Kairos 22.1

Cape Town


The initial vision for the Fiscilla research project began within the CPUT design faculty whose initiating question was how to engage participation from local communities in sharing their stories of climate change and its affect on their everyday lives. The project was funded by a research collaboration between South Africa and Norway, called C-CLIMA-Futures, and was in response to an invitation to participate in the 13th International Participatory Design Conference in Windhoek, Namibia.

We proceed here by describing the design process of a "semi-fictive" artifact (Morrison et al., 2010) which evolved from its initial design and construction in the studio, through to its role of mediating the story-gathering journey.

The title for the design brief was "Quest for Fire, Water, Earth and Air," which became the rallying call across the design faculty to invite students to take part in what was described as "an inter-disciplinary, participatory interaction design bus and art installation reflecting climate change concerns through elemental and human connectedness." A multidisciplinary student cohort comprising 28 industrial, surface, and graphic design students of varying nationalities responded.

During the preliminary briefing in the design studio, students were tasked with identifying an appropriate symbol of climate change. On selection of the final concept, they were required to develop an installation destined to engage delegates in a physically constructed message. The installation needed to satisfy the dual aim of generating conversation with local communities experiencing resource-scarcity en route to Namibia, and in turn, engage delegates at the conference with the stories gathered from the participating farmers, fishermen, and farmworkers who live close to the prevailing environmental conditions.

As educators involved in designing and preparing the nomadic learning experience, we were very aware of the fact that because the project was to be an unevaluated, elective learning event, there was a need to invite students in a provocative way into a visionary, imaginative, and conceptual space. Beginning with the actual descriptor or title of the project, the tone was set and proved effective in attracting those receptive to the challenging, interesting proposal through which they could satisfy what could be described as their untapped creative expression. The obvious connection to the four elements powerfully and directly promised creative expansion of vistas and opportunities for imagination to stretch in a landscape understood as out there—different to the everyday and the expected.

In order to engage design students with the issues of climate change related to sustainability as a socio-economic reality, the project, in its name and nature, instantly grounded students in the reality of the situation. The scene was set for the design project to evolve as we problematized, responded to, and iterated the conceptual, material, design, and logistical aspects of the task. This is reminiscent of Donald Schön’s (1988) description of design being a reflective conversation with the materials of the situation and Henry Mainsah’s (2014) challenge to broaden our framing of what constitutes the materials of any designing situation to include wider symbolic processes.

Over a two-week period, amidst commitments to other course modules, the multi-disciplinary group of design students collaborated in smaller teams to develop various concepts for an art installation which would engage participants in farming and fishing communities along the west coast of southern Africa. On presentation of the maquettes, a large Tigerfish (a keystone species symbolizing the fragility of a species under threat by human activity) was selected as having the best potential to engage participation from disparate audiences during the journey and at the conference destination. It was agreed after deliberation that the fish installation would be partially built in Cape Town and would creatively evolve during community workshop processes on the journey to its final exhibition at the conference in Windhoek.


          Two images depict students designing Fiscilla. Left students are gathered around a table that includes design plans and a computer; right students are in a workshop where the ribs of the tigerfish can be seen.        
From the start students became committed to the project despite its challenges, with the prospect of traveling toward engaging people in conversation about climate change.

The fish was designed with two contrasting sides representing life on one side and death on the other and would have to be structurally sound enough to be towed on an open trailer during the round-trip of 3,566 kilometers over 13 days. Much emphasis was placed on the design of appropriate message-bearing aesthetics, the sourcing of sustainable materials, and structural integrity. Many skills were incorporated, and soon a core group of the most committed students was hard at work.


          Images depict the process of students fabricating the tigerfish. Left students stand around a steel frame (one student wears welding goggles); right a close up depicts the head of the tigerfish mounted within a wooden cage with wood clamps.        
Decisions on materials centered on those sourced from renewable or pre-used resources. The steel cage was destined for re-purposing. The Tigerfish was designed for disassembly and upcycling.

Setting off

At dawn on the day of departure, while waiting for the full complement of travelers to arrive in the parking area in front of the university, there was a feeling of subversiveness amongst colleagues. If it wasn’t for previous deviations from the more typical curriculated program, we would have been feeling more apprehensive, but as we glanced at one another we could sense the trust and mutual support to carry this experiment forward. We’d had enough past experience in setting up these kinds of “pedagogically charged orchestrations” (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 38) with our students to know that interesting things happen when leaving the bounds of the campus and its design studios.


Up in the air

There’s no denying that involvement in a project of this kind presented an element of risk. One of the biggest challenges was to bring students together from three different design disciplines into a project that was being undertaken in addition to their busy course work. Student reflections on the early phase revealed both a sense of the high stakes involved, as well as the trust they had placed in staff and the unfolding process.

Hafizah, a student with a shy temperament and one of only three graphic designers on the project, explained her initial fears: “In the beginning I was worried, am I going to let the team down? Am I going to just be that person that’s going to do nothing or think you’re going for a free ride? I don’t want to be that person, I want to do something, even if it’s the smallest thing, I want to be part of the team...”

