Building SA through design

by Tania Wannenburg
Made in SA Jnl 7 15

Design is the catalyst needed to activate the successful execution of the different national plans and systems.

The challenges facing South Africa are many and varied. To meet these challenges head on, South Africa has to become a stronger competitor in the mainstream global economic arena. The country also needs to increase its market share to address the national priorities of job creation, poverty alleviation and skills development.

The vision to grow our economy is captured in different national plans and systems, such as the National Development Plan, the Industrial Policy Action Plan, the System of Innovation and the Innovation Plan 2018. However, not one of these plans has been able to bridge the innovation chasm that exists in our country.

FLOORS in Africa met with Gavin F Mageni, Head of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) Design Institute on Innovation and Capacity-building Interventions, to identify the challenges facing local business in South Africa while offering practical solutions that the flooring industry can implement. “Design is the catalyst needed to activate the successful execution of the different national plans and systems and to increase all elements of the nation’s competitiveness,” says Gavin.

In the more than 40 years of championing innovation, the SABS Design Institute has seen ideas save time, earn money and become real-life solutions that have created jobs for our economy. At the Design Institute they nurture ideas, analyse them, grow them and then shape them to fit the application at hand. In other words, they make ideas happen – empowering the next generation to design the future.

Some of the questions we posed to Gavin Mageni:

In this context, what does design refer to?

The principle of design is simple and prompts two simple questions: Are there potential users? and What are they looking for? The idea of design together with our ability to create something ourselves is absolutely critical. If you look at our economic landscape, you will see a constant state of youth unemployment, yet we create so many infrastructure projects that only offer temporary jobs. This is why we need to start looking at the commodities we export and focus on the produce that can be manufactured locally and how these can be capacitated.

What is the current status of local business?

Much of South Africa’s foreign trade consists of exporting raw materials, and then we import the finished product containing the raw materials that we had originally exported. We may not have an economy in the next 20 years if this is the trend we are going to follow. I don’t think people understand the economic capacity that we truly have. This became very obvious in 2008 when the word ‘design’ disappeared from the national System of Innovation. Billions of Rands are spent on research and PhD dissertations, however this accrued intelligence does not lead to economic activity. The disappearance of the word ‘design’ implies that these dissertations were never supposed to translate into anything innovative. So we call it an innovation when it might very well be an invention. It may look good on paper but it’s still just an idea. In the end, the only questions I ask are: Is it made locally? Is it marketable? and How many jobs does it create? The answers to these questions are what truly matters.

Why manufacture locally when in some cases it is more cost-efficient to import products?

When it comes to the concept of local manufacturing, people have the tendency to look at immediate costs, but we need to understand the future economic benefits; the ultimate return on investment, the extended value of, for example, paying R10 more in South Africa to secure more jobs; and additionally, the money that goes back into the fiscal. This brings us to the notion of our not being proud enough to support local design because, if we were, we would see the price value and not choose the cheaper imported product. We have become extremely closed in our thinking and ultimately, at the end of the day, South Africa has lost the ability to create. Our economy was previously characterised by craftsmanship and our ability was to fully export manufactured goods. Even the national System of Innovation should stop spending money on business that will never translate into equity. We get fooled in this utopia that many ideas will make money, and the youth entrepreneur is taken to a place where he is given false hope, and this is wrong. If someone comes to the Design Institute and there is no market for their product, they cannot be assisted any further and they should be adult enough to handle it.

How do you determine whether there is a market for a product?

At the Design Institute, we firstly test market feasibility and only then do we start looking at potential user groups. We make sure that the first level of intelligence is not merely functioning around an idea, but rather on the functionality of application in the market. If we cannot identify a niche for this specific aspect, then we can safely say there is no market. Design is not a lateral process, it’s a spiral process. You constantly have an inward focus on functionality and fit-for-purpose design. For example, if you go to the shop and purchase a black knitted piece as opposed to the pink alternative, it reveals something about one’s psyche. We need to recognise and understand this.

It goes back to business basics: Is there a demand for what I supply? People get lost in the idea phase and then billions of Rands are spent on prototyping before they realise that this product can’t even be tested as there is no market, or it is not suited to South African conditions. We spend so much money on importing something that isn’t fit for South African conditions. What is fit for our environment? Remember that climatic conditions are not the same and the market demand is not the same. We compromise on quality and we expose our people to designs that are not even fit in terms of quality, and don’t even go through SABS.

