Rethinking design thinking for Africa

africa tower bamako

If you are working in the area of innovation, technology, or creative learning, odds are pretty strong that you have come across design thinking. So for me.

Maybe you have even read somewhere that the design thinking methodology might be a way for solving Africa’s problem. So did I. Hence, in our quest at Kabakoo — The House Of Wondering to innovate technology education for the Africas by leveraging the power of creative project-based learning, design thinking was obviously one of our to-go tools.

However, I recently started rethinking my perception of design thinking on the continent. The more I was dealing with design thinking, the more it appeared familiar to me. At first, I took it as a sign that I was just internalizing its precepts. But a while after, something else, quite stunning, came to my mind. Really. I came to realize that design thinking seems so familiar to me because it is fundamentally African. No joke. Now you could tell me that the homo sapiens is a designer by nature. True. As formulated by Herbert Simon in his influential design theory book The Sciences of the Artificial,

“the proper study of mankind is the science of design.”

We have all already read somewhere that we are all design thinkers. But my case here is that design thinking is still vibrantly alive in most African communities. If only we want to see it. Looking just a little closer at African ways of living and endogenous learning systems, we can see that design thinking is everywhere in the societies.

First, the African Weltanschauung is definitely one for design thinkers. As formulated by David Kelley, founder of the design thinking powerhouse IDEO,

“design thinking is not a linear path, it’s a big mass of looping back to different places in the process.”

The first time I read this, I had to sit down and take a deep breathe. Read it again: To become innovation machines we need to stop thinking linearly. I can’t remember how many times I have argued with different people trying to challenge the idea that the circular and holistic, non-linear way of thinking characterizing African worldviews cannot be blamed for the apparent lack of creativity in Africa. In fact, it mostly feels like Africans have to find ways to shake off the taint of not thinking linearly. But exactly that circular approach to life and Nature is a major prerequisite for being a successful design thinker as suggested by David Kelley.

Everyday utensils and ceremonial items in the Grassfields.

Second, in African contexts the producers of banal, everyday objects are the same who produce the very same objects that you would find in museums around the world. In most African cultures, the entrepreneurs producing and selling everyday utensils do not have to bother to learn how to think like designers because they are designers! In the Bamanan region, for instance, the blacksmiths producing tools for farming such as hoes and dabas, knifes and other metal tools are the same people who produce more obviously design-related items such as jewelry or decoration items. In the Central-African Grassfields, the woodworker producing and selling stools or wooden kitchen utensils is the same sculptor designing the ceremonial pieces such as the so called ‘Bamileke stools’ you would find in a couple of museums outside of the continent. In the Tuareg area, the Tinedan leatherworker would not only produce tents and saddles but also the world-famous Tuareg jewels. Multiple observers and scholars of African aesthetics such as Voldemārs Matvejs aka ‘Vladimir Markov’, Laure Meyer, or Engelbert Mveng have commented about the combination of elegance and function characterizing everyday products in African communities. On the light of the aforementioned, this should not come as surprise since the producers of everyday products are they very same people producing the highly appraised pieces. This shows that in such contexts, design thinking is obviously everywhere. African societies are designer communities.

And design thinking might become even more African! Voices criticizing the current state of design thinking are asking, for instance, whether emotions should play a bigger role in the design thinking process and for a deeper connection between designers and their social context. Asking for more emotions in the design process could be interpreted through the lens of (Shengorian) negritude as making it more African. As for a deeper connection between designers and their communities, critiques of African arts have sometimes raised the issue that traditionally, the works of African designers are so deeply intertwined with society that it can be challenging to differentiate between the artist’s own work and the contribution of the society in the design production. Addressing these two current critiques of design thinking would hence make it even more African.

Design thinking is inherent to most African communities. However, to really see it today we have to look at villages or small towns where the very same entrepreneurs would still produce and sell everyday utensils and ceremonial pieces or jewelry. Africans living in the cities can be more or less disconnected from this design thinking inherent in their communities. Still, Africa has the material for grooming a nation of innovative design thinkers. But how do we harness the power of these community-based design thinking abilities? How do we leverage the inherent design thinking capabilities to deliver solutions for the wicked problems of fast growing African cities?

Those are questions definitely deserving some attention. Maybe we should shift our focus to them and less to offering design thinking workshops; maybe we should exert more effort trying to elicit the designer in the African minds and not trying to train them in design thinking as an apparently new methodology to them.

What do you think?

Thanks for having read this piece. Looking forward to your comments to continue the conversation!

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *