​The Innovator:
Oliver Brain

Words: Roger Young
Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

Cape Town as World Design Capital 2014 has focused attention on designers of all stripes. But not all design is flashy, or even visible. The Red Bulletin meets six Mother City brains who are re-imagining how the city sees itself.

Tension breeds creativity, and Cape Town does not lack for tension with the most expensive real estate in Africa squeezed between picturesque mountains and pristine beaches, a vibrant emerging pan-African community, a dominant creole-Malay Muslim culture, hipster creative industries, and low-income ghettoes that encircle the city, themselves a poisonous legacy of political spatial design. When Cape Town was named World Design Capital 2014, the function of design itself was thrown into question. But many of the contradictions highlighted by the award were already being focused on by Cape Town’s brightest re-thinkers: designers who see contradictions as an opportunity for re-imagination, a chance for the city to create a new way of experiencing the world. 

The Red Bulletin meets six Mother City brains who are re-imagining how the city sees itself.

Next up: The innovator Oliver Brain 

Oliver Brain was uncomfortable with the anxiety he felt around the homeless and the way the homeless were seen in society. Upon learning that waterproof billboard materials could be up-cycled into bags, an idea struck: design a waterproof outdoors sleeping solution as a bulwark against Cape Town’s notorious weather.  

“Society doesn’t treat homeless people like people. Why should we define people by where they sleep?”


He set himself a challenge: rapid prototyping. From idea to prototype, one bag on the street, in two weeks. He got his grandma’s sewing machine out the cupboard and made the first Street Sleeper himself.

Brain soon realised that he didn’t have the manufacturing skills and bought in machinist Chawal Wadi. “I tried myself, but they’re really difficult to make, so I asked him to make me four different prototypes.”

Getting the Street Sleepers into usage also proved to be a challenge.  “The first few bags came back in tatters. I asked the user why, and he said he just put all his stuff in it and it was too small. So we swapped that bag out and we analysed it: we looked at the seams, the pockets and the wear points.”

Not only did this challenge help Brain come to terms with the design process, it also helped him see a way to give value back to the people who would be using the bags.

“I go back a week or two later and ask for feedback – things that I would never think about, because I’m not homeless. You can’t just give them a solution and think you’ve solved the problem.” 

Initially the Street Sleepers came with a head-slip to protect the user from the rain, but Brain soon learned that no-one was going to use it. On the streets you always have to keep an eye out, and the head-slip decreased visibility. 

Other innovations followed. The sleeping bags are built deep and wide for multiple blankets and to provide storage space for valuables. The waterproof billboard material provides insulation, negating the need for padding which in turn prevents them from soaking up moisture. And the bag folds into a sling bag that can carry up to 50L of possessions.

Street Sleeper’s website empowers people to donate or distribute bags. Brain wants a platform that allows people to interact with homeless people, or change their situation, however slightly.

“I’m not protective over the idea,” he says. “I want to bring as many people in as possible who want to help out.”

Recently he was approached by a group in Cape Town’s northern suburbs who knew of thirty-five homeless people in their area but couldn’t raise all the money to pay for the bags. Through crowd funding, Street Sleeper subsidised the rest of the costs.

“It’s not up to me to meet every homeless person; this is part of the essential design of the project,” continues Brain, who then encouraged the northern suburbs group to meet and get to know the people they were gifting the bags to.

Says Brain: “Maybe Street Sleepers replicate some of the feelings associated with home, but that’s not the intention. It’s not a replacement for a home. It’s about dealing with an immediate need. To make people feel safe, warm and valued.”

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12 2014 The Red Bulletin

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