Yes, we must

Zayd Minty

Cape Town’s bid to be the 2014 World Design Capital is both necessary and defined.  

On June 21 this year, Cape Town was short-listed—together with Bilbao and Dublin—for the new but sought after title of World Design Capital. The Industrial Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), the body responsible for the title, has indicated that 56 cities downloaded its application form. Why do cities apply for the title? What do they hope to gain by bidding? Why is Cape Town bidding? How could the title take the city forward, and in what way?

To date there have been only three World Design Capitals: Torino, a test case, in 2008; Seoul, the current holder, since 2010; and Helsinki, which will assume the title next year. The WDC title provides an interesting space for cities to reinvent and showcase themselves to a global audience. It is instructive how Seoul used the bid. South Korea has been economically on the rise for a few decades, a fact symbolically marked by its hosting of the 1988 summer Olympics. By sheer determination, it has lifted itself out of poverty, birthing such important global brands as Hyundai and Samsung. It ranks amongst the world’s 20 major economies and is a member of the G-20. But at what cost?

Seoul is an austere city; it is hard to penetrate and hard to imagine as a design city at first glance. Suicide rates are historically very high. Seoul’s bid was an attempt to soften its urban character, to make a city where its citizens felt happier, less stressed, while still building on its edge as an innovative, creative city. The city’s bid was supported at all levels of government, including the presidency. One of the many successes of Seoul’s WDC bid was the raising of the Han River, buried for years under a concrete highway. Today it is a landscaped environment where citizens can relax and interact with each other. People have been placed centre stage using design.

Cape Town has similarly been on a reinvention path. Many of the city’s key stakeholders agree that the time is right to bid for a title of this nature. Cape Town has had a measure of stability in government for the first time in a few years, with one political party (Democratic Alliance) enjoying an outright majority in both city and provincial legislature. The 2010 football World Cup helped push forward the development of important connective infrastructure, including the Integrated Rapid Transport System (IRTS) and rollout of a comprehensive broadband infrastructure. There are also a number of successful design institutions that have contributed to the city’s design capabilities, including the annual Design Indaba conference and expo, and Cape Craft and Design Institute.

Even if Cape Town does not secure the status of WDC, a bid of this nature is already performing a variety of important functions.

Cape Town’s popular tourist status has also been the subject of scrutiny, the emphasis now on shifting its brand essence from pleasure and nature to business, creativity and innovation. There is a growing realisation amongst city administrators that Cape Town cannot address the deep social and economic divisions without significantly shifting thought and action towards a collectively shared vision. The WDC can be seen as a collective road map for change, with a clear deadline.

Cape Town’s bid emerged from members of civil society involved in urban change, the creative industries, and business and tourism lobbies, which have at various points in the last decade worked together to develop various common visions. Administered by the Cape Town Partnership (CTP), a public-private agency focused on issues relevant to Cape Town’s city centre, the bid was enabled by a modest R2 million budget allocation from the city government. Using this allocation, CTP was able to secure more than R4 million in media coverage, complete the initial research for the bid, write and publish a 465-page bid book and host the visit of the judges in July 2011. The bid book has been hailed for the extensive information it offers on design assets and opportunities in Cape Town, as well as its aesthetic appearance.

Central to the bid is the recognition of Cape Town’s position and possible roles in relation to the rest of the African continent. The bid also argues the need to envision a future for Cape Town that is inclusive and sustainable. As such, the bid therefore focusses on the importance of socially responsive design, being design that responds to the needs of the society rather than the commonly understood version of design as object and consumer orientated. The bid also highlighted a number of existing state and private initiatives which seek to overcome the deeply divided nature of Cape Town.

The Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) project in the township of Khayelitsha is one example. VPUU is a city-sponsored initiative aimed at reducing violent crime and improving social conditions in Cape Town communities across the
Cape Flats.

It uses specific design “tools” to implement the safety principles, including the introduction of a clear signage and wayfinding system, creating visual connections along walking routes, ensuring movement routes are as clear and short as possible, the clustering and integration of public activities and ensuring that the site layout has active edges to increase passive surveillance. These principles and design tools are used in all areas of the upgrading process to ensure that the main challenge – crime prevention – is addressed in the new interventions. This approach is in direct contrast to grid-like layout of government-built RDP houses, where little thought is given to the surrounding environment.

Even if Cape Town does not secure the status of WDC, a bid of this nature is already performing a variety of important functions, from boosting the city’s profile internationally to connecting actors and agents working in the urban context locally. Hence the bid team’s mantra: “Even if we don’t win, we can’t lose.”

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