How design is improving wellbeing around the world – from mapping out cities to creating new spaces

Reporting from the recent Design Indaba Festival in Cape Town, The Drum's Natalie Mortimer finds out how design thinking is improving wellbeing around the world, from mapping out cities in Africa to creating new environments for nomadic tribes.

Imagine yourself in the middle of a large city, say Birmingham in the UK or San Diego in California, and you want to catch a bus across town to an area you’re not familiar with. No doubt you’d whip out your smartphone, punch in the address on Google Maps and be on your way.

Now picture yourself in Harare, Zimbabwe, a city with a population of 1.5 million just like Birmingham and San Diego. You know there are mini-vans that act as public transport but none are marked and they may or may not be going to your destination. Google is stumped, too.

Studio D Tale created east to follow icons for routes, important way-finding points and destinations for its Dollar Vans project

Enter Studio D Tale, a design company with offices in London, Harare and Cape Town that practises architecture and design with a focus on social innovation. To find a way out of the chaos of the ad hoc service, the studio launched a project named Dollar Vans, digitally mapping over 200 routes with 20 local volunteers and creating easy to follow icons for routes, important way-finding points and destinations. Studio D Tale then transferred these to the vans and the streets themselves to easily guide people.

“We were really worried that people wouldn’t adopt it or understand the need to do it, but just from these 20 or so, there really is a need,” explains Maxwell Mutanda, who runs Studio D Tale along with co-founder Safia Qureshi.

“The project started because I was working with people who said they didn’t know how to get to a certain part of town. Even though they’d been using these mini buses for the longest time, anywhere outwith their everyday commute was a foreign country to them. The project is yet to fully launch but Mutanda is hopeful it will help put Harare’s transport system on the map, literally.

“The measure of success for me once we’re done is that it will be just like how it is in any city. Rather than just a blank page with a warning label telling me ‘no route found’, we’ll be part of this technological economy as well. That would be really wonderful for me.”

Critical thinking

Elsewhere, design is being used to solve a more life-threatening problem. Africa accounts for the vast majority of global maternal deaths – out of the 830 deaths a day last year, 550 occurred on the continent compared to just five in developed countries, according to the World Health Organisation.

In Malawi, a country where maternal and neonatal mortality are major public health challenges due to very few deliveries being attended by skilled professionals and one in 36 women had a lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy or delivery, Boston-based non-profit architectural firm Mass Design Group designed and built a maternity waiting village which provides expectant women who are past their 36th week a place to stay until their delivery. Where previous iterations of this have failed, Mass’ ‘village’ comprises four-bed units placed around small courtyards that offer more privacy and space.

Al Baydha Village project, in which world building is being used to help Bedouin populations in Saudi Arabia

The studio has also carried out extensive work to improve health and wellbeing across Africa including the creation of specially designed hospitals, treatment centres and schools, as well as standards and guidelines for the health infrastructure in Liberia.

Christian Benimana, Mass’ program director for Rwanda, says design on the continent is “not important; it’s crucial”.

“Think about it like this – it’s not about what design does to improve our lives, it’s what design does if it’s not there. That’s the real danger and that’s why there should never be instances where it’s lacking, because when it’s not there there’s more damage than you can repair.”

Benimana’s most recent project is the African Design Centre, a new school in Kigali, Rwanda that aims to train a new generation of architects and designers to cope with the continent’s booming population. The centre will offer design training in the classroom and in the field, as well as skills such as networking and business development to offer solutions against public health and environmental crises.

“It’s important that we start investing in a generation that will make an impact and reach all four corners of the continent, because it’s not a question about when we are going to need that creative leadership – it’s about how much, because it’s happening with the population growth of the continent.”

World building

In the Middle East, meanwhile, a design technique developed for films including Minority Report and Superman is being applied to help a Bedouin tribe in Saudi Arabia. ‘World building’, the process used by 5D Global Studio creative director and professor of practice, USC, Alex McDowell, integrates imagination and emergent technologies to create new narratives through a redefined multi-user viewpoint.

Al Baydha Village project

“Instead of saying we want to solve the problem of designing a car by looking at the aesthetics or wind velocity, we think about the car as part of a world space. Does a new kind of car call into question whether roads are properly designed? How does traffic management or wayfinding or the way in which cities are organised change? You can ask fundamental questions about the world,” explains McDowell.

For the Al Baydha Village project, world building is being used to help Bedouin populations in Saudi Arabia who had been settled in very basic conditions for the past 20 years build and maintain their own self-sustaining communities. “They were plonked down and told stay put, so their herds ate all the plants and destroyed the oasis because as nomads they would [traditionally] have continued to move on and they didn’t,” says McDowell. “Where design can shift this is by instead of saying, ‘OK, stay put’, you say, ‘here are the tools to build a new world space for yourselves’ in a way that suits the tribe.”

The long-term project places the tribe at the centre to show the full scope of a sustainable future through architecture and permaculture, a system of agricultural and social design principles, something McDowell says is vital when designing spaces for humans to live in.

“When you impose a design solution, you’re telling people ‘it’s up to you to adapt’ – that pretty much breaks every time and turns into slums,” he says, pulling on the example of Paris’ largest slum which was created with a ‘utopian vision’ but ultimately failed.

“That’s just bad design – it’s aesthetically beautiful but it’s not good design if humans can’t live in it. We have to shift ourselves from what is a relatively fascistic era of the single design vision.”

This issue was first published in The Drum's 23 March issue.

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