Conference Paper

Design Praxis in a post-Rainbow Nation City: a reflection on the limits & opportunities of spatial design led service learning in South African cities

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Abstract

Over the last few decades the discourse on the relationship between inter-stakeholder university engagements, or Service Learning, and the broader society that South African universities claims to serve has been deeply discussed by academia; the inherent problematics within the power structures, the challenges of achieving mutually beneficial project outcomes and the growing concern of vulnerable voices being overshadowed by institutions and individuals are key factors identified in this arena of critique. Less nuanced in these debates remains a recognition of these dynamics within the emerging field of Design Research and Design-Led Research that have met a steadily commercialisation of ‘design’ in global markets. This is seen in the rise of acclaim by the commercial market for groups such as IDEO and Stanford who remain paragons of the ‘socially-driven’ or ‘economical’ potential of design approaches to address complex societal challenges. Regarding design-led Service Learning, schools and institutions of Architecture and Design across the globe have a rich history of undertaking service learning design and/or build projects as a means of creating value and learning for both students and the stakeholders of such projects. These projects, too, have seen the critique of the above-mentioned academic discourse – but in South Africa are just starting to be unpacked through a ‘post-rainbow nation’ lens, as previously marginalised voices are starting to be recognised and find traction in learning and practices spaces across South Africa. This paper will reflect on the author’s experience with emergent voices and reflexive concerns as a researcher, lecturer and spatial design practitioner in Johannesburg. The paper will set the context for this type of learning regarding city-making in Southern Africa and outline two case studies undertaken by the author and his collaborators. The reflection will conclude by a framing of the identified limits inherent in the promise of design as well as a speculation on the opportunities for growth and reflection for the author and those in similar positions of praxis. The framing of the identified limits and opportunities has been used as a means of tempering critique with a constructive and proactive reflective framing of the issues – a praxis that is currently being developed by the author as a means of working responsibly through the intersectional complexity of post-rainbow nation South Africa.

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... The temporary nature of student inputs raises challenges for the staff managing this process (Bennett, 2018a). At the same time, the emphasis of service learning on accreditation may prevent a holistic response to local needs (Bennett, 2018b). This points to the need for more radical redesign of teaching and an emphasis on 'un-learning' negative practices, as well as developing more positive approaches. ...
... He feared that academics may hold up processes of learning, because local leaders believe that they come with solutions. The example highlights the need for the 'unlearning' of some professional practices (Bennett, 2018b). ...
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