Recently I was asked by What’s On Africa if I would be interested in attending a symposium titled ‘Design Futures in Sub-Saharan Africa: Post Western Perspectives’ – an event that has been two years in the making as a “network of design and material culture theorists, technological innovators and museum professionals from six different cities — Dakar, Accra, Nairobi, Cape Town, London and Oxford.”

I checked out the programme excitedly, bee-lined the title, kept an open mind and imagined a platform where audience and the network engage. So I am writing this post mostly from the experience of being a symposium attendee with transnational professional interests within and between London, occasionally a few European cities and some cities across Sub-Saharan Africa.

This symposium was a launch event, the first of six events led by Cher Potter (LCF/V&A Research Fellow; Principal Investigator for ‘Design Futures in Sub-Saharan Africa) taking place over two years— 2015 to 2018. The network over the course of these event series will be investigating “new design typologies emerging from the African continent, their sites of production and the means by which they can be communicated and displayed both within Africa and in Europe. The research remit of the project looks specifically at the design of computer games, robotics and digital imaging using the design centres of Accra, Dakar, Nairobi and Cape Town as starting points for the research.” — source: Aims of the Design Futures in Sub-Saharan Africa Research project.

Listening to the stories of each speaker, seeing snapshots of their methodology, processes, solutions and tools on screen, I was filtering multiple ideas in terms of social implications of technology, perceptions of evolving future possibilities that may have immense impact on design across Africa. I take a viewpoint on innovation — “innovation is established through dialogues and conversations”.

My learning log

Lesson One

I listened to Mugendi M’Rithaa (Professor of Industrial Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa) unpacked the relationship between social innovation, the knowledge economy, demographic shifts and the re-definition of Industrial Design in a transitional context. He explored an Africa with the youngest population in the world. How might the demographic dividend in terms of improved education levels, gender equality and productivity translate into an open space for setting in motion a chain reaction of transition projects?

John Ledgard (Director of AfroTech Initiative at Swiss Federal University for Technology and former East Africa correspondent for The Economist) walked us through images of a sea of youthful heads that greeted former Tanzanian President  Jakaya Kikwete’s  election campaign activity. It served as a metaphor for what the risks associated with unmet expectations of Africa’s youth left unchecked is beginning to look like. He was invited to be part of the campaign trail across the country side; it seems his journalistic eye was taking in evidence of informal settlements absorbing urban growth. He was observing the effects of runaway population growth on infrastructure deficit.

The agro-processing market across urban Sub Saharan Africa is gradually being structurally driven by the retail sector in the form of cross-region supermarket chains such as Shoprite, Uchumi and Massmart (in which Walmart has a stake). Agro-industrialisation as a link between large farm holdings, resource constrained medium-scale and resource-poor farmers or producers could be maximised for increased productivity of rural-urban logistics across the continent. At the moment imaginative ideas for overcoming existing transport limitations are scarce.

This brings me to the drone-port and route project in the pipeline for development in Rwanda. Enter a specially developed drone logistics system to turn an infrastructure deficit on its head. One can imagine this happening in Kampala or Kinshasa, where an inexpensive delivery system of urgent life saving goods and services over unmotorable, slippery mountainous terrain and bodies of water that are almost impossible to navigate could transform health care delivery.

When John Ledgard discussed the drone-port and drone routing concept it seemed to me an innovation that could be part of a linkage or commodity exchange between agro-processors, farmers, producers and markets. As much as the drone port and route concept is an imaginative response to real infrastructure deficits, to my mind a parallel deficit also exists that it might need to address; apart from the project’s generative skills coming from outside Africa.

I did not get a sense that Rwandans are involved at the front-end of the project beyond the provision of land. Assuming this is the case resetting the project in progress to develop local strategic capacity in itself is a long-term project that could sit well within Sub-Saharan Africa’s agro-industrial complex for example or any sector for that matter where logistics is intrinsic to success.

Lesson Two

Head of the Computer Science Department at Asheshi University College Ghana Dr. Ayokorkoh Korsah’s ‘design thinking’ elective for students I found interesting viewing in terms of ‘think by doing’ skills acquisition and possible constructive social consequences. Design thinking connects her students practically to developmental issues. They learn from accidental prototypes to stimulate discussion about systemic deficits such as power provision and food security that affects society.

