Designers May Not Be the Ones that Can Save Industries. But Designers Are Capable of Transforming Cities beyond the Industrial Age.

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by: Idris Mootee

If you think business is competitive, think about cities. Every city is struggling to find innovative ways to heighten their creative energy and transform their cities to a post industrial age era. One of them is Seoul, it has an ambitious plan to transform into the “Soul of Asia, a city of design and culture”, reflecting the total change in mindset from a dour, industrial age city.

The Koreans are hard working  and have come a long way surviving the Asian financial crisis and emerging itself into an economic force. They are not known for creativity. The plan is to change its urban fabric with cutting-edge designer buildings and lots of parks, and become a city where “the arts flow like water and wind”.

There is serious money talk of enhancing “cultural capital” – whole industries (and jobs) in fashion, designing, architecture, multi-media, etc – in striving to be become a “global city brand” on par with Paris, New York and London. It is ambitious no doubt. In other words, design is serious business, as South Korea’s companies have learned – an example, in enabling Samsung to overtake America’s Motorola to become the world’s second-largest cell phone maker (after Finland’s Nokia) in 2007.

What does it take to transform a city? Let’s talk “Culturenomics”. It starts with creating an urban environment where people want to come and live with their businesses and raise families. Creative industries and lifestyle are what drive national competitiveness.

According to South Korean officials, “Major companies have chief design officers sitting next to their CEOs. We already have 30,000 design students graduating every year. We have to make the best use of these human resources. Our goal is to have people say that if you want to see the latest design trend, you should go to Seoul. That will be a valuable asset for economic growth. Culture is the key factor that can promote the attractiveness of a country or city. Products we export with a touch of culture will be sold at a more expensive price.” They definitely get it.

Seoul is not without competition. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo are all trying to be the regional design hub, and all of them have some first mover advantages. Many of Seoul’s (or Hong Kong or Shanghai) visions are mostly top-down planned real estate redevelopment, but underlying all of it’s the people or mix of people that drives the creative “Culturenomics”. Top-down is needed, but not enough. It is a co-creation process that involves industries and developers. The creative coalition will need to look at each city and its history, the present situation and possible futures to mobilize people who are too often marginalized and whose importance is diminished in a city whose economic development is too often focused on smokestack chasing and giving away tax freezes.

There’s need to be an understanding of so-called creative class, to identify the essential parts of a creative ecosystem and the investments needed for them. We need to identify the cultural and heritage facilities needed, new ways to build community participation and ideas to attract new creative industries into identified precincts. From facilities for artists, writers and performers … but also ways of attracting filmmakers, designers, architects, multimedia and creative technology companies, and all those who create ideas and content. These arts and related creative industries drive new economies. And they also help create an attractive and sophisticated city in which to live, work and invest. Every city needs a plan and this will shape the competitiveness of cities in the next 20 years. Designer can help transform them. I wonder whether Toronto, Chicago, Bangalore, Boston,  Montreal, Shanghai, Zurich and Dublin has a plan in place?

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