How VR is going to change the world and 4 other things we learned from Design Indaba

WGSN just opened our first office in Cape Town, and last week I was lucky enough to be able to segue between amazing client visits and watch inspiring presentations at Design Indaba.

The conference is TED on testosterone–and estrogen–with over 47 speakers from 6 continents, from the greenest, brightest students to the most seasoned experts. In fitting with our Design Matters macro trend on WGSN, the leitmotif at Design Indaba this year was creating change for the greater good.

Out of hundreds of provocative ideas, here are 5 of the things I learned :

1. The grace of words can change the world.

 Naresh Ramchandani of Pentagram shared his love letter to words. Yes, words, not images. The man behind Ikea’s ‘Chuck Out Your Chintz’ TV advert and the infamous anti-war poster Make Tea Not War shared 8 of his favourite words. My favourite was, of course, « Home : a profoundly emotional idea. Four words create four walls around a safe space… In the middle of home there is « om », the place where you are most at peace ».

In highlighting another favourite word « Change » Ramchandani spoke of his work in the Do The Green Thing initiative: how screenwriters, authors and creatives can write sustainability and ecology seamlessly into the movies, books, advertisements and other media we all share.( It’s easy, I just did it…)

2. It makes more sense to look first to improving cities rather than fixing entire nations.

South African architect Thomas Chapman pointed out that, since Johnanesburg is the same size as New Zealand, and since it is slightly easier to deal with local issues rather than all of South African politics, he decided to first focus on change within cities. In his work, Chapman focuses on re-thinking heritage, turning old office buildings into affordable housing and on creating public space in township schools –those built during the apartheid era had no halls for group meetings. Chapman also proposes solutions to overcome the landscape barriers that were used to segregate people, like the mines of Johannesburg and the mountains of Cape Town. After his presentation, he introduced a surprise guest, jazz great Hugh Masekela who told an enthralled audience how music helped bring down barriers for him.

wgsn_design indaba-Hugh Masekela

Standing ovation : well-deserved.

3. Design is less about designing things than it is about designing life.

Like Ramchandani and Chapman, Hilary Cottam uses design as a tool for change, and she has bravely decided to tackle un-sexy issues like ageing and unemployment. As a pioneer in the field of social design, Cottam is basically redefining modern welfare, building systems that foster networks and relationships.

According to WHO, loneliness is one of the biggest killers of all: 1 person in 3 over 60 does not speak to another person in a week, 1 in 10 does not in a month. (note : call your grandmother !) So Cottam and her team got to the root of the problem and developed a programme in the UK called Circle, which uses digital tools to create real-time communities in London to get older people out and about and in contact with one another. After that, she tackled unemployment. After finding out that 8 out of 10 jobs are filled without ever placing an announcement and that many people do not have the networks to find these jobs, she and her team created Backr, which gets people together to form professional relationships offline. Backr has outperformed traditional unemployment services by a factor of 3. Go Hilary !

4. In the world of entertainment, we are returning to the shared tribal space, using AR and VR. And that just might change the world.

Storytelling with AR and VR will move us from a linear to a spherical narrative way of sharing stories, according to Alex McDowell, the genius who designed the world of Minority Report. He recently created Leviathan, a giant whale that appeared out of nowhere and swam through a theater at the Sundance film festival

In another project with marine biologist Sylvia Earle, McDowell will literally be showing showing us the Future of the Ocean : allowing us to « enter » the depths of the seas in full immersion using VR. We will be able to see how garbage collects, how the acidification of coral reefs is changing the oceans, and visualise how they looked in the past, present, and how they can look in the future. This is experiencing the plight of the oceans in a way that is visceral : it is entertainment and education all rolled into one.

5. You can play music with your gloves on.

 Imogen Heap Rocks. Really. This digital music wunderkind (who has just given birth to a kind of her own, featured in her latest song « Tiny Human ») also focuses on the non-linear. She sculpts sound with her voice, instruments both traditional and frankly unusual, and those gloves. Her stylish high-tech Mi.Mu gloves, which she has developed over the course of several years, allow musicians to compose and perform music through hand gestures, which not only opens up new kinds of music, but also enables new musicians. Heap is also creating a fair music ecosystem called Mycelia that allows musicians to track usage, own their data, and importantly make their money directly through a system of online distribution. A master of things technical, Heap nevertheless encountered her fair share of tech glitches on stage but the audience was fascinated by her sense of humour and determination, exclaiming at one point : « I am NOT going to let this song defeat me ! » Words to live by…

And to finish up this lengthy post, lets go back to Naresh Ramchandani’s definition of change, which is also a definition of Design Indaba :

‘We are makers of culture. We have magic in our hands. We put ideas into the public realm, and in a small way, or in a larger way, those ideas can be part of any Change we want to see.’


Imogen Heap photo credit: Fiona Garden

For in-depth reports on the future of design, how retailers are embracing design and the relationship between fashion and interiors, join WGSN.

Know what’s next. Become a WGSN member today to benefit from our daily trend intelligence, retail analytics, consumer insights and bespoke consultancy services.