It is a process with implications in my view for the abilities of these students to work with multiple live scenarios to evolve ideas with practical socio-economic impact. Typically it is a capability that enables navigation in different directions and consequently cognitive means to shift off-track when required. I did not come round to discussing how she sees her students’ professional trajectory; perhaps another opportunity might present itself.

Lesson Three

I asked Kristina Van Dyke (an independent scholar and curator) about how the use of the digital base developed by Belgian computer engineer Frederic Cloth for the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St Louis (which she directed from 2011 to 2015) to examine how close to 50 Kota Guardian Figures could be adopted in another context. West Africa: Word, Symbol, Sound came to mind. The possibility of this educational exhibition physically travelling through the West African countries around which its visitor experience design is based on is probably remote. The reasons for this is another story. To imagine that this constraint can be circumvented imaginatively with technology is an interesting thought.

Lesson Four

Wesley Kirinya at Leti Gaming Studio and James Turin (in the audience) at the Turing Trust both brought Gearbox, Nairobi, to my attention. It was not on my radar yet. It is a facility where perception of new capabilities are being made possible. One quote from Wesley that has stayed with me reads like this“Cities are convergence for culture in Africa, digital tools not created in Africa are a challenge. Understanding how these tools are made is a necessity”. In my view ‘Post Western Perspectives’ seems an apt forum for being plugged into the underlying architecture behind how these tools — digital and analogue — are ‘glocally’ generated.

Lesson Five

Without Paula Callus’s presentation my daughter and myself might have missed being in hysterics – to the irritation of mum (who at this point was calming an infant down) as we viewed Buni Media’s political animated satire ‘Ogas at The Top’, later that evening. Paula had used a series from ‘Ogas at The Top’ to illustrate the socio-political influence of Africa’s animators on its political economy.

Importantly intra-African collaboration underlines its production with Marie Lora-Mungai, Charles KuriaEdward Khaemba and Godfrey Mwampembwa a Kenyan political cartoonist and satirist as executive producers with writers; Taiwo Ogunlesi, Sodienye Kurubo and Niyi Ademoye and a Nigerian voice cast. One can imagine the production team marrying complexities between performance skills, dramatic inspiration on tap from Lagos and Abuja with the technological know-how required of puppetry and digital animation practitioners in Nairobi.

On Reflection….

I have had time to reflect on the content of the symposium. As I edit this piece, I ask myself this question; what might the preferred futures of value based design across a ‘glocalised’ Africa with the youngest population in the world need to look like ‘Post Western Perspectives’?

I see this event through the lens of SSA’s economic sub-sectors at various stages of transition. The socio-economic impact of the digital economy in terms of youth participation, content and product development is unfolding as we speak. From this perspective ‘Transition Design’ is in ascendant.

The evolution of multi-city innovation and digital ecosystems are transforming economic growth across African cities. With networks distributed across six cities what we are seeing within the lessons listed above are conceptual frameworks that are responsive to localised challenges; sometimes outside the bounds of western logic.  The collaborative nature of international, local and regional investment in this event reflects the spread of alternative capabilities (many that did not exist pre-digital economy) so necessary for opening up inclusive ‘mental-leap making’ opportunities for Africa’s young population.

The ‘glocal youth capability development’ promise held by this project’s event development network one can argue is expressed in the form of BRCK, its associated product and service development ecosystem. Wesley Kirinya of Leti Gaming Studio is a software developer within the BRCK team.

“…BRCK’s potential extends far beyond the product itself. As internet becomes more accessible, it opens opportunities for education and learning in Africa, where the youth bulge is high… it also creates a way for more people to get into digital jobs and a future that isn’t as wrapped up in the status quo businesses that are the only options around them right now.”  – Erik Hersman 

This is also a potential candidate for reverse innovation.

This is what ‘Post Western Perspectives‘ might look like, when BRCK evolves to generate an exportable innovation product and service ecosystem across SSA markets and then exports its  know-how and innovation to developed economies.

The translation of the BRCK’s ecosystem into an alternative vehicle for connectivity in Africa, inclusive demand for new regionally spread skillsets and catalyst for global market opening opportunities is an enticing picture.

Ayodeji Alaka  attended ‘Design Futures in Sub-Saharan Africa: Post-Western Perspectives’ on the 28th November 2015 held at the Rootstein Hopkins Space East, University of the Arts London.  

Another version of this piece appears on Ayo’s Medium Blog.