by Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) This year marks the Mother City as designated World Design Capital (WDC) 2014. Cape Town is the fourth city to hold this appointment, following in the footsteps of Torino, Seoul and Helsinki, and the first on the African continent.

WDC is awarded to cities that show commitment in the use of design as an effective tool for social, cultural and economic development, and Cape Town’s bid was based on the premise of socially responsible design, sustainability and innovation, summed up with the line “Live Design. Transform Life.”

Colwyn ElderRole of design

The role of design has indeed evolved and broadened rapidly in the past decade. It has moved beyond objects and utility to impacting the quality of human life.

In his book, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton comments that “one of the great but often unmentioned causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment: the kind of walls, chairs, buildings and streets we’re surrounded by.”

Concurrently, the design process has also evolved and human-centred design is now finally enjoying centre stage. Just as the term ‘user experience’ currently dominates the branding and communications landscape, human-centred design creates and delivers solutions based on people’s needs.

Doing something right

IDEO is an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centred, design-based approach to helping organisations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow. Ranked #10 on Fast Company’s list of the Top 25 Most Innovative Companies, it must be doing something right.

IDEO describes design thinking as “a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Or, put another way, it brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.

Reason for being

While it may seem obvious to involve the recipients in the design process, most conventional design methodologies don’t. Instead, they consider the needs of humans as an input. Human-centred design not only puts them at the centre of the process, but effectively makes them the design purpose or reason for being.

This approach is not new, but the success of IDEO has certainly played a role in popularising it. At the same time, this method is adaptable and has proven to be effective, not only in the design of products and services but also in improving life conditions in education, industry, healthcare and communities.

Design has always had an inherent capacity for problem-solving. If we put real-life needs at the centre of the process, we are more likely to be rewarded with sustainable results.

The deciding factor for Cape Town’s appointment as WDC, alongside shortlisted Bilbao and Dublin, was the promise to broaden the scope and shape of the initiative and thus design as a whole.

“Demonstrate to the world”

International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) president (retired) and member of the selection committee, Dr Mark Breitenberg, says he is confident that “this new member of the WDC family will demonstrate to the world how design is expanding in application and influence… the story of transformation is about sustainability, urban development and embracing a global community.”

Or as Cape Town mayor, Patricia de Lille, says: “Design the change we want to see in our city”.

Y&R strategy director Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) has over 17 years of experience in strategic planning, together with specific credentials in sustainability communications, social marketing, corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing. She contributes the monthly “Green Sky Thinking” column on sustainability issues to MarkLives.

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