Helsinki, World Design Capital 2012

January 11, 2012

As the Finnish capital takes on the mantle of World Design Capital for 2012, Michael Carr considers the relevance of this growing institution and what it might mean to the Australian design community.

The World Design Capital program is one of the world’s largest initiatives engaged in the promotion of design. Put together by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) – a partner of the International Design Alliance (IDA) – on the face of it, the program is a year-long series of events celebrating the design community of its host city, as well as the international design industry. Importantly though, its objective is also to examine how a particular city’s approach to design can help push our global society and industries forward as we move into the future. Enjoying its inaugural year in Turin, the biennial event then moved to Seoul in 2010, now naming Helsinki as the host for 2012.

For this year’s event the team in Helsinki, comprised of figures from the local design community, has been hard at work building an impressive program. However, the events that will take place as part of the festival could be seen as secondary to the new relationships and networks that have quickly formed around them.

“People are behind all great human achievements,” says Pekka Timonen, executive director of WDC Helsinki. “Putting something like this together is integral to facilitating more achievements of such a scale for us.”

In recent years, more and more businesses and governments have begun to understand the importance of design, and it is now recognised as playing a major role in maintaining and increasing competitiveness and efficiency. The WDC Helsinki project hopes to build on this understanding and promote more dialogue, both within the design community, as well as with the private and public sectors heavily involved with the program. Hoping to leave a legacy, not just deliver a great program, Timonen sees WDC Helsinki as a catalyst for increased activity across all of Finland’s industries.

“We’re saying that our job is to make permanent, positive change towards using design on a larger scale – to give the design community a chance to network more among themselves, as well as with other communities, and for them to be able to do so more efficiently and openly,” says Timonen.

“We see Helsinki as a global design hub, and while it is important to maintain a connection with our traditions, background and skills, we have to become more and more of an international platform for advanced design and design thinking,” he continues, “That is only possible through more effective and wide-reaching networks – more international partnerships.” This is something Timonen and his team is taking very seriously, having already announced a partnership with Danish non-profit project INDEX: Design To Improve Life (a design organisation planning a series of events including exhibitions, design workshops and design school programs to take place next year).

There are those, however, who see the World Design Capital program as primarily an exercise in marketing (civic branding) – whereby cities can essentially buy a title if their bidding, by way of government support, is strong enough. “It’s pretty common knowledge that you bid for that status,” says Ewan McEoin, creative director of Unlimited (the new international initiative supported by the Queensland Government to promote the value of design thinking in shaping the future of the Asia Pacific region). “It’s not something that is just attributed to a city. It’s city branding essentially, and while I understand why cities should want to have design festivals to support and develop the industry in those cities, from a personal point of view, I question the return on investment with this particular WDC initiative. In Australia, we need to deploy funds to programs not brands.”

It could be argued that the money spent on securing the title of World Design Capital would be better spent putting together a program of localised events and initiatives – something several cities in Australia have been doing successfully for quite some time now. But while WDC is certainly a brand, it also brings with it a strongly supported network, international recognition, and, most importantly, government funding.

“In winning this award, the design communities in these cities can get funding and support from their governments they wouldn’t otherwise get,” says Icsid president Mark Breitenberg. “We’ve seen this happen in a really nice way in Helsinki. The bidding was headed up by the design community, as well as the local government. But once they got it, the whole government got right behind it with even more will. The title is leverage that can be used internally to help design communities achieve their goals in their city.”

Another key factor in the project is the international community that springs up around it. With each new city involved, this global design community grows. Cities that are bidding for the title are speaking to cities that have won it in previous years. Ideas are being shared and exchanged, which is seeing the ongoing discussion of how design can help improve our lives find focus in different cultures and societies around the world. “What we’ve done, without really planning it – which is extraordinary – is we’ve started to generate this international dialogue amongst cities,” says Breitenberg. “It’s just tremendous. In 20 years time we’ll have 10 cities all acting in a confederation around shared interests and the shared idea of designing for a better quality of life.”

The WDC program essentially serves as a template for cities to participate in a global dialogue, to fix a sharp focus on design and how it can help our societies progress, while at the same time offering the chance to place their local industries at the centre of the conversation.

“Countries and cities historically have been very internally focused in their design policy and how they promote design,” says Russell Kennedy, president of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA), a partner of the IDA and supporter of the WDC. “This project is very much an externally focused initiative – it’s about how countries can benefit by looking outward and engaging with the rest of the world. If a city wants to be insular and believes ‘we just want to promote our own industry, and focus all of our design attention and policy on ourselves’, this is not for them.”

For Timonen and the Helsinki team, the process of putting a bid together proved to be a highly productive undertaking in and of itself. “Even if we hadn’t been named the World Design Capital for 2012, something still would have come out of it because the exchanges and discussions that we went through during the bidding process would have led to a larger collaboration and a more developed design strategy,” Timonen explains.

So then the question we might pose at this point is: is this program relevant to an Australian design community that already seems to have its own self-inspired momentum? Is it something the nation should be looking at? And perhaps even more frankly, is it something it’s even ready for?

“In Australia, governments put up money for festivals, but there is rarely much money in those budgets for commissioning major content,” says McEoin. “We tend to rely on the industry to develop this content… If there was a situation where a large amount of money was available to be spent on something like this, I think the investment would be much better placed with helping the industry to deliver better content – by curating major international exhibitions, the likes of which we don’t see in Australia because no one offers the money to commission them. We should be commissioning, curating and exporting rather than importing, which is what having your city named World Design Capital is. You’re importing a brand that, in the end, is only as strong as the program you deliver to justify the title.”

Yet looking at how far our governments have come in supporting the design industry in recent years, one can’t help but think that if a bid were to be made, it wouldn’t be done in half measures. Design programs like the recent Unlimited Design Triennial and Melbourne’s State of Design are key examples. Our design industry is currently experiencing its own renaissance, some would say that the time is ripe for a city like Melbourne or Sydney, for instance, to make a bid – to bring ourselves into the centre of this ongoing global conversation about the future of design.

Indeed, the very structure of the bidding process for WDC seems bent against accepting a bid from a city that isn’t fully committed to promoting design. “We visit the cities, we talk to people, we look at everything they’re planning to do and we have to assess the validity and the viability of the bid claims,” Breitenberg explains. “It’s not like you just put together a flashy bid and you get it; we conduct a thorough appraisal of the city’s ability to accomplish what they set out to do. I see it as being similar to an Olympic bid, where you’re looking at levels of support from the government, you’re looking at financial guarantees, vision, and also the history of the city itself.”

As Australia’s economy continues to perform well, with design seen as a growth industry, and this particular design community going from strength to strength, the time may be ripe to step into a larger role on the world’s design stage. Not a step to be taken lightly. “If this process unlocks new support for the design industry from government, and delivers programmatic funding alongside the cost of the bidding process, then this is worth considering,” says McEoin. “Without the capacity building and investment that underwrites this kind of initiative it provides limited benefit.”

Still, beyond the branding exercise we acknowledge World Design Capital to be, the bigger idea here is that it works as a franchise in promoting a larger, more significant, design agenda for the nation that feels ready and willing. Just like any franchise or supporting body, WDC seems to bring with it a widely supported network, and perhaps a sense of authority and confidence. The one reality in all of this is that major funding for these programs requires investment on the part of our governments and the private sector collectively – as a statement of faith, if you like, in the value of design to our society, economy and nation. It is, ultimately, but one option available to us in further promoting our design industry to the rest of the world, but certainly one worth considering.


Illustration by Lucy Allan

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