George Gibbens is using design to tackle South Africa's social problems

The industrial designer has designed a VR device to help the visually impaired, a portable machine to fight shack fires and more.

One of the factors that makes it difficult to put out shack fires in informal settlements is that often, the homes are built so close to each other that it is difficult for emergency services to make their way through.

This means that they have to park on the main road, which is not always close to the source of the fire. In the meantime, residents often resort to using buckets to help put out the fires.

It was in thinking of a design solution to this problem that industrial designer George Gibbens developed Vuurvugter. 

 The machine has a narrow wheelbase which makes it easy for a person to move it through narrow passages. It can hold up to 65 litres of water, which is more than one would be able to carry had they been using a bucket.

Because it can be pulled using a strap that is tied around ones waist, it leaves your hands free to be able to use a hose or help move things out of the way. 

“A design needs to solve a problem. This has been my approach to design for the past few years. In recent times I have kept this philosophy towards design, although I've become more and more aware of the bigger societal and philosophical impact design can have,” says Gibbens.


As part of this year's Design Indaba Emerging Creatives programme, Gibbens exhibited one of his latest products called RUIM. The VR device (worn over ones head) was developed to make it easier for people who are visually impaired to be able to navigate their surroundings.

The device uses Lidar emitters and receivers to track objects and obstacles around the user. This information is the translated into haptic vibrations on the wearer's head.

There are also infrared emitters and receivers at the front of the headset to do more detailed tracking as well as two image sensors that track the colour of the environment, before translating it into temperature flactuations of the surface of the skin.

With a background in 3-D design, the CPUT graduate says his studies have made him a different designer from the one he was when he started.

His most popular product design is the Vasser, a hand operated washing machine that does not use electricity. He says the device is aimed specifically at people who life in informal settlements where there is often no electricity or running water.

The Wasser can wash up to a week's laundry in one go and the odd shape of the container prevents water from spilling out.

He says: "With all my projects, I try to resolve everyday problems with radical new solutions. Instead of simply treating the symptoms I go straight for the cause".


Gibbens, who is based in Cape Town says he is currently trying to think of design-related solutions to issues like the drought in the city. He's also working to change the way the government and businesses view design as something more than just a marketing tool but a force for social change. 

Applications for the 2020 Design Indaba Emerging Creatives programme are now open!  APPLY NOW!

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