WDC 2014: Honouring the Work the City Does


In February 2014 we had the pleasure of having guest bloggers from Cape Town World Design Capital 2014 write for the PIVOT Dublin blog. We invited them to write about their city and the impact World Design Capital has had on promoting appreciation for the transformative role of design. Daniel Sullivan in Honouring the Work the City Does highlights a programme to uncover and showcase the City’s design successes.

Cities are extraordinary organisations. They manage a level of complexity that would stymie most corporates; and they are subject to a kind of scrutiny, and a kind of legislative control, that would make the private sector rebel.

There’s an argument that “local government must do what only local government can do” – in other words, it should limit itself to delivering the basic infrastructure and services on which a city is built, create a supportive regulatory framework and leave the private sector to do the rest. But in the context of a dynamic metropolitan city, that argument doesn’t hold water. Citizens expect more from the management of cities with big reputations. Of course cities cannot take their eye off the service delivery ball. Equally, however, they compete to attract and retain those city elements that guarantee an upward trajectory of success: vibrant business, robust industry, an active creative economy, a brisk intellectual presence, and a good visitor base. Japanese academic Noriaki Kano developed a useful model to identify what makes any organisation – or, indeed, any city – competitive.

The model defines three levels of performance:

  • Basic needs: these aren’t noticed when met, but their absence causes dissatisfaction (municipal bills arrive on time and are accurate; refuse is collected on the assigned day);
  • Performance needs: attributes that are consciously evaluated (emails from the public are dealt with by City officials within an acceptable time frame; verges are groomed); and
  • Delight: attributes that deliver a buzz (a “free travel” day on buses to celebrate an important anniversary; tax breaks or other breaks for qualifying start-ups).

In time, according to this model, delight or excitement “needs” become performance “needs”, which in turn become basic “needs”. This is a primary challenge for the private sector. Fast, free internet in coffee shops, for instance, used to be a delight factor; now it’s somewhere between a performance and a basic need. Whilst a city does not ‘compete’ for customers in the same way as a private business, it does compete with itself to deliver relevant support at a level that equates to the private sector, to multiple stakeholders, within the constraints of its resources. As daily experiences mould citizens’ expectations for their lives, so a competitive City must stay abreast of these expectations by raising its own game. That is why, at the heart of the efforts of the City of Cape Town’s internal World Design Capital (WDC) team, has been a programme to uncover and showcase the City’s design successes.

The City of Cape Town, delivers services to some 3.7 million people spread across 2,500km2 through its 12 business units – from Utility Services which ‘enjoy’ the monopoly position for the provision of water, electricity and waste removal, through Social Development, to Corporate Services which provides systems and support services to staff as well as citizens. There is evidence of design-led innovation in very many areas of City work.

Until the City won the WDC bid, however, there was, at best, modest celebration of its achievements and little articulation of the language of design. And so one of the first things we did was to go through a co-design process with a diverse group of fellow officials in order to develop a methodology to assess the application of design thinking in the City. It was a richly explorative process, using an Appreciative Inquiry approach, and it has formed the foundation for much of 2014’s work.

Ultimately, around 70 past, present and pending City projects were identified as in some way being ‘special’ from an innovation or design perspective. It is not to say that the City only has 70 ‘special’ projects, or that these are the most ‘special’ projects that the City has to showcase. Rather, that through these projects the City would like to raise awareness of the enormous complexity with which it is grappling and to demonstrate and develop the effectiveness of the City’s approach to meeting the multiple needs of Cape Town.

Thus, through the 2014 celebration, these projects will be elevated, and celebrated – and it is our profound hope that the City’s 25 000-odd employees, as well as the residents of greater Cape Town, will share with us some of the excitement and delight of which Kano speaks.

These projects include:

The Ocean View Housing Project

In the Southern Cape Peninsula some land earmarked for a much-needed low-cost housing development carried a particular burden: there were piles of rock, even more rocks in the ground, and an indication that it would cost many millions to level the ground for building. To solve the problem, the City decided to use, rather than remove, the stone. Since stonemasonry skills are all but forgotten in this region, the City tracked down a South African stonemason, now resident in the UK, and employed him to teach stonemasonry to local candidates. Today, we have some of the prettiest low-cost houses ever, a significantly more cost-effective and low-energy project, and a group of builders with formal qualifications in a sought-after skill.

‘Reblocking’ of an Informal Settlement

One of the realities of any successful city anywhere in the world, is that they attract informal settlements, favelas, slums, ghettos – call them what you will. Characteristically, these pose significant challenges for city managements in terms of sanitation, running water, electricity, refuse removal etc. The Mtshini Wam “reblocking” process is a hugely successful experiment involving collaboration between City management, the NGO community and residents of the settlement to reconfigure informal housing structures in a way that allows for the improvement of dignity, safety, and the provision of services.

Innovative Reporting Mechanisms

How can City management fix potholes, repair leaks, replace street lights if it doesn’t know there is a problem? Councils rely on residents to keep them informed; and – this may be a global phenomenon – residents are more inclined to grumble, accumulate complaints and protest en masse when problems become severely disruptive than to go to the trouble of reporting the problem. And when the problem is reported – this, too, may be a global phenomenon – officials can be more focused on passing the buck than fixing the problem. In acknowledgement of this, and with determination to improve this culture on both sides of the fence, the City of Cape Town has designed a user-friendly multimedia notification system unique in its design for receiving, allocating, executing, closing and reporting on customer service requests. The process that helped us identify distinctive successes has also effectively identified the “DNA” of successful design in the City of Cape Town. That has helped us to develop a set of constructs or ‘tools’ as the basis for a ‘Cape Town Toolbox to Design Thinking’. And that, we believe, is likely to be one of the lasting legacies of WDC2014, when the World Design Capital title moves on to Taipei.


Related Activity →