If the City of Johannesburg was a fashion item, what would it look like? What aspects of the Big Smoke would the garment depict? The colours? The architecture? The infrastructure? The energy? The urban information?

These were questions posed to three influential fashion designers hailing from South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, who were asked to take part in FABRIC, a design project initiated by electronics and automation company Siemens.

The designers were challenged to create three unique outfits each, using carefully crafted fabrics that were woven with patterns that were inspired by important urban data that had been extracted from each city.

Siemens collected the vast amounts of data from Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg, most of which aerially, and the information was digitised into patterns that were then woven into fabrics. These fabrics were used by each designer to create bespoke garments that tell an urban story – a truth, if you will – about the city from where each designer came.

The unique patterns that were embedded in the fabrics were inspired by city-centric information such as power grids, shipping, transport structures, population densities, road infrastructure and railways.

How a Siemens digitisation project has created fashions unique to three African cities.

“As urbanisation rapidly increases, cities need to start preparing for the effects it will have on infrastructure, energy, water and transportation systems,” said Siemens group communications head Keshin Govender. “All these things will have an impact on how we will live — and people need to understand this impact!”

Data collection offers insight into what makes a city tick, and it helps governments make calculated decisions when improving town planning and service delivery to the people. Important information on urbanisation needs to be brought to the people, and what better way to do so than through the universal language of fashion and design?

“Sectors such as the motor industry have already adopted smart technology, but the real opportunity for Africa lies in sectors where smart technology has not yet been explored, let alone implemented,” said Govender. These sectors include manufacturing, energy and transportation, for example. Digitisation is a remarkable opportunity for Africa, which will result in the establishment of new industries and new jobs while exponentially increasing skills development and contributing to GDP. This is the message that Siemens most wanted to share with the world and chose to do so in this unique way.

Meet the digi-designers

The intricate garments were created by John Kaveke (from Kenya), Zizi Cardow (from Nigeria) and Palesa Mokubung (from South Africa), who used the available data, and associated patterning, to create fabric designs which were used in their unique fashion pieces. South Africa’s Palesa Mokubung said that the project had transformed her way of thinking: “It opened so many new elements of inspiration for me, it’s like I am only truly experiencing Johannesburg now,” she said. “I see Johannesburg in a new light. It is much more dynamic now with many hidden opportunities underneath its highways, its pipes and its houses. I’m forever changed when it comes to what I do and how I see my city.”

Nairobi-born John Kaveke said there was no better way to tell the story than through fashion. “Fashion and technology are a universal language and the two combined create a formidable team,” he said.

Lagos-based Zizi Cardow said: “It’s time Africa equipped itself with information. Africa is often overlooked in terms of technology and science so pushing forward on these incredibly important aspects is the next step to propel the continent. Having more data about Africa means understanding our nations better and equipping ourselves to solve the problems we face.”

Spotlight on Palesa Mokubung (South Africa)

The highly talented Palesa Mokubung used data from three significant Johannesburg areas that will be greatly impacted by future development. These areas were the Gillooly’s Interchange, Sandton and Newtown.

Why Gillooly's?

Data and design: Gillooly’s is the busiest interchange in the Southern Hemisphere and accommodates one of the world’s top 50 largest urban areas. More than 200 000 vehicles pass through it every day on 12 possible routes. Data shows that 65% of present-day traffic at Gillooly’s is made up of minibus taxis, and the pressure on the road’s infrastructure is considerable. With 20 million people expected in Johannesburg by 2030, and with data also showing that most new vehicles annually are purchased in Gauteng, Gillooly’s may not be able to accommodate the escalating number of vehicles in the future. The design aspects used included the curvature of the Interchange and the parallel alignment of surrounding roads.

Why Newtown?

Data and design: Newtown is home to the largest railway station in Africa, which began operating in 1888. Some of its biggest challenges include its old and dilapidated railway infrastructure, long queues, overcrowding and unreliable trains. Johannesburg will be a megacity by 2030, inhabited by around 20-million people, and so public transport will need to cater to this growing population.

The "Newtown" fabric details Johannesburg’s Park Station, its 1 700 coaches in service and the 340 000 journeys it makes per day. Another interesting aspect of the design is the data on the city’s water supply. Johannesburg Water supplies 1 515 megalitres of potable drinking water per day, despite consumption being 1 610 megalitres of water per day. The slow rate of pipe replacement was further negatively affected by budget deferments, while theft and vandalism of water infrastructure resulted in frequent water interruptions. On the upside, the drinking water quality standard on E.coli was 99.9% against a target of 99%, which is amazing!

Why Sandton?

Data and design: Sandton's CBD is regarded as the economic and commercial hub of Johannesburg. Data on Sandton indicates that high traffic volumes coupled with the construction of new businesses will put substantial pressure on road infrastructure in the next few years. Sandton currently hosts more than 10 000 businesses and accounts for 50% of all commercial property construction in South Africa. More than 700 000 people travel into Sandton daily! In the next ten years, this will increase considerably as data shows that 300 000 new private vehicles are sold annually in South Africa – with the majority purchased in Gauteng. 

Besides the business and traffic, the "Sandton" fabric outlines the magnificent tree canopy in Johannesburg. This is important because it contributes to lowering urban temperatures by blocking shortwave radiation and increasing water evaporation. Trees also mitigate air pollution caused by daily urban activities, and its root systems help avoid floods during severe rains. Cities around the world are realising the importance of trees and are developing strategies to increase their canopy cover. Johannesburg has a 23.6% tree canopy, which is considerably higher than London (12.7%), Los Angeles (15.2%) and Paris (8.8%). All of this information appears in a design interpretation of the fabrics.