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Design Indaba inspires us to take our cues from nature

by | Mar 2, 2020

Anyone working in sustainability is pondering the big question of how we can meet the growing demand for stuff without destroying the environment. If you attended Design Indaba 2020, you’d be feeling confident that answers to this question lie in nature. Borrowing, mimicking and respecting nature when looking for solutions were recurring themes throughout the conference. Here is a summary of some of our favourite speakers who put nature centre stage at Design Indaba 2020.

Lonneke Gordijn

Dutch artist Lonneke Gordijn of Studio Drift reminded us how incredible, beautiful and intentional nature is. By creating installations, experiential sculptures and performances, Lonneke’s work uses technology as a medium to reconnect us to nature, “to learn from the Earth’s underlying mechanisms and to re-establish our connection to it.” Lonneke had the audience mesmerized with her gentle delivery, and magnificent work which borrows from nature to explore the idea of life.

Elissa Brunato

A few hours before the audience was covered with plastic, non-recyclable party streamers to celebrate the end of indaba, Elissa took to the stage to tell us about the harm caused by conventional sequins. Most sequins that adorn our clothes are made from shiny metals,  commonly made of PVC plastic that contains toxic chemicals, harmful to workers and which pollutes the environment. Taking inspiration from nature, especially beetle shells which shimmer and shine naturally, she has leveraging the power of biotechnology and cellulose, an organic compound in plants, to create biodegradable sequins.

Natsai Audrey Chieza

The Zimbabwean-born bio-designer is preoccupied with building new futures and believes that answers to the big challenges we face can be found in nature. Natsai and her team at Faber Futures explore what can be created in collaboration with the living systems of nature: “Faber Futures exists to discover, explore and develop methods of working with bacteria, fungi and algae to grow sustainable materials, products and services”.  One of her projects is a bacterial dye for textiles. Using the soil microbe Streptomyces coelicolor, her studio has created a pigment that dyes fabric without the use of chemicals, and with minimal water consumption compared to industrial dyeing methods.

Vukheta Mukhari

Civil engineering master’s student Vukheta reminded us that nature has been designing for much longer than we have, and it continues to do so without creating waste. He believes biomimicry is the solution to our problems. Motivated to find a solution for the carbon-intense construction industry, Vukheta and a team at UCT (Suzanne Lambert and Dyllon Randall) invented a bio-brick using the chemistry between urine and Sporosacrcina pasteurii bacteria. The construction industry, he says, is responsible for consuming 40% of the planet’s energy and 12% of water, producing one-third of the carbon emissions and 40% of the waste”. Conventional clay and concrete bricks, according to University of Cape Town News, “require large amounts of energy whereas bio-bricks are made at room temperature and created by recycling ‘waste’ material through natural cementation processes.” The urine is collected from waterless urinals, the bacteria breaks down to form calcite which naturally cements sand particles. The by-product is fertiliser.

Bas Timmer

The Dutch fashion designer’s shelter suit was one of the most heart-warming projects presented at the Indaba. Bas was inspired to start Sheltersuit Foundation by a life-changing event caused by nature: The father of two friends died of hypothermia while sleeping on the street.  Made from upcycled and recycled textile waste, Bas has designed a waterproof and windproof suit, a sleeping bag cum jacket, to protect homeless people from the elements. This suit can be stored as a backpack when not in use. The materials are all free like sleeping bags left behind at music festivals, donated tent fabric and Porsche seat belts. To make up the bags, Bas hires refugees at a social sewing studio in Holland. “My goal is to keep everyone in the whole world warm,” he says. To achieve this, he has partnered with organisations in Holland, Lesbos and Sarajevo who help distribute the suits to people who need them. He has adapted the Sheltersuit for warmer climates – these are called Shelterbags. He doesn’t propose that his suit is a longterm solution to the problem of homelessness, but it does provide an interim protection to the elements. In Cape Town, Bas has partnered recently with the NGO and homeless shelter, The Ark where the suits are made in a sewing studio.

Kathryn Larsen

Bio-based designer and architectural technologist Kathryn has developed seaweed thatch with the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction industry. Fascinated by vernacular architecture, Kathryn focussed on seaweed houses of Læsø, and on eelgrass as a Danish building material for her degree dissertation. Her Seaweed Thatch Reimagined uses built prefabricated seaweed thatch panels for use on roofs and facades.


On a slightly different note: 

Sho Madjozi

Sho Madjozi’s electrifying musical performances do way more than entertain. She has used her musical creativity to make her Tsonga culture a hot topic. She uses the traditional skirt, Xibelani, that women wear to accentuate their natural shape, as a medium for her storytelling. According to Wikipedia, “Xibelani typically refers to the dance style while the skirt itself is referred to as ‘tinguvu’, however, the term Xibelani”  is sometimes used to refer to both the dance and the skirt.” By exploring its heritage, she protects and sustains her heritage. Sho adds a modern-day layer of dignity to the making processes of the skirt and its cultural meaning. She doesn’t believe in preservation for preservation’s sake. “Culture is preserved by living it,” says the performer. Sho is making a documentary about the Xibelani, many of which are made from upcycled materials, like the mielie bag, or saka.

In conclusion, we have to say: 

Over 2000 people gathered in Cape Town last week for the 25th Design Indaba emitting tons of carbon emissions and using single-use plastic, like the “currently not recycled” lunch packaging, balloons and silver streamers released at the end of the conference. At a time when business-as-usual is unsustainable, some things didn’t change….  If the Design Indaba is a space for imagining a better future, can we imagine a #DI2021 without single-use plastic and offsetting or insetting flights?

That said, we loved DI2020. We’re left with lots of things to ponder. Thank you.

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