It is a thrill for me to see that my social innovation research project “Weaving the Threads” conducted with textile artisans in Cape Town is currently part of the show “CONVERGE: Processes and Outcomes of Social Design Practice”. The exhibition is curated by Fernando Carvalho and Prof. Michael Swoboda, featuring projects of artists, designers and architects from USA, UK, Uganda, Italy and Brazil. The show is held from 10th November to 11th December at the Meramec Contemporary Art Gallery, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, and we are now discussing the possibility to bring the exhibition to the UK in the next year.
To give you a bit of background, you may know that, as part of my PhD journey, I have conducted a participatory research project aimed to map the current state of the art of the textile artisanal sector in Cape Town, and co-design a strategy that could boost local sustainable development. I have chosen Cape Town as a good example of a textile manufacturing cluster, rich in material culture, with a design sector in rapid development, and a major income stream coming from artisanship, which, on the other hand, is challenged by deep social inequalities. Moreover, in the last decades most of the production has been outsourced due to economic issues, and not many fabric manufacturers are still active locally. Therefore, contemporary artisans struggle to find new supplies for their collections. On the other hand, this challenge has become a driver for starting up businesses around (screen or block) printing on locally available base cloth in order to differentiate products over local as well as overseas competitors. This challenge has thus turned into an opportunity for locally produced artisanal textiles, used both for homeware and apparel, leveraging an abundance of local design talent.
From April to June 2016 I immersed myself in a group of textile artisans in Cape Town, leading a participatory design process aimed to co-create a collaborative service to boost local sustainable development. At first, I played the role of a storyteller, unlocking tacit knowledge from the artisans’ work routines, interweaving their stories into compelling narratives, and making the intangible tangible through a storytelling photo-diary. I also acted as a design activist, an agent of alternatives, playing around the edges of the artisans’ realities to imagine what these could become. Co-designing a sustainable future with them resulted in a process of sensemaking, bridging from abstract visions for the future to contextually actionable realities. Throughout the process, I have learned that, in order to activate the messy and unpredictable process of change, I had to build agile collaborative and systemic collaborations with diverse stakeholders, working as facilitator, carrier of source of inspiration, and co-producer of innovation.
Overall, despite most of the innovation projects around artisans use a top-down ‘parachuting’ approach that does not grow or develop, the process I proposed is grounded on integrated knowledge and intervention within a context. Such an approach is not conceived as a prescriptive prototype or a model to direct change in people’s lives or to design a ‘known’ future. Instead, it activates an open and flexible process to inspire and trigger the capacity of local stakeholders to purposefully act in the present, while having a future orientation. I believe that the value of this approach lies in its drawing on situated knowledge of local stakeholders, engaging with the needs and aspirations of the artisans to develop resilient strategies towards a sustainable future.
As a follow up of the study, it was also interesting to me to acknowledge that the social innovation we co-designed may evolve in some other forms. For example, it was also thanks to the network of collaborations activated throughout my study, that I have been invited by fashion designer Celeste Lee Arendse to support MERGE ZA, a new-born initiative funded by the British Council to support a traveling showcase of contemporary South African fashion designers and bridge partnerships in the UK at the London Fashion Week 2016. Finally, I must sincerely thank Talita Weideman for welcoming me as visiting scholar at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT); Micah Chisholm, for accompanying me throughout my research journey and taking over my role after I left from Cape Town; all the students in Surface Design and Fashion Design at CPUT who have provided me with invaluable feedback on my pilot workshop; and all my South African friends who activated a chain of contacts allowing me to make this project happen. Special thanks go also to my supervisors Carolina Escobar-Tello and Val Mitchell from Loughborough Design School, for guiding my research, and to the AHRC Design Star CDT for financially supporting my study. Most importantly, I gladly claim shared ownership of this project with all the artisans and stakeholders who have collaborated with me, without whom all this would have not been possible. With my infinite gratitude for them to share their time, knowledge and enthusiasm for this research project, I wish this is just the beginning of a collective effort for crafting a sustainable future for the Cape Town artisanal fabric.
If you want to know more about this project, have a look at this short promotional video.
Till the next opportunity…