector we now take for granted did not exist in the mid-1990s. Accessible locally designed furniture and homeware was available at just one or two specialist stores, and interior design was the expensive province of a tiny group of people.
With at least two missions – to put South African design on the world stage, and educate local consumers about the talent surrounding them – now well on their way to being accomplished, DI has pivoted towards a new set of aims. These are encapsulated in its overall mission statement, ‘A better world through creativity’, and if you speak to DI founder Ravi Naidoo today, you’ll discover that he – and DI in general – has moved beyond a focus on products to seek to improve the wider environment and benefit the community as a whole.
Moving the conference venue from the CTICC to Artscape [Theatre Centre] in 2016 both reflected and facilitated this change of focus. At Artscape, ‘The infrastructure for performance that’s available to us means that we can create amazing experiences for attendees,’ says Naidoo.
When asked about the way DI goes about selecting the array of international speakers that comes to Cape Town each year, Naidoo says that he ‘invest[s] a lot of time in having a great relationship with [speakers]’. He and his team look for ‘generosity of spirit’, he explains. ‘You feel people’s energy – it’s what I call the mensch test – and I know “good energy” sounds like a real Cape Town, hey-shoo-wow hippie sentiment, but I definitely feel it.’
At DI, he adds, speakers ‘need to be willing, not just to sell, but to share… you must tell us your backstory, almost open-source some of your identity’. And then there’s the fact that they need to be able to present – indeed, to perform – well. They’re showcasing their brands and ideas live to 6 000 people and, as Naidoo says, ‘[Their] presentation has to be bespoke – something that, for the audience, is their “only at Design Indaba” experience.’
Naidoo says, ‘We’re not event organisers. We’re activists and we’re wanting to be cultural producers.’ It’s clear that for DI the end game is not the production of beautiful things – as lovely as those can be – but the creation of an environment in which everyone can live better. And in 2018, with the present looking less than bright and a better future needing to be fought for, that’s a mission we should all be getting more informed about.