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The World Design Capital project should be used as an opportunity to focus on developing change strategies following a bigger vision.

Although, there had been hopes for an economic boost which did not materialise in the form it was anticipated, South Africa’s FiFa World Cup 2010 was a success story. The deliverables were clearly set: Build stadiums, manage infrastructure, and provide safety for an event that would merely endure 4 weeks. In turn, the deliverables for World Design Capital 2014 are far from clear, a fact which on one hand provides an opportunity to shape the scope around the unique requirements and capacity of the region, but also bears the risk of disappointed expectations on the other.

The World Design Capital project should be used as an opportunity to focus on developing change strategies following a bigger vision, instead of settling in on preconceived expectations for solutions.

Almost a year ago, Cape Town was designated ICSID World Design Capital 2014. Since the announcement, its protagonists and the public opinion, articulated in the media, have put forward a heated discussion around what the World Design Capital could possibly mean for Cape Town and its people.

Those involved in the bidding process and cognisant of the vision behind ICSID’s programme understood that – since Cape Town suffered from a legacy which used design and urban planning to create division amongst people -, it would need a re-design to bridge these previously built divides. The World Design Capital designation would be the big opportunity to create a focal point on design and use it for the greater good of the city.

The general public, however, had yet to be informed about the value of design beyond the creation of luxury goods and pretty gadgets and how it could possibly affect the lives of ordinary citizens. The underlying suspicion is legitimate since the term “design” is most prominently used when it comes to its ability to distinguish products in highly competitive markets. Here, where aesthetics informed by design differentiate products by material, form and colour, which are otherwise similar, design becomes a tool to create a notion of exclusivity and class and not equality.

This in mind, I am not at all surprised about some critics’ cynicism in prospect of Cape Town’s World Design Capital title. How could a discipline that seems to only cater for the ones who can afford it, benefit a city in which massive numbers of citizens are cut off from basic services and opportunities?

In response to these concerns, over the last year, the protagonists of World Design Capital 2014 have consistently referred to design as a change-maker, a catalyst for economic development and a tool to solve problems around rapid urbanisation and service delivery. In the meantime, this view has been wholeheartedly embraced by the officials of the City of Cape Town. No doubt, the big success of World Design Capital so far is the enthusiasm and support of Mayor Patricia de Lille and other City of Cape Town officials. I had the pleasure to be part of the Cape Town delegation with De Lille at the IDA Conference (International Design Association) in Taipei in November 2011. Apart from the successful winning city announcement ceremony, IDA hosted a fascinating conference, which faithfully represented design activity and the value of design discourse ‘at the edges’ across various fields of application from IT to Urbanism. I saw with my own eyes an ‘enlightened’ mayor who sparked with enthusiasm when coming out of the conference sessions, even before Cape Town was announced World Design Capital 2014.

The City has also proven great foresight when establishing a mayoral task force with representatives from public sector, academia and design professionals, to set up a non-governmental organisational structure for World Design Capital. It seemed clear from the start that a multi-sectoral approach would be needed for this project. And as if to prove all critics wrong who worried about designers being left astray in the corridors of power, Cape Town signed up designer Richard Perez to lead the World Design Capital Project at the City Council.

All levers are set to ‘go’, one would think. Only if there wasn’t still the pressing question of the scope of World Design Capital and what the actual deliverables are. Admittedly, there is an ICSID-prescribed programme of 6 events, one of which was the recently held signing ceremony of the host city agreement. The events consist of a conference, a (New Year) design festival, an exhibition and other platforms to showcase design achievements of a city worthy of a World Design Capital. The stakes are high, since Cape Town’s campaign promises nothing less than to ‘transform life’ through design. And yes, design can, does, and will transform life. It always does. But what are Cape Town’s specific goals and targets and what will we present to the world in 2014? This remains to be discovered.

Mayor De Lille stuck her head out and exclaimed at the World Design Capital Forum at the beginning of the year that ‘each ward in Cape Town will have its World Design Capital project’. The message is good, WDC needs to be for all citizens. But what does it mean ‘to have a project’?

To create a fertile ground for innovation, the World Design Capital project needs to create a space for experimentation and incubation out of the ordinary.

Let’s take a step forward. One could rightfully assume that the world’s ‘design attention’ will be directed at Cape Town in 2014. Not only the ICSID authorities and international urbanists are hopeful to be presented with innovative ways of tackling issues common to the urbanised developing world like housing, jobs, sanitation, and mobility. Likewise, prominent local voices have been heard who believe that our unique position on the continent with access to resources and the knowledge economy, whilst facing fundamental developmental needs right at our doorstep, may be the key to innovation.

To create a fertile ground for innovation, the World Design Capital project needs to create a space for experimentation and incubation out of the ordinary. It cannot be business as usual with deliverables that are defined around boardroom tables.

Participatory design

Design is not per se doing a good job. History has shown us that design has always been used by the powers in charge to cement policy and transform life in a way that seemed appropriate for leading governments or industrial sectors. Commonly dictated by the powerful, design interventions, even the ones with the potential to do good, are seen with suspicion and often rejected by the ‘powerless’.

Therefore, the true potential for innovation ex South Africa lies in using design as a strategy for social innovation by developing tools for public participation in the design process. ‘Participatory design’ or ‘co-design’ is a logical conclusion since the engagement of major stakeholders is crucial to any design process. Well-trained design consultants are masters in facilitating human need, science and technology, and providing the conceptual frameworks for crucial interaction between the stakeholders. The uniqueness of the design discipline is that it is not a traditional discipline, in fact, it is a meta-discipline that administers and harnesses cross-disciplinary input, mediating and crafting interfaces between human needs and the application of technology.

Participatory design is imperative to the situation in Cape Town and South Africa. It is not a new thing and has been given various names in the past. However, current administrative structures do not allow for participatory design processes.

The need for experimentation

Equally disadvantageous, there is no room for experimentation in developmental strategies of the City. Unique contexts require unique solutions, thus, cities need to actively develop custom-made solutions for their specific needs with their citizens. A given in any design process are mock-up’s, models, prototypes and finally the pilot implementation. Only the continuous testing and evaluation of design measures can guarantee a positive outcome. The absence of these critical design processes in governmental service delivery leads to flawed and seemingly unreflected implementation that are often rejected by the community.

World Design Capital 2014 – an opportunity to find the right process

Bearing in mind these critical shortcomings in current developmental strategies, the true challenge and opportunity of the World Design Capital project is clear. The goal for Cape Town must be to lay foundations for participation and experimentation in city developmental strategies. A possible showcase for 2014 to be proud of would be a series of trial and error interventions that explore tools that bring designers, community stakeholders, city and businesses together in one process. Much more than focussing on the delivery of solutions and concepts, and managing the citizen’s expectations thereof, it is imperative to facilitate participatory design, so the city in turn can expect from its citizens to become the owners of their World Design Capital.