On Design-led Practice: A Conversation with Jhono Bennet

By Alba Soares  |  June 28, 2020

Jhono Bennett was part of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg’s ground breaking Graduate School of Architecture. He is the co-founder and co-director of 1to1 – Agency of Engagement, a non-profit that provides a design-based collaboration between grassroots organisations, professionals, academia, and government. He took part in the CPR-CSH workshop on ‘a Post-Post Apartheid Urban Praxis’.

Mukta Naik, a Fellow at CPR, is an architect and urban planner. Her research interests include housing and urban poverty, urban informality and internal migration, as well as urban transformations in small cities. At CPR, she focuses on understanding the links between internal migration and urbanisation in the Indian context.

Their conversation is excerpted below.

Mukta Naik: The first few questions are actually about your work. I read your recent paper, Design Praxis in a Post Rainbow Nation City and I was curious about what you really mean when you say ‘design-led service learning’?

Jhono Bennett: I think lots of architects (in South Africa) and  maybe lots of people in academia are never really taught how to teach: you just finish your masters, you work a little while, then all of a sudden you have the ‘knowledge’ to pass down to people. I think what we inevitably what we do is repeat how we got taught. So, for me, my teaching ended being a replication of the studio model that I got taught with certain tweaks.

I eventually found my way to the University of Johannesburg where a recently arrived professor, basically transformed the way that we teach design – at least for me and in an architectural space. Dr Lesley Lokko brought in what she called ‘the Unit System’, which is based on a UK model of teaching, and which she re-configured as the ‘Unit System Africa’.

What I think she was trying to do, was to get us to think about what design means for our research and how do we frame our own practice structure in regards to teaching, as well as how do we practice our teaching methods. The feedback she gave us led me to question: ‘How is my teaching different from how I got taught?’ and ‘What does this mean to the practice that I am a part of?’. So when I wrote this paper, it was partly a reflection on the work that I had done, the teaching that I had done for a long time and what it meant to the people I had worked with.

When I started teaching, I didn’t have these framings on research and design, but through reflecting on how to frame these in writing, it led me to a whole body of literature that is spoken about as design-led research and service learning. I think this was the best way that I could understood the work that I have been doing these last few years and by using design as a way to ask a series of questions, as well as using design not as a way to get an answer, but as way to conduct multiple iterations of exploring the idea through speculation, drawing, and through other visual ways of working, made more sense to me.

Mukta Naik: I find it interesting that you critique your work in terms to explain what you do. I would just like to talk a little bit about what is at cost in South Africa, because your work has very strong parallels with initiatives across the Global South. There are a lot of people trained in design who are doing, they may call it intervention, service learning, but design as an entry point to work with neighbourhoods that are disadvantaged, it’s something that we see across the Global South, but South Africans cities have very particular context of apartheid planning and segregated housing. In that context, I am intrigued by the term ‘Post Rainbow Nation City’ which is obviously very specific to South Africa, it might be interesting for us to hear about how you coined it and why.

Jhono Bennett: The student protest in 2015 and 2016 had a huge impact on the nature of tertiary education in South Africa, at least from my experience. Afterwards there was a huge push by the faculty, by the universities at large to take on board what the students were calling for – to decolonize education, decolonize the country. There are lots of ways people critique what happened and many people feel that hasn’t really been addressed. But what I heard the students speaking about, through social media, in my conversation with students, through colleagues, listening to the radio during this period, was that the disillusion of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ had finally popped. As the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ was our countries’ mantra in the early 90s, and was driven by leaders like Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela at that time. It was the idea that our country was a rainbow, as in multiple ‘people’s colours’, multi-racial, multi-cultures and that we could all exist together as one beautiful unity. Even our new coat of arms in South Africa is a translation of the indigenous people’s language stating ‘Unity in diversity’. What I heard the students saying was that the idea of the Rainbow Nation wasn’t serving us anymore and by ignoring the issues of apartheid, ignoring issues of our colonial past, we hadn’t addressed the core issues around social and economic transformation. I think this really manifested in lots of different ways, many of which I’m still trying to understand and internalise.

Mukta Naik: It’s very interesting for us I think in the Indian context because we have also a great diversity and in a post-colonial society haven’t quite found a way to manage. So there is this umbrella of secularism which is in our constitution which I think is now being severely challenged politically but also through many other routes – but I don’t think it’s come out in as synced way as you put it, but it’s there, it’s a tension that we are living with as well.

Jhono Bennett: I think lots of people, many people I’ve encountered, don’t know how to engage with it, I don’t have any answers either. I’m grappling with this how to be in my own context, particularly as a white South African. I’m still trying to understand where that places me in these discussion (if even so), and how do I do be, how do I practice, how do I be a teacher, how to be a researcher in this new understanding of my context.

