See the evil, hear the evil, speak the truth.
22 November 2014 10:36 (South Africa)
South Africa

Talking township trash

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa
rebecca khaelitscha

The idea is simple: you take a seemingly intractable social problem, and bring together a small group of intelligent, motivated individuals from different sectors to discuss what can be done to solve it. This weekend saw the first Cape Town Design Storming Session take place in Khayelitsha, with the issue on the agenda the very real problem of waste removal from informal settlements. By REBECCA DAVIS

It was Sunday afternoon in Khayelitsha, and around 50 people were gathered under a large tent earnestly discussing rubbish. They were mind-mapping, sketching, using iPads to research online. Nobody was billing these hours: they were there voluntarily as part of a new project, a collaboration between the Cape Town Design Network, Creative Cape Town, and the Social Justice Coalition.  

The idea of ‘Design Storming’ grew out of the ‘hackathons’ which have been taking place in the IT world since the mid-2000s, where computer programmers come together for short periods of intense collaboration on software projects. The Cape Town Design Storms aim to take this concept and apply it to brainstorming on social issues. 

“Really, the idea was created out of necessity,” explained Cape Town Design Network’s Michael Wolf, who was also involved in the bidding process for Cape Town to be the World Design Capital in 2014. “Our bid was based around the notion that we would use design to transform lives, so we wanted to create a format to allow designers to engage with the basic issues of our city.” The Cape Town Design Network already has a database of designers, and they decided to involve NGOs that could identify prominent social problems and could also serve as liaisons to the communities involved.

“The key idea is to create this connection between designers, the issues, and the communities involved,” said Wolf. When they put out a call for participants in the first Design Storm, the response was extremely positive – in fact, they ended up with a waiting list of 50 people. They hope to run the Design Storms every three months, with the next one taking place in September.

Each Design Storm will see a collaboration with a different NGO, who will be responsible for deciding on the issue to be focused on and drawing up a ‘problem statement’ to help guide the brainstormers. For the inaugural Design Storm, it was up to the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) to identify a problem to be solved. They settled on the issue of waste removal in informal settlements.

“The situation is not working as it should,” says SJC researcher Axolile Notywala. This is an understatement. Inadequate refuse collection is a problem which exacerbates the spread of disease, the blockage of sewerage systems, and the proliferation of rats – the SJC cites a Khayelitsha-dweller whose infant daughter was first bitten on the face by a rat at the age of six months.

The problem is partly attributable to non-performance on the part of the service providers contracted by the City, and partly to “an absence of a sense of ownership” of the issue on the part of community members, says the SJC. There are also substantial practical impediments at work – throughout Cape Town’s townships, shipping containers are used as receptacles for rubbish in the absence of household wheelie-bins, but these are often located far from houses, are locked in the late afternoon and often remain shut for days, causing refuse to build up alongside. Because they have to be situated in areas convenient for collection by waste removal companies, they are also often located close to communal water sources – and the subsequent contamination is implicated as a contributing factor to Khayelitsha’s shockingly high infant mortality rate.

It’s a thorny problem, and one to which the group of 50 Design Storm participants sat down over a total of 12 hours to bash out potential solutions. Wolf estimates that 50% of the participants were involved in the design world, with the remainder made up of community representatives, social entrepreneurs, activists and academics. They were divided into four small groups to tackle the problem, after first being given a detailed account of the issues from community members.

By late Sunday afternoon, brainstorming time had run out and the groups were due to present their proposals. Outside the Design Storm tent, it was a sunny day in Khayelitsha, and shrieking children spun merrily on a nearby roundabout. Inside the tent, participants huddled under heat lamps in front of a screen to air their ideas on how best to tackle the township’s waste problem.

The first group to present suggested that all types of plastic bags should be acceptable for rubbish collection, not just the officially sanctioned industrial blue bags. Trolleys could be used by community members employed for this purpose to transfer rubbish to shipping containers, which would be closed off to rats but include doors which you’d use to slide in the trolleys. Recycling bins could be built into the containers, and incentives for recycling might include transport tickets or airtime vouchers. 

Since the shipping containers are so central to the township, they continued, why not transform them into bona fide community centres, lit by solar panels as a crime deterrent or emergency gathering place? The role of contracted service providers should be minimised, they felt, with funds deriving from recycling to be used to employ more community members towards waste management.

The second group took a less ambitious view. They felt that the signage on the bins was a critical factor, as a “small yet important step”. They suggested that the shipping containers be used as a canvas on which to display information – pictorial and in Xhosa – giving safety advice, information on how the waste collection system should be working, and a clear notification of how to report breakdowns in the system, possibly via SMS.

The third group was also keen on the idea of an SMS network to report system malfunctions, also in order to create a data map in order to identify problem areas. They wanted to see the township divided into nodes of 20 houses or so, with an individual appointed as caretaker who would be employed to remove refuse in that area. This group supported the idea that the shipping containers become public areas, suggesting that flip-up benches could be installed to serve as a bus shelter. These changes could be subsidised by selling corporates space on SMSes, they suggested.

The final group to present their ideas felt that it was more feasible to focus on using existing infrastructure: “If it’s an informal situation, we can’t over-formalise the solution”. They wanted to see the shipping containers removed and a wheelie-bin system implemented similar to that at work in the rest of Cape Town, with rubbish collection de-centralised. They suggested four wheelie-bins deployed to each area, which could be plugged into each other “like Lego blocks” to form a bank which rubbish trucks could easily pick up. These four-bin hubs could in turn plug into bigger hubs – a battery of wheelie-bins which would replace the shipping containers.

All four proposals will be taken away to be “revised and tweaked”, according to Wolf, and will be published open source on the Cape Town Design Network website. When one idea is agreed on as being most promising, it will be up to the SJC to turn it into a proposal to take forward to the City of Cape Town for consideration. “I think quite a few of them could improve the situation,” says Notywala. “The City says they are looking forward to the ideas we’ll be putting forward because they know we have a problem.”

You may argue that some of the ideas are impractical or undesirable – the idea of building community centres around a rubbish dump, for instance, seems far from ideal. Wolf stresses, however, that the sessions are aimed mainly at “identifying the scope of the problem and having a quick stab at solutions” – any concrete proposal will likely require quite a bit more work. In future Design Storm sessions, it might also be desirable to see a greater proportion of participants drawn from the affected community.

Nonetheless, there is something undeniably inspiring about seeing volunteers willing to give up their weekends to work on a project of this nature. “It proves that people really are ready to invest their time pro bono,” says Wolf. “People want to get involved to change things.” DM

Read more:

  • Design Storming: Igniting change with collective imagination, on Cape Town Design Network website

Photo: The unaltered shipping containers used for refuse collection in Khayelitsha (Social Justice Coalition)

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa


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