Yale students journey to Cape Town, South Africa to tackle water scarcity crisis

Early in 2018 Jessica Helfand joined 30 students from the Yale School of Management and the Yale School of Architecture for a trip from the Yale campus to an unlikely destination: the New Haven wastewater treatment plant. The students, who are taking Helfand’s course “Design as Utility: Luxury, Sustainability, Waste,” were there to learn about how the city uses its water supply and treats its sewage. Helfand also wanted them to get a glimpse at the functioning of a water system that most of us take for granted, because this spring they’ll be traveling together to a place facing a water crisis: Cape Town, South Africa.

This course is the second “design practicum” taught by Helfand, a renowned designer and a lecturer in design and management at Yale SOM. The practicum format gives students the opportunity to learn about problems impacting businesses and governments and help develop solutions. It also gives them practice at thinking and collaborating in areas that don’t fit easily into their respective academic and professional frameworks.

“You take architecture students and MBAs,” Helfand says. “You get them out of their respective buildings and to look at a topic that doesn’t have primarily to do with business or architecture. When you take them someplace where not many of them have really been, you’ve already leveled the playing field around knowledge. Then, you put them together in combined teams, and the ideas begin to get more involved and interesting.”

In South Africa, the class, working with Dr. Shaun Borstrock, Professor Mark Bloomfield, and Nick Lovegrove and students from the University of Hertfordshire, will be confronting one of the most vexing problems currently facing that country: water scarcity. Cape Town is heading toward “Day Zero”—projected for June 4—when the city is expected to exhaust its water supply after a nearly three-year drought. Multidisciplinary student teams from Helfand’s course will travel to Cape Town during spring break in March to work on water-related projects with hospitals, hotels, elder care facilities, townships, and wealthier suburbs. The collaboration includes a number of workshops where all students, working in teams will study the problem and devise a range of possible design solutions. The teams will base their work on first-hand experiences gained on site through a series of surveys and observational studies.

The idea is to get students to look for creative solutions to conservation for the short and long term while reconsidering what might be considered luxury or waste, Helfand says: “Say you’re working at a hospital and you find there’s an excess of bandages but they’re rationing water to make tea—do those bandages become filters for making tea? They’re not just looking at what can we recycle or upcycle in the circular economy around water procurement, conservation, and scarcity, but they’re looking at it in relation to an actual community.”

Melinda Agron ’18, a joint-degree student at Yale SOM and the School of Architecture, says that the course offers the chance to work at the intersection of her interests in design and business, while addressing a societal need. The course, she notes, is similar in spirit to a School of Architecture project in which students design homes for New Haven residents and try to accommodate practical solutions to a variety of housing challenges.

Agron’s team is working with an international hotel chain in Cape Town, looking at how the chain can use the crisis as a way to promote responsible tourism.

“We’re trying to take a bigger-picture approach to more diversified solutions beyond the water crisis,” Agron says. “How do we promote tourism without adding pressure on the resources that the residents already need when they’re limited? We’re thinking of a variety of approaches to frame the problem and then address it.”

In the weeks before the trip, students are meeting weekly for three-hour sessions with guest speakers including a landscape architect; an expert on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan; and a materials designer. During the trip, students will present their findings at a conference co-sponsored by Yale SOM and the University of Hertfordshire  in Cape Town titled “In Pursuit of Luxury,” which will examine luxury, sustainability, and waste.

Helfand says that she wants students to complete their visit to Cape Town feeling humbled and connected to their work.

“I want them asking themselves what it means to be humane and sustainable and if they’re designing products from their own privileged lens, or if they’re hearing the needs of the people on the ground. How do you go into a place for five days and leave a meaningful impact?”