What architects must learn from South African student protests

Amira Osman, University of Johannesburg

2015 has been a year of protest and struggle at South Africa’s universities. The environment remains highly charged.

Academics are trying to establish where they stand. How does it affect me? Should I support it, or steer clear? I believe the protests by students, and on many campuses workers, are an invitation for us to start asking some hard questions about our own disciplines, their broader political implications and the role of universities in society.

Examining architecture

My particular field is architecture, a part of the wider built environment profession which includes planners and engineers, among others. The protests have led me to question issues the profession has paid lip service to over many years. But there has been no significant or tangible progress in either education or practice.

“Transformation” is a word that crops up often in South Africa and has been one of the key narratives of the protests. It refers to creating a more equitable society that reflects different races, genders and socioeconomic groups. From my professional perspective, transformation has meant changes in the following areas:

  • thinking and practice;
  • education, content and methods;
  • regulatory bodies and professional institutes;
  • greater representation to ensure that the profession, and those who teach it, better depict the country’s demographics; and, finally,
  • spatial transformation towards equity and access to opportunity in South Africa’s cities.

In educating future architects, it’s important to consider the difficult conditions under which many people live in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid means that cities remain deeply divided. Architecture is a profession that may offer spatial, technical and social expertise to serve large segments of the population. Yet it remains relatively disengaged, isolated, untransformed and elitist.

A history of segregation

During apartheid, South Africa’s cities were carefully planned to ensure racial segregation. Housing landscapes evolved into sterile, regimented, inefficient settlement patterns. This perpetuates today because there has never been a major rethink about how cities and housing are planned.

This lack of imagination is further exacerbated by unequal funding patterns that entrench the status quo. Stand-alone, mono-functional housing models result in residential environments that remain poorly located, poorly serviced and highly segregated.

Single sex workers’ hostels, created during apartheid to keep cheap black labour close to the city, remain in place. They are virtually uninhabitable and cause serious social problems.

South Africa’s cities have some of the lowest densities globally. This is a major disadvantage for poorer residents who spend large percentages of their meagre incomes, and a large segment of their day, on commuting. The images of apartheid linger: bus and train-loads of black people being brought in to service the elite city early in the morning, then “shipped out” again just before dark.

There is clearly a huge role for architects and built environment professionals to play in beginning to unsnarl South Africa’s cities.

The current approach

Architects have often called for participation and ongoing engagement with the communities that aren’t yet adequately served by the profession. But alternative approaches are not yet the norm and have not yet strongly influenced the way that the discipline is taught, practised or how professional institutes and councils operate.

The industry still tends to focus on wealthy clients and the architect as “creative individual”. When working in complex, poverty-stricken and politically polarised contexts, this designer-centred approach is in direct opposition to a user-centred approach.

It is highly problematic and irrelevant, yet it seems to dominate South African departments of architecture. Other methods are still considered “niche” and have not yet made it into mainstream teaching and practice.

As a result, South African architects have little understanding of how to avoid entrenching disadvantage through spatial and technical solutions. All spatial and technical decisions are value-laden as design decisions reflect our beliefs about access to the city and about poverty.

Many so-called “solutions” and “innovations” inadvertently lead to further disadvantage. Many of the so-called “developments”, in teaching and in practice, may actually be regressive rather than progressive.

Alterations needed

Many aspects of apartheid cities were meticulously conceptualised by built environment professionals who served a particular political dispensation. And these cities can only be “undone” through massive spatial restructuring. Cities require complex, multi-disciplinary interventions and the architectural profession has a major role to play.

Opening up the profession to young people from diverse backgrounds would be a start. Transforming what we teach in terms of content and skills will also ensure that young professionals will be able to practice effectively.

We need to become critically aware of the power of the built environment. The profession must speak up strongly on how architecture is sometimes complicit in practices that disempower, humiliate, restrict opportunities, destroy livelihoods, damage ecosystems and disrupt economic networks. All deepen conflict and reinforce divisions.

