Designing for Survival

Richard Perez

Richard Perez: how design in the city is being utilised so that ordinary people’s lives can be improved.

Richard Perez, the man in charge of the City of Cape Town’s programme for World Design Capital 2014 speaks to Murray La Vita about how design in the city is being utilised so that ordinary people’s lives can be improved.

Cities must start innovating, as was the case with the private sector in 2008 after the global financial crisis.

“We must start developing new ways to solve problems and offer new products. The public sector is also starting to feel this. “Budgets are limited, problems are becoming more complex and cities are becoming larger and larger,” says Richard Perez, director of the team appointed by the City of Cape Town to manage its status as World Design Centre Capital 2014.

“One would hope that the discussion we started with WDCC, and the role design plays in this innovation discussion will deliver an important contribution – it is essential.

“There is a saying the private sector: Innovate or die.

“If you as a company don’t innovate, you won’t survive. Look at Kodak … Blackberry is going through this at present – there are plenty of examples.

“There is a global discussion at present about how essential it is that innovation should be part of the DNA of the public sector.”

Perez’s team consists of 10 people who operate from the 14th floor of the Standard Bank building in Cape Town. He was appointed director in June 2012.
“We have a three-year mandate - to the middle of 2015 – create an awareness of design. Our purpose is to use design to improve service delivery. We want to establish design-centred thought in all aspects of the city.

“It’s a long-term strategy by which WDCC will be used to get that discussion off the ground.”

Perez uses his hands to illustrate: “Here is design and here is the public sector – how can the two work together to promote socio-economic growth in the city?”
What are the challenges to promote design thinking in the City Council and in the public sector?

“It’s a new language, it’s a new way of thinking. We use the term design-driven thought and that means the end-user must be central from the start.

“They should be continually considered because it is for them you are developing this concept. It’s a service.”

It’s no good to design projects in the office, you need to go out and speak to people affected and understand their perspective.

So the involvement of the public is essential in a way by which the City doesn’t usually interact with its citizens.

Instead of saying: Here are three solutions, which do you like the most? You say: Here is the problem. What do you think should be the solution?

“If you are planning a transport system, speak to the commuters. If you are planning a health system, speak to the patients.

“This is what innovators do. Nokia, Samsung, Apple, Procter & Gamble – they ask consumers what they require of products.

“It is also important to include other parties – consult them and work with them. Consult other departments and encourage them to co-operate. For example, if you are looking at a health system, involve the transport sector because it could add value to the discussion.

“There are many projects where this system works well.

“But the question is: How do we institutionalise this mindset in the City?

“The third aspect would be creativity – How do we stimulate people to be creative, to come up with new ideas, not only in the council itself, but also when someone knocks on the council’s door with an outstanding idea – how to develop it?

“The challenge is to send it through the City’s bureaucracy and regulations, which can be stumbling blocks.”

To initiate the design concept in the council management the team has become involved in adjacent projects and processes.

“We are offering new concepts. The professional language of design is not always compatible with the professional language of the public sector. The question is, how to translate the ‘professional’ language into something the public is comfortable with?

Our role is to raise awareness about how design values can contribute to the whole - it is not only about architecture, vehicle design, graphic design or product design - it is a way of thinking that can be used as a strategic instrument in service delivery.

We have 70 or 80 projects where good design principles are used. (See Cape Town Green Map)

“This includes projects like the Green Point Urban Park, the MYCiti bus service, the SAPS computer system. We also offered working sessions to add value to these projects, said Perez.

The Good Hope Centre is also an example of utilising public sector know-how to find a solution.

The Department of Tourism, Marketing and Special Events had headaches about the future of the Good Hope Centre. All interested parties we included in a discussion and from that emerged five concepts that are now being considered.

It was the desire of Mayor Patricia de Lille that every citizen in all 111 wards of the City of Cape Town should be touched by the WDCC.

“It is not necessarily possible, but we wanted to visit every ward and initiate a project that involved the residents,” said Perez, “so they would be able to give form to their city.”

About 50 working sessions were planned. So far we have completed 13. We ask the residents to look for solutions and then invite them to be part of the design process.

“Most of the problems focused on the upgrading of parks, traffic crossroads and safety.

Once we have identified the problems, we have a day-long session with the residents of the area. We invite professional designers, officials of the city with connections to the problems, students and a professional facilitator.

This process concentrates on encouraging residents to find meaningful ways of spending their annual budget of R700,000.

“We work with the city councillor. We ask what the budget is and which problem or problems they want to tackle. Thus the money can be used for items that the citizens choose and which are important to them.”

Perez reckons that limits can lead to greater creativity, and if the City of Cape Town uses that creativity creatively then it could be the best Design Capital of the World the world has yet seen.

Richard Perez has a BSc Engineering and Masters Degree in Innovation-design-engineering from the Royal College of Art in London.
The focus of the MBA he attained at the University of Cape Town was on the role of limits to creative processes and the posit that limits can lead to more creative solutions.