The Missed Opportunity: World Design Capital 2014

The City Hall dressed for WDC14

The City Hall dressed for WDC14

In our last article we were learnt how the bid for World Design Capital was inspired by the deep challenges faced by Cape Town as a divided and unequal city.  The bid we learnt was made successful because of three things - a network of leaders who had been working closely with each other to meet the deadlines of the Soccer World Cup, a growing ecosystem of creative industry bodies, and an increase in projects dealing with social innovation using design.   In this piece we will understand that the actual year had a number of important successes but did not deliver on what the bid set up as a promise.  Moreover the legacy of the bid was compromised.

Measuring Success?

Cape Town was World Design Capital in 2014.  An opportunity to show that world that it could "Live Design, Transform Life".  It was a year packed with numerous design events and projects.  The successes of the year are well documented in two publications.  One is by the non-profit which managed the implementation of the year on behalf of the city - The Cape Town Design NPC (CTD),  the other by the WDC department in the municipality, set up to deliver the internal program and to oversee the work of the external program.  Predictably, both documents, produced to showcase the effectiveness of the bodies tasked with the work are glowing about the year - it is after all necessary to show successful spending of public funds. But since no external evaluations were done, no major articles or studies written or dialogues held post event , we have no alterative views that speak to potential areas of growth.

So what did people on the ground, those working in design business, projects and educational projects and those involved in developing the bid feel about the project's successes and failures?*   All were at pains to point out the numerous positive elements of the year,  but all were sceptical about it meeting its bid promise.

What was successful about WDC14


The first key success was the awareness raising around the potential of design for making a difference, for ordinary people.  This impact was across the board - government officials, business people, civil society leaders, academics, students.  People who had before only understood design as luxury items or crafts, began to recognise it's relevance to their day to day. For those in design it was an opportunity to think beyond their craft. The conversations around design as a cross cutting activity was invaluable and helped many sectors to think strategically.   It was an opportunity to work at a  more audacious scale.  Secondly it was important on a relational level: the international spotlight that it brought through media attention; the learnings made engaging with visiting internationals involved in design; and the business opportunities that were opened for some.  It created the possibilities for new connections, sharing of skills and knowledge and opened potential for new collaborations.  It helped kick off a series of long term partnerships for various companies, designers and schools, which will see impacts in the future. One of the impacts was the push it gave to the makers movement which had just started,   Lastly by having this spotlight placed on it, the city was forced to up its game, to recognise where it needed to grow and of course to value its unique potentialities. 

However everyone interviewed also expressed a deep sense that the year failed to capitalize and build on what it had set out to achieve.  Most of the people spoke to felt it was a year of missed opportunities.  What were the elements that challenged the project from achieving its broader goals? 

Resourcing WDC14

When the City won the bid, the Mayor agreed to put aside R60m (less than $4.2m) for the delivery of the event - R40m for the CTD body and R20m for an internal local government program.  The latter included the set up of a WDC14 department in the city as well as money allocated to wards to produce locally relevant projects.  The global amount was a relatively paltry amount by any standard, although it was understood that fundraising would be necessary and a significant amount of partnerships were needed.  The ability of the CTD body to fundraise was however severely compromised by the restrictions placed by the body which awards the title.

ICSID, now called The World Design Organisation (WDO), is a half century old international industrial design body based in Montreal.  It started the award with the first World Design Capital in 2008 - Turin, Italy.  Thereafter it was awarded every second year to a new city - Seoul, Helsinki and then Cape Town.  With each new capital its confidential contract with cities has become, reportedly, exceedingly more restrictive on many levels.  It has started to control what fundraising is allowed by the host country, attempting to take the lions share first.  In Cape Town, it led to the city effectively not being able to fundraise at all, unlike Helsinki before it.  For a city in the global south this was a huge blow.

WDC Programme Calendar 2014 final copy.jpg.2094427.jpg

the WDC14 Program: Implementation and failtures

WDO and money aside, the Cape Town year was to a large extent challenged by a lackluster implementation agency who was not successful at leveraging the partnerships it could have.  CTD was cobbled together at a late stage.  Cape Town Partnership, the agency who had managed the bid was slowly unraveling in 2012, finally shutting down in 2017. This led the City to set up a new body and employ a board and director, rather than to hand it to a relevant existing body.  CTD ended up being an effective event manager and publicity agency ensuring a high degree of media coverage and the delivery of the official contractually obligated events.   However its new director, a recent returnee to the city, assembled a mono-cultural team, none of whom were involved with either the bid or the ecosystem that birthed it. Thus the body lacked any institutional knowledge of the bid and shared none of the key ethical or socio-political issues that had underpinned it.  CTD had no intellectual agenda nor a partnership building ethic and by the time it closed, it had fostered no long term initiatives to take forward any legacy. It did however collect a wealth of resources from the sector, after calls for proposals, resulting in over 700 projects throughout the city run by a range of agencies, which it marketed on its website and at the official events.  But sadly, by the time it closed and the handed over of its assets to the city in early 2015 any potential long term change agenda, and community to drive it, was long dead.

