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Dundee’s values made visible

How Dundee Design Festival helps us reimagine the city

Photo: Kathryn Rattray

Design. It’s complicated. You could write a book defining it. Many have. We can define it as problem solving or as process, in terms of culture or commerce, or as a way of thinking about the world.

My favourite definition of design is values made visible. Values about how we want the world to be, what we value as individuals and communities, economic value, cultural values — design creates things, spaces, communications, services and interactions that express our hopes for how we wish to live.

Archaeologists read the values of past civilisations through their design — how ceramics, jewellery and other artefacts tell us stories of ritual, status and values. And we read those places where we live and visit in exactly the same way. So what does Dundee Design Festival tell us about the values of today’s city?

Winning the title of the UK’s first UNESCO City of Design in 2014 gave this economically challenged Scottish city a problem to solve. How do you balance the benefits of the imminent opening of V&A Dundee with the needs of a city where one in four children live in poverty?

The V&A has understandably faced a vocal opposition from some citizens who argue that the £80 million spent on the building would be better invested in the city’s health and social care.

Providing the single biggest hike in tourism in the city’s history and the economic benefit that follows from that, begins to address those concerns. But we need to build on this and demonstrate to the people of the city that design is far more than iconic buildings that celebrate objects of desire.

This year’s Dundee Design Festival does a brilliant job of doing precisely that, and hints at what more we can do to embed design in the city as an inclusive force for change and progress.

Photo: Kathryn Rattray

The Keiller Centre, tucked almost invisibly behind Dundee’s City Square, is entered by an alleyway close to the Desperate Dan statue. Desperate defines it. This 1970s shopping centre with most of its units empty, is far from inviting unless you need a key cut or you’ve been a long standing regular at Classics, a hairdressing salon that has been there since the centre opened. Then for one week in May 2019, the vacant units were opened up to become places to make, create and explore — to design.

The Agency of None design studio led a partnership of local designers to reimagine the Keiller as a space where citizens can engage with each other, and the city they live in, in a different way. Themed around the broad idea of what makes a liveable/lovable city, the festival provides a range of experiences and creative opportunities for participants.

Fragrance creator Clara Weale and designer Pete Thomas invite people to make a bespoke scent that reflects their hope for Dundee in the future. Over at the Poster Playground visitors design and create a poster and experience for themselves the process of design. The Living Library is a co-working space open for anyone to sit, work, relax or read the design-related books and magazines provided.

The Make Bank is a wonderful social project that addresses the issue of creative poverty — providing creative kits for young people and schools who otherwise could not afford to explore their design potential. Visitors are invited to sponsor kits and to share their own stories of the part that creative learning played in their lives.

We Live in the Future is an immersive space created by designer Julie Cumming and writer/filmmaker Sam Gonçalves who worked with illustrators, musicians and actors to tell short stories by writer Valerie Mullen exploring Dundee’s possible futures in a vivid and powerful way.

When I visited the Design Superstore — a great retail space expertly put together by Joanne McFadyen of Tea Green Events — Jo was locked in conversation with two retired women who were regulars at the Keiller. They loved how the Festival had breathed new life into the place.

Jillian and Jill — Photo: Hazel White

Jillian and Jill have both worked at the Classics hairdressing salon in the Keillor Centre for over twenty years. In conversation with Hazel White, they explained how they have witnessed the steady decline in visitors to the centre as shops closed down and customer numbers fell away to a trickle. On the opening night they were buzzing about how the Design Festival has re-energised them and the place where they work.

“One of the key aims of this year’s festival is to break down the barriers to entry into design disciplines and careers. This can be done by creating accessible tools and systems that empower people.”

This is a stated aim of the Festival — but it actually achieves far more than this. The barriers it breaks down are those that too often keeps design out of the reach of most people in an elite bubble of its own making. When design becomes accessible, when it is seen as a source of hope, of imagining and creating better futures, then it acquires the power of real transformation.

The values that the Dundee Design Festival makes visible are those of inclusion, ambition, collaboration, confidence, creativity and civic fulfilment.

Photo: Kathryn Rattray

We need to harness those values to demonstrate how design can make jobs, create opportunities, and transform the prospects for all of our citizens. Design does not reside in design schools. It is not just something you see at degree shows or in museums. It is a way of looking at the world, of framing and solving problems, of thinking about new opportunities, and exploiting the creative potential of all our people!

So what are the priorities? What do we need to do to design and make a better future for our city?

1. Design spaces and tools for citizen engagement

Imagine creating spaces where people can come together and prototype new services, visualise how they want their neighbourhoods to be developed, move beyond ‘talking shops’ and give people the tools to make their own future. We do this in Global GovJam once a year — but how about making it a permanent feature of city life?

2. Embed design in policy making

Throughout the world design has been used as a tool to develop policy in both local and national government. Design labs are one of the initiatives that is transforming how government bodies open themselves up to a broader range of influences, ideas and — most importantly — citizen actions. A Dundee Design Lab could harness the ideas and creativity of the city to make policy in a wholly different and more participative way.

3. Design for sustainability

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them… By creating whole species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed." While Victor Papanek wrote those words as a call to action for designers in 1971, we have not yet seriously act on them. The crisis of global warming requires radical new thinking focused on how we live and work, and in particular how cities function. Community design could create new models of sustainable living.

4. Design to reclaim the high street

Design is a vital tool to make us think differently about urban spaces and how we bring new life, culture and enterprise into our tired city centres. The Design Festival itself proposes a radical alternative of how city centres could become more flexible, accessible places — experiments in a pop-up revolution in which vacant shops could be re-purposed by designers, makers, and enterprising would-be retailers, restauranteurs and others.

5. Design for health

Throughout the world there is a growing realisation that design is key to dealing with the acute health challenges facing us — design better and more effective health services, using technology more appropriately, understanding the needs of patients and communities. This is a city with some hugely challenging health outcomes — especially in terms of mental health, drugs and obesity — and so there is scope for great improvement. We need to be embedding design thinking in health teams and encouraging innovative initiatives that target the more acute problems.

6. Design for jobs

We can have all the innovation in the world, but unless the local economy picks up, it is unlikely to have much positive impact. We need to embed design within a local strategy for employment growth, that looks at how we support and sustain new enterprise. Self-employment and enterprise are not the enemies of a more inclusive, healthier community — they are fundamental to its development.

These six priorities could contribute to a vital issue — the reinvention of democracy as a process that involves citizens, helping them to give real form to possible futures. The times we live in are challenging — all the more reason to be positive and constructive about our future. The Dundee Design Festival opens a small window into a different way of connecting, collaborating and creating.

As a city, we’re not short of ideas, creative talent or positive values.

Using design we can make those values visible in Dundee.

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Ideas and reflections on service design and organisational change from the Open Change company and its associates

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