Dublin and Bilbao were hot contenders for the 2014 title. Arguably, both those cities have more established design cultures than the winner, Cape Town, South Africa. So what happened?
Cape Town has a lot going for it. It is dramatically beautiful, and tremendously user-friendly. It has a benign climate, a weak currency, a certain Pan-African exoticism, a sophisticated leisure industry, and it speaks English. But design? There are many, many cities more strongly associated with art and architecture, design and food, fashion and smart systems. So there was some confusion, both at home and abroad, when Cape Town won the title of World Design Capital for 2014. To understand why Cape Town won the title, it helps to refer to the vision of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid), which owns World Design Capital (WDC). “Icsid strives to create a world where design enhances our social, cultural, economic and environmental quality of life,” it says. WDC, therefore, is less about celebrating existing design excellence than it is about promoting appreciation for the transformative role of design.
If ever a city had motivation to pursue transformation, Cape Town does. For there is another face to the charming Cape Town which so seduces visitors: a Cape Town which in its spatial planning and infrastructure continues to manifest the evidence of 40 years of apartheid; and a city burdened by the expectations of the tens of thousands who every month come to Cape Town from elsewhere in the country and the continent in search of a better life. In its bid to host World Design Capital, therefore, Cape Town tied its flag firmly to the mast of the transformative power of design. The bid concept – Live Design. Transform Life – focused on socially responsive design, and design’s ability to improve the lives of all who live in this city, and beyond. The vision was, and remains, to “transform Cape Town, through design, into a sustainable, productive African city, bridging historical divides and building social and economic inclusion.”
It’s an ambitious and important vision, and we know that 2014 is just the first step towards achieving it. In past months Cape Town has topped the New York Times’ list of top destinations to visit, The Telegraph’s 2013 Travel Awards and The Guardian Online’s Top 40 destinations. An uptick in tourism numbers is expected to flow from these awards in 2014. Many of these visitors will fall head-over-heels in love with the City – the City so beautifully pictured in this video, which was part of the winning bid. It is the hope of World Design Capital that they will also engage with the City, grapple with some of its knotty problems, and celebrate with Capetonians the power of design-led thinking to change the world for the better.