Africa’s Beautiful Ones Are Born-We just need to listen to them

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By Heather Robertson

President Zuma’s firing of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas and his latest cabinet reshuffle, the shameful SASSA debacle, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s insensitive ‘benefits of colonialism’ tweets and the recent outbreaks of xenophobia in Pretoria, feeds into a growing narrative of South Africa as a venal, racist, intolerant banana republic. The kind of basketcase place that acclaimed Ghanain writer Ayi Kwei Armah depicted in his seminal 1968 novel on post-independence African countries descent into corruption- “The Beautyful Ones are Not yet Born”.

Any outsider watching the downward trajectory of us as a nation from the miracle of 1994 to the sad sagas of 2017- might well wonder whether there is any hope for us. Fortunately the self-serving behaviour of our politicians is not the only South African narrative. There are other narratives, albeit less public, which are playing out in our daily lives which offer an alternate view of ourselves. A less arrogant, less ego- centric, less brash, less materialistic, more open, curious and humane view.

I was recently privileged to experience and witness such an alternative as a participant in a day long design thinking bootcamp at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking (the d-school) at the University of Cape Town’s graduate school of business campus at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront.

While the marketing industry has associated design thinking with customer journeys and product design, the concept of design thinking has in fact a much broader social reach. Richard Perez, d-school director, says design thinking “is an enabler of innovation and new outcomes”. He defines design thinking as “a human-centred approach to understanding and solving problems; one which places people and their needs at the heart of any innovation.” Tim Brown, the President and CEO of American design company Ideo, says this approach uses the way designers think to “integratethe needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Design thinking is playing a vital role in a world-wide movement that is shifting away from the take-make- dispose economy that places profit at the expense of the planet and its people. Brown and Ideo have worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to come up with a design for an alternative global economy, which they have dubbed a circular economy- an economy that designs products that can be made again, powered with renewable energy that is good for people, the planet, and business.

This kind of collaborative, creative, constructive and innovative thinking is being pioneered right here in South Africa by the recently launched d-school at UCT. The bootcamp I attended was the beginning of a 12 week design thinking foundation course offered free of charge to UCT post graduate students. The students at the bootcamp ranged in age from 28 years old to 47 years old and came from South Africa, the Congo, Italy, Botswana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Spain, Egypt and Ghana. The students came from academic backgrounds in Educational Technology, City Planning, Law, Social Policy, Economic History, Digital Forensics, Politics, Health, Geomatics, Neuroscience, Architecture, Geology, Geography, Journalism, Business Sport, Chemical Engineering, History and Marketing. A smorgasbord of cultures, ways of thinking and seeing.

Our challenge for the day was to improve the way-finding experience at UCT’s graduate school of business. In my group we had three men, an Egyptian, Zimbabwean, Italian and three women, all South African, two black, one white) Our disciplines and skills included architecture, engineering, journalism, pharmacy, farming and social policy. How do such a diverse group of people get to see eye to eye or agree on anything? The answer is with difficulty, laughter, a common goal, playfulness, empathy and good facilitation. We had two coaches, one a postgraduate student at UCT’s business school and the other an international tax post graduate trained in the design thinking process by programme managers Dr Rael Futerman and Dr Keneilwe Munyai, who very firmly and pleasantly guided us through the day. We started off by playing a complicated clapping exercise which had everyone in peals of laughter, jolted out of our comfort zones by doing something we’d probably last encountered at the pre-school playground.

We then did an exercise in listening with empathy to our team members, about who they are, what drives them and what they hope to achieve, followed by a presentation of the challenge. The term “way finding” drew a variety of interpretations from our group from the practical –how to create user friendly signage to enable visitors to find the right venues at the business school, to the more prosaic –how to enable anyone from any background to access the learning opportunities available at the UCT graduate school of business. After much debate, our group chose the latter. Our next exercise was to establish exactly who would benefit from a better way finding experience and we opted for two groups, students and traders.

Next we split into groups of three to go out into the field to interview students and traders about how they viewed the accessibility of the business school and how they think it could better serve their needs. Each group member had to have a turn to ask questions while another member recorded the interview and the third person observed the interviewee’s emotional responses.

Our foray into the field of face to face research brought us rich responses from traders at the Waterfront, students and lecturers at the UCT business school. We deduced from the rich real experience of traders in jewellery and crafts that the university community of students and lecturers could benefit from the traders real life learnings and the traders in turn could benefit from the networks and more national and global teachings of the graduate school of business.

We presented the idea (inspired by both students and traders we interviewed) that the Graduate School of Business invite traders to provide guest lectures and the university in turn provide traders with affordable management tools, through developing a prototype with lego blocks, drama and role play. This part of the design thinking exercise which uses the perspective of the end user in the creation of prototypes is the most revolutionary part of the entire process and might be anathema to rigid hierarchical organisations who rely on expert knowledge and authoritiarian power structures to function. The problem with these kinds of closed authoritarian organisations is that they are not adaptive to necessary innovation and change.

The beauty of the training that the array of post graduate UCT students are participating in is that they are learning how to co create with end users, collaborate with people from different disciplines and cultures, learn to accept failure as part of the learning process and be open to innovate and iterate over and over again.

What I learnt most from the process was to shut up and listen. Listen to my fellow team mates and listen to the traders at the waterfront. From listening with empathy, we were all able to come to a solution that not one of us would have come to by ourselves. This is a systematic way of thinking and working together that could help address our bigger political and social problems if utilized correctly.

UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price first encountered Design Thinking at Stanford University when he was part of a group of leaders from global universities who had come together to talk about trends in higher education. The question they grappled with was, “What will people be doing in their jobs 20-30 years from now?” Price saw the value of bringing Design Thinking to UCT to address the needs of the future. Upon his return to South Africa, Price set off for George where Hasso Plattner the German businessman and co-founder of SAP SE software company, also has a residence, to ask him to sponsor a school at UCT. Plattner agreed, committing R50 million to the school and his trust is now also on the verge of investing in a permanent d-school building at the UCT campus.

UCT’s d-school is one of only three Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) schools of design globally. It is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Its forerunners are based at Stanford University and Potsdam, Germany. Professor Ulrich Weinberg, founding director of the HPI School of Design in Potsdam Germany who was in South Afriac recently to attend the d-school launch, explains that Design Thinking offers a paradigm shift in the way problems can be approached. He argues that while information technology has created a networked global society, human culture has not caught up with the direction that new technologies are pushing us in. “New network technologies demand greater collaboration, but we humans continue to be individualistic and competitive. Design Thinking dismantles this behavioural trait by fostering greater collaboration.”

To watch the South African students hold their own with their fellow African and European colleagues, engaging with complex problems around the tables and white boards at the d-school, learning to understand each other’s cultures and personalities through developing empathy, hearing them laugh and clap when solutions and prototypes are created,’ is to know that the beautiful ones are indeed born. Their voices just need to be amplified across the country and continent as a counter-narrative to the moral bankruptcy that has plagued our political stage.

2 thoughts on “Africa’s Beautiful Ones Are Born-We just need to listen to them

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