WDC 2014 – What does this mean for Cape Town?

Spectacular launch of WDC 2014 - Bruce Sutherland l CoCT

Prof Francis W Petersen explains the theme “Live Design, Transform Life” points to transformative design thinking in the development challenges of the city.

The City of Cape Town has been awarded the status of World Design Capital (WDC) 2014 – a prestigious designation from the International Council for Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) to cities across the globe to show their commitment to using design as a social, cultural and economic development tool. The inaugural World Design Capital in 2008 was Turin in Italy, followed by Seoul in South Korea in 2010 and Helsinki in Finland in 2012. 

The theme for WDC 2014 is “Live Design, Transform Life” – a clear focus of transformative design thinking in the development challenges of the city.

Following a spectacular New Year’s Eve celebration at the iconic Grand Parade in the city to usher in 2014 with the city’s new status, the question which needs to be raised is this: What does WDC mean for Cape Town and its people? It is definitely not a silver bullet offered by the world to provide solutions to the challenges of the city and to assist in making it a smart and successful city. Design could be seen as too sophisticated for ordinary Capetonians, and as a tool or concept that is used only by a learned community which has mastered the art of conceptual thinking, spatial configurations and critical engagement. The overall connectivity between the citizens of Cape Town and design as a transformative mechanism which can be applied in so many spheres of society can therefore be misplaced. 

World Design Capital 2014 provides a moment to reflect, and an opportunity to realise the intrinsic value and potential of the citizens of Cape Town – creating a platform for the world to witness how the people of the City of Cape Town can, through the use of knowledge, design and innovation, assist in transforming the city socially, economically and culturally.

In order to use the opportunity optimally, it is important to understand the key challenges of the city, the skills, capabilities and value-add of the citizens, and the availability and the specific value-offerings of institutions/organisations to facilitate this transformative journey.

In a South African context, because of our political history, most of our cities have been divided socially, economically and culturally, with people being divided along racial lines and the urban poor moved to the fringes of the city, and in this respect the City of Cape Town is no different from the rest.  In fact, one can argue that it is through design (used as a tool) that this division has been manifested. The City of Cape Town has 3.7 million people (annual growth rate of 2%), with an economy driven mainly by financial and business services and tourism. 28% of the city’s residents are living in informal settlements, with effective social integration, unemployment (23%), housing, transportation and service delivery as some of the major challenges. Through the city’s Integrated Development Plan for Urban Sustainability, there is a dedicated focus on dealing with these challenges head on.

However, it is clear that inclusivity is key to ensuring that these challenges are resolved sustainably.  World Design Capital 2014 therefore needs to use design (or design thinking) and innovation to address social cohesion, not only promoting or profiling existing initiatives, but building on these, using business, government and community input with a clear and directed focus. Some of the best universities in South Africa are within the catchment area of the city, and I believe that more can be done to leverage the knowledge and innovation capabilities of these four institutions to create real meaning to the ”Live Design, Transform Life” theme.  Effective community engagement, co-design and open innovation, education and skills development and the shifting of boundaries of design thinking, multi-disciplinarity and Information Communications Technology (ICT) are contributions that could be expected from higher education institutions. Hence, it is not only our existing designers, innovators, entrepreneurs and community practitioners who need showcasing (leveraging the large international presence of designers, the media, exhibitions/conferences and visitors expected during 2014) and have the responsibility of using their competencies and skills for the overall betterment of the city, but is also our design and innovation thinkers of tomorrow – disciplines and institutions seamlessly engaging and shaping the minds of our younger generation to make a difference in and to the city.

Although each of these universities has the responsibility of engaging with the challenges of the city, World Design Capital 2014 must also ask for a collective response in this regard, and here, I believe, the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) could be an effective catalyst.

If the ordinary Capetonian does not feel part of the projects profiled by the World Design Capital 2014 or visibly experience positive quality-of-life impacts during 2014, then this particular moment would have been a missed opportunity in the broader context of inclusivity.

Therefore, it is encouraging that a large number of the 461 registered World Design Capital 2014 projects involve communities and civil society. The private sector and business community are crucial, not only to assist in tackling the challenges of the city, but to build a competitive, smart, creative and successful city. This drive should be underpinned by inward investment, appropriate collaboration with partners within the economic arena, ICT and innovation, and the creation of a platform where business and the private sector are more accessible. Individual companies, businesses and organisations such as WESGRO, Cape Town Partnership, Cape Town Tourism, Cape Town Accelerate and others need to ensure that World Design Capital 2014 is owned and profiled by constituencies they serve. It is not merely a marketing campaign, but a reinforcement and identification of sustainable plans to invigorate the economy of the city, thus creating an opportunity for an improvement in the quality of life of the people of Cape Town.

When Cape Town was awarded the status of World Design Capital 2014 by Icsid, it was the first city in a developing country to receive such an honour. Cape Town therefore also needs to drive design as a transformative tool in the context of the broader South Africa and Africa. Again, to what extent do designers or design thinkers across the continent, as in the case of ordinary Capetonians, feel part of the World Design Capital 2014? As indicated earlier, World Design Capital 2014 is a moment or an opportunity to reflect and to act, but it must build on those successful initiatives, plans and innovations already in place whether these are driven by the City of Cape Town, business, communities, schools or higher education institutions. Smart and successful cities are often characterised by a high capacity for learning and innovation, the creativity of their citizens and a supporting digital infrastructure for communication and knowledge management.

The success of World Design Capital 2014 will only be visible many years after 2014, driven through sustainable projects, innovative thinking and transformative design. Let us all ensure that 2014 provides the opportunity, through design, for the City of Cape Town to be an inclusive, smart and successful city!

Francis W Petersen
Dean of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town and a Board member of the Cape Town Design.