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Design for Social Change: A Virtual Case Study

The Muizenberg Historic “Designing for Change” Building Project

Part 1


This is False Bay in Cape Town, South Africa.

The bay is a massive stretch of white sand that goes on for more than forty kilometers from the historic town of Muizenberg (pronounced mew-zen-berg) to the lovely town of Somerset West on the opposite end.

The edge of beach closest to the viewer in the image is called “Surfer’s Corner”, and is a locally-renowned surf spot.

South African Native

I haven’t lived in South Africa permanently since 2001. I only visit from Taipei, where I live presently, from time to time.

Naturally, when I do go back I try to make the most of it.

In January 2017 I visited my family in Cape Town (most of whom were living in Muizenberg at the time) with my hubby and daughter, and we stayed in some incredible Airbnbs.

The first was a historic gem of a home with an incredible loft apartment. The aerial photo above was almost exactly mirrored in the view greeting us each morning from the loft.

Old South African Seaside Town

Muizenberg was first developed by the English, who gave the beach and waterfront areas its classic British seaside look and for which it is now famous. There is popular mile long walk historic walk along the railway from the picturesque town of Kalk Bay, past St. James and ending at Surfer’s Corner.

There are many important architectural sights on this walk, as well as coffee shops, restaurants, books stores and antique and curio shops.

The legendary “Kalkies”, a wharf fresh seafood experience not to be missed, is en route. (They serve the best fish and chips in Cape Town, which is saying a lot!)

A Town in Need of Revitalization

As beautiful as this part of Cape Town is, it hasn’t seen as much development as some of the newer areas have in recent years. The town center of Muizenberg hasn’t changed much since I went to school there in the first and second grades in the eighties.

It’s still mostly the same shop-front complexes, pavilions, public facilities and a very long board walk.

Even the putt-putt (mini golf) course is exactly where it was.

Delayed Development

Despite all it has going for it in terms of history and natural scenery, sadly, some of the public amenities and even the town center itself is looking a little tired.

This area is seen by many to be the next big area for re-development in the city (cheaper renting prices) and a place young people want to invest in because it is still affordable.

However, with the recent economic set backs the whole world has been experiencing, Cape Town has taken a huge hit to its lifeblood tourism industry.

It seems that the development many had hoped for will be further delayed.

A Cross Continental Perspective

A world away from my original African homeland, in Taipei, I live a very different life than the one I grew up with. It’s a life where I can walk the streets safely after dark (even as a woman), and if I leave my keys in my bike, they will be there when I return.

The bike too 😉

I can’ t even begin to explain the differences between Asian and African cultures, but I do think that they could enrich one another.

I believe that a lot of governments in the world (and the south african government too), could learn a great deal from the way this country is governed.

And despite its problems there are things the world can learn from South Africa, too.

Why Design Matters to Me

I’m sure people become designers for all kinds of different reasons.

Since becoming a designer I have watched some outstanding TED talks and documentaries, like “The Third Industrial Revolution” on YouTube, which helped to shed some light on the big issues that we as a planet face.

I’ve listened to Bruce Mau talk about why saving the planet is a design problem.

It helped me to understand why I’ve always been interested in design.

Design for Change

group of children taking photo together

From learning about the built environment through design school (and no doubt because of my philanthropic background) I began to see the potential that design has to shape the world in a more positive way.

Beyond the built environment, simply using design thinking is a great start to tackling social inequalities; something that the Indian organization Design for Change has leveraged exceptionally well.

If you’ve never heard of it, Design for Change promotes teaching design thinking to school children and encourages them to find projects to tackle in their own communities using design thinking and technology.

Why South Africa Matters

My own parents are lifelong hippies who raised their children to believe that we could change the world.

Somewhere along the way, after I started my own family, that dream was forgotten for me for awhile. Mostly because I had to survive, myself.

However, I’ve always wanted to be able to find a way to give back to the country that has always been my truest sense of home, South Africa. A truly beautiful country with so many positive aspects for development, investment and quality of life; if only it can get beyond its dark past.

