PART Certainly those differences exist and are real. Separation

PART B – Designing for Humanity: Don’t judge a book by its cover

A proposal to the Cape Town Partnership

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Developed in collaboration with the City of
Cape Town, CTP encourages citizens to shape communities into “a more liveable African city” with a grander
sense of community. Examples of some of the initiatives they have spearheaded

City walk

African Liveability and migration

Free Wi-Fi in public spaces


The Fringe

The Human Library will be proposed as a
design for humanity initiative in line with the ethos of CTP.


The way people recognize themselves in the
world is shaped by a system of beliefs and values, attitudes, customs and
social relations. In essence, this defines culture, which is unique to
communities and societies. It shapes how people interact with each other, and
how they tend to feel and act. In modern times, humanity is further moulded by
the media, with preconceived western world ideas of hopes, dreams and fears.
The desire for better lives drives self-determination and personal freedom. In
the same breath, it segregates masses according to race, gender, sexual
preference, and or religion.


Certainly those differences exist and are
real. Separation due to them becomes apparent when society ignores those
differences and opts to isolate the connections thereby affecting human
behaviour and inherent happiness. The fundamental dignity of people is thus
devalued as alluded to by Lorde (1984:114) – “This
results in a voluntary isolation or false and treacherous connections. Either
way, we do not develop tools for using human difference as a springboard for
creative change within our lives.”
The solution lies in getting people to coexist and cross social boundaries
between different identity groups.


The three fundamental human needs are food,
shelter, and clothing. Max-Neef (1992), in his definition, builds on the socio-economic
and environmental quality of what it means to be human by adding the following
psycho-social needs to Maslow’s hierarchy. The human experience prospers when
wants and desires meet basic needs, across cultures. Figure 9 further explores
how one can account for those needs.

Physiological needs: food,
shelter and clothes.

Safety and protection

Love and affection: through
family and friendships

Self-esteem and affiliation


Max-Neef echoes that when human development
peaks at self-actualisation, it will have satisfied the highest level of need,
culminating in economic growth.

Figure 1: Max-Neef’s Fundamental
Human Needs. Source:


The world of today already has “well
developed theories of built systems”. However in their current state,
these are inadequate to effectively drive humanity’s universal quest of a
transition towards more sustainable futures. As such the onus lies with the
designers of today who must develop innovative solutions that go a step further
by reflecting theories of natural and social systems. This in essence is the
basis of the emerging design paradigm of Transition Design which takes centre
stage in leading the evolution towards sustainable futures. Design has the
overarching capability to create holistic and sustainable solutions in the
process of meeting both the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of human
needs in an emotionally rich manner.


Design, as tool of solution, contextualises
the values and quality of life of people in a particular locale, by bridging
the gap between the users and innovation. When it perpetuates public
participation, it strengthens the sustainability of societies. The background
section noted below, refers to the complexity of community living and relates
the discriminatory attitudes of people towards each other. The proposal, the “human library” is introduced as a means
to break the walls of divide in today’s society otherwise socially conditioned
with assumptions and limitations. It appeals to the African spirit of ubuntu1
(working together) as a design solution to challenges faced by South Africans,
increasing consciousness to daily decisions and how they affect those around

Case study: Social prejudices

In February 2017, Eastleigh Primary School
in Edenvale, Gauteng, issued a letter advising “foreign parents” to ensure the
school had up-to-date records of the residential permit documentation for their
children within the following week. Failure to do this was noted to result in
the children being reported to the police. This letter trended on social media,
with people expressing various opinions and views on the matter. While some
supported the school, others were perturbed by the extent of discrimination in
the stance taken by the school.


It is imperative for all foreigners living
in South Africa to have documentation allowing them to legally stay in a
foreign country2. Depending
on their reason for migration, sometimes foreigners choose to stay illegally
partially because of a fear of being deported. This is where the line becomes
murky between the human and constitutional rights they are entitled to, hence
the social media uproar. The complexity of this situation is explained in an article
in the Mail & Guardian, Rights of
foreign kids trampled on, which responded by laying out the constitutional
right to education for all.

