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The evolution of innovation and design in SA

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Dion Chang has been using his view of “trends as a business strategy” to help South African businesses across various industries innovate and stay ahead of the curve. Chang is one of the guest speakers at the 5th edition of Autodesk’s University Extension (AUx), taking place in Cape Town on 1 September 2016. Chang shares his thoughts on current trends and innovations in technology and design, specifically in relation to South African businesses.

You are known as one of South Africa’s most respected trend analysts. What are the key innovations in design that are currently setting trends within South Africa?
In terms of innovations in design, one of the key trends we are currently experiencing in South Africa (and on the African continent) is solutions-based innovation. We have our own set of unique problems on the contintent and, unlike most developed world countries, we do not have the infrastructure or finance. This has forced us to think differently and to become masters at innovation through problem solving.
On the aesthetic side, we are moving towards a unique design trend that no longer has a curio-continent kind of impression, but rather pushes the boundaries of a South African modern contemporary aesthetic. We are producing really high-end curated designs that are being exported and sold at high-end prices as we have seen with the recent Southern Guild Design Foundation Awards. We are taking the best of South African and African design international, a sign that we are making waves in terms of the designs we are creating.

What are the current global trends in design technologies that are most applicable/relevant to South African businesses?
Considering that we are now living in a world of apps, we are starting to see that the best apps are those that solve a problem or make day-to-day life easier for people. As soon as you see design technologies that make things seamless, particularly in providing a solution, it becomes most relevant to us and proves to be more successful as it is aligned with our focus on solutions-based innovations in South Africa.

Over the past 22 years, how has South Africa’s history influenced design, specifically relating to buildings and objects that make up our world today?
As a nation, we have evolved in the past 22 years and just as our socio-political environment has impacted all areas in our personal and professional lives, it is no different when it comes to innovations in design.
Aesthetically, we are starting to move away from a more South African touristy look towards creating our own unique, strong and graphically impactful designs.
The biggest evolution in the past 22 years really has been a move away from looking at our heritage to a more contemporary personality, which is always a good thing in terms of aesthetic creation and appreciation. You are no longer looking at an object through a curio-continent lens, it’s a different way of seeing things.
This trend is becoming evident in the unique architectural designs of our buildings. We are seeing a lot of award-winning green, sustainable buildings that are not merely part of an environmental movement, but have rather become best practice.

Is South Africa a nation that follows or sets trends when it comes to design and technology?
We can both lead and follow depending on the specific design trend. The main perception remains that where we follow, we lag very far behind design and technology trends compared to developed world countries. The reality is that currently our following time is not that long.
We are really quick to replicate new trends after they have launched globally, which suggests that we are moving into a space where we will soon be able to compete on a global level in terms of improving and even setting trends in design and technology, rather than following them.

Cape Town, the design capital of Africa, is the new hub for the Autodesk University Extension (AUx) event in September 2016. What can people expect specifically in terms of innovations in design at this year’s event?
Last year we looked at “The Future of Things” and this year the focus will be on “The Future of Making Things”, which means there is a lot more emphasis on the new technologies, how they impact innovations in design and how we physically make things. These technologies include 3D printing, laser scanning and virtual reality, with a special focus on design technologies and software for architecture, engineering and construction.

You are one of the guest speakers at this year’s Autodesk University Extension (AUx) event. What are the key areas you will be focusing on?
My presentation focuses first on where we are now in terms of innovation in Africa and my view on this is rather cutting-edge, many may even consider it to be futuristic. Another key focus area is on where we are going, particularly in terms of the impact of technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and depth-sensing technologies like hollow-lens glasses.
The reality is that they are coming our way, whether it is in the next five or ten years. Is our external environment condusive to supporting these technologies and what do we need to rethink in terms of our current structures? This shift in thinking also comes with a different skillset – are we ready and equipped and what do we need to do moving forward?

What is your advice for South African businesses in the design and technology sectors in terms of keeping abreast of global trends and setting local trends?
I deal a lot with business disruption and what technologies disrupt businesses. If you think your industry or company is not going to be affected, think again, because it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” you are going to be hit by some kind of disruption.
What I have learned from different industries is that disruptive technology doesn’t come in one way, it comes in different ways and once you’ve been disrupted you cannot just carry on with business as usual. You have to keep innovating all the time. A lot of companies see innovation as a different entity, a silver-bullet effect they can get to help transform the company.
In reality it actually includes the whole operating system of the company, the leadership and management. In terms of the different skill sets, it takes a very different way to lead and manage a team to create innovation. Simply having an innovations hub or department will not ensure that you are successful. You cannot separate the responsibility of the rest of the organisation from that thinking and process.
Because innovation takes a long time you have to budget for failure. Not a lot of companies want to hear this but innovation doesn’t happen overnight and you need the buy-in and commitment from senior management.
People tend to pull out of progressive and disruptive projects too quickly or they cease because someone else has succeeded at doing it faster than them. It is always a possibility that someone will innovate faster than you, or do it better than you, or the technology you employ suddenly becomes obsolete.
Budget for a bit of failure, but at least try to move forward and innovate else you either become obsolete or you eat the dust of your competitors.