Her concerns about a perceived lack of relevant skills became evident as she admitted to feeling uncomfortable, wondering if she would "fit in"—but deciding that the journey was "worth the gamble." Even the fear that she could fail her fourth year was set aside, “as scared as I was, I felt I was going to learn more… going out and being around everyone.”

Khanya, a confident student who had recently begun industrial design studies at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) expressed her reservations when reflecting on the start of the project saying that she “didn’t see it happening...everything was up in the air...I wasn’t really sure.”

Corbin, who had grown up in Lambert's Bay and had helped to invite fishermen and farmers from the community to participate in our first workshop, was more upbeat and spoke excitedly of how the fish, weighing over 400kg, would need many helpers to lift it onto the trailer that would transport it on the long journey.

A speculative leap

A contribution emerging from the analysis of this data indicates that students are willing to speculate and participate with just enough conviction that their investment will be worthwhile in the long run. They recognize the value of challenging their worldviews by experiencing the unknown. A sense of the student community is emerging, and even though there are expressions of doubt about the conceptual nature of the project and that the multi-disciplinary element is unsettling for some, there is enough motivation for them to commit to the journey.

Design is intensely speculative in the way that its process and outcomes offer alternative future possibilities for society to engage with in the form of products, services, or systems. In looking forward, this project began as it would continue, as an intensely collaborative process of students and staff imagining the brief, establishing joint goals, planning and conceptualizing, and building together. The aim of engendering public debate became more important than facts and knowledge, and in this way a design imaginary would be introduced into the lives of people in order for us to follow how these imaginations shaped their activities and thoughts (Koskinen et al., 2011). Students across the three departments channeled their skills into this preparatory phase of the build, and the desert fish started to take shape in readiness for its epic trip north.



Here we lift up the notion of learning spaces that need to induce capacities in design students that dispose them toward exploratory, speculative, and multi-disciplinary design work. The Discussions section reveals that students display characteristics of adaptability in their self-organizing around the needs of the project. Interesting to note is how their personal sense of identity and agency emerged at the outset, and throughout the project—beginning with their choice of walking an unknown path and motivated by the perceived value of participation.

In this phase of the journey we see explicit mention by students of the unsettling nature of working with other disciplines on campus, especially by the surface and graphic design students. They saw the project as mainly intended for industrial design students because of perceived and physical boundaries within the design school. The shifts in behavior to overcome these disciplinary limitations are evidenced by the students’ ability to self-organize around individual capacities as they identified their various contributions during the speculative conceptualizing and build phase. Integrating and networking between people from different design disciplines, their tools and technologies (Gee, 2008) would become a hallmark of this project. Educators revealed that they felt affirmation for choosing to run the project as a transdisciplinary endeavor.

But how do we as educators initiate and participate in this vulnerable emergence in the right way, so that our presence holds the space for dynamic networked learning without being overbearing? Perhaps Schön (1988) has come close to describing how this can be done when he used the term coaching instead of teaching to describe the particularizing of what an educator “does or says to fit the student's momentary confusions, questions, difficulties, or potentials” (p. 5). In so doing, the educator improvises, drawing on repertoire and reflecting on his or her own spontaneous performance. This process is true to the simplest unit of design experimentation in the way a designer's "seeing-moving-seeing" creative process of meaning-making enables forward movement in iterative steps (Schön, 1992, p. 6). This agile mobility on the part of the educator, and its performative quality, echoes both learning and design processes when viewed as mobile and speculative, and we start to see a reciprocal relationship taking shape. A kind of modeling by the educator that allows vulnerability into their spontaneous performance brings about a power shift that reveals to students that all is not prescribed or planned and that the generous welcoming of the unknown or unexpected is what constitutes the notion of a "pedagogical pivot" or "hinge" (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 38).

Design designs

As the departure date approached, the itinerant nature of the project started to expose participatory processes that were not just about designing the fish artifact but also designing the world of their learning experience. This co-created world was beginning to design them back—as evidenced in students’ shift from individual, discipline-bound behaviors—outside of the prescribed places and spaces of the faculty, and toward thinking and acting around the project challenge. This resonates with Anne-Marie Willis’s (2006) theory of ontological design and its claim that “we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us” (p. 70). Tony Fry’s (2013) elegant summation of this, "design designs" connects well with the notion that “agent, activity, and world mutually constitute each other” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 33), and therefore design educators need, in our view, to facilitate the kind of learning spaces that provocatively and speculatively bring about new visions and sustainable behaviors that can indeed shape and be shaped by our mutually constituted world. As we shifted the locus of our project off campus, the sense was one of an emergent and initially fragile community of practice, becoming ever stronger as we approached our first real world encounter with fish in tow.


          Images depict the fish beginning its process of moving across Africa. Left students loading the fish onto a trailer; Right students sit on a bus (on student is smiling as they another an image on an tablet        
The 400kg as-yet-unfinished fish was loaded early on the morning of departure along with some excited people.