The German Design Museum Foundation has just initiated the “Design Networking Hub”. It is a new type of collaboration with young designers and architects from Germany and Kenya, and it is also a project receiving funding from Germany’s Federal Foreign Office. Julia Kostial and Lutz Dietzold explain what it involves and what the opportunities and challenges of this innovative project are.
Interview: Thomas Wagner.
Ms Kostial, the German Design Museum Foundation has just started an extraordinary project. It is called the “Design Networking Hub”, which is somewhat of a technical name. Can you explain what it involves?
Julia Kostial: It essentially involves a digital platform for knowledge and networking, which has just been activated. It will continue growing as the project goes on. The Design Networking Hub page will contain a vast amount of information in the form of link lists, text, interviews and much more. The overall aim is to motivate young German and Kenyan designers and give them the ability to develop and carry out joint projects that lead to non-profit concepts or commercial products that they wish to realise in the European or African markets. Architects are also invited to participate.
So, it is about German and Kenyan collaboration and supporting young designers and architects. Why Africa? Why Kenya?
Julia Kostial: That is because there are simply many, many things happening, especially in the creative sector, and especially in Kenya. The population is young, start-up companies are very active right now and there are many interesting projects under way. The region already has hubs and incubators doing things very creatively. This is why it was important for us to say right from the outset that we want to initiate an international project where people engage with each other as peers and where the focus is on mutual learning. Kenya was simply a good option because we already had connections, networks and partnerships with the country.
Did the German Design Museum Foundation already have any direct contacts in Kenya?
Julia Kostial: While the foundation did not have any direct contacts, the German Design Council did – and we can put them to use now. The Goethe-Institut, a worldwide German cultural association, is also a wonderful partner of ours for local contacts. We learned just how valuable this is back in our America project.
Mr Dietzold, as the German Design Council’s Chief Executive Officer, what expectations do you have of the project, especially when collaborating with Africa?
Lutz Dietzold: I would like to explicitly back what Julia Kostial said. We are involved in many collaborative projects, including on the part of the German Design Council. The primary task of the council is to help companies operate more successfully in the market by using design. However, we also have the task of increasing consumer awareness of good design. Broadly speaking, we have had a strong focus on the North American market and, increasingly, the Asian market for years now. There is commercial potential in these markets, or at least potential is seen in them. When it comes to Africa, the continent has mainly been seen from an angle of development aid and cooperation for a long time, with less of a view towards certain developments there, such as digital developments, that have already flourished much more – and from which we can learn a lot. There are certainly many countries in Africa that would be a good partner to collaborate with, however we already maintained numerous connections with Kenya at an institutional level. The country has colleges and universities educating designers, and that gives it a creative infrastructure which we hope will give the Design Networking Hub an extra boost.
Have joint projects already been held at an institutional level?
Lutz Dietzold: We have always had contact, including through the World Design Organisation. Now we want to intensify this contact and bring together all the dialogue in our work on this project.
When people in Germany talk about Kenya and design, many think of fabric patterns and fashion design. If we ask ourselves about the other design-related things happening there, it can be alarming how little we know about individual African countries and their creative cultures. Is it your professional curiosity that wants to change this and extend the networking idea to Kenya and maybe even other African countries?
Julia Kostial: Institutional networking is a major priority of this project and it was also a core point of the Federal Foreign Office funding programme that the project is based on. It is something that is very important to us and is in our DNA as a foundation. For us, it is not just about connecting designers and architects with each other. It is also about putting institutions in contact and strengthening the exchange with and between them.
“The Design Networking Hub is not just about connecting designers and architects with each other. It is also about putting institutions in contact and strengthening the exchange with and between them.”
— Julia Kostial
The Design Networking Hub is just getting started. Are there already any particular industries being eyed at this early stage? Or are you open to whatever ideas come in?
Julia Kostial: In principle we are open to anything. Nevertheless, our website focuses on the fields of living, transport and digital transformation, which in themselves leave a lot open.
Are there plans for in-person contact, such as joint workshops, once the coronavirus pandemic is behind us?
Julia Kostial: Yes, absolutely. Even though we may have learned how to initiate projects like these digitally, it is no substitute for direct exchange, especially when creative processes are involved. There is a travel budget for the five German designers and architects and the five Kenyan ones who together form the pilot group – a kind of think tank – and are meant to interact in person where possible. We will organise meetings in person for this reason as soon as the pandemic allows it.
Let us talk about the pilot group. There are designers and architects from Kenya and Germany currently applying. A total of ten will be selected from among them to form this pilot group, correct?
Julia Kostial: Correct. The pilot group members are planned to form teams. There will always be at least one German designer or architect working with a designer or architect from Kenya. These teams could also turn out to be groups of three or four people; we will see how the process unfolds. We will moderate the creative process when the teams have been formed and guide everyone involved through the definition of the projects, which they will then look after and push forward for one year.