The reason this matters is because if countries like South Africa can find a way to change their trajectories the way Nelson Mandela believed we could, almost anything is possible.

No Easy Solutions

black metal fence on brown field

I personally understand the challenges that South Africa faces with social development (my parents have been working with NGOs in Africa since I was a child and I’ve done plenty of humanitarian work in the past), and I realize that there isn’t an easy way to fix the problems the country faces.

Many other developing nations find themselves in similarly disadvantaged positions, and they will all require uniquely designed, local, grassroots solutions.

I don’t imagine that an interior designer yapping about design is going to change anything necessarily.

I do, however, want to test a theory.

Maybe several theories.

Design as a Tool for Social Change

The idea with a virtual social project is to explore design as a useful tool for inspiring positive, measurable social change. The way to accomplish this is to focus on a specific need and use design to come up with possible solutions.

In my case, I would start with one large building of a similar scale to my final project in design school and examine the best use case scenario for it.

I would show the design process from start to finish, done remotely with my existing resources, and with the knowledge that I can acquire from the internet.

What does a virtual exploration show? It shows what is possible and creates a vision for a better future.

I’m hoping that in the future communities will be able to rally around design ideas for bettering their communities. The next logical phase after that is to start to look for sponsorship, and the means of bringing that vision to life.

Virtual Design Ideas

Those of you who are interested in the research, development and design side of projects feel free to follow this project and offer any suggestions or comments.

I will keep a link to all project reports on the front page of the site as well.

Example of a model used for my final project

This upcoming virtual project will be a large commercial building in Muizenberg, similar to the scale of the largest project I did in design school (a three-storey visitor center for tourists, above).

The big difference for me will be that instead of doing a ‘heritage building’ in my country of residence (Taiwan), as I did before, it will be a project in my homeland.

My first mission will be to figure out what this building could most ideally be used for.

Ripple Effects

Because we are designing for change, however, I can’t imagine that I will want to stop with one building when the project is completed.

When I’m finished I want to re-imagine what can be done around the building to lift the commercial hub, the infrastructure and the amenities, the streets and even the outlying neighborhoods and homes.

I don’t claim to have any answers, but I have always liked asking questions. I will be willing to ask the design questions about what it takes for the citizens of this historic town to live a good life.

Hopefully, I will discover some answers in the form of ideas.

And maybe even a few design sketches.

body of water near buildings

Positive Mindset

There’s probably never been a better time to consider the ways in which we might radically change the very real problems that humanity and our planet face than right now.

We have never had better tools.

Inspirational Icon

Elon Musk, a South African, has done a lot to inspire humanity in the right direction through his own personal initiative and example.

I’ve often wondered when he will turn his attention to places like South Africa, where he and I both grew up; to Cape Town, and towns that need some love, like Muizenberg.

For someone like Elon, these are not pressing problems, obviously.

When the threats our planet faces are so much bigger than healthy, vibrant and abundant communities, it can seem as though the scale of the individual isn’t quite as important.

I don’t think that’s the right message, though.

Trickle Down Vibes

It takes big minds like Elon’s to come up with the big, broad strokes that will get the planet on the right track, while those of us with smaller scope help fix the issues where we can, more locally.

man in brown jacket standing beside sea lion

My folks always taught me that the importance of living a good life was so that through our actions we could prove that it was possible for others.

Most people need to see it to believe it.

If all a designer can do is point people in the right direction, that’s already an excellent start.

In conclusion

While you will continue to find me blogging about all things fascinating interior design, trying to inspire more visionary people to become designers, and publishing my student diaries on Design Baddie, you will also find me working on this and other real projects.

Hey, I might even need some help with it.

The next installment of this series will be about project programming and research.

If you’d like to be kept abreast of this virtual “designing for change project”, please sign up to our mailing list! We’d love to have you on board.

In the meanwhile, thank you for reading, and happy world changing right where you are.

Let’s all design for change!

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Comments 1
  1. Great stuff Saskia… Look forward to the next step

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