Professor Mugendi K M’Rithaa

Transdisciplinary industrial designer, educator and researcher Professor Mugendi K M’Rithaa joins CLC Africa

The year was 1969 and the whole of America was watching their television sets as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their legendary first moon landing. One of the faces glued to a grainy black and white screen belonged to a small Kenyan boy whose family had settled in the States while his dad was studying to be a pharmacist.

‘When I heard Neil Armstrong say: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, I knew right then that I wanted to grow up to do something that involves technology and people,’ recalls Mugendi K M’Rithaa.

‘I was immediately fascinated by the idea that human beings could master technology and work together collaboratively to pull off the feat of landing a man on the moon.’

Today, Mugendi’s list of collaborations, initiatives and work in the field of functional design is impressive in its game-changing reach and scope.


I PARTICIPATE, THEREFORE I AM

Describing himself as a transdisciplinary industrial designer, educator and researcher, Mugendi holds postgraduate qualifications in Industrial Design, Higher Education, and Universal Design, and has taught in Kenya, Botswana, South Africa and Sweden.

He’s a founding member of the Network of Afrika Designers, Afrika-Brasil Dialogs, Design BRICS and IdeaSA, and is associated with a host of international networks focusing on design within industrially developing contexts, including the World Design Organisation (of which he is President Emeritus and Convenor of the Senate), World Design Capital, LeNS-Afrika, Design Indaba, Continuum Innovation and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking, among many others.

‘I am unashamedly a believer in the spirit of Ubuntu which says “I am, because we are”. But I also have my personal mantra and it is: “I participate, therefore I am”.

‘It’s not enough that I am just a passive passenger in life. I must participate, because in participating I demonstrate an empathy and a connectedness with my fellow man and woman, my fellow humanity.’

People are the most important part of any initiative that Mugendi undertakes, he says. ‘I believe that the first and last mile is the human mile.’


EPIPHANIES ABOUT ABUNDANCE

After his family’s return to Kenya, Mugendi’s schooling and studies moved to design, where he completed his degree in the subject at the University of Nairobi.

‘I had a very strong leaning towards ergonomics and the human factors engineering side of design, which is ultimately allied to industrial design. But at the time there was no avenue to study this in Kenya, so after working for a while I applied for a Commonwealth Scholarship that took me to India.’

Mugendi earned his Master’s Degree in Industrial Design from the Industrial Design Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology. He was the institute’s first African student and would later be part of other learning institution firsts, including helping to launch the first industrial design programmes at the University of Nairobi and the University of Botswana, and initiating Master’s- and Doctoral-level programmes in industrial design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa.

Although these takeaways from his time in India were concrete and substantial, it’s the mind-shift about Africa that happened for him while he was there that he describes as an ‘epiphany’.

‘AFRICA ISN’T POOR; IT JUST DOESN’T HAVE A LOT OF MONEY’

‘While I was in India, I experienced material poverty in the peri-urban and urban areas on a level that was shocking to my system. But, instead of making me just feel pity for those who are poor, it made me realise that Africa actually isn’t poor; that poverty is relative.

‘As a friend of mine, Saki Mafundikwa, puts it: “Africa isn’t poor; it just doesn’t have a lot of money”. That the continent is “poor” was a lie we were told once and the narrative became convenient for those who wanted to “help” or “save” the continent.’

If we’re not poor then, Mugendi says, we must ask ‘what at else do we have’? ‘And I think we have a lot of humanity, we have a sense of community, creativity, and all those positive values that make us human, such as empathy.’

The worst kind of poverty, Mugendi decided, was the poverty of imagination, of intellectual and creative loss. ‘So if Africa isn’t poor, if we just don’t have a lot of money, then that becomes my challenge to say let’s explore the richness we do have. I came back to Africa with a renewed sense of critical optimism that our problems are not insurmountable.’

DESIGN FOR GOOD

This expanded view on Africa with the aim of finding creative solutions to its challenges found a tipping point for Mugendi a few years after his return from India.

In April 1999, he was invited to be a participant at the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design’s InterDesign Workshop on Water hosted by the Design Institute of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), an event that aimed to generate ideas to tackle the issue of water scarcity. It was visionary in its aim. Twenty years on, this very issue plagues the self-same regions…

Apart from South Africa, this transcontinental event was simultaneously held in two other countries: Mexico and Australia.

‘All three countries were connected by this realisation that water is a scarce commodity and this had a real impact on me. It was my first real identification with a global design community in a local challenge and that a locally based problem and solution could contribute to a global solution. Most importantly, it demonstrated to me the efficacy of a socially conscious ethos of design.’

NOW THE QUESTION IS: HOW CAN INDUSTRIAL DESIGNERS CREATE FOR HAPPINESS

Social innovation and sustainability are now the keywords Mugendi attaches to his work and research in functional design. ‘Whereas initially I was more technical and interested in ergonomics to accommodate clients in products and services, I became more interested in how people think, how they collaborate and how they work.’

Mugendi’s personal evolution has since paralleled the world of industrial design. ‘The original practice of industrial design was quite naive in that we thought we could improve people’s lives by giving them objects, that the ownership of objects in itself would improve their standard of living. This is true to an extent, but this has generated waste, environmental degradation, over-congestion and so many other problems that we had not anticipated.’

Today, standard of living measures – which have usually been quantified by these objects – is now being superseded by ‘quality of life’.