A learning moment

The ongoing student and workers unrest provide us with an opportunity to reflect, learn and ask: where do students and workers live? In what kind of environments? How do they travel to institutions of higher learning? What kind of relationship is established between university campuses and their proximate neighbourhoods?

It will do us good to understand why there is so much anger and why South Africa’s universities have let their communities down. These broader political – as well as discipline-specific – concerns have lead me to support the country’s student movement.

I celebrate these emergent voices of dissent in the hope of achieving real transformation across South Africa.

The Conversation

Amira Osman, Associate Professor in Architecture, University of Johannesburg

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


1st DESIS Assembly

In few days we will be presenting the DSD DESIS Lab as part of first Assembly of the DESIS Network association, please join us either physically or electronically:

SEPT 22, 2014
3pm (local time)
Greenside Design Center, Studio L

Streaming live at
Live comments and interactions by sending messages
– on Facebook Messenger at
– on WeChat by adding “DESIS_Network” to your contacts

It will be a very good opportunity to share and align our initiatives.
The first extensive debate around the on-going projects of the network will be held by using the new template which aim is to facilitate the emerge of transversal knowledge about what design can do for social innovation.
Each joining Lab will be invited to tell about one of its projects to the audience.
New labs will be formally included in the network and with the existing labs they will know more about the association, the future plans and the chances to join them!

See you there!


DSD officially becomes a DESIS Network Lab

We are very proud to officially have just been accepted as a lab of the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) network, whilst being hosted at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, South AfricaDESIS Labs are groups of professors, researchers and students are based in design schools and design-oriented universities, actively involved in promoting and supporting sustainable change and who orient their design and research activities towards social innovation. They can operate at the local scale with local partners and, in collaboration with other DESIS Labs, they can also engage in regional and global large-scale projects and programs.

DESIS Labs are engaged in different kinds of design and research projects and in networking activities:

  • Local projects. They are projects and research programs developed in collaboration with local partners in the framework of the ordinary design classes (that is, by students and their tutors) or as ad hoc initiatives promoted by the DESIS Lab (in collaboration with professional designers and researchers). Or they can be a combination of the two: articulated programs where student work and professional activities are mixed.
  • Regional and Global projects. They are projects and research programs promoted and supported by several DESIS Labs, dealing with complex problems,large systems or regional and global initiatives. Each Lab operates as a research partner who brings its specific competences and context sensitivity to the project.
  • Networking activities. They are activities needed to establish mutually beneficial relationships between DESIS Labs and other possible partners (to initiate and coordinate large scale projects and research). They include active participation in the DESIS Website in terms of management and content providing (feeding it with relevant information and using it as an enabling platform to support large scale projects and research).

DESIS Network itself collaborates with other networks whose focus (such as social innovation, quality of everyday life, design for sustainability, and design school coordination) is complementary to their own. In this spirit, to date, formal agreements have been established with: Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), Sustainable Everyday Project (SEP), Learning Network on Sustainability (LeNS), Partnership for Education and Research about Responsible Living (PERL) and International Association of Universities and Colleges of Design, Art and Media (CUMULUS).

DESIS also establishes special partnerships with private companies, non-profit organizations, foundations and government agencies that share similar views and are willing to co-develop open projects on topics and areas of common interest.

DESIS is endorsed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).


Izindaba Zokudla in The New Age

“Johannesburg academics are in the process of initiating an ambitious urban farming project.

Two University of Johannesburg lecturers have embarked on a multi-stakeholder engagement project that aims to create opportunities for urban agriculture – in a sustainable food system for Soweto.

The project, titled Izindaba Zokudla (Conversations about Food) is part of the university’s Design Society Development within the faculty of art, design and architecture.

The pilot project is co-headed by Naudé Malan of the department of anthropology and development studies and Angus Campbell of the department of industrial design.

This comes after Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Deputy Minister Bheki Cele said the sector was an ideal vehicle for job creation.

