Naidoo’s company, Interactive Africa, was the creative agency behind the country’s winning bid for the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup. Over and above this, he directed or founded the following projects: the African Connection Rally (a continent-wide road show to promote telecommunications investment); the First African in Space Project (with Mark Shuttleworth’s foundation); the Cape IT Initiative (CiTi); and, perhaps most enduringly, the Design Indaba.
Intriguingly, he is a scientist by training, having studied physiology at the University of Cape Town. As a global guru in design, Naidoo suggests that such eclecticism is an asset. “I have always been an advocate for people being hybrids. I really think that knowledge is like energy: It can never be destroyed; it just transforms from one form to another. And really, I would have to tell anybody that you should have no remorse for anything that you study, because it will all be relevant at some stage or another.”
It is this spirit that has marked the Design Indaba as Africa’s premier festival of creativity. “Design Indaba is about ‘more is more’. We want to give you more inspiration; we want to give you more immersive experiences; we want to give you more examples. And I think that’s particularly important,” he says.
Since 1995, the Indaba has become an important fixture on the global creative landscape. At the heart of it is the sense of optimism and spirit of pioneering engendered by the dawn of democracy in 1994. The slogan of the festival underpins this ethos: “A better world through creativity”. This ambience of mission gives the event its educational sense.
The design entrepreneurialism that fuels the festival has led to its constant evolution. As Ravi explains: “We do believe that business models are perishable, and we do believe that we must constantly seek relevance and that we must constantly morph and change. So I believe in the kind of plasticity of what we do at Design Indaba. We feel more like sculptors with a piece of clay than we do as builders building a fat edifice. So it’s a completely different mechanism to how we approach Design Indaba.”
This means the event has never sunk into a kind of PowerPoint malaise. In fact, last year, world-renowned South African artist William Kentridge made a presentation that morphed into an opera. These kinds of presentations have seen the festival move to the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town for 2016, in order to allow for a broader canvas for the myriad design showcases. “And so we want to make this a kind of a Cirque du Soleil for the intellect; we really want to make it a beautiful, goose-bumpy experience, and we’ve asked all of our speakers to really push the stall out. Some of them are interacting around kinetic sculptures, some of their presentations morph into a concert, and yet others are doing the presentation in the form of a play,” says Naidoo, excitedly.
This constant widening of the concept means Design Indaba is no longer simply a conference or festival; it is a kind of collegial, broad-based movement for creatives. There is a film festival, the Emerging Creatives Programme, the Your Street Challenge, Africa.Now., as well as the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa endeavour.
“I think Emerging Creatives is one of our projects that we’re most proud of. Any designer of any consequence under the age of 35 in this country has been debuted in this programme since 2005,” says Naidoo. “We are giving it more attention than ever, and our attitude toward Emerging Creatives is not just about the exhibition—it’s about a through-the-year kind of commitment through seminars and workshops and facilitating scholarships. So the idea of the Emerging Creatives is way more than an exhibition; it’s really an institutional commitment from Design Indaba to be able to utilise all our limits to create a launch pad for young creatives.”
He is also intent on marketing African creativity to the world via the Africa.Now. Project. “Africa.Now. is going to be an absolute focal point of our work. We really want to be the pre-eminent platform in Africa for the African creative, and we’re working extremely hard on that. And we’re talking with a massive international publisher right now to produce the definitive coffee-table book on where African design is right now; we’re doing a flagship Africa.Now. exhibition right now in Amsterdam, and planning an even bigger one in 18 months’ time at another location. So, essentially, Africa.Now. has morphed into way beyond the three-day spectacle that was the Expo, to actually be a through-the-year commitment.”
One of Naidoo’s passions is taking the aesthetics of design to the streets. Two initiatives that do this well are the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa (MBOISA) and the Your Street Challenge.
“I think MBOISA is such an interesting thing, because it’s such a populous thing we do… We want to talk to the creative class, and we want to talk to all [economic] classes with a more egalitarian attitude, to infect as many people with the virus of creativity and what good design can do. And we ask a simple question of people in the public eye: simply, what to them is the most beautiful object in the country? It’s a provocative question; it’s one we ask with a glimmer in the eye and a little bit of a wink, because part of the test is to see what people consider to be beautiful.”
Meanwhile, the Your Street Challenge allows contestants to submit plans to design improvements to their neighbourhood and win funding to implement these designs.
Many of these programmes form part of the Do Tank stable of creative programmes for the common good. All in all, the “more is more” ethic is almost blindingly dazzling as it posits a way of creating that is seemingly limitless in its possibility.
Naidoo explains that his strategy for the holding company, Interactive Africa, is a document that consists of one word. “The word is ‘stretch’, and the stretch is to say to South Africa, to Africa: Have big, hairy, audacious goals; go for things that are really going to happen and have a multiplier effect. From a standing start, we now host the world’s biggest design conference—which is quite amazing, to think it takes place in Africa.”
This concept of stretching and reaching beyond the status quo is the chief ingredient of Design Indaba’s success, according to Naidoo. “I think that the most important aspect of Design Indaba is that it broke the mould of most of the creative events that tend to be very self-serving, only talking to the creative community. I think what Design Indaba has done quite well is to grow bridges between academia, the design practitioner, the creative commissioner, the commissioners and business and corporates, and even government—so when you come to any one of our events, it’s very well represented with a kind of cross section who can take advantage of design. And I think that is very important, because we believe design is such a vital tool: It’s relevant to all sectors of the economy and it’s not just something for the hipsters, it’s not something that resides in Woodstock. It’s something as relevant to Gugulethu and Khayelitsha as it is to Fresnaye. It’s a force in the economy, and we should really utilise it as part of the toolkit to face down the challenges of the 21st century.”
What he is proposing is almost a new kind of Marshall Plan for post-apartheid South Africa, with an unleashing of creativity and collaborative design as a vital weapon in reasserting a shared public commitment to the common good.
The continuous spinning out of new ideas; the evolution of a conference into a kind of communal movement; and the pursuit of “a better world through creativity” all combine to make Ravi Naidoo and Design Indaba true players in the quiet pioneering of an excitingly new postmodern South African economy.