Designing a world capital

By on April 22, 2013

At first glance, Cape Town’s title of  World Design Capital 2014 might hold as much weight as being voted the friendliest city: nice to have but with limited leveraging potential. But this assumption ignores the power of design as a socio-economic development solution, reports Annalize Rossouw.

In 2011, when Cape Town was crowned World Design Capital for 2014 (WDC2014), it became the first African city to get the nod from this prestigious initiative created by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.

“The aim of the WDC event is to highlight how design can be used for social, economic and cultural development,” explains Gillian Benjamin, board member of the WDC2014 implementation company Cape Town Design and owner of design studio Make Content.

“We need people to move away from the notion of design being object-based, like a beautifully designed dress, a slick phone or a streamlined car. The underlying aim of the WDC designation is to get people to understand how design can improve everyday life and to broaden peoples’ notion to include the design of processes and services.”

To illustrate this, she points out that using limited available resources to design a new administration process for clinic patients could eliminate the need for taking a day off work just to see a doctor. “If this process can be rethought and an improvement made that makes life easier for sick patients, then design has been used in a small way to transform life.”

She adds that innovative thinking could also shape the country’s economic future. For instance, not being able to compete with countries like China has decimated South Africa’s textile industry. But by growing the country’s ‘knowledge economy’, raw products could be beneficiated to add value to our manufacturing and export industries, and to create employment.

“A crucial element of WDC2014 is to promote Cape Town as a destination for design and innovation excellence, specifically in the emerging-market domain, where we face challenges related to rapid urbanisation, such as sanitation and basic service delivery,” agrees Anton Groenewald, the City of Cape Town’s Executive Director of Tourism, Events and Marketing. Groenewald represents the city on the board of Cape Town Design.

Reports from WDC2012 – Helsinki, Finland – is that design has been used to find solutions and make improvements in industries as diverse as airport security, workwear, signage, library services and healthcare.

Furthermore, the international exposure Cape Town is already attracting through this accolade will boost various local industries including tourism.

It’s all about the people 

Cape Town was up against developed cities such as Dublin, Ireland, and Bilbao, Spain, on the shortlist for the WDC2014 title. So what gave Cape Town the edge?

Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana is managing director of the Cape Town Partnership, the organisation responsible for having co-ordinated Cape Town’s WDC bid. She says, “Of all the cities bidding, Cape Town had a compelling story – a story of inspiration and hope against a history of deep struggling in an era when separation was key. Cape Town’s problems are really upfront and we exhibit signs that we’re able to use design as a key ingredient of development looking forward.”

Makalima-Ngewana adds that the world has acknowledged that cities are about people. Cape Town’s bid book for the WDC2014 title clearly illustrates this. The first page is filled with responses from residents to the question “What makes Cape Town a great design city?” The answers varied from “Great ideas are born on the Table” to “The mother city: old enough for history, young enough for change and innovation.”

Local is lekker 

This idea is underlined by Groenewald and Benjamin, who both believe that the WDC2014 encourages strong resident participation. “Resident involvement is really the core of what the WDC is about. It’s about getting people to conceptualise what they want in their city or an issue they want to tackle, and then getting them to design a process, a service or a spatial intervention that they think will improve the situation,” states Benjamin.

Local participation and strategic partnerships are key components for the success of the year-long event.

Six signature events and several smaller ones will make up the programme for 2014. The content covered by these events will be based on the projects that Cape Town Design will select to showcase during the year. A call for submissions from the public of envisaged or current projects has been scheduled for early this year. These projects should address a social issue they’ve identified and detail the design innovation they’ve created as a solution.

Benjamin elaborates: “We are currently developing six themes for the submissions and the criteria for the submissions. They will be judged on these criteria, as well as the financial viability of the proposal. Proposals from people who have given thought to additional funding plans or potential partnerships may have a better chance of selection.

“We foresee events like exhibitions, participatory design weekends, pop-up shops, design walks, and new temporary uses for our public spaces,” she says.

Several opportunities, ranging from knowledge collaboration to corporate sponsorships, exist for partnerships.

“A key element of effective design solutions relating to economic and social development is collaboration,” explains Groenewald.

“We see partnerships as critical to the ability to collaborate. The WDC2014 gives us an opportunity to collaborate on both a local and international level, and it is important for us to leverage this opportunity.”

Specifically, R60m needs to be raised to help fund the project. This will be done through corporate sponsorship – and companies with a strong African footprint will be targeted, according to Makalima-Ngewana.

Partnership and collaboration are also one of the goals for showcasing the selected projects. “While the [WDC2014] designation is city-based, we will use it to connect with other cities in the country and the continent. It is a great opportunity for the design community to interface with other designers in Accra, Nairobi or Kigali. We must use the year to build an African design scene that speaks to African aesthetics, problems and identity, instead of looking towards Europe for inspiration,” Benjamin concludes.


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