The sector is expected to create 1 million jobs over the next 16 years. Campbell said the city of Johannesburg is in the process of implementing an urban agriculture policy as part of a larger food security initiative….”

To read the full article please visit article by Peter Ramothwala


Izindaba Zokudla @UIA


Copyright and Copyleft the value of Creative Commons

Featured image by Faulkner16

Recently I was lent a book called Open Design Now. Almost immediately curious, having come across Open Source software and projects like GitHub among others relating to software, as well as the Opensource Ecology and Open Desk relating to hardware, I started reading. I had become gradually more curious about Creative Commons having read about it, seen it and started using the Creative Commons Search. However, I hadn’t had an in depth look at how to properly and effectively use the various options now available regarding copyright. Reading Open Design Now, inspired me to investigate it properly. I then suggested that we use one of our Design Society Development meetings to discuss and debate the nature and value of Open Design, Creative Commons and Copyright Law. I lead the discussion and developed a short presentation. This post is a compilation of the various parts of the presentation.

The growing development around openness has a lot to do with Copyright or should we say Copyleft. The idea of Radical Openness is relatively old in that its more than two years in the making (especially in terms of its trend factor). The theme for the TED Global 2012 conference in Edinburgh was Radical Openness. “The word “open” is generally associated with positive contexts. Frankness. Freedom. Access. Neutrality. A willingness to listen. Engagement. Sharing. Less obvious is the shadow side of openness. In positive or negative lights, openness is a timely concept for us to define and redefine in the ever more fluid world in which we live.” (Giussani 2012)

This video, produced by Jason Silva, gives a inspirational glimpse of the potential of radical openness.

“RADICAL OPENNESS” – for TEDGlobal 2012 by @JasonSilva from Jason Silva on Vimeo.

But before getting lost in the ideological world of Radical Openness it is important that we understand Copyright. It is with Copyright, or more the rebellion against Copyright, as it is often implemented, where Radical Openness and Creative Commons has its origins. This video gives a short overview of the history of Copyright.

This history is American based, in South Africa the law around Copyright is 50 years from the date of creation or death of the author (there is a lot more detail to this which wont be dealt with here).

This is often not really known or understood among many designers, despite us being in the business of creating. One of the oldest forms of Open Licences is GPL or General Public Licence. It was written by “…Richard Stallman in 1989 for use with programs released as part of the GNU project” (wikipedia) (Note: although Wikipedia is often criticised in Academic circles it is referred to here since it is a great example of Openness). Richard Stallman can be seen as the father of opensource with his work on GNU. The more recent Creative Commons Licences were in part inspired by the work of Richard Stallman with the GNU project. This article in Wired magazine gives a short overview of the history of Creative Commons. It includes most of the history of Copyright covered in the previous video but also details where Creative Commons started.

Creative Commons offers a set of licences which authors can use to give their work the appropriate amount of reserved rights rather than all rights reserved. This video by the New Zealand Commons Groups gives a short overview. For more videos which unpack Creative Commons visit their own video depository.

Creative Commons licences have been designed for the modern world with their licences have three layers:

  1. The legal code
  2. Human Readable
  3. Machine Readable

To choose the appropriate licence for you work you can use their online licence choosing system. This the generates the licence with the appropriate HTML code which you can use one your website.

I think the most important thing to be aware of is what Copyright actually means for designers and authors. I also think we should be aware of how we can give up some of our rights so that it is no longer “All right reserved” but “some rights reserved”.

Openness and the ideals associated with it are still in their infancy and over the next few years we should expect to see a lot of development around these ideas. We as designers, writers and creators need to be part of figuring out how to collaborate, share and exchange ideas without being exploited.

Here are a few more links:

Creative Commons South Africa

Open Source Ecology

TED: Open Source

Creative Commons License
Copyright and Copyleft the value of Creative Commons by Kyle Brand & Design-Society-Development is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Website beta launched

We have just launched the Beta version of a website for the Design-Society-Development community of practice. We will be adding content over the next few months. But feel free to watch the talks from the first seminar here.