Rory Williams is a Structural Home selector for the Better Living Challenge. A transport planner with 25 years of experience in analysing urban systems, Rory writes a weekly column for the Cape Times, The Man About Town, in which we were lucky enough to be featured.
Cape Times (Second Edition) 30 June 2014 – Page 8
The work I enjoy the most is work that explores new ideas or ways to solve an urban challenge.
Which is why I agreed to join the selection panel for The Better Living Challenge, a project run by the Cape Craft and Design Institute. Don’t be fooled by the name. The organisation is not just about handcrafts, and the challenge is a competition that addresses some of the longstanding issues faced by people living in the poorer parts of Cape Town.
Over the past week or so, we’ve each been evaluating some of the 130 entries submitted to the competition by students and designers and people who believe they have a good idea for a product or service that could improve living conditions. Some are about what goes inside the home, some are about the house itself, and others are about the things that connect people to the rest of the city.
The panel is constituted of a wide cross section of business people, architects, teachers, engineers, and others who can assess how well the projects submitted meet a range of criteria relating to sustainability, human needs, affordability, business prospects and social benefits. Our job is not to pick a winner, but to see which ones show the most promise for being developed as viable projects that can be rolled out at a scale that can make a substantial difference to many people.
Some of them will be showcased in October, when members of the public can vote on them. But even then, it’s not just about winning a prize. Certainly there is great value in being awarded support in taking an idea to market, as many of the people who submitted projects do not have the resources or the experience to do that. But the showcase will also be important in exposing other stakeholders to new ideas.
Some of the projects can’t be implemented in their current form because of regulations that govern things like how a house is designed, or the materials it is made of, or how water can be treated and recycled in a residential area. These limitations don’t mean the projects are a bad idea. On the contrary, they help push the boundaries of what is possible.
For that to happen, though, people who set the regulations need to see new possibilities; residents need to see and imagine new ways of living; and investors need to see how an idea might be applied. This puts a new spin on the notion of stakeholder consultation, as one panel member noted: funders, city officials, designers and people who construct projects all need to help determine what is viable and desirable as an outcome.
An entrepreneur and a graphic designer are not going to interpret the same projects in the same way, no matter how clear the judging criteria are. So on Saturday the panel discussed the scoring, and it was the kind of meeting that stirred interesting debate.
We were looking for innovative ideas, and we could have spent hours discussing the difference between innovation and novelty. Some technologies are not new, but the innovation is in how they can be developed and rolled out. In Cape Town, where there is no shortage of ideas for designing a better and more affordable house, identifying a new delivery mechanism could be a valuable contribution.
We addressed questions like whether we should be giving more credit for a locally developed solution in order to support the local design industry, or looking simply at improving quality of life regardless of the source. Or what if the idea sounds promising, but is not fully developed? Should the naïveté of inexperience be a good thing, valued for its unconstrained creativity, just waiting for someone to turn it into something practical?
And what of sustainability? Is wood a sustainable home building material, as some projects claim? It has its merits, like the ability of trees to absorb carbon from the air, and its avoidance of mining and energy-intensive processes. It also has its detractions, like high maintenance requirements and the use of chemical treatments that are banned in some other countries.
It was not our task to resolve such complex concerns, but we needed to be aware of some of the issues, and I certainly appreciated the chance to dig a little deeper. It’s all part of transforming the ways in which design can bring about better living.