Leveraging design as capital in soft power

Leveraging design as capital in soft power

Singapore has been bestowed the accolade of Creative City of Design by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), joining the Creative Cities Network (UCCN) which include the likes of Beijing, Berlin, Bilbao, Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Kobe, Montreal, Nagoya, Seoul, Shanghai and Turin.

The UCCN set up in 2004 aims "to promote co-operation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor in sustainable urban development".

The application and selection processes are stringent, a testament to the Unesco brand, such that in 11 years since its inception, only 116 member cities have made it to this list, across the seven creative fields - Craft and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts and Music.

From pragmatic to creative

Since its rise to a developed city-state, the Republic has always been known to be and derided for being boring, pragmatic or even sterile. As with many nascent cities around the world, it was an inevitable path that Singapore chose - which was to first focus on bread and butter issues such as building up basic infrastructure and housing for its denizens, before placing emphasis on culture and creativity.

For a city or country to be truly developed, it needs to not just excel in its economic merit and clout. Creative and cultural excellence are increasingly seen as equally important facets of a city's status, and also as major contributors to the global economy. The creative economy is one that encapsulates activities that are related to creativity, information, knowledge generation and sharing. It is growing on a global scale, creating in the process new jobs and opportunities, generating wealth, and adding to the soft power of a city.

Singapore's journey towards transforming into a creative metropolis has accelerated in the past 10 years. This is a necessary progression as we begin to realise that a city of our size cannot continue resting on our laurels as our economic edge whittles in the face of increased competition from regional players.

Companies have been encouraged, through government assistance schemes, business matching and consultancy programmes, to invest in the creation of intellectual property, the most tangible measure of a creative economy.

On urban planning, the government has always consciously emphasised the creation of ideal living and working spaces for citizens, and making the best of our limited land area. Involving citizens in the urban planning process in the past few years through a series of Design Thinking workshops was a bold and creative step taken to engage Singaporeans in the shaping of a home they will continue to love, and want to live in.

Drawing and developing talent

As a Unesco City of Design, where does Singapore go from here? First and foremost, and somewhat superficially, the title enhances the Singapore brand.

Taking a leaf out of Berlin's book, the city has since its inclusion in the UCCN grown in mindshare of the global creative community. The German capital's focus on developing its creative industries, particularly in the field of art and design, has arguably brought about a renaissance in its economy.

Attracting talents from fields of architecture, industrial design, fashion and fine arts, Berlin has truly transformed from a city with a mottled history to a gleaming one of creative and cultural importance. With physical and mental space for creative talent of all walks, it has since taken some shine off the big boys in Europe such as Paris, London and Milan. Berlin has also risen in the ranks as one of the most liveable cities in the world, and has in the last few years become a city that is loved by locals and visitors alike.

Berlin, for instance, continues to better itself as a City of Design, and this can be seen from its recent transformation of the decommissioned Tempelhof Airport and airfield in the city centre to a multi-use social hub that is now a well-utilised urban respite for locals. In the same manner, previously underutilised industrial spaces in East Berlin have been repurposed as creative enclaves, providing creative businesses plenty of room to blossom and grow.

Likewise, Singapore should leverage this newly-earned accolade and build on its brand to attract talent from the region. To many, we are seen as a melting pot not unlike New York, London and Hong Kong. With our strategic emphasis on the creative economy, we are certainly poised to be a magnet for regional creative talents to set up shop here, and to be a platform for designers to reach out to the region and also to the rest of the world.

To this end, Singapore has introduced a number of strategic initiatives to boost our design credentials globally. SingaPlural, anchor event of Singapore Design Week, is coming into its fifth iteration next March, and continues to attract much attention locally and overseas. Various local design awards and recognition such as SG Mark, Singapore Design Awards, President Design Awards, Red Dot Awards, among many others, also attracted overseas designers, testament to the world's recognition of Singapore's design standards.

Singapore had close to 50,000 professionals employed in the design industry in 2010, and the number has been increasing. The economic value-add from the creative industries has steadily increased, reaching S$1.6 billion in 2012. Several design education institutions including the Singapore University of Design and Technology (SUTD) have been set up.

Our newfound status as City of Design must be sustained and deepened, through unremitting efforts towards attracting creative talent to continue using Singapore as their choice platform. This can be done through the organisation of fairs, forums and festivals related to design; the further engagement of citizens (new and old) in urban design and planning, and in lowering business costs for the creative industries. We should also allow "bohemians" who may not necessarily conform to the "Singapore template" to thrive, as social and cultural diversity breeds creativity.

From creative and cultural assets to economic value

As a Unesco City of Design, Singapore has decided to put creativity - in our case, design - as a major driving force of its economy. Local companies should seek out partnerships with other parties that can bring to the table shared experiences, knowledge, and insights on markets, which are useful in the generation of intellectual property, new business opportunities and new market segments.

Singapore companies especially SMEs should take advantage of this new design stature to tap the Unesco network of creative cities to expand their global outreach and come up with more innovations to add new value to their businesses.

Local design-related festivals such as SingaPlural and associations such as SFIC and DBCS or design-alliances such as Design S can play an important role by working closely with businesses and individuals in Singapore while leveraging government schemes to transform the local design landscape and bring their design ideas to fruition - both aesthetically and commercially and in line with best practices of sustainability.

Soft power

We must continue to consciously and strategically build our creative clout through a multi-pronged approach that engages citizens, businesses, tourists and investors. We should walk the talk, and be a truly cosmopolitan City of Design that embraces the global community, creating more room for diversity. Singapore can then, through its emphasis on design, grow to be a major international soft power.

The writer is chairman of SingaPlural, a platform that celebrates design in all its forms and functions, and vice-president of Singapore Furniture Industry Council

This article was first published on Jan 2, 2016.
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