‘And this quantitative element has to do with happiness, which is an intangible and non-material aspect of life. So now the question is how can industrial designers create for this? Now we have to look at our contribution as not just making objects, but also creating services, systems and user experiences that contribute positively to this.’

Mugendi describes this as the move from ‘designing for’ to ‘designing with’. ‘It’s changing from just design to co-design, shifting the focus from just pushing ideas and producing more objects to coming up with ideas that actually impact on people’s well-being and contribute to social equity and cohesion.’

Mugendi points to leapfrog innovations in socially conscious design, namely the Hippo Roller, an early pioneer from South Africa, the Warka Water Tower in Ethiopia, and the world’s first droneport launched in Rwanda in March 2017.

‘This growth of social innovation and what we call “social design” originates from humanitarian design, which spoke to design interventions during humanitarian crisis, and design philanthropy, which organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fund. Now social design basically looks at how designers can impact on a much larger constituency.’

That social design speaks to humanitarian needs makes Africa the perfect platform for innovation.


WHERE THERE’S A NEED…

If necessity is the mother of all invention then Africa has a full toolbox. Mugendi points out that most of the countries sitting at the bottom of the Human Development Index are African.

‘We have a lot of needs here: material, infrastructural, communication, developmental… there’s a lot of opportunity to grow and to improve and I believe that the continent has the right ingredients to be an innovation super power, but there is systemic and attitudinal barriers that hold us back.’

Systemic, because as anyone in the innovation ecosystem will know, new initiatives aren’t always well funded or well coordinated. ‘And attitudinal, because we still need to learn how to have faith in ourselves and our own creativity, how to promote pride and confidence in our own design and thinking.’

‘WE NEED TO HAVE THE KIND OF FAITH THAT OTHER COUNTRIES ARE STARTING TO ENGENDER IN THEIR OWN CAPITAL’

Mugendi points to the fact in many African countries, and in particular South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised, people would rather buy imported products than locally grown solutions. ‘We need to have the kind of faith that other countries are starting to engender in their own capital. Think of China, where they’re finally moving from “made in China” to “designed/created in China”.’

Despite the massive perspective shift that still needs to happen with regards to financial backing and commercial support when it comes to home-grown innovations, small steps of progress are happening.

‘There are a lot of exciting things happening on the continent at the moment and facilitating this shift. There are more design and innovation awards and we have fantastic stories coming out of the continent with hacker and maker spaces, the start-up hubs where young people are developing apps all the time like the M-Pesa the mobile money transfer system in Kenya.

‘However, we need a concerted and integrated approach so that innovations from the continent are not sporadic or one-off good news stories, but are instead part of a trend of a continent that’s emerging to claim the 21st century.’


A COLLECTIVE WILL

Mugendi believes that to mainstream innovation and innovative thinking in this way, to build support for it so that it becomes part of the collective consciousness, needs creative leadership.

To this aim he has joined Creative Leadership Collective (CLC), the innovation leadership network founded by Paul Steenkamp, adding yet another successful collaboration to Mugendi’s impressive resumé.

‘The time for creative leadership has come and I believe that by being one of the founding members of this organisation, I’ll be at the coalface, so to speak, to see a new wave of a proudly innovative and connected Africa emerging.

‘I CAN SEE THAT THE CLC IS GOING TO HAVE A POWERFUL CATALYTIC EFFECT IN AFRICA’

‘I consider myself a critical optimist, meaning that I want to interrogate reality and not just embrace it in a naive way. So I want to be part of a team that’s part of a solution, to play my own small part in seeing innovation become the norm, not just an edgy topic, not just as an esoteric way of looking at things, but actually mainstreaming this design thinking by spreading this word to different sectors. I can see that the CLC is going to have a powerful catalytic effect in Africa in this regard.’

With his return to Kenya later this year, Mugendi is hoping to launch a Nairobi chapter of the CLC. ‘I think we, the founding friends, corporates and other stakeholders involved now, can become champions of inclusive innovation and design thinking as a catalytic impulse across the continent.’


INTO THE FUTURE

As Mugendi travels around the world, initiating, networking, observing, learning and teaching he will continue to inspire and spread the word of design as a tool for social change.

‘Because I believe that design agency can improve people’s quality of life, that’s what I look for, and any impulses that I observe along these lines, I tend to want to amplify and try them out in an experimental way in different settings and realities.’

This drive to learn more, to feed his curiosities and make a real difference in the world finds conscious channelling every five years. ‘I have a personal philosophy where every five years I do a reboot of my life and my priorities; I find myself is thinking about what else I could do with my life, what else I could get involved with that would be part of a solution.’

‘I ASK MYSELF EVERY DAY HOW I CAN BE A BETTER CUSTODIAN OF THAT GOODWILL I’VE RECEIVED FROM FUTURE GENERATIONS’

The solutions he looks for are always sought with the image of his own children in mind. ‘My own son and daughter are the reason I wake up with so much energy and hope that I must hand back this earth with all its riches back to them. There is an African proverb that says that we did not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we have borrowed it from our children…

‘So I ask myself every day how I can be a better steward, a better custodian, of that goodwill I’ve received from future generations; how I can play my part to make the world a better place by design so that when I hand it over to its rightful owners I will not be embarrassed or feel a sense of loss, but will feel that I have been “part of the solution”.’

Find Mugendi on LinkedIn.