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World Design Capital 2014 and the makings of Our City

After hearing about the World Design Capital 2014 (WDC 2014), and Cape Town as the victorious city for this year-long event, it left many people – like myself – puzzled about what exactly this accolade means, and more importantly, what it would mean for Cape Town as a whole. Cape Town, while considerably pleasing on the eye, does not immediately strike one as a hub of innovative design. There are certainly pockets of dedicated design activity – the Fringe and the newer Woodstock Exchange among them – but as a city, Cape Town still has much to do. The Cape Town Design NPC serves as the presiding not-for-profit organisation over the WDC 2014, and firmly recognise the social and infrastructure shortcomings of the city, and is attempting to integrate Cape Town through design. “Bridging the Divide” one of the four themes running throughout the vision for WDC 2014, is a firm recognition of Cape Town as a starkly divided city, and that aims to address the World Design Capital organisation’s focus on “design’s impact on urban spaces, economies and citizens”.  

In July I attended the second ‘Design Dialogues’, an open discussion about the structure of the World Design Capital event, and a chance to see some of the shortlisted projects pooled from the first round of open submissions. The shortlisted presentations ranged from space-saving living solutions in the ‘Nested Bunkbed’ design; ‘Nicky’s Drive’, a collaboration between CPUT and Nicky Abdinor which aims to bring mobility to the disabled through joystick enabled driving; the ‘Dressing the Princess project’ which aims to revitalise the Princess Vlei and its surrounds through projects that include the local community; and Studio 17, a commercial project space at the V&A Waterfront, focusing on local businesses and job creation. After the event my friends and I talked about our expectations of the presentations, and how these were exceeded or significantly sold short. A close friend commented, “I don’t know, I guess I was expecting more… design.” I quickly realised that collective perceptions of design needed to change, that we need to stop seeing design as a pretty veneer on top of utility, and openly consider how design can actively respond to the city without getting our heads too far in the clouds.

In her address at the second ‘Design Dialogues’, chairperson of the Cape Town Design Network, Leanne Burton, spoke about the World Design Capital as a time to “connect with your context”, and an important opportunity for designers and other civic-minded people to collaborate. Collaboration is also a big theme for the WDC 2014 itself, as it plans to collaborate with Infecting the City, the Cape Town Festival and more recently, on the Open Design Festival at the City Hall. But how can ordinary Capetonians get involved? Priscilla Urqhart, PR manager at the World Design Capital NPC, said that Capetonians can start their involvement by identifying problems in communities that can be solved through design, or by volunteering their time, support and mentorship in local events or projects.

In order to find out more about this impending event to descend on our city, I decided to find out more about the World Design Capital recipient for 2012 – Helsinki, Finland. Bearing in mind that Helsinki is a completely different kind of city, with its own unique concerns and challenges, it is interesting to see which programs implemented in Helsinki in 2012 have endured and continue to impact the city positively. ‘Restaurant Day’ is one of these projects. When asked which profession they would rather be doing, a large proportion of Helsinki citizens said that they would like to be in the culinary business. “When anyone can open a restaurant for a day”, ‘Restaurant Day’ features pop-up restaurants in a market-like fashion run by ordinary Helsinki citizens. The project has taken place eight times in various locales around the city and its surrounds, and recently celebrated its 1st anniversary.  Post-World Design Capital 2012 reports have cited a considerable increase in tourism to the city, as well as a considerably bigger impact on the economy than was initially projected.

Broadly speaking there is much that differentiates Helsinki from Cape Town. In light of some of these more obvious differences, it is my personal opinion it is unlikely that the legacy of World Design Capital 2014 will include ‘Restaurant Day’, but something that aims to improve the lives of Capetonians through active citizenship, and a strategic move away from ‘beautifying design’ to sustainable design. Although there remains some serious – and cautious – scepticism about the coming year, it is important that Capetonians accept the open invitation to engage with programmed events, and make an effort to find out a little more about design, and what it can do to improve society.

Are you a volunteer for the World Design Capital 2014, or someone who wants to get involved? Contact us at editor@platformonline.co.za! Creation is looking for contributors interested in the WDC 2014 and its events.


Written by Amie Soudien for a now-defunct section of Platform called ‘Creation’.

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