Cape Town. 120116. Design can mean a lot of different things to different people; but generally understood, it is the plan for the construction of an object or system. In today’s world there has emerged a trend for design to move into an increasingly complex environment. Instead of designing a tangible product, which most people view as design’s traditional and primary role, you can apply design principles to the realm of complex or ‘wicked’ societal problems. Richard Perez, newly appointed Programme Director of the Cape Town World Design Capital (WDC), believes that this has major implications for how cities are managed and run. Picture Leon Lestrade. Story Michael Morris.

Cape Town - Designing a kettle, Richard Perez observes with deceptive simplicity, is different from designing a means of boiling water.

Where the former assumes a – or the – solution, along with a linear progression towards achieving it, the latter invites uncertainty, a sequence of questions, trials, errors, startings over and ultimately the likelihood of an innovation that is less about the assumed requirement of a kettle full of boiling water than the needs of a user and a context that might well find the conventional object insufficient, wasteful or inconvenient.

And this, he explains, is the essence of “design thinking” – an approach as applicable to getting a cup of hot water as to re-engineering a transport network, streamlining a banking system or confronting a regional housing shortage.

It is a discipline all its own, and with the founding of the first school of design thinking on the African continent this year, it is one that Perez will share in putting squarely on the Cape Town map. The school, which will offer training to students and executives, launches in April. It is the third of its kind in the world after those at Stanford University in Palo Alto in the US, and Potsdam in Germany.

According to Wikipedia, among the products conceived by the Stanford School, formed in 2004, are the Embrace blanket, a low-cost alternative to neonatal incubators, the d.light, a solar-powered LED light used in Third World rural communities, and the Pulse News Reader, apparently the biggest-selling application on Apple’s App Store.

Perez, who served in the city as the head of a design-thinking unit during its World Design Capital term, regards the choice of Cape Town as the school’s host as a legacy of the Design Capital award.

Born in Britain, Perez grew up in Cape Town, studied engineering at UCT, gained a master’s degree in design from the Royal College of Art and the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London and topped off his training – after working for a decade and a half in the design field – with an executive MBA at the Graduate School of Business at the Waterfront.

With this background, it’s no surprise he emphasises the conceptual reach of design that far exceeds the popular notion that it’s about craft, fancy lamps or finely turned vases.

At its best and most effective, design thinking is “discomforting” for its capacity to disrupt conventional thinking and behaviour, to remove certainty and challenge participants to be willing to see their ideas fail as a necessary condition of finding better ones.

Perez interrupts himself to not quite remember the full name of the film – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – in which the disarmingly sanguine hotel manager, Patel, assures unnerved guests: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end”.

John Lennon may have said it first – maybe even someone else – but Patel’s charming fatalism in the film captures for Perez something distinctively emblematic about the intuitive confidence of design thinking, the – at face value – unfounded expectation that collaboratively engaging in an “explorative” process of crafting and testing different options really does deliver innovation.

“Process” is the working word, here, its end known – a la Patel – only in the emergence of a new product or way of doing things, a conceivably unforeseen solution but one that responds specifically to its users and its context because of the nature of its “co-creative” or collaborative crafting.

In this, he argues, design thinking has significant implications for economic growth, jobs, civic confidence – a new vigour, say, in rethinking how to tackle sanitation, housing or clogged commuter arteries – and in the case of Cape Town and the new school, stimulating the entrepreneurial spirit of start-up pioneers and attracting regional, continental and global participation.

“In design thinking, you get a holistic approach to problem-solving, balancing the human, financial and technology aspects and with that combination you can take the conversation to any sector, whether corporate or public, and apply it to any challenge,” Perez said this week.

“It’s not a silver bullet – it’s hard, and it’s a ‘doing’ process, but I have not yet seen design thinking fail in the sense of not coming up with something that’s different and new. And that’s where the value lies – as opposed to people being caught up in the paralytic state of the problem where nobody can agree and so you simply continue doing what you are already doing.

“You see a lot of that in business and in the public sector, where people can’t agree on the way forward and so they don’t move forward. Design thinking always offers something fresh to work with.”

For all the political and popular ambivalence about World Design Capital, Perez is convinced it was key in shifting the design debate away from artefacts to process and the scores of projects undertaken over the Design Capital term provided tangible experience of design thinking in action.

“That opens the conversation about design as the driver of new outcomes, innovation and change.”

He is confident the new school of design thinking will take the “conversation” further, to embrace design as a “transformative tool” across all sectors, particularly business.

“We tapped well into the social change aspect, but the economic conversation was not really unlocked as well as it could have been.”

This will be one of the key aims of the school, contributing to and strengthening an “ecosystem” that will give Cape Town more of a “Silicon-Valley feel” in its ambitions to be SA’s tech start-up capital.

Perez counts his three years working in the city as salutary – not least discovering high levels of innovative thinking – in confirming his conviction that design thinking does offer new ways of managing seemingly intractable challenges.

While legislative constraints and party politicking tended to restrain innovation or experimentation, “Cape Town is very innovative, and can afford to be, because it is well run and has got the basics right”.

The challenge, in government as much as business, is to nurture an “ambidextrous” culture that allowed for sound management, efficiency and optimisation on one hand, and experimentation and uncertainty on the other.

“If you get that balance right you will innovate.”

South Africa is “low on the ladder of thinking about the merits of design”, but the outlook is “exciting”. The more design thinking is used, the more confidence in it will become.

Part of the objective of the school of design thinking was to “create expertise” in people who become design-thinking facilitators. “Problem-solving happens with people who are immersed in the problem, and you need facilitators to give them confidence in the process and the discomfort of uncertainty.”

Framing a challenge by asking “How might we …?” was implicitly to acknowledge that there might not be a solution, but that, collaboratively, “we’ll give it a go”.

“I often hear people saying: ‘How are we going to solve… whatever it is’, which establishes in advance what the problem is, that there is a solution, that it will be found, cast in stone and rolled out as a policy.”

Design thinking’s approach is different, tentative, explorative, allowing for wider options and multiple prototyping in a process “where you can fail along the way. It’s okay if things are not okay… because the process isn’t over yet.”


Weekend Argus