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The challenges of being a World Design Capital

From chairs to social change

In 2016, Taipei will become World Design Capital for the year. This is a status conferred on a city every other year by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), and so far Turin, Seoul, Helsinki and Cape Town have had the honour. The objective of WDC is to use the designation as a platform to undertake design-led projects that reinvent the city and improve social, cultural and economic life. In the case of Taipei, Taiwanese designers represent a massive national resource, with something like 10,000 graduates per year. The WDC programme is one way of focusing the efforts, and celebrating the achievements of, this army of designers.

At present, the projects planned for 2016 range from the usual design-festival-type activities (exhibitions and trade fairs, parties and award ceremonies), to a design policy conference, a civil service reform programme, and a number of citizen participation projects.

This sounds a lot, but really the majority of it can be divided into two categories: what they refer to as ‘lifestyle’ design, and ‘social’ design. Although globally Taiwan is probably best known for its technology manufacturing prowess, the WDC programme is emphasising the talent of Taipei’s creative community on the softer side of design. Blending traditional craft aesthetics and skills with a good feeling for contemporary international tastes, there is some really interesting work here that deserves more attention.

The social design strategy comes from the ‘city’ focus of the WDC, and the prompt to use design as a driver of urban reform. It’s clear that this approach has strong political backing, and the majority of Taipei’s programming falls into this category. In fact they already have a head start: their ‘Public Policy by Design’ programme is underway across 16 departments of the city government, a number of citizen engagement projects have already taken place, and this year’s publicly-funded design week exhibition focuses on international examples of social impact design.

BOP’s role in all this is to help the WDC delivery team in Taipei design their evaluation process: what will the 2016 celebrations and projects achieve? This is no simple task. WDC programmes tend to be big sprawling affairs. A year’s worth of activity over an entire city adds up to an awful lot, and ICSID have been iterating their approach to assessing this with each new city that takes part. But of course, evaluating the impact of ‘design’ – anyway – is something of a nebulous target. Whilst we now just about know how to talk about design’s commercial value, estimating the impact of social design is still something of a holy grail. As so many of Taipei’s programmes fall into this camp – specifically the ‘government using design’ camp – this is both uncharted territory, and presumably of interest to many other national and city governments considering adopting design approaches. We’ll keep you posted with how we get on…

Find out more about Taipei World Design Capital 2016 here.