Mural by Faith47 in Woodstock

Mural by Faith47 in Woodstock

The department in the city on the other hand was a highly effective team.  It could do little to manage the day to day of the external body, nor shift the CTD to be anything more than an events vehicle.  What it did do well was work closely with city departments and especially officials who were interested in innovating, in what is normally a highly risk averse institution.  The year gave license to many departments to try new things and to work with design thinking. It embarked on 77 projects in participation with officials and publics, collected a set of case studies and produced, on closure, useful resources which showed the city the power of  co-production.   Participatory projects gave communities greater input into the design of projects that impacted on them.  They built confidence and trust all around.  Importantly the department created a space in the institution that allowed "failure" to be seen as learning.  The proposal to convert the WDC department into an innovation unit after WDC14 was not followed through and it was sadly disbanded in mid 2015.  Some team members were incorporated into other departments, others had contracts ended.  Thus ended the official use of design thinking within Cape Town's local government.  

The legacy of the bid, the learnings of the department, and the wealth of knowledge accumulated during the year under CTD, now sit in archives in the city.  Sadly none reached the long standing special purpose vehicle set up in 2001 to support  design in the region, and recognised nationally as a leading best practiise body, the Craft and Design Institute (CDI).  CDI was only given the online real estate, taking over the virtual community developed.  The City however still supports CDI with a grant, as it has for many years, together with Design Indaba, the Cape Town Fashion Council and the Cape IT Initiative. 

 the legacies coming out of WDC14


The major challenges aside, what WDC2014 did was allow a range of civil society bodies and businesses, to leverage the opportunities of the bid to set up new initiatives, many of which are still in operation. 

A notable example is CDI's Better Living Challenge which started as "a competition to gather and showcase innovative, affordable and green home improvement solutions for low-income living". Now in its second phase, it is working with the provincial government's department of Human Settlements to enable the incremental upgrading of informal settlements looking at how to use design to "improve the comfort and quality of life of over 850 000 people that live in them in the Western Cape".  

A key new word entering the lexicon of design in the region has been design thinking.  A major positive development emerging out of the year was the establishment of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking (or d-school) at the University of Cape Town's Business School to help train professionals "to work collaboratively in diverse and inclusive multi-disciplinary teams on real world challenges and to develop human-centred innovative solutions".  In this way the use of design for social innovation has become actively carried through a new academic body. 

Various initiatives came out of the year such as Open Design Festival, a platform for education around design run by the Cape Town Design Network, who were also active in various interventions during the year, with many of its leaders involved integrally with the year.  However three years after WDC14, both the festival and the network appear to be challenged - impacted by the difficulty of resourcing such initiatives in the current economic climate, and of fostering momentum amongst designers who are more interested in their discipline than in broader developmental agendas. 


What can we learn from events like WDC14

Events are great to catalyze a strategic response, but are bad at laying a foundation for medium to long term.  There needed to be greater focus on and ownership for longer term ends.  This requires more equal partnerships between civil society, academia, government and business.  Further without oversight from media or civil society, its easy for events such as these to be hijacked by the state, by business or any number of opportunistic individuals.  Thus careful consideration is needed on the governance issues, where most of the problems happened for Cape Town. The opportunity should have been used to build long term institutions that are rooted in local capacity - institutions and people, only then would the legacy potential have been rooted.  "Start as you would like to finish" suggested one informant.   


Lastly bodies granting titles, whether they be the FIFAs or the WDOs of the world, have their own agenda.  If cities choose to work with these projects, they need to have strong legal teams with tough negotiators and be prepared for difficult fights.  They have to be clear how they will use the opportunity to their advantage, then and into the longer term.  In mega-events, at the end of the day,  you get what you put into it. 

Certainly Cape Town gained a lot from its year as WDC14.  At the end of the day, the hard cost's incurred were paid back by the extensive media gained, which were well in excess of the investment.  Some significant and long term initiatives emerged from the year.  Moreover there were many soft gains made: Firstly important relations and partnerships were built and knowledge shared.  Secondly awareness of design's potential for solving critical social problems and for supporting the economy was raised.  Cape Town was recognized through the process as a place of creativity, innovation and potential.   However the year missed significant opportunities to build capacity to address the deep challenges of the city.  At the end of the day expectations were raised, but not met.  The ecosystem for using design for social innovation remains fragile - the political will and civil society structures with the oversight it could wield to address its faultlines, too weak.  


* Because of Cape Town's small pool of resources and opportunities, and the potential difficulties that come with speaking openly and critically, those I interviewed chose not to be identified. 



CAPE TOWN'S TWO CITY TALE OF CULTURE    The first of three: Design and the Divided City: Culture and the transformative potential of Creativity.  Part one in a series on Cape Town's journey to becoming World Design Capital 2014. 


The first of three: Design and the Divided City: Culture and the transformative potential of Creativity.  Part one in a series on Cape Town's journey to becoming World Design Capital 2014. 

WORKING TOGETHER: CAPE TOWN'S BID FOR WORLD DESIGN CAPITAL 2014     The second of three: The power of networks and a tight deadline.  The conditions and the processes behind Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014.  


The second of three: The power of networks and a tight deadline.  The conditions and the processes behind Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014.