The value of the World Design Capital 2014 for (South) Africa

In 2008, for the first time in human history, the number of people living in towns and cities surpassed that of people living in rural areas. This phenomenon is consistent across both developed and industrially developing regions of the world.

Cities are products of human ingenuity and applied technology – as we move progressively into the 21st Century they will continue to exert a significant influence on the way people live, work and interact with one another. Similarly, the powerful capacity of design to shape the world of products, built environments and related systems, imposes ethical demands for greater social responsibility and professional accountability. In their quest to become more humane places, cities must constantly adapt to accommodate the needs of both their residents and visitors alike. Furthermore, cities (like people) grow and learn from one another – and such responsive cities are ultimately more liveable, by design.
The World Design Capital is described as “a city promotion project that celebrates the accomplishments of cities that have used design as a tool to reinvent themselves and improve social, cultural and economic life”. Since 2008, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) designates a candidate city as the World Design Capital  (WDC) every second year. The inaugural WDC 2008 was Turin in Italy, followed by Seoul in South Korea as WDC 2010, and just recently, Helsinki in Finland, concluded its year as WDC 2012. The world’s attention is now firmly focused on Cape Town as WDC 2014 – the first city in Africa to receive this accolade.

The WDC designation for Cape Town re-invigorates efforts for design promotion in the region. In this regard, the pioneering and pivotal contribution of the SABS Design Institute in design promotion - both in South Africa and on the continent - needs to be acknowledged. The SABS Design Institute in Pretoria pioneered a number of key projects that created awareness of the potential of design in engaging with diverse socio-technical and economic challenges. These include the Design Achievers Awards, Design for Development projects and Design Excellence Awards.

Additionally, the SABS Design Institute demonstrated the value of community-centred design approaches through the successful hosting of two Icsid-endorsed Interdesign workshops. The first focused on Water (in 1999) and the second on Sustainable Rural Transport (in 2005). These two-week design workshops typically adopt participatory design methodologies in bringing together local and international designers with community members to co-design solutions for use in very specific local contexts.

Another key home-grown accomplishment that has established a proud tradition of design promotion over the last two decades, is the annual Design Indaba hosted in Cape Town. It is arguably the largest design conference and expo in the southern hemisphere and offers visitors the most comprehensive suite of contemporary design talent from across the world.

Design is widely recognised as a pivotal sector for adding value to a host of product, service and system interventions, as well as improving economic competitiveness for countries with high numbers of designers per capita. To this end, any efforts at industrialisation must interrogate the potential contribution of design to the local economy as well as help to foster vibrant design activity to ensure sustained socio-technical development. In South Africa, the Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP), championed by the Department of Trade and Industry, seeks to promote job creation by linking its industrialisation targets to innovation within selected economic sectors.

Africa is home to some of the world’s most robust economies and presently has the fastest growing mobile telephony market in the world. Novel mobile phone applications have evolved out of diverse innovation incubation hubs in response to latent needs identified on the continent. These are replicable in other majority world contexts with similar geopolitical realities. Such context-responsive solutions take cognisance of the challenges and aspirations of millions of our denizens, as well as providing micro-enterprise opportunities for many.

A number of exciting opportunities make Africa an important region to watch:
• the dynamic and predominantly youthful population;
• greater respect for democratic practices and human rights within the significant majority of the continent’s 54 states;
• a growing, motivated and well-educated middle-class;
• ever-expanding IT and mobile telephony platforms;
• expansive internet coverage and increasing broadband speeds;
• an emerging entrepreneurial culture particularly within the informal sector; and
• opportunities for cost-effective and affordable ‘Base-of-the-Pyramid’ products and services.

Notwithstanding, some critical challenges need to be addressed as a matter of urgency if Africa is to indeed leapfrog into a more sustainable and socially equitable future:
• widespread poverty and economic stagnation especially in rural  and peri-urban areas;
• high levels of unemployment resulting from a surplus supply of semi-literate and inadequately skilled job-seekers;
• spatial separation either from historic political interventions, or more recently due to unmitigated social upheavals;
• socio-economic marginalisation of Africa’s urban population – nearly two-thirds of this population of urban-poor live in sprawling slums; and
• the devastating impact of climate change, particularly in the more vulnerable developing regions of the world.

It is noteworthy that a significant number of the aforementioned issues could benefit from design thinking. In this regard, socially conscious design sub-disciplines could employ participatory (or collaborative) design methods to help negotiate more nuanced human-centred solutions. Examples of such sub-disciplines include design for sustainability, interaction design, service design, and universal design. Concomitantly, greater poly-disciplinary collaboration could re-invigorate and reposition traditional design disciplines such as fashion design, graphic/communication/information design, industrial/product design, interior design, and jewellery design.

Cape Town’s WDC theme is “Live Design, Transform Life”. As such, a socially transformative agenda underpins the efforts of the talented board of the implementing agency in its task of delivering a successful year of projects and events during the year 2014. Additionally, the WDC programme should be viewed as a catalyst for ushering in an enlightened ethos of socially conscious design, the impact of which would last for many years to come. Subsequently, with respect to the WDC 2014, the following objectives could be envisaged:
• to advance a more nuanced and humane understanding of design, particularly in majority world contexts;
• to offer local design talent (especially young designers) opportunities for showcasing their potential – this should hopefully result in greater design awareness and lead to a concomitant rise in demand for design services;
• to demonstrate the efficacy of design thinking to various key sectors, especially in government where design could inform efforts at enhanced service delivery;
• to act as a catalyst for diverse designerly initiatives amongst cities, organisations, institutions, networks and individuals nationwide;
• to inspire the mobilisation of requisite resources to support design aspirations locally, nationally and continentally;
• to usher in a new mode of creative participatory citizenship in Cape Town;
• to facilitate robust designerly discourse, as well as desirable international collaborations for the benefit of all actors;
• to motivate for applied research that firmly positions design as a knowledge and innovation driver supported by practicable metrics;
• to inspire the formulation and implementation of progressive design policies and strategies that contribute to professional and economic development;
• to generate support for socially transformative public projects though positive design activism and advocacy; and
• to instigate the alignment of progressive policy with design-driven developmental initiatives that support allied sectors (such as high-end capabilities in tooling).

In conclusion, Cape Town’s WDC projects and events offer design educators, professionals and researchers opportunities to consolidate the gains made thus far, as well as to engage like-minded actors and stakeholders from diverse backgrounds in achieving a lasting legacy of essential benchmarks and repository of replicable best practices for (South) Africa and beyond.


Contributor Name: 
Mugendi K. M'Rithaa