A disgruntled comment by one, Yvonne Horak,
(Figure 10) in response to the article, expressed a perception which may come
across as selfish, but in honesty describes the fears and challenges a South
African society typically has to deal with. The fear, a little justified, stems
from a place of not knowing or comprehending the life of these people lead. It
prompted within the author of this paper, a question of how to integrate people
of different backgrounds into one without adding to the anxiety of people.


The prejudice and
marginalisation of African foreign nationals in this country, happens in the
context of a society struggling to combat societal injustice, emanating back to
its history of apartheid. There is a common unjust perception in the workforce
that foreigners are more reliable, polite and motivated to work harder while
locals come across as entitled and waiting for hand-outs. Some of the resulting
challenges are that employment opportunities for South African citizens are
lost, and the health system becomes overburdened. This further drives
unhappiness and disdain towards the “aliens”, although leadership may call for
African unity.


Figure 2: Comment on a Mail &
Guardian article (23 June 2017) “Rights
of foreign kids trampled on.”


A society where
foreign nationals can be integrated and respected as productive and competitive
citizens is imperative. People migrate to South Africa for various reasons and
refugees are not a unique situation to this country.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 60
million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. A third of these are refugees
leaving their homes to find a better life in a foreign country. UNHCR lists the
social dynamics the current population has to deal with. There has been an increase
in people seeking refuge in foreign countries or neighbouring communities,
fleeing from:

War and conflict

Natural disasters (Figure 11)

Gender, Race and culture,
Sexual orientation or Religious and political persecution

Economic migration

Development induced

Figure 3: Rising sea levels
gradually stealing coastlines in cities such as Miami. (Source –

Figure 4: Population statistics of
forcibly displaced people. (Source – UNHCR 2017)


The most popular
nationalities that have migrated to South Africa are from Zimbabwe, Mozambique,
Kenya, Lesotho (economic immigrants) and Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia
(as war refugees).According to
the (StatsSA 2011) census, 2.2 million foreigners live in South Africa, estimating
the undocumented migrants between 500,000 and one million. A large number of
Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa as a result of instability in Zimbabwe,
with many living as undocumented migrants in South Africa. The tables 1-3 are
results from surveys conducted by the South African
Migration Project (2014), indicate the reaction of South Africans to the


Table 1: Impressions of migrants Source
– South African Migration Project 2014

Table 2: Perception of impacts of
migration Source – South African Migration Project 2014

Table 3: Acceptance of migrants Source
– South African Migration Project 2014


There are many spheres of society who can
play a contributory role towards the full integration of “aliens” into
communities by assisting refugees with food and shelter as much as is possible.

§  Non-governmental organisations,

§  Local and National authorities,

§  Companies and,

§  the community itself

Figure 5: Reception
and integration of refugees. (Source – WDO, 2016)

However, one of the major challenges is their
reception and integration into local communities, against a backdrop of
ignorance and negative prejudices. The design proposal, coined as the human
library, as outlined in the next section, focuses on the role individuals can
play to better their acceptance of what is unknown and unfamiliar to them. It
is imperative to find means of evoking a sense of kinship in the unwanted, such
that a future together can be imagined and fulfilled. 


Most opinions of refugees are shaped by the
media, rather than through first-hand contact or personal stories. Unfortunately,
some stories shared by the media perpetuate the divide. As social disparity
upsurges, the world has to find ways to live harmoniously, in just and peaceful
environs. This disarray brings to attention the need for social integration
from a community perspective. The obstacles faced by immigrants, fuel design
challenges.  The questions designers are
tasked with resolving are:

§  How can we create better connections between cultures?

§  How can a community prepare itself to socially accept others and
become empathetic to cultures out of their norms?

There is need for social ventures specifically
created to reveal prejudices and stigmas, and then address them on rational
levels thereby invoking a sense of community.


Figure 6: Imagining the future
together. (Source: Author – from the Sustainable Development module journal
submission 2017)

The Human Library

“What is design but the application of our humanity, and the
search for excellence, elegance and solutions to the problems that we face? …
We change the inevitable by combining with the aspirational.” Cape Town
Mayor Patricia de Lille, at the
World Design Capital Host City signing agreement ceremony, 2012


The proposal herewith outlined is a human
centred design solution towards social integration known as the “Human Library”. It is inspired as a
solution by a Matt Chanoff’s response to a question on Quora3
about, “Who is the most interesting
person you’ve ever sat next to on an airplane?” He describes a situation
which required a willingness to step
out of supposed comfort zones. In the extract from below, Chanoff enlightens how he changed his own point of view of someone
whom he had prejudged and formed an opinion of, just by looking at them, following
the simple conversation they had.

