Ravi Naidoo, interviewed by Cher Potter
Ravi Naidoo is the founder of the International Design Indaba – an African design institution and the biggest design conference and expo in Africa. He’s also behind the First African in Space Mission and Cape Town’s budding IT cluster. He’s reshaping the cultural landscape of a country. Here we talk to Ravi about a south-south global design axis, the romance of new democracies, building a new global south design language, and the birth of an African futurism.
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?
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 us 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 Sao Paulo-Cape Town-Mumbai-Shanghai axis.
Its 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, to quote Obama, design here is about ’the fierce urgency of now’.
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.
Precisely. So the Design Indaba itself, which is a conference that invites designers from around the world, is a 3-day think tank that is converted into real-life projects over the rest of the year. Its much more interesting when you present some of our seemingly intractable problems to creative people instead of to politicians and start to develop hyper-local solutions. The designer moves out of the realm of being a peddler of beautiful confection and becomes a change
–agent. I’m interested in galvanising a creative army to help find the solutions we need.
You also speak about giving Africa ‘new stretch’…
All of our projects since 1994 have been about re-imagining Africa, about giving Africa new stretch. We are optimists, we aren’t apologetic about our circumstances or South Africa. As Interactive Africa, the media company we’ve 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 CITI – 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.
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’s a tangible sense of anticipation, perhaps the birth of an African Futurism…
The concept of futurism fell on fertile ground in South Africa since the 90’s. South Africa owes a lot of the success of the dawning of our democracy to scientific, co-ordinated 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 90’s in a room where the ANC, Union leaders, businessmen and futurists ran through different scenario analyses for South Africa given certain eventualities – this a bunch of leaders and futurists sitting around a table and technically negotiating a revolution. Now, there’s the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) 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 its going to happen will be the Karoo, a desert in the central part of South Africa.
Ravi Naidoo is the founder and managing director of Interactive Africa, a Cape Town based media and marketing company. One of the company’s more recent projects has been project managing the First African in Space Mission. He also directed the African Connection Rally, which promoted telecommunications investment in Africa.