The Afrikan Futures Catalyst team has been selected as one of the five winners of the United Nations (UN) global design competition for their project: “Driving change for peace in institutions of higher education in Afrika”.
To mark the UN’s 75th anniversary, the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and Design Futures Initiative called on designers and futurists to create ideas on how to better sustain peace. Projects had to consider what new and innovative tools could make UN diplomacy and peace processes more effective and sustainable.
The projects had to address how emerging technologies and methods might help to prevent armed conflict around the world. In the end, several entries were received from around the world, but only five projects were selected to receive this global honour.
Inspired by their work with the University of Cape Town (UCT) Futures Think Tank, the Afrikan Futures Catalyst Toolkit was the only submission from Africa awarded this honour by the UN DPPA.
Becoming a disruptor
Abbas Jamie and Zoë Palmer are the drivers behind the Afrikan Futures Catalyst Toolkit. Jamie, a UCT alumnus, comes from the engineering industry, and Palmer, a Rhodes University alumnus, has a background in environmental sciences.
They were initially appointed to facilitate the work of the UCT Futures Think Tank, which was established by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng in 2018, but their role soon evolved into working with the university’s Vision 2030 task team. They worked closely with UCT’s leadership, bringing in new methodologies like futures studies, complexity and design thinking to help shape the university’s vision.
“One of the first things we did was to change the question from ‘How does UCT respond to disruption that’s happening?’ to ‘How does UCT become a disruptor?’ “
Jamie said: “One of the first things we did was to change the question from ‘How does UCT respond to disruption that’s happening?’ to ‘How does UCT become a disruptor?’ “
Initially, most of the energy came via the monthly sessions of the UCT Futures Think Tank. Coming from outside UCT had its benefits for Jamie and Palmer. They did not come with any preconceived ideas about how things work and instead came to listen.
“Through our intervention UCT has come up with its massive transformative purpose (MTP), which is ‘Unleash human potential to create a fair and just society,’ said Jamie.
Conversations were then taken out of the Futures Think Tank and presented to the wider UCT community, working with a number of faculties, departments and units across the university to assist with aligning their respective strategies to UCT’s Vision 2030.
Afrikan Futures Catalyst
When the call came for entries, Jamie and Palmer immediately saw the connection. The UN typically responds to violence by sending in peace-keeping initiatives after the event, but this competition wanted to explore changing this narrative to one of building peace before the violence.
“It’s about making people realise that if you don’t create a future, you are going to end up in someone else’s future.”
“An important part of the intervention and change is embracing creativity, which gave birth to the Afrikan Futures Catalyst group. The work we are doing at UCT inspired us to enter the UN peace competition and showcase our methodology,” said Palmer.
Through what they experienced at UCT, they realised they could use these methodologies in other contexts too.
Creating the future
“The core of the work that we do is, ‘How do we get people to feel agency?’ ” said Jamie. “It’s about making people realise that if you don’t create a future, you are going to end up in someone else’s future.”
The university, they said, has committed to the idea that because of who UCT is, the institution has a responsibility to shape a better future.
Jamie said: “Winning this competition is a fantastic opportunity for UCT to showcase this journey that the institution is on. It also gives us confidence in the approach that we have taken.”