Figure 7: Extract from Matt Chanoff’s
response on Quora to the Question: “Who
is the most interesting person you’ve ever sat next to on an airplane?”


Chanoff illustrates that when humanity
expresses compassion and empathy towards each other, it increases human consciousness,
thereby cultivating a harmonious connection to the earth. “It is through weakness and vulnerability that most of us learn empathy
and compassion and discover our soul” (Tutu, 2004:25). It is
at the peak of self-actualisation, when our souls are grounded, that we find
the true balance between life and nature.


Further research inspired by Chanoff’s
response led to the discovery of like-minded beings that created an
organisation designed to challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue,
popularly known as the Human Library4.
It is about creating a community of experiences and teaching people to appreciate
and accept diversity. People get to be reminded that they have more in common
than they can initially think. Communities are encouraged to have open and
honest conversations as a means to fight against prejudiced lifestyles
otherwise met with misunderstanding.


Developed in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the
year 2000, as a Stop The Violence5
project submission  for the Roskilde
this is a social movement which has become a global movement, designed to stir
cultural and societal imbalances by mere use of observation and reflection as a
means to integrate social divisions through conversations. On this platform,
people share their personal life experiences thereby dropping the curtain
barrier between perceived societal norms and stimulating hope for a united
future. “We need other human beings in
order to be human. I am because other people are. A person is entitled to a
stable community life, and the first of these communities is the family” (Tutu, 2004:25).


The success of the library lies in
information shared to shed light on individual’s real life situations received
with open minds. It provides a setting where hard to have conversations become
tools to create awareness and to build communities. This social intervention
has the capability to push for national integration by threading interpersonal
connections to optimise tolerance of gender, race, and sexual preference,
tribal or ethnic divisions. The proposal seeks to contextualise the human
library as a solution to the problem of marginalisation, beyond the example of
refugees as described in the beginning of this section. Tangible human
connections are imperative to link people from all walks of life and inflict a
mental paradigm shift with a long term goal of behavioural impact through
changing mind-sets. In a way, the concept of the library roots back to oral
tradition, a form of transmitting indigenous knowledge, culture, values and
beliefs from one generation to another through storytelling. It was a socio-cultural
practice of diffusing information in ways that fascinated the listeners, and unified
communities in kinship.

The Library in context

Figure 8: The Human library
introduces design as a tool to deal with individual and collective challenges


are we to understand each other, if we do not have the opportunity to talk to
each other?”

Abergel (Inventor of the Human Library)


The metropolitan municipality of Cape Town
is located on the Table Bay shores of the Western Cape Province of South
Africa. With a population of 3.74 million (Census 2011), it is one of the most
multi-cultural cities of the world and a major employment hub for expatriates
and immigrants, including those from other South African cities. Generally,
South Africa is dubbed as the “Rainbow Nation”
with its melting pot of an ethnically diverse populace. There is an intricate
blend of races, cultural identities, languages and ethnic bonds which sometimes
encourages social divide between all the social groups.


The (StatsSA 2011)
census indicates that the ethnic and racial composition
of Cape Town is:

§  Coloureds – 42.4%

§  Blacks – 38.6%

§  Whites – 15.7%

§  Asians or Indians – 1.4%

§  Other – 1.9%

Riddled with a history of discrimination
and segregation, post-apartheid South Africa has political, economic and social
inequalities to contend with. Some of the issues people deal with in the uneven social fabric of Cape
Town are:

§  Violence – gangsterism and criminality

§  Abuse – drugs and substances, sexual,
mental, physical abuse

§  Economic disparities

§  Homelessness

§  Health i.e. HIV, mental health,

§  Religious beliefs

§  Xenophobia and Homophobia


Figure 9: HIV positive woman opens
up about the stigma she faces. Source:


Prejudices have been expressed, loudly and
quietly against some of those who end up defined by one of the boxes listed
above. In essence, these are the people with stories thereby referred to as
living “library books”. With an open mind, they can volunteer to share the
stories of how their lives have been affected living under constant judgement
and mockery.  Interested people chose to
listen to any stories of their choice, and respectfully engage with questions
ordinarily considered as rude. This is referred to as being a “reader”. 

