Many heads make light of a challenge


the-shift-1Shift works with communities, Johnson explains; they know the challenges they face and have ideas for solutions

On a cold and wet Friday morning, a bus full of enthusiastic youngsters, representing a variety of nations, nosed its way through the Cape Town traffic, bound for Khayelitsha. They were taking Shift to the township to launch the Shift: Caravan and to see what came out of the connections they hoped to make with passers-by and residents on the pavements around the station.

“We will be playing games with people,” explained Janine Johnston, Shift managing director. One of these was a card game popular in the Western Cape – Lucky 8. But Shift had altered it, using elements of a Danish game created to get people talking about real issues. Cards with random words were added to the decks – words like “values”, “greening”, “climate change” and “energy efficiency”. Sitting down to play with strangers, the idea was that when a card popped up with a word, the players would discuss the topic.

Another game was Shift’s pitch booth – a costume worn by a person from the bus while walking around the streets. Inside the costume was a camera, and a microphone was proffered to passers-by. People were encouraged to make a pitch, Johnston explained. They would name a specific problem in their communities, and then be encouraged to come up with a solution. “The idea is to push innovation. It is not a case of waiting for someone else to find an answer, but to come up with one yourself.”

Also on the expedition was Heath Nash, from Makers’ Library, a global conversation to share practical knowledge and application. He had the tools and was collecting tyres along the way to make stools. On the Khayelitsha pavement, he borrowed power from a near-by stall and set to work with his tyres, rope, drill and pull ties, making comfortable, upcycled stools. Interested people gathered around, eventually getting stuck in and making their own stools – afterwards they were able to take their handiwork home.

Shift works with communities, Johnson explains; they know the challenges they face and have ideas for solutions. “Shift delivers tangible solutions in 10 days,” she stresses. “These include everything from solar cookers made from cardboard and old crisp packets, to redesigning libraries.”


One of its core process and design services is its Social Design Challenge. This co-design process has been developed over the last few years, and tested in various situations. It is preceded by an intensive community engagement and investigation, to inform the participants in the challenge of the main social and environmental needs within the community, to identify the available resources and inherent skills within the community.

During the 10-day challenge, Shift connects designers, such as surface, industrial designers, engineers, architects and project managers, and community representatives and guides the participants through a universal design process that delivers tangible results to the problems identified.

Working with innovators and changemakers in Sweden, the Cape Town collective insists that every intervention ends with a concrete item. Upcycling is a watchword. “For us, sustainability means people, plus planet, plus prosperity. Design means process to shape and make our environments in ways that satisfy our real needs and give meaning to our lives.

“We have been running for four years, and we meet real needs. We look for solutions to problems, and match Swedish designers with local people.” But it is not a one-way street, she points out. Knowledge is shared, and Swedish design is informed by South African innovation “to create an ‘a-ha’ moment. That is when ‘the shift’ happens.”

The Swedish designers are sourced through the Malmö Innovation Centre. These changemakers are mainly sourced from universities in the Scandinavian nation.


Shift: Caravan, packed with all the items and people needed to work with communities to find workable solutions to their challenges, will tour the perimeter of South Africa in 100 days, from November to February 2015. Along the way, there will be stops, where Shift will hold its 10-day interventions with local communities – although the process will be speeded up to seven days.

Also on the caravan will be Shift’s mobile solar cinema – “it fits in a box”, says Johnston – which will be used to screen short films made by Sunshine Cinema. It makes three-minute clips on how to build items, such as the solar cooker.

“These are solutions from the community; they are not through Shift. The idea is to share stories, share innovations and solutions.” After the screenings, the community will be encouraged to make the items. “People who do the process then take away the knowledge to teach others. There has also been a gender shift in our work – women are teaching men how to do things.”

the-shift-2The Shift team does not want to impose its ideas, and so first approaches the “local fixers”, leaders or influential people in the community (Images: Lorrain Kearney)


Working with people, Johnston stresses, can be a delicate negotiation. The Shift team does not want to impose its ideas, and so first approaches the “local fixers”, leaders or influential people in the community. From there, they learn about the group and share food; a forum is held to share thoughts and ideas. Out of this, Shift gets some understanding of what is relevant or needed in that particular community.

“Shift aims to create changemakers in the community, so the most important thing is to establish trust. Our approach is gentle and is based on conversations.”

A Cape Town World Design Capital project, Shift has collaborated with the Delft and Khayelitsha communities over the past few years. It is a South African non-profit company that empowers youth and rural communities through transferring practical skills for social, environmental and economic well-being. It works “by mobilising diverse groups of people into positive action for our sustainable future, facilitating cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary collaborations that apply design as a process to improve life”.

It was founded in 2010, originally as the Eco Design Initiative, as a means to connect designers and creatives in South Africa and Sweden in knowledge exchange programmes to inspire design that improves life, socially, environmentally and economically.

The Shift: Caravan is supported by Sweden@SouthAfrica with both financial aid and intellectual capital. The latter is an initiative of the Swedish Institute and the Swedish Embassy to focus on entrepreneurship as a motor for development in South Africa and Sweden.