Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika a ‘lighthouse on the continent’

19 October 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Brenton Geach. Read time 8 min.
Vice-Chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng and Prof Hasso Plattner unveil the name plaque for the new Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika on middle campus. Although the d-school was founded at UCT in 2015, it shared facilities with the UCT GSB while its own headquarters were being built.
Vice-Chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng and Prof Hasso Plattner unveil the name plaque for the new Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika on middle campus. Although the d-school was founded at UCT in 2015, it shared facilities with the UCT GSB while its own headquarters were being built.

The newly launched Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has the potential to become a lighthouse of creative thinking on the African continent and beyond, said Andreas Peschke, the German ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini. Peschke was speaking at the official opening and naming of the building on UCT’s middle campus.

The official launch of the Hasso Plattner Foundation-funded building was the high note of a three-day, hybrid festival of learning from 12 to 14 October, which attracted attendees from around the world. With the theme Design Thinking Matters Now, it was the first of its kind in Africa.

For three days, this wedge of middle campus was ‘lit’ by all the elements of a festival of learning: energy, creativity, music, sharing and networking. It brought together representatives of academia, government, business, development agencies, the private sector, and the VIPs: the d-school’s students.

The new Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika building was launched on 13 October, part of a three-day d-confestival that invited the design-thinking community to “Reframe. Rethink. Resolve”.

Peschke was one of a panel of four guest speakers at the launch event on the second day. He shared the platform with d-school founder Professor Hasso Plattner, UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng and the director of the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika, Richard Perez.

Design thinking is a serious discipline. The world needs “big, transformative ideas” to tackle old and intractable problems, said Peschke. Whether these are climate change or Russia’s war on the Ukraine “we must rethink and find new life-centred solutions”.

 A software systems engineer and the founder of SAP SE software company, entrepreneur, philanthropist and founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute, Professor Plattner has been closely involved with the d-school and its development. An early adopter of design thinking, Plattner said he was first piqued by an article on design thinking in Businessweek magazine.

He later brought the concept to the world, founding three d-schools, the first at Stanford University and the second at the University of Potsdam, Germany. The third is the African flagship at UCT.

The developmental potential in Africa for design thinking is significant, Plattner said at the opening of the d.confestival.

“I’m looking forward to the d-school here defining and contributing an African narrative to design thinking.”

Human-centred solutions

The UCT d-school offers the Foundation Programme for Design Thinking, a postgraduate course that opens the world of design thinking to students from all fields of learning. Working in the d-school’s signature small, multidisciplinary teams, they develop innovative and human-centred solutions to complex problems.

But it’s all about the end user, Plattner said at the opening of the d-confestival. End users should be involved at every stage of design, whether for an electric vehicle, traffic congestion, pollution, or a health system.

Creative design can be applied to complex problems, not only “the coffee cup holder in the car”, he said.

“Work with them, monitor them, talk  [to] them,” he urged. “And as soon as you have an idea of what the solution will look like, go back to them and show them ... Keep them involved at all the stages of development.”

The new Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika on middle campus was launched during a three-day d.confestival, a hybrid conference-meets-festival, themed Design Thinking Matters Now. It was the first of its kind in Africa.

Teamwork is the cornerstone

Teamwork is foundational to the d-school’s way of working. The hierarchical structure of universities, which are often conservative by nature, are an anathema to design thinking, said Plattner.

Teams are heterogeneous and inclusive; different thinking is important for the design process.

Addressing d-school students among the attendees, he said, “Learn to work in small groups and accept everyone in the group as a contributing member. The rest of your working life will be spent in groups. You don’t work alone.”


“The idea is that we teach them to trust their ability to innovate.”

The d-school is all about the students, said Plattner.

“It’s about getting the right students, whether they come from Nigeria, Cameroon or the townships of Cape Town ... The idea is that we teach them to trust their ability to innovate and contribute as valuable members of a design team.”

He added, “Students who have been through the d-school experience show in their professional lives that they can go the extra mile, they can lead teams, they can bring people together and invent something, move something forward, build something, improve something, whether a healthcare system or traffic control.

Perez said the new building provided the right teaching and learning context for collaboration and creativity.

“You can’t teach that in traditional environments. You must create a laboratory space where students and educators can walk in and automatically have the licence to think differently and to collaborate. And that’s what this building stands for.”

Prof Hasso Plattner, founder of the d-schools at Stanford University, the University of Potsdam and the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at UCT.

There are also plans to spread design thinking in Africa and the building will serve as a catalyst.

“We want to do more teaching outside this building, and this serves our vision: first we grow into the university and then go into the continent, building a network of practice that shows how design thinking within an African context can affect the world in new ways.”

Realising a dream

“It is a dream come true, the right thing at the right time,” Professor Phakeng said at the launch event. “We recently launched our Vision 2030 and this building represents what we’ve always wanted to be. It’s going to help move us towards our massive transformative purpose of unleashing human potential for a fair and just society. And design thinking gets all the voices into the conversation – and we can’t have a fair and just society without that.”

To end, Phakeng said the heterogeneity represented by the students meant being able to tap into their different knowledges, part of UCT’s drive to decolonise knowledge.

“What matters is not only that we [the university] have diverse people, in terms of race and gender, from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences but it’s more important that they are heard. And that what they bring to the table is used and shapes what emerges.”

Stars in our eyes

The striking new d-school building that was officially opened at the d-confestival is another example of how the university marries sustainability in an environmental sense with purpose.

“The design and construction absolutely complemented the purpose of the building,” said UCT’s director of Environmental Sustainability, Manfred Braune.

“It was designed from the start to meet world-leading green building principles, aiming for a 6-star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council South Africa,” Braune added. “All of this provides a healthy environment for students in the building and maximises their experience in the space, while also doing as little harm to the environment as possible.

“If the 6-star Green Star rating is achieved, it will be the first 6-star-rated academic building on the continent,” said Braune.

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