The paper speaks about this condition in a very technical and reflexive way through teaching. What I was trying to frame in the writing is an idea to use praxis in this context and to think through what it means to being a ‘post-Rainbow Nation’, as there’s a moment in the vacuum of our current undefined epoch ideology to work through these questions. This is where I am starting to enter the next space of personal inquiry in research.

Mukta Naik: Could you just give us examples – I know you get this question all the time, but what does 1to1 do, and could you walk us through one of the engagements that you’ve had with the community? Whatever the consequences was, you keep talking about how important is the process. If you can walk us through an example of the process, it would give us something to refer back to.

Jhono Bennett: So, how we frame 1to1 is that we are a non-profit entity, and in the last few years as a social enterprise. When we started, we were just students out of our master’s program, we had done a project in an informal settlement neighbourhood called Slovo Park and we actually documented this quite extensively – you can follow it all the way back from 2010 (www.slovo-park.blogspot.com)  and Slovo Park’s journey obviously goes much further back from then,  way beyond our time and the time of many other people involved in the process.

We provided support to Slovo Park’s local leadership through us being students which ended up being a building. This support we later called socio technical design, and it didn’t mean that we designed the whole building in 2010, it means that we co-facilitated processes of dialogue around what the leadership of Slovo Park Development Forum were trying to do and how design could support that process in a much bigger way. So on the whole, it was part of the design itself, it was actually a way to translate the existing social capital that existed in Slovo, so that the leadership could leverage different moments towards the legal case to sue the city of Johannesburg for service delivery support.

Mukta Naik: So I understand that they had inadequate provision of services?

Jhono Bennett: It’s a bit more complex than that because the City of Johannesburg and the early post ’94 government had promised them development such as houses, roads and services. So there was a very unsure tenure situation, which happens a lot in South Africa, but that promise disappeared with various departments and people who started the process back then. Later the City came back and wanted to evict the residents in place for a future graveyard.

Mukta Naik: A graveyard?

Jhono Bennett: Yes, it’s located near one on the periphery of the city. Slovo Park had been there since about ’86, they had organized their own settlements based on the neighbouring townships grid as part of preparation for development inside the RDP system and again there were later statements from the people that ‘the money for development had been stolen’ and accusation that another settlement across the road had gotten the money. Eventually the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) worked with Slovo Park Community Development Forum (SPCDF) and sued for the city of Johannesburg based on their constitutional rights    through access to housing, for their right to development. SERI had worked with the SPCDF, and successfully challenged City in court in 2016 which they won. So the court said that the city of Johannesburg had to deliver on their promise from earlier on and that they would have to do it through a very good local policy – the UISP (Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme). We have been trying to support that process, while again, thinking about our role as socio-technical designers, to support not just Slovo Park but actually the City with their work alongside commissioned private sector consultants to implement UISP. They had very little idea of how to use this policy with even the City struggling to navigate UISP and start. We found ourselves in a very difficult space, as we knew they had to do it, but would not directly include us in the ‘formal process’. So we had to develop a support process, to try to help and assist all the people involved (while taking the role as support to the SPCDF) to enact the policy which no one fully understood – including us.

So, we developed this roadmap using a kind of timeline to hold discussions around action planning, which guided discussions around the UISP implementation using a metaphorical roadmap as a series of guides to suggest ‘be careful of this moment at this point’, ‘we need to do this before the first situation’ and so on. We literally had road signs, yield signs and turning circles, to really make the UISP process much easier and much more understandable for everyone involved, especially for us because we were learning as we went along. For example, that has been a really successful tool that we co-developed, and has been taken on board by the City and used by both the SPCDF and SERI in their work. So those are the type of things that we are focusing on more now: developing outputs of a design process into products. So roles in projects, like developing a visual roadmap that facilitates discussion of a process is a large area of focus of what we realize is now 1to1 work.

Mukta Naik: Does the policy envisage the role of private actors, how exactly do private actors come in?

Jhono Bennett: Well, in this case the City has a series of people on their consultancy list, and the UISP process has four different stages and the first few stages actually allow for social facilitation or socio technical facilitation, it actually allows for participation, while other policy mechanisms don’t typically have budget allocation or role provision for that type of work, they make allocation for technical services; engineers, planners etc. This policy allows for a much more grounded process of engagement that could institutionalise participatory practices in the future.

