How design can ‘change people’s lives’ is the topic of the year in Cape Town as the World Design Capital 2014 unfolds, and games are clearly a tool that awakens great interest. Despite a rainy night, a room full of people convened at the Department of Design venue on the evening  of 18 July to hear an expert on the relationship between participatory planning and play.

In the first Serious Fun event, visiting lecturer Dr. Alexandre Apsan Frediani from the University College London (UCL) shared fascinating insights about participatory design through play in an interactive session moderated Liza Rose Cirolia, from the ACC.

From social movements in Brazil to policy makers in South Africa, Dr. Frediani’s experience is extensive and varied yet with a single focus: ‘ to engage people in a different way’. He postulated the method of diagnosing, designing and dreaming together as a way to create the type of aspirational plans communities can genuinely own and carry out.

Asked by Cirolia how ‘change by design’ is different from the popular design methods which, particularly in Cape Town are often perceived as superficial, Dr. Frediani described his methodology as a hybrid between a process and a product-orientated approach – both of which in isolation often result in the flawed outputs or low hanging fruit which leave everyone unsatisfied. He emphasized how design can be an ‘entry point’ because of the skills it helps develop. From building a model or drawing a map to activating conversations about difficult issues, design can be a genuine social mobiliser by ‘unlocking imaginaries and thinking about the future’ he explained.

The different scales this work entails are a of reflection a city’s levels of complexity; however it became clear in the conversation that the neighbourhood (as a locality not necessarily a predetermined and delimited space) is the optimal until for participatory design. ‘Dwelling goes beyond the walls of your home’ he said and the overlapping space where structural processes and personal stories come together becomes the fundamental components to establish a link between city and individual stories.

When asked about an experience of irreconcilable differences, Dr. Frediani recalled an experience in Brazil working with a strong social movement in an informal settlement. The day before the exhibition was scheduled to take place torrential rains caused the entire area to flood. Reality check came quickly not only in the need to dramatically shift priorities and actions but the emergence of pre existing power dynamics. He explained how one voice dominated the process and led the entire group to choose a solution that contravened what the majority ultimately wanted. The lesson he highlighted was one of established principles and rules which ought to be respected no matter who the local partner is, but also how complex negotiating power relations can be.

The audience was clearly stimulated by this talk and probed a number of issues ranging from a greater detail of the actual game or ‘portfolio of options’ to the problematic nature of using this methodology in temporary housing settlements in places like Cape Town.

The game itself, a platform for free expression and imagination, allows participants to draw, plan jointly and then negotiate based on real-life constraints and legal boundaries. As Dr. Frediani put it, it s a co production in which the facilitators bring information, point out opportunities and to risks while encouraging the multiplication of ideas that can be put in practice.

Through additional tools like the “Web of Institutionalisation”, participants are also able to understand the dynamics of city structures and are encouraged to find new ways of implementing change. Indeed it is the paradigm shift, the challenging of ‘cliché’ solutions and the interrogation of adaptive preferences that encouraged members of the audience to embrace this methodology.

It is not a perfect model of course, and in situations of temporary settlement where the wrong message can be communicated, Dr. Frediani admitted using this methodology is a ‘tricky business’. He drew a parallel between the resistance amongst South Africans living under such conditions to formalise their living while in Brazil social movements find themselves in a position to stop people from ‘consolidating’ their living situations no matter how informal, as that reduces their bargaining power for new housing.The challenge, in that situation, he said is to find a way to ‘gain now that would not reduce our bargaining power in the long term for our imaginaries in the future.”

Layering serious and complex information with flows of information and ‘fun’ is the overall challenge Dr. Frediani put forward and one that has many scales and timelines in Cape Town. As he said, from the margins you can imagine alternative ways of doing things and it is there where the potential for true transformation lies.

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