Design thinking and Ubuntu – a shared spirit of empathy


Africa’s first d.confestival – a design-thinking conference-meet-festival hosted by the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at UCT in October – brought together a boisterous mix of changemakers from business, from government, education and social development to celebrate the success of design thinking globally and explore its potential to harness Africa’s creative potential to solve complex problems across the continent.

For George Kembel, entrepreneur, educator, investor and co-founder of the Stanford d-school in the United States, design thinking has almost nothing to do with thinking as we know it.

“If you look at them,” he says, “most design thinking practices are invitations to a different way of being, a more embodied way of being — helping us to feel another person, to use our intelligence emotional to understand the needs it really matters.

For him, design thinking seeks above all to exploit empathy.

Kembel was one of the keynote speakers at this year’s d.confestival, held in October at the new HPI d-school building on UCT’s middle campus, one of the greenest university buildings in Africa.

Organized by d-school Afrika and the Global Design Thinking Alliance (GDTA), the conference-meet-festival hybrid event celebrated the global successes of design thinking while exploring its potential application in Africa. Emphasis was placed on the ability of design thinking to deliver value in an uncertain and volatile future. Will its experimental, iterative, creative and empathetic nature still work for solving complex problems in the complex world of tomorrow?

Design thinking and Ubuntu - a shared spirit of empathy

For some, the potential of design thinking, at least for Africa, lies in its spirit of empathy, which it shares with the African philosophy of ubuntu.

“Ubuntu offers design thinking a complementary perspective to examine teamwork and collaborative and participatory processes,” says Mugendi M’Rithaa, transdisciplinary industrial designer, educator, researcher and consultant, who also spoke at the conference . “By its very nature, Ubuntu seeks to build consensus.”

For Hoda Mostafa, director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, who facilitated a session titled Creative problem solving and innovation in cross-cultural contexts, design thinking is authentic and familiar to Africans. “It’s reflected in the way we tell stories, invite conversation and work together as communities.”

A one-of-a-kind event, d-convestival married the rigor of an academic conference with the raucous and interactive experience of a cultural festival, giving international innovators, design thinkers and business changemakers, government, education, and social development a new opportunity to experience the design thinking approach in an African context.

The d-school was officially opened at a gala reception on Thursday, October 13, with the unveiling of the plaque ceremony for the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika building. In attendance were the Founder of the d-school, Prof. Dr. Hasso Plattner, UCT Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, Director of the Hasso Plattner Afrika d-school at UCT Richard Perez, and Andreas Peschke, German Ambassador to South Africa. Once the formalities were completed, guests took to the dance floor to celebrate late into the night with house trio Mi Casa and DJ Rene The Frenchman.

“I am convinced that design thinking is the best mindset and the best tools for solving complex problems,” says Uli Weinberg, Chairman of GDTA and Director of the School of Design Thinking at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam . “Its implications for Africa are staggering, to conceive of what really matters on the continent.”

“It’s all about the students,” says Professor Hasso Plattner. “Whether they come from Cameroon, Nigeria or the suburbs of Cape Town, it doesn’t matter. The idea is that we can educate them to trust themselves that they can innovate.

Ralitsa Diana Debrah, a design educator and researcher at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, believes that design thinking, when introduced into African communities, will unlock local creative resources.

“Once we move this tool into local communities,” she says, “it will give us the ability to really solve local problems using untapped indigenous knowledge systems, a strength in the African context.”

It’s one of the many strengths of Paul Steenkamp, ​​founder and CEO of problem-solving consultancy Jack Frost, which can now be amplified and expanded through design thinking. “There is this opportunity to consolidate and recognize everything that makes us Africans,” he says, “and channel it into solving our biggest problems.”

Director of the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at UCT, Richard Perez says design thinking is incredibly effective and has significant potential to be scaled up in Africa precisely because it sounds familiar.

“And that’s essential if we on the continent are to respond to the challenges we face locally and globally by unleashing our collective creative potential using this ubuntu-like approach,” he said. “It seems natural.”

d-school Afrika is a member of GDTA, an alliance of 22 educational institutions dedicated to teaching, researching and developing design thinking methods and mindsets. UCT is also one of only three institutions in the world to have design schools. The other two are Stanford University in the United States and the University of Potsdam in Germany.


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