Mukta Naik: You spoke yesterday about how the burden of action falls on ‘community’ and how that’s sometimes the weakest link in the process of being loaded on the most vulnerable actors. Is this a structural failing in how design led practices is conceptualized or is it specific to your cases? Because a lot of what you’re saying or speaking to is the exact same situation here, CPR for instance is part of the Delhi Housing Rights Task Force, which is a completely voluntary set of people, largely lawyers who aid communities that are threatened by eviction or have exactly this nature of problems, where there are some sort of promises being made which are not delivered, but we are actually responding a lot to eviction threats and invariably taking the legal route to address it, but when we do look at policies in the past – we have had the Rajiv Awas Yojana, which again has a similar in situ slum upgradation component, with a lot of community consultation built in – we also find the same structural problems where you’re expecting people who don’t have the capacities or who themselves are stressed with other issues in life to do something very key for your project. It seems like in this case, facilitators were actually imagined as part of the process. In our case, facilitators were not so the entire facilitation element was brought in by NGOs which were volunteering their time. They weren’t actually getting paid to do the facilitation, so when you’re saying this whole business of the weakest link is it structural – if it’s structural, how do we address it?

Jhono Bennett: That really helps answer the earlier question of what does 1to1 does; as I think that an activity of social facilitation or socio-spatial facilitation is one of the things that we have always offered, but again that’s only one thing we do, we also practice design, research, advocacy. Through our programs, we tailor a bunch of activities or initiatives towards our larger social goal. The way we frame those initiatives that use certain social outcomes – such as the  initiatives we have about spatially changed neighbourhoods and neighbourhood networks that support grass-roots practice about practitioners – and an awareness of these issues allowed us to frame what we do.

We have done this because often people that we work with don’t know how to value us financially and timelines are often very hard to define, so we get a lot of ‘come in and fix this problem in two days’, but it’s not possible as these are long processes that take time, or when we show them how much it’s going to cost them, we get ‘Why is it so much? You guys are just talking to people!’. But what we try do is helping people in the project from the potential fallout of bad engagement and what the cost will be later on if this doesn’t happen. It’s like eating your vegetables every day, to avoid taking emergency medicine when you get sick later. People are happy to pay for the meds/technical solution based fixes and in the form of an engineer or planner because they are so good at valuing their value through an established service or product such as a house, a road or a service infrastructure – so they can quantify much easier and translate these things into their own Key Performance Indicators (KPI) or their own government processes. But I think it’s not just about valuing the ‘professional’ time but also critically about how we value the time of people on the ground; the residents, leaders and community.

Mukta Naik: When you showed these pictures about the planned and unplanned neighbourhoods, it sort of struck me that CPR has done a lot of work on various kind of settlements in Delhi and we have very similar elite neighbourhoods that have been built illegally. All our slum resettlement which is planned have taken years for services to come, so this dichotomy between what we understand as planned and unplanned is definitely something that runs across many situations in the Global South. You also point out that informality is the key mode of growth for South African cities, it’s actually the way cities are growing in the Global South, the sort of auto-construction and people taking matters into their own hands kind of a way of growth. My question is one of vocabulary : how do we reconcile this reality of what is called unplanned and informal growth because we don’t have better terms for them. So how do we even talk about these in the lexicon and these embedded vocabularies that come from planning and legality?

Jhono Bennett: These are not words that I like to use but if we take the term ‘informal’ as the current government in South Africa understands it and maybe how current literature looks at it from a ‘northern’ perspective –  I think these ideas that the city in the future will not be the city that we understand today or the past, Johannesburg for example, has a slogan as a ‘world class African city’.

I think what I find in the South-South comparison is that the people in power such as our politicians and our city officials in the private sector want this ‘world class’ city, and ‘world class’ in the sense of Dubai or Europe or North America cities.

Mukta Naik: Singapore, in the case of Asian cities, that’s the comparative. That ‘Asian cities have already done it, look at Singapore, look at parts of Kuala Lumpur, or Putrajaya’.

Jhono Bennett: These spatial aspiration values are so embedded in how we are, that they are often not even questioned, but that’s the same in South Africa. Johannesburg for example (in the inner city), when I was trying to find an apartment, when I was looking I would come across very strict building rules; such as ‘you can’t have more than two people in your apartment at any time’, ‘you can’t have guests after 10pm’, etc. – this is for adults living in the city. When I asked the building managers why I can’t have friends visiting for dinner past 10pm, they gave a response such as ‘ah, but you know, you don’t want this building to become like Hillbrow…’. Hillbrow is a dense urban part of Johannesburg that has such a negative stigma of what a city could become if left ‘unchecked’ and ‘rampant’ and ‘wild’ and it’s the opposite of what many people want as a poster for ‘good urbanism’.