Lutz Dietzold: Essentially, they are supposed to develop a product and make it market-ready. A very important aspect of this is that it is not a charity project. For the designers and architects, participating in the process will mean investing their working hours. It can also involve ideas that already exist in principle, or products that require international collaboration to make them a reality. It is important that all sides can benefit from each other.
“Participants are supposed to develop a product and make it market-ready. A very important aspect of this is that it is not a charity project. For the designers and architects, participating in the process will mean investing their working hours.”
— Lutz Dietzold
Does that mean establishing contact with certain companies or organising support from experienced colleagues, depending on the project? Do you already have specific ideas for this?
Lutz Dietzold: The network is basically already there. If, for example, there are legal issues during a product’s development, we can provide relevant points of contact from our network. That could be relevant for model making, for instance, or access to the market, or be about finding a specific company to produce the product. We can open doors, though the participants have to do the job themselves – and that is important.
The overall scheme is a kind of pilot project. How appealing is Africa already? How appealing could Africa become for the German Design Council’s engagement?
Lutz Dietzold: At the German Design Council, we have been building up a network of international representatives since spring last year. That includes European countries, too, as we still have to understand some of these markets even better so that we can open them up to our members. Many of our member companies in the manufacturing sector already operate internationally, of course, and their products are sold in various markets. However, occasionally we can also help when it comes to accessing a market, and we have noticed this with our subsidiary in Shanghai. Similarly, our representative for 13 African countries, who will now also be assisting the relevant project in Kenya, will act as a door opener and unlock unused potential.
What can we in turn learn from Africa? Perhaps from Kenya especially?
Lutz Dietzold: Projects such as the Design Networking Hub are not just “one-way” affairs, especially when it comes to digital transformation and sustainability. How are materials used best? How do certain digitisation processes in Africa work when there is a lack of physical infrastructure? Why is it that they sometimes work better there than here? There was a lot of talk last year about disruption. There are things to be learned from this, too. Disruptive solutions are often necessary in Africa because of infrastructures that are frequently still inadequate. This potentially results in an entire way of thinking that can be applied to entrepreneurial culture to produce innovative solutions. I think these are exciting questions that provide a backdrop to the project, in a way.
What will the next steps be after selecting the pilot group? Academia, commerce, design, etc. are meant to be included on both sides. How do you picture this?
Julia Kostial: The Design Kenya Society is on board as our collaboration partner and will be providing support on the Kenyan side. Once the projects have been chosen, the pilot group will have until December 2022 to advance as far as they can, to market readiness if possible. We wish to oversee them on their journey there. Whenever the pilot group has a question or whenever a challenge has to be solved or a defect fixed, we as well as the experts will provide help – and this applies just as much as to the Kenyan market as it does the German one. The experts’ answers will be made public on the website, and so of course we hope to build a similarly intimate network in Kenya over the course of the project, just as we have in Germany. We have already taken the first few steps. It would also be nice to do something like this as a mentor programme. However, to do that, we would need to know what projects will be developed first before we could establish such a programme in precisely the right way. In any case, there was a lot of interest in the project even before its initial launch.
How open does the German market seem to be to projects arising from this sort of international collaboration?
Lutz Dietzold: I see more of a challenge in bringing the products to market than I do in the teams’ collaboration. There were ideas about “going local” during the pandemic. When we talk about supply chains, for example, we saw in the textile industry what it means to be completely disrupted and for people to end up unemployed – to have the rug pulled out from under them, so to speak. I believe it will be very important to talk about where value is actually being added in this regard. How can support be given to the local culture, culture as in working culture and production culture? As we have just mentioned, people frequently find themselves thinking about traditional handiwork and craft when they talk about Africa. Now is a great opportunity to take a broader approach with this project.
If we were to do this interview again in a year’s time, how might you summarise a successful outcome?
Julia Kostial: It would be great if we had created a new, wide network and a new community had developed and worked together successfully at this international level. If we achieve this, we could think about expanding the Design Networking Hub to the next country.
Would there have been progress in internationalising?
Lutz Dietzold: Absolutely. My dream as well is that we will have created a lively network in a year’s time, a network that is used by many, that is given life and expanded over the following steps and that can be connected with faces. In a way, we have been blessed by design for decades in Germany, and we have robust structures and networks. Despite that, there are still many designers in this country who work disparately and precariously as self-employed sole traders. The education and training in Kenya has to approach design not just as a passion to be pursued, but also in a way that allows designers to make a living from it. Good ideas should earn good money. However, this is also something that must be communicated to the markets, and that is where I see us in particular having a role. We occasionally have easier access to entrepreneurs and can talk with them more easily than a designer can.
Seeking German and Kenyan designers for a pilot group!
The German Design Museum Foundation wishes to make the Design Networking Hub’s information offering as user-oriented as possible. It is therefore seeking German and Kenyan designers to join a pilot group that will go through a complete model process for a bilateral, collaborative project.
Designers of all specialisations (except fashion design) and architects with at least an undergraduate degree are invited to apply using the online form on the new website by 14 June 2021.
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