This article I wrote for Design Week appeared on 16 January.

As Cape Town prepares itself for World Design Capital 2014, the previous incumbent, Helsinki, announces how it plans to continue a momentum of its own: Design Driven Cities.

As the announcement proclaims, ‘The Design Driven City project stems from the awareness that successful cities of the future possess strong design competencies and make extensive use of design. The project seeks to put design firmly at the core of the development of public services and to strengthen user-oriented approaches in city service design.’

Bringing designers into the planning process rather than just celebrating the vitality of the design community seems a sensible advance on earlier World Design Capital initiatives, but few cities have the vision and political will to bring designers in to help design public services. Traditionally, architects and planners have been commissioned to model the physical environment, but today I would argue that this is not enough. Communities are built and thrive not just on the physical spaces and facilities but also through their connectedness to the digital world. It is at this intersection that designers can bring useful thinking to bear; particularly as the maturing service design industry readies itself to attack the public service issues that dog many cities. Writing in the RSA Journal (Issue 3, 3013) academic Dr Henry Kippin says ‘public services should be central to the city growth narrative. [They] provide the structures, services and relationships that knit society together and connect people and communities to place.’

The Service Design Network’s current Touchpoint magazine (Volume 5, Number 2) also focuses on service design in public sector, ‘Government services touch upon every aspect of daily life; from mundane activities like parking permit requests to complex transactional interactions like submitting tax returns. And the “users” of these services are the widest target audience imaginable – citizens of any demographic description.’

Arguably, these ‘wicked problems’ – ones that often defy rational analysis alone -are the ones most susceptible to design thinking. As International Design Foundation board member Marco Steinberg says, ‘design can help cities to find new and often radical ways to operate and to visualise their future’. So, the designer’s role can reach beyond solving pre-existing problems into shaping a city’s future. This is an opportunity for place branding to form a part of the designers’ remit. Cities need to communicate their individuality as part of their competitive profile, attracting professional and creative talent and encouraging inward investment. Creating a city vision and brand is a challenge that brings citizen interaction and the physical environment together in a focused narrative about the place and its people.

Helsinki plans to have three ‘city designers’ working side by side with city staff. The designers will be tasked to identify areas where design can be applied and to define the ways to apply design in these areas.

When I contacted Laura Aalto, head of communications for the programme, she said, ‘We are at the moment in the middle of the recruiting process and I hope designers will start working in mid-February latest. The designers we’ll be recruiting will work both with public spaces and the built environment but more importantly with public services, digital services and communications. We’ve also started a process with the city administration, with its different departments and offices, to find out what they need help with… the idea is to embed design thinking into development projects the city already under way.’

Of course, design alone is not going provide all the answers, but engagement and collaboration with way in which cities develop and contribute to economic and social wellbeing is something the design industry could take more seriously.