Ravi Naidoo talks to Cher Potter

Text by Cher Potter

Ravi Naidoo is the founder of the International Design Indaba - the biggest design conference and expo in Africa. He is also behind the First African in Space project and Cape Town's soon-to-be-built version of Silicon Valley. He possesses tremendous awareness of the nation's standing on the global platform and is widely recognised as a prime catalyst in reshaping the cultural landscape of South Africa. With Cape Town announced
as the 2014 Design Capital of the World, Cher Potter speaks to Naidoo about hijacking the funding models, the romance of new democracies, building a new design language  for the global south, and the birth of an
African Futurism.

Cher Potter You're behind Africa's biggest design institution and conference - an event that you're quoted as saying is like the creative World Cup. Is this an analogy to the sheer might of the event, its global stretch or a comment on design as a contact sport?
Ravi Naidoo South Africa is a pretty bipolar country - it's about politics and sport. We're trying to add some texture in between these poles. However it's important to reference the things people know, and the FIFA World Cup is a reference that looms large in our lives after hosting the event in 2010. So we speak about the Design Indaba, hosting the equivalent of these world-class players in the creative realm - representing their countries across the globe. But more importantly, the sports reference also applies to funding. We couldn't depend on government funding so we had to find an alternative way to fund our ambitions. The aim was to secure private sector funding sowe needed to create a rigorous commercial model to underpin the event. All too often, culture and creativity comes a poor second to the sheer might and sponsorship of sport and the question was why? In giving the Indaba the scale it has, we appropriated the commercial models through which sport is funded and applied them to the creative space. So, the design conference uses a very similar sponsorship structure to one you might expect the FIFA World Cup or the English Barclays Premier League to have - I think we're some of the first folks to have done this.

CP And is the relationship between culture and the private sector an easy one?
RN The energy in South Africa's private sector is unparalleled. Most of what's inspiring in the country originates in it and is funded by it. There's an activated level of corporate citizenship - the bluest of the blue chip companies come as whole-hearted supporters of ideas like the Design Indaba, thinking far beyond twee social investment and rather about the future, survival or invention of segments of a nation.

CP One is really struck by the uncompromising idealistic optimism of the event in a region that, during his visit to the Indaba, Hans Ulrich Obrist rightly refers to as a key player in the "production of reality"…
RN We set out by saying we wanted the Design Indaba to improve the Gross Domestic Happiness in the country - we are optimists, we aren't apologetic about our circumstances or South Africa. All of our projects since 1994 have been about re-imagining Africa, about giving Africa new stretch. As Africa Interactive, the media company we founded, we've project-managed the 2002 mission putting the first-ever African in space - that's stretch. We worked on the FIFA World Cup - that's stretch. As the Cape Town IT initiative, we're developing an African Silicon Valley in the Cape Town CBD. We're not part of the crew that sits about having a whinge over a cappuccino. We have an outstanding opportunity here with the means and the ideas to make a difference. We're a fresh democracy still going about the world as incurable romantics.

CP As conference organizers, you've highlighted the so-called BaSIC countries - Brazil, South Africa, India, and China - as rising producers of world-class creative content, rather than mere consumers of Hollywood movies and Western fashions. Do you see these countries developing definitive new design languages?
RN When we looked at this thing we called BaSIC, it was more from the point of view of these countries having similar socio-economic contexts or economic realities. It occurred to us, maybe what we should be doing is a greater amount of sharing between ourselves because, all too often the discourse in design happens on a London/Paris/New York/Tokyo axis. We discussed shifting that axis or introducing a southern parallel, a São Paulo/Cape Town/Mumbai/Shanghai axis. It's in doing this that we might find a more apt design language for emerging economies than the one we see in Milan, for example. But it's less about the language and more about the methodology of how to give life to objects in our context. We need to design for a different socio-economic reality where design is about more than consumption. It has to be part of the toolkit for development on the ground. I find this kind of design activism more prevalent in developing countries than in Europe. And, to quote Obama, design here is about "the fierce urgency of now".

CP So it's about modality over aesthetics…
RN That's it. As things stand, traditional designers use one of two modalities, B2B or B2C. We're interested in invoking an entirely new segment in the design realm - creative business to community, a new B2C, with the community being our client. If you had to poll communities the world over asking who matters in the community, you'd be told the teacher, the politician, the policeman. The designer would come in late in the list because we haven't made ourselves relevant to community. The designer moves out of the realm of being a pedlar of beautiful confection and becomes a change-agent.

CP This makes me think about a statement by the organisers of the upcoming Istanbul Design Biennale regarding design having a new kind of urgency in emerging economies - because it's a solution-based practice, and these are places that are looking for solutions.
RN Precisely. So the Design Indaba itself, which is a conference that invites designers from around the world, is a three-day think tank that is converted into real-life projects over the rest of the year. It's much more interesting when you present some of our seemingly intractable problems to creative people instead of politicians and start to develop hyper-local solutions. I'm interested in galvanising a creative army to help find the solutions we need.

CP In Cape Town's winning bid for the 2014 World Design Capital, there's a focus on designing new policies and re-inventing parts of the city itself. It seems there's an emerging design field that sees policy and the city as its product.
RN The cityscape is the crucible of the 21st century, it's where we tackle most of our issues. As a discipline, we see fragments emerging at MIT's SENSEable City Laboratory and Ricky Burdett's programmes at LSE. It would be great to coalesce these projects into a super-discipline about designers in the city. Last year, we launched the Your Street Challenge that asks designers to transform a small piece of the city through design. For us, that's our diffusion. Now we're exporting the challenge. We are getting cities around the world involved and, at the same time, are creating a global online curriculum for a different breed of designers.

CP You mentioned your assistance in sending the first-ever African into space; the potential for a global south design axis and South Africa's optimism regarding its technological future. There is a tangible sense of anticipation, perhaps the birth of an African Futurism…
RN The concept of Futurism fell on fertile ground in South Africa since the '90s. South Africa owes a lot of the success of the dawning of our democracy to scientific, coordinated future analysis. A key part of South Africa finding its way in what everybody considered to be a completely hopeless situation, was about a sense of futurism and about scenario analysis. The Mont Fleur Scenarios happened in the early '90s in a room where the ANC, Union leaders, businessmen and uturists ran through different scenario analyses for South Africa given certain eventualities. This was a bunch of leaders and futurists sitting around a table technically negotiating a revolution. Now, there's also the prospect of the square kilometre array radio telescope - the largest telescope in the Southern hemisphere - being awarded to South Africa. This will inextricably link us to those big, stellar questions about our future because the theatre in which it's going to happen will be the Karoo, a desert in the central part of South Africa.


  • Ravi Naidoo Talks to Cher Potter