The process  

Conversations bring stories closer to
reality and forces individuals to challenge common prejudices and adversities. As
an alternative teaching method, personal stories can be shared to promote
dialogue and awareness of a part of the community that is otherwise ostracised.
People volunteering their stories are then referred to as “books”, while the observers are “readers”. Readers come into conversation with a book of their
choice for a short period of time. Books on the other hand can expect and
should appreciate questions.


The idea of “books” and “readers” allows a
level of honesty in the face to face dialogues that is rare in casual
interaction. These are people who have gone through experiences that the
readers have no personal correlation to. Treating human beings as books that
readers can check out to learn something they could not have cultured in any
other way. Essentially, the exercise and experience relates to the concept of
borrowing a book from the library for a specific period of time. Depending on
the programme allowed in a venue, it can be for as short as half an hour.
Within this time period, reader(s) browse the list of open books and can then
chose one that challenges their way of thinking. Generally, the conversation
should start with the book narrating their experiences, leading into questions
from the reader(s).


Possible venue ideas are:

§  Schools – the concept of the library can be introduced into the
curriculum as part of after school activities. When young minds are ignited, a
generation of creative thinkers is realised. That is the greatest resource to
attain a sustainable future. 

§  Community centres – the city has many such centres in all suburbs,
which remain familiar ground for many residents of that community to feel
comfortable to share their stories. Besides the free entrance that reduces
costs for the exercise, hosting in a community centre zones in on
contextualising the library to each specific neighbourhood with regards to the
prejudices they face.

§  As part of ongoing festivals or events such as First Thursdays7
or Infecting the City8.


Working with specific neighbourhoods, the
long term goal of the library is to establish a database of books contextual to
that area and host regular events in different spaces, with the aim to achieve
the following:

§  Human expression through connection and communication in diverse
groups with ethnic and lifestyle differences

§  Creating sustainable and inclusive 
living environments for the people through community cohesion

§  Believe in each other’s worth and contribution and adding value to a
communal sense of place and belonging

§  Changing the face of exclusion and isolation into creating an
environment that shapes our well-being

§  Ultimately achieve the ubuntu
objective and transcend into self-actualised beings through consideration of
those around us as a lesson we teach the future generations.


Figure 10: Yes I can! – changing behavioural mind-sets one library at a time.

hardest thing to open is a closed mind.

Ahmed Kathrada


Conclusion: Designing for social impact

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens
can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead, Cultural anthropologist (1901-1978)


Designed for social impact, the library is
a low cost interactive initiative that will leave a lasting effect on many
lives and will improve the quality of life in cities. The best way to shape the
future is to consciously and mindfully create it. It is our responsibility to nurture
a different narrative that bridges the divide. Effective use of design can
drive economic, social, cultural, and environmental development, through
increased public participation. We live in a transcultural and ever evolving
century where quality of life should be at the forefront of design. Connecting social
movements within the city as a design imperative will contribute towards
resolving complexities of this era and very well reconcile communities and address
general dilemmas. This is mental poverty alleviation.


1 Ubuntu: an African idiom meaning “I am what I am because of who we
all are”, synergising mutual respect and human dignity.

2 Residence or Asylum permits issued through the Department of Home Affairs

3 Quora is a social
media platform where members share knowledge and real life experiences on
various questions or topics.

4 Social intervention designed by brothers Ronni and Dany Abergel and
colleagues, Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen

5 Non-governmental youth
organisation raising awareness and mobilizing youngsters against violence
following the brutal attack of the founders’ friend

6 Annual Danish music

7 Galleries, Theatres, Restaurants and Retailers, in a city centre
zone, open their spaces to the public late into the night, on the first
Thursday of every month, to allow people to explore the city’s cultural wealth on

8 4-day socially engaging annual festival for local artists from
various disciplines to showcase their talents in communal city spaces