MILLIONS of South Africans live in substandard housing that is flooded when it rains and burns down every year.
So it’s understandable that many were shocked when the Western Cape government tweeted, “Are you a resident of an informal settlement looking to improve the building structure of your house? The Western Cape Department of Human Settlements’ Better Living Challenge project provides self-building skills and knowledge. Discover the 13-part video series ”. (The video shows an introduction to a tutorial on building a zinc structure commonly seen in the Cape Townships).
The tweet was followed by comments marveling that a provincial government could advocate for improved cabins.
This was only a small part of the Western Cape government’s plan to address the challenge of informal settlements in the province. What everyone saw was only part of a planned technology platform to enable further upgrading of informal settlements.
The plan includes a platform that will allow people to access knowledge resources on improving their housing structures.
In addition to the information, the plan is to create what’s called a DigiYard – a digital platform that will facilitate the flow of usable construction waste and surplus building materials from construction sites to informal settlement upgrading projects.
The platform aims to reduce construction waste in landfills while meeting the need for affordable and quality building materials in the informal housing sector.
The concept is modeled on a tool offered by Arup, an international engineering company. A team of consultants from Arup’s offices in Cape Town began to explore the potential of an app-based tool that could help solve the housing problem.
The research team decided to solve the problems by designing the app, DigiYard, which would match unused construction materials with small builders and traders in the informal sector.
The app would use smart technology that would allow builders in South African townships (and possibly elsewhere around the world) to easily and efficiently search for affordable, high-quality materials that would otherwise go to landfill. They could then collect the material and bring it to their sites.
The planned platform is intended for use by builders who build informal structures in the townships. The idea behind the plan is that these builders can be given better building and management skills to build better.
Why would an innovation project like the Better Living Challenge, which aims to respond to a major societal challenge, be rejected?
Part of the answer is that in its current form, the Better Living Challenge does not take society from zero to one.
In the book Zero to One, Peter Thiel suggests that “when we think about the future, we hope for a future of progress”.
“This progress can take one of two forms. Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work, going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things – going from 0 to 1.
“Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something that no one has ever done. If you take a typewriter and build 100, you’ve made horizontal progress. If you’ve got a typewriter and you’re building a word processor, you’ve made vertical progress.
In the case of the Better Living Challenge, what would it mean to go from zero to one?
That would mean moving from building an upgraded cabin to building a smart home. A home built with high quality, energy efficient materials at an affordable cost.
It should cost less for heating and cooling, and less for utilities in general, and meet the stringent energy and environmental measures that are becoming the norm for new construction, including all-electric systems and a building envelope. high energy efficiency.
For those who wish, it can also be fully wired for smart home operation; their systems can be controlled from a single tablet and set to various pre-programmed modes.
It should probably be built from a factory somewhere by local builders and delivered ready to the owner in a location free from flooding and other environmental hazards.
Structures can be built in blocks and modules so that the owner can add various modules when they have the means. In other words, you can start with a block and continue to add as needed.
All information about building such a structure can be available online and offline as printed materials that can allow the owner to work with a builder to design and build their preferred structure.
It is this kind of house that can be considered better. It would give its inhabitants a dignity that can never be associated with the structures that dominate the Western Cape.
The question of housing in South Africa is complex because it involves a painful past which was intimately linked to the submission of populations to poor living conditions. To solve it, we need real innovative solutions and not solutions wrapped in what looks like innovation but which maintains the state of affairs.
The DigiYard concept is innovative as a model. However, its implementation must incorporate materials that do not maintain the current form of housing.
Shared materials should include building materials that would produce quality housing. Timber and zinc structures may be suitable in other parts of the world, however, in the South African context they are associated with a lousy past and this factor should be taken into account in designing housing solutions that will be adopted by society.
Building materials shared through a DigiYard platform should be recycled to create better building structures that would restore human dignity.
Wesley Diphoko is the editor of Fast Company (SA) magazine.