The iF Design Foundation held four hearings on “The Future of Design Education”. One of them took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 23-25 February 2020 and was carried out in cooperation with the Greenside Design Center. 26 participants from eleven countries discussed issues such as the relationship between design and community. In this context, the concept of the Fire Starters Design School (of Empowerment) was developed. Designer and educator Onica Lekuntwane from Botswana participated in the hearing. Here, she explains the basic idea behind the Fire Starters Design School for the magazine of the iF Design Foundation.
Empowering communities through inclusive approaches to design education
“A nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.” These wise words by the first president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama (1921 – 1980), still resonate today – fifty one years after they were stated. This is because they do not speak to history alone, but to understanding that what we are doing now and what we want to do in the future, is informed by what came before.
Design and creative thinking are not new concepts. But when they are done right, they can ignite positive changes throughout the world. Design, throughout the African continent, remains a predominantly elitist concept that is mostly available to those with deep pockets and an appreciation of Western ideologies. In reality, creative problem solving is a daily occurrence within our communities, informed by wisdom passed down through generations of ‘informally trained designers’.
This is the motivation behind the Fire Starters Design School (of Empowerment) – a blended learning environment that not only brings together teaching methods, but consciously includes indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage to nurture flexible and community-led teaching and learning experiences. This inclusive design school recognises that the end user is not a homogenous consumer, but someone who wants to be emotionally involved in the process in order to reap the benefits of design (thinking). In order for this to be achievable, the school must be open to thinking differently – to burn some bridges in order to rise from the ashes of colonised creative thinking.
A school of this nature has to be flexible in order to truly achieve its empowerment objective. This means an overhaul of the conventional classroom culture as well as the uncritical ‘copy and paste’ culture made possible through accessibility to the World Wide Web. It must become acceptable that the educator could easily become the learner throughout the design process. The educator would therefore have to possess strong qualities like empathy, resilience, and behave responsibly as they espouse the idea of a community-led approach to problem solving.
It also requires accommodating different types of learners, from all walks of life – who bring a wealth of tacit indigenous knowledge to be blended with explicit knowledge both inside and outside the studio environment, in order to truly be inclusive. It also includes exploring the opportunities that variations such as neuro-diversity bring to the table – if the learner thinks differently, how do we integrate them instead of thinking for them?
Adopting this solution-based approach – where the learner is encouraged to equip the user for the task at hand – will ultimately spark changes to conventional methods of evaluation. The learner will therefore be assessed based on the system or process that they adapt, instead of the product – it becomes about working in collaboration to develop a firelighter that best suits the end user, availability of materials and environmental challenges, rather than how well one applies an ‘African’ design to a box of matches. To objectively evaluate such approaches requires an appreciation for an inclusive Fire Starters Design School approach, which will encourage an organic human-centred process that ignites a desire to think critically, create and connect collaboratively.
As designers and educators, we need to take on the responsibility to ensure that design resonates with the soul by being inclusive of local identities and contexts. It has to serve local communities best, before it is made ubiquitous and spreads like wildfire for the rest of the world to appreciate (and appropriate).