Atlantic Cities

Cape Town, Design Capital

Cape Town, Design Capital
warrenski/Flickr

Cape Town, South Africa, was recently awarded the title of World Design Capital 2014, a year-long designation bestowed by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. It’s an honor meant to highlight design as a tool for economic, social and cultural development in cities. Cape Town is the fourth city to earn the title. Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana led the bid for the title as managing director of the Cape Town Partnership, and she took a few minutes to answer our questions about what the title means for Cape Town and how she hopes it will contribute to the city’s evolution.

What makes Cape Town a design capital? What role does design play in the way the city works?

What makes Cape Town a World Design Capital is the evidence contained in our bid book – under the theme of ‘Live Design. Transform Life.’ The case studies in our bid show that, since 1994, Cape Town has applied design thinking to start rebuilding itself as a socially cohesive city, to reverse its inherited apartheid divides – by reconnecting the city through infrastructure – and in the process of repositioning itself for the knowledge economy as an inspiring, innovative and creative city. Cape Town, like every city on the globe, is facing dramatic challenges in terms of inward migration, population growth, climate change, and economic development, growth and inclusion. Evidence indicates that more than half the world’s population is now living in urban areas. Cities are facing dramatic changes in how they adapt to their rising populations, economic and climate change challenges. Cape Town’s resilience is therefore largely reliant on those who plan, design and manage its shared spaces and functions. The World Design Capital is a city promotion project that highlights the achievements of cities that are using design to improve their social, cultural and economic life, through a year-long program of design-related events and projects. The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) leads the World Design Capital program, with a particular focus on multidisciplinary design collaboration as a tool to improve cities. World Design Capital is not so much what we are, but where we want to be. The designation can support our long-term city visioning and strategy processes. It is the ultimate opportunity to focus on how to grow our knowledge economy, expand creative industries, and get more young people trained to get jobs or start businesses in these economic sectors.

What plans does the city have for its tenure as World Design Capital?

Our World Design Capital program will be developed through a consultative process with key stakeholders, much as our bid book was, and will include existing events and projects, and a number of potential new events, guided by ICSID. These include WDC Signing Ceremony; WDC New Year’s Eve of Design; WDC International Gala Dinner; WDC International Design House Exhibition; WDC International Design Policy Conference; WDC International Design Week Forum, and WDC Convocation Ceremony. We have also had incredible support and sharing from Helsinki who are the World Design Capital 2012, in terms of their lessons and what is working for them. We are only the fourth destination to win the title so there is still much to be learned and established about what a World Design Capital is and can be. We have already established a collaborative relationship with WDC2014 finalists, Bilbao and Dublin.

How will Cape Town’s role as World Design Capital reflect its role as one of the major cities in Africa, a continent that is urbanizing rapidly?

Cape Town’s bid for World Design Capital 2014 formed part of a broader vision to position Cape Town as a leading global city – a hub of creativity, knowledge, innovation and excellence – and to build on the City’s World Cup success and infrastructure. Cape Town’s bid was not about claiming that we are already an established ‘design capital brand’, but instead a bid to acknowledge that we are using design thinking as a tool for transformation. Bidding for and being designated World Design Capital 2014 is our city’s opportunity to use the energy of our present to re-imagine and reposition ourselves as a city that can use design to overcome our past, reconnect as people, and take us into a new future – a city poised to make an impact economically and socially. It’s also about growing a common vision for Cape Town as an inclusive, innovative, entrepreneurial and sustainable African city. We want to show what design can do for us and that investment in design is an investment in our future. Ours was a bid for the City, region, country and continent – an African bid.

What lessons have you learned from previous World Design Capitals?

At Seoul’s closing ceremony in December last year, mayor Oh Se-hoon, reflecting on the city’s year as the title holder of WDC2010 – with the theme of “Design for All” – emphasized that urban design was not merely a matter of “convenience, aesthetics and safety” but an “essential element for survival in the 21st century” in view of the “competition between cities for investment, tourism and talent as well as maintaining and raising the happiness index among its residents and visitors.” ICSID president Mark Breitenberg echoed Oh’s sentiments: “World Design Capital is more than just a project or a program – it’s a global movement towards an understanding that design does impact and affect quality of human life.” This is the core message we are building our WDC 2014 year around. As mentioned before, we have had much support from Helsinki. Our Mayor, Patricia de Lille, has spoken about organizing a festival of ideas where citizens, community organizations and businesses can bring ideas for what could happen in 2014. I know that Helsinki used that very successfully; they generated 1,400 ideas of which they are using 300. So it’s participatory and it takes design beyond just a design community and into the lives of our city and its citizens. And, of course, that’s what one wants, and I think that’s why the mayor said we want to focus on design for people, not people for design. In other words, our focus is on taking the discourse – the design discourse – out of what are still fairly rarefied circles down into everyday planning, everyday implementation, everyday discussion, to address the basic socioeconomic issues that we have got to face here – public transport and sanitation services in informal areas, and housing – so that’s very exciting.

Photo credit: warrenski/Flickr

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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