I feel that many people are terrified of a city becoming what it really is and as a result we have severe anti-poor by-laws and common rules. If you look suspicious, basically translated as if you look poor and not white, you are often not really welcome. True ideas of public space are a difficult concept to practice, and many government and private sector developers are constantly blocking out parts of the city.

Mukta Naik: Same here [Delhi], but in a different context because we’ve seen a lot of economic prosperity in a very short period of time and only one section of society has actually experienced it. My children would definitely be in some sort of a bubble because 98% of their interactions would be with somebody of the same exact class and it also intersects with caste because the likelihood of an elite person being also an upper caste person is very, very high. It’s only when they are in their early twenties, when they move out of the shelter of their family and their home and start exploring things on their own that they first get hit with diversity and if they go to private universities that doesn’t happen until they are in their late twenties or even thirties, because education is becoming privatized and public university systems are breaking down or are not as competitive. So there is a segregated society that we are making, which is manifesting in spatial segregation not because we had apartheid, but because neoliberal city planning is allowing the elite to appropriate certain kinds of spaces and gate them and make them their own and then exclude the poor. In the gated community that I live in, the people who come into work or who are the domestic help and the guards and anybody else, have to have certain kinds of IDs, they have to pay to make those IDs, they have certain timings, they have to enter into a register so they are very heavily policed. The assumption is that crime would be committed by people of a lower class which has been repeatedly disproved with children of upper class families stealing things for cash or money. There’s a lot of counter narratives which are not heeded because this perception is so strong.

This also brings me to my next question because when you talked about rogue urbanism, I was thinking about how the book looks at scholarship about African cities by African scholars as opposed to scholarship that’s coming from the outside. Going back your work with the kinds of neighbourhoods that you’re working, in those contexts, who is an insider and who is an outsider and what is 1to1 for instance ?

Jhono Bennett: I was part of a book writing project with the African Centre for Cities, a few years ago,  where one of the speakers (Edgar Pieterse) was talking about how little African urbanism and scholarship is actually written by African scholars. I can’t remember the exact number, but let say it’s just 10% (it was lower I think), it means that 90% of the literature of a continent of 1.3 billion people is written by people outside the continent. As a result, we as scholars often forced reference and different sources of literature and scholarship that is not the part of the story of the people from here. I think this speaks to a big part of what I was hearing from the Feesmustfall students and the conveyers of the decolonial narrative that I have been learning about, who speak about how much of the work needed to challenge systems lies in education, and how there needs to be other ways of knowledge production, other ways of learning, other ways of sharing and creating knowledge.

I’m finding in South Africa the feeling that, at least for me, as a white South African, we need to re-think and re-configure (if not completely remove) our critical role in knowledge production and scholarship.

Mukta Naik: I think South Africa is fascinating because in other postcolonial contexts, the colonizers have left, they have exited the scene, leaving the ‘natives’ to do what they do, but South Africa is unique because there is this entire race which is associated with the colonizer but is actually native in its own way. It’s so different to compare it with other post-colonial situations, but you seem interested in the ‘processes’ of your work and in our research project we are actually interested in the structure of knowledge itself. Like how knowledge is held and how it is operationalized by different actors. So when you implement your toolkit, for example, in these marginalized neighbourhoods, what kind of challenges of communication do you face?

Jhono Bennett: I think I’m finding that the focus on process is also a way not to take up too much ‘space’ on important topics as there are big debates ongoing about which other voices should be centred and supported. In these questions, just raising the issue, even talking about it, you could occupy a certain amount of bandwidth that displaces marginalised voices – especially because it is in English. I think one of the reasons why I think process is a better place to focus, is that I can visualize things that be engaged with in different ways. Such as how we’re talking earlier about how hard it is for people to read visual material, but they still speak to people in a particular way, so the Timeline Tool is one of the many things I’ve been playing with and 1to1 as a means to work through this.

Mukta Naik: But how do people engage with the timeline?

Jhono Bennett: I think it’s been interesting that it’s never one way and we actually want to bring more people into the design and practice of the visual tools we use. For example, in government meetings, the timeline works well with a mix of actors, most importantly with we who we call ‘grassroots technical experts’ as a way to guide and make the content of the tools more accessible.

Mukta Naik: So, these intermediaries actually help decode vocabularies? I mean, is it that people are hesitant to say certain things or is that they have never seen or conceptualized things in that particular way before? What is it that this timeline unlocks?

Jhono Bennett: That’s a good question because the timeline is one of many tools we have, but we also have a tool called the Neighbourhood Kickstarter which is a sort of questionnaire that guides a process. These tool all embody principles that are not exclusively 1to1 that we borrow a lot from UX,  human centred design and other inclusive design-led approaches . We are busy developing more toolsets, made up of different tools for different types of situations.