The flooring industry, as in other industries, sees local companies importing sub-standard products at much cheaper rates. What advice do you have for someone who runs a decent company and manufactures according to SABS standards, but compete against these companies that import at a far cheaper rate and don’t even go through the necessary testing? End users don’t always know the difference between product A and product B. They purchase product B because it’s cheaper and seems to fulfil their needs, especially on a construction project.

It’s all about education. We have become so conditioned to believe that any imported product is automatically superior to local products. We assume because it’s international and someone else is bringing something in that it is a better option. As an agency and a shareholder in the dti, we have the ability to influence government’s thinking when it comes to the tiers of education and starting with the basics. Let’s go back to the government procurement value chain itself. Government is one of the biggest procurers. I don’t understand why we would then select a supplier from, for example, China. It makes no sense, especially if you have economic challenges at home. If we take a young entrepreneur that produces products to standard in South Africa, by importing we are pushing this person out of the market because we opt for cheaper. This narrow-minded approach where we save five cents on the imported product transpires in a loss of 50-million Rands’ worth of future jobs. We don’t create or support industries locally, not understanding that these local industries can have a social economic impact that stretches beyond the five cents.

What advice would you give the flooring industry?

There is definitely a place for companies that import quality products. They in turn support economic growth as not everyone can and should manufacture locally. However, on the local side, my hope is to get just one person to pass on the message, just one person to understand that we need a local revolution for local design and local manufacturing. As a family man, my advice would be to stop thinking about ‘me’. Think about your children and your children’s children. We are sitting in trusted positions but we tend to think about “the me and the now”. We are busy killing our next generation because we are busy supporting other communities. If you look at 2008/2009, the world saw South Africa, with our financial systems largely protected, as the next big economy, however, fast forward three to four years down the line… The Americans immediately jumped on the concept of local design and local manufacturing, which has brought them a more stable foundation for economic growth. South Africa has gone through this exercise; we have seen what can happen – i.e. growing an economy that will create jobs for future generations.

What role should government play?

When we talk about industrialisation in South Africa, we need to find out how government can invest to make sure that they provide and support the infrastructure for local manufacturing. When you’re an entrepreneur, you are playing your part in supporting the economy. I cannot expect that entrepreneur to start, for example, a local carpet manufacturing business all on his own, which is why the government is supposed to be there to help with infrastructure development. The question arises, “How do I go about getting government involved?” People feel like government is this big thing and you can’t gain access to them or assistance in starting a company. That’s the reason why we do what we do, as we are not government-driven. Agencies such as ours exist to smooth over the process.

What role does the Design Institute play in overcoming these challenges and providing effective solutions and strategies?

The Design Institute is a division of SABS which is 70 years old this year. The concept of quality underpinned by local design is crucial, which is why in 2012 we decided that the Institute needed to relook its focus. We decided that it should become a space where local design and local manufacturing becomes the next big thing. We now look at developing new ideas through the formulation of business models, as we remember in the past it used to take anybody 10 to 20 years just to speak to the right person.

The question that should be posed is, How do I get this idea into a tangible product that is underpinned by government support? This is the agency’s purpose. We created a one-stop hub which required us to expand our role, so if someone walks in here, their ideas get developed, which then goes through to the formulation of the product, and is marketed in one go, taking between six to 18 months, provided there is a business case for it. We don’t do training, we do impactful intervention. The only thing that differentiates one person from another is what they are selling and the power of their brand. You need to do a competitive analysis. Our process is to stop throwing money at stuff that won’t work. We carry out a case study and decide whether we invest or not. People do not understand the power of brand market capitalisation. The Institute distinguishes between an innovator and an inventor and looks for trans-discipline products. In fact, 70 new products have been introduced to the market in just 12 months.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter the flooring industry?

Go to the hub and tap into the existing knowledge that is in the industry. We aren’t looking for someone who just wants enough to get by. This is why we analyse their business model – it needs a business prospect for the future – not just in and out, here today gone tomorrow. We deal with the creative designer/entrepreneur in person. Someone with an attitude of entitlement won’t work. We can’t be selfish about the future and just think about ‘me’, we need to think about our children and the economy. We have become complacent. Ask yourself: When do I get to the point where I start creating things and start protecting my business and the economy?

Get in touch with the Design Institute at www.design.sabs.co.za; telephone 012 428 6326 or email design@sabs.co.za

Acknowledgement and thanks go to Gavin Mageni for the information contained in this article.

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