With Cape Town named World Design Capital 2014, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Faculty of Informatics and Design has much to live up to! Situated below Table Mountain in the heart of Cape Town, the FID hosts one of the largest sets of design programmes in South Africa.

Over the last few years, the Faculty has been reaching out into our surrounding communities, investigating powerful ways of involving our students in real life situations. In recognising the common global need for societal and environmental change, the University’s role is becoming pivotal in aligning research with civic initiatives and driving innovative practice in business.

It’s exciting to see lecturers and students experimenting with doing design differently and with a real-time urgency for changing lives in the city. So, starting with projects undertaken recently in our immediate local context, we’ll introduce some of these and expand on what our plans are as we head toward 2014 and beyond.

Business as Unusual in ‘The Fringe’
The Fringe’ is the name for the east side of Cape Town city having coffee with our students at the start of the ‘Business as unusual’ project. The brief asked students to use ‘design thinking’ methodology to vision a new way for the Fringe to operate on a more sustainable level form an economic and social perspective. The idea was that this visualization would be showcased as an inspired look at how the area could be enlivened, to benefit all who work, live, and pass through it.

Here we are with some of our BTech (fourth year) Graphic Design students having the best coffee in town at the Field Office – the venue where many gathered for the official announcement of Cape Town’s successful bid for World Design Capital in October last year.

The design showroom/coffee shop venture was started by two Industrial Design students who were given the opportunity by Cape Town Partnership, of showcasing their design work in what used to be a non-descript part of the East City.

It has since proven to be one of the most popular meeting places in the area. On each visit, one will find new sparks of initiative through projects made visible on the walls, on the coffee cups, in the act of knitting part of a blanket for a community, and in conversation with like-minded patrons who are after the buzz of great coffee and exciting collaborations!

The Field Office is one example of how a culture of community can be re-generated through the design of social spaces. In the same way, through taking the university into the city, we planned the Business as Unusual project as a re-visioning of a thriving, inclusive community where students, residents and everyday commuters would bring the lifeblood back to the neglected and stagnant part of the once vibrant District Six precinct of the 1960’s before the forced removals of the apartheid era.

Students spent two weeks actively practicing the design thinking methodology in the Fringe before settling on the most appropriate solution to problems identified in the first stages of the project. These included mobility, wayfinding and inclusivity of all stakeholders in the area.

In teams of four, they observed the behavior of users, business owners and inhabitants of the area as well as commuters and customers, and recording these through video surveys and other means. They then defined a persona and a user’s point of view, which meant processing the information gathered with story-telling and sharing these with the wider group of students. They then looked for patterns and condensed the information through use of metaphor and visualisation, thereby mapping the situation. The ideation phase followed, where possible solutions were brainstormed and ideas selected, to prototype.

This meant designing a way to test the ideas through representing the solution with simple material by making prototypes so that the user could experience it. The ideas were then tested and iterated, condensing the information and insights to see if they were still valid or should be adapted.

Much interest in the solutions was shown after students presented their solutions to a representative from the Cambridge University Programme for Sustainability the BEN (Bicycle Empowerment Network), as well as The Fringe coordinator. We’re finding that taking students out of the traditionally theoretical space and into real life situations in the city is encouraging a new breed of designers with a consciousness for sustainable innovation in the social and business arenas.

Multidisciplinary and multi-level projects are pushing the limits of the traditional discipline-specific studio-based tasks of the past. New relationships with city partners are flourishing as these projects are showcased to actively engaged business, government and non-governmental organisations. The potential of design is thus beginning to be understood as an economic driver and social change agent.