MANY CAN DREAM UP GREAT IDEAS, BUT AN IDEA is nothing until it’s realised, be it as a website, a physical product, an app or a user interface. Being design-led means designers take ideas from the abstract to the concrete, from potential to real value. Yet we still need to protect the value of how these ideas take shape. That asset is intellectual property (IP). Silicon Valley powerhouse Apple undoubtedly cashed in on that design value and many newcomers are doing so too. Uber and Airbnb, for instance, are little without design thinking. We are in the midst of a renaissance of design and need to choose the right path to secure its value.
Why the link between the recent design renaissance and Africa’s surge isn’t made more often is odd to me. African designers are on the rise globally. Africa’s new design is created by cosmopolitan designers who eclipse traditional limits. They are grounded in African heritage but are exposed to international aesthetics, allowing them to satisfy local demand, attract international attention and shape new African identities. Outside of exporting contemporary African iconography, there seems to be another type of successful African design approach on the continent — one that fuses indigenous knowledge and modern technology. This approach often makes the designs cheaper, more sustainable and easier to adapt locally. The architect Francis Kéré is a good example of such an approach, in his own words: ”innovating with mud” based on traditional techniques from Burkina Faso.
One challenge facing this indigenous design approach is how to protect the IP. On the continent such IP is traditionally considered collective to the community and not private to individuals or groups. IP laws today are ill-suited for protecting such knowledge because they are usually based on western norms such as individual rights and commodification,
strictly considering the commercial use of knowledge. Indigenous knowledge has been built and passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. Folkloric knowledge, rituals and collective inventions are often passed on by elders. The bearers of traditions, elders, let alone the dead, have little significance in IP law as seen by western scholars. It must be new, original, innovative or distinctive to qualify for protection. These requirements make it difficult for indigenous design developed with a sense of timeless community to qualify for protection.
Another issue of concern for design protection on the continent is obviously the prohibitive costs of registering and defending the IP. This does not favour young African entrepreneurs. Also, IP is difficult to protect on the continent because of limited judicial cooperation between the different economic zones. There is a definite need for revisiting existing IP Laws to allow for adequate design protection in an African cultural context — indigenous or not.
The idea of appellation systems for wine terroirs might be the closest western concept that could be adapted. A terroir’s crops have qualities. These environmental qualities are said to have a character that can be protected by an appellation system. Appellation systems, such as the French AOC systems, for instance, have developed around the concept of ‘unique wines from unique areas’. We need to explore how the concept of appellations for terroirs best translate into design patents for indigenous design practices.
Judging the value of design in today’s business environment, you can’t just think Silicon Valley, Scandinavia or such.
The rising cost pressures on the BRICS economies and manufacturing sectors will increasingly lead to manufacturing capacity and design capabilities relocating to lower-cost African economies. This trend is likely to create giant entrepreneurial opportunities and be a driving force of an African manufacturing and design revolution. Africa also grows because of design. Imagine M-KOPA Solar Systems without design thinking — you can’t. Africans are dreaming up great ideas and are realising them one by one.