Storytelling is Another Side of What the WDC is About

Rory Williams @carbonsmart

Let people tell their stories as fodder for the designers, suggests Rory Williams.

There is a placebo effect in public places.

Imagine a neglected public park that is full of rubbish, seen as dangerous and avoided by everyone. And consider another one that is full of children and watchful parents. I can think of examples of both kinds that have the same basic design, located in similar neighbourhoods, so what’s the difference?

Belief. If we think a place is safe and attractive, we’ll go there. And because we go there, our neighbours do too. Activity generates more activity, which keeps it safe. This is the power of small things that, if they spread, can transform the city.

But if we can’t see this happening, it doesn’t grow. And of course, it can easily go the other way. A place that is well-used for years suddenly has stories circulating about people who would be a bad influence on youngsters, and regardless of whether they are true or not, they will have an effect on how that place is used.

I don’t believe this is justification for putting a positive spin on everything.

Coming from politicians, the call for “good news reporting” is self-serving. Coming from others, it's a desire to hide from the more depressing aspects of society's failures.

So what could create positive change, so that positive words aren’t just spin? Often the inspiring stories are those that talk of overcoming adversity - not pretending that everything is great, but showing how someone took a negative circumstance and turned it around. Perhaps those kinds of stories about community can make a difference.

I have a sense that Cape Town has the potential for a lot more self-improvement than we are hearing about, and I am not sure if the stories simply aren’t being told, or if they aren’t happening as much as they should.

My wish for this coming year, as Cape Town dons the World Design Capital mantle, is that there will be more outlets for the “little stories”, the quiet struggles and successes.

Who will do an updated version of what Drum did for urban South Africans in the 1950s? Where will we see something bigger than personal blog posts that are read by a few friends and family members, and smaller than news stories that have a wide enough appeal to make it into newspapers or magazines?

Storytellers are like sports players who develop within an ecosystem of schools and lower league teams that nurture raw talent and help the best make it through to the big leagues. There is value at all levels, including the ones that don't make the editor's cut. Value to the storyteller, and value to niche audiences. The challenge is to create the environment for the storytellers to grow, where readers and writers can find each other.

There are many avenues for this, like blogs linked to online aggregators that pick interesting stories that reach a wider audience. But we need more of these specifically for Cape Town.

Telling stories is how people process their own experiences, but also how we can get a clearer picture of who Cape Town is and what she needs. A newspaper provides a very narrow snapshot that is carefully curated. And that's important, but we also need thousands of verbal and visual selfies that are easier to find.

Why? All of this storytelling is another side of what the WDC is about: providing a platform for people to create their future. “Live Design. Transform Life.” Telling a story is one part of the act of creation. Getting out there, building confidence and doing stuff will follow as people are inspired by others.

We don't need citizens to replace professional designers, but to help designers by revealing the truths about Cape Town and what is needed for her to be a nurturing Mother City.

And if we think about it, it’s clear that we rely on this a lot. Regardless of advances in theory, a lot of design is trial and error. Why do we do pilot projects, trial programmes and other experiments to check designs and products before general release, if not because theory isn't enough?

Let people tell their stories as fodder for the designers. And let the citizen-led projects on the WDC programme be just the start of a surge of activity that grows in the following years.

Man About Town: Rory Williams   Twitter: @carbonsmart