The Timeline Tool for example is just a way to discuss a project using time as the organising variable. It is a way of translating how we each take part in the project through a visual process driven approach. It allows for us to conceptualize short and long medium and long-term goals; one year, five years or ten years for example. This helps framing expectations of what time means and how we strategize around them as a collaborative group, what we are working towards and where our agency ends. As a result, we must submit our expectations very quickly, and are able bring more voices into the project space if needed. That is why we keep coming back to the timeline because it allows us to work responsibly and clearly while declaring our limits and their opportunities inherent in a project.

Mukta Naik: And it also allows you to document things in a way that like you said mitigates against eventualities and there are expectations that you can’t meet or the messy situations that we all have to deal with when we work.

Jhono Bennett: Exactly. I think there are so many processes that we could call ‘community processes’, let’s just say thousand happening everyday but when we critique projects and decry ‘bad engagement’, we only focus on the ones that didn’t work. We don’t look at the many engineering/planning/technical projects that ‘failed’ to even include people in the first place. But socially engaged processes are harder to show and value, and much more difficult to manage, so these tools offer a way to navigate and document and share these challenges – visually and accessibly.

Mukta Naik: It goes back to our earlier conversation about capturing things in numbers versus capturing things in images, versus capturing it in words and again it’s a method of documentation. Coming to Donald Schon’s book (The reflective practitioner – how professionals think in action), the text emphasizes continuous learning and it’s clearly influenced many people’s work and it’s influencing yours too. In that context, you spoke about design as being ‘woke’ work. Why do you say that, what’s woke about design?

Jhono Bennett: So, I took that quote from a researcher – Hermes Kruger, and that came out of a conference, the Design Education Forum South Africa (DEFSA). The conference that hosted this paper hosted speakers who spoke about how design has this ability to be critical, while also being speculative or propositional or being reflective. I think that is how I am understanding design and research; not only as a technical product that offers solutions to a challenge – but as a way to look at a thing in differently. That is what I draw from Donald Schon’s work; that one can use design as a way of asking questions and not only arriving at answers. It allows one to ask a question in a different way, that allows you look at things in a more personal way and understand things differently in regards to your positionality. I think that is what ‘woke’ work in design is about.

Mukta Naik: I think that would mean a lot to our younger researchers in CPR who are still trying to find their feet in whatever they are doing. My last question is – you said something yesterday about that need to be careful about our practice. I know it’s a bit of a tough question, but do we not do that and just focus on getting outcomes, I’m asking you specifically because you’re locating yourself between academia and practice, always trying to think ahead of yourself because you’re theorizing, but a certain segment of your work is about doing things to get something/ somewhere. But if we are going to constantly pre-empt, then how do we practice?

Jhono Bennett: Again, I feel like there is a way to balance this, maybe it’s about not necessarily the terminology but the idea that there can be space for reflexive process in our daily practices. That not everything has to fit perfectly into a set of deliverables or even that you can structure deliverables in a way that allows for certain feedback loops, which is what I’m hoping for. Me teaching students in a certain way, practicing in a certain way, even in how we have structured our organization can support these reflexive practices.  We often ask ourselves ‘do we have time for this?’ or ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ in our decision around projects and approaches in 1to1.

Mukta Naik: So what you’re saying is that we need to be mindful, we need to reflect not in the sense that we necessarily need to have very strong mechanisms and feedback at this point.

Jhono Bennett : Maybe it’s this, we need to be okay with uncertainty. I think the first question that I got yesterday was ‘Your ideas sound great but give me one example that worked’ is a bit loaded. I feel ‘Sure I can, but is that really useful? What about ten examples that didn’t work the way you wanted them to but have other results?’.

I think that was the point I was trying to make yesterday at the public talk: we don’t have to put all the pressure on ‘the community’ and ‘the project’ to being ‘the perfect project’. It’s okay if we do multiple projects that don’t ‘work’ in a defined set of KPI’s/deliverables but are done well and carefully and will somehow draw those processes out to better longer-term relationships between people and mechanisms. Not to the extent that you allow things to go completely away from ‘being successful’. But allowing things to be held for a bit in uncertainty. I think this comfortableness with not knowing is missing from a lot of these debates.

Mukta Naik: I think to be comfortable with uncertainty, we have a lot of work to do to get there, especially  if we are benchmarking things to policy or to certain kinds of outcomes that are decided by higher ups. But this is a long conversation and I’m glad we could chat and banter about some of these things. So thank you Jhono, thank you so much for giving us your time.

Jhono Bennett : Thank you and CPR very much for the opportunity Mukta.

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