How a Lack of Global Thinking Doomed Taipei’s World Design Capital

How a Lack of Global Thinking Doomed Taipei’s World Design Capital
Photo Credit:台北世界設計之都

What you need to know

World Design Capital Taipei 2016 should have put Taipei on the global design map. Where did the Taipei City Government go so wrong?

As World Design Capital Taipei 2016 draws to a close, there has been wide-ranging criticism of the year-long program’s lack of achievements. Commentators have described "this year of design" as a "四不像市集" — hinting at an absence of vision and of sophistication — and as nothing more than a "大拜拜" — suggesting the program was a waste of taxpayers’ money. As the results stand today, it’s hard to fault such negativity.

A common refrain among commentators has been the absence of highly-visible World Design Capital events designed to entertain Taipei’s citizens. Unfortunately, it seems that many individuals were anticipating a repeat of the 2010 Taipei International Floral Expo. Such expectations, however, misunderstand the true purpose of the World Design Capital program. While the Floral Expo afforded citizens the occasion to ogle at flowers, World Design Capital was meant to achieve the equivalent of inspiring public and private organizations to beautify Taipei by planting their own and for the government to diligently share the results with the world.

World Design Capital afforded Taipei the rare opportunity to communicate with the world and to prove it is Asia's leading design city

World Design Capital — held once every two years and recognized by some as the "Olympics of Design" — was Taipei's best chance at proving it is Asia’s leading design city. The building of such an association would serve the city well. It would drive positive perceptions of Taipei’s brands among global consumers for years to come, much as it has done for Seoul, Korea (host of World Design Capital 2010). A strong association with design would also boost Taipei’s tourism numbers — attracting design-savvy travelers, much as it has done for Finland’s Helsinki (host of World Design Capital 2012). World Design Capital even had the power to fashion Taipei as Asia’s best city to raise a family or to start a creative agency, and, in doing so, reverse the brain drain that has long held back the city’s economy.

Alas, after 12 months of hard work and effort to promote Taipei as a city of design, it disappoints me to say that we failed to achieve even the basic fundamentals needed to drive such results. At the risk of retribution, I feel it necessary to bring to light one of the reasons why I believe World Design Capital was doomed from the start.

A lack of global thinking doomed Taipei’s World Design Capital

In taking responsibility for the international marketing of World Design Capital, our team looked forward to working closely with the Taipei City Government, and in sharing with the world the many exciting design happenings in and around Taipei. Sadly, however, the opposite happened. We were instructed by the department that hired our services to only promote those programs originating from their department. In other words, the only stories that we had the freedom to share with international media were the limited number of initiatives funded by a single government department. Attempts to convince our client of the media value of other stories, and of the need to satisfy the diverse editorial preferences of our targeted media, were rebuffed.

Why would the team assigned to the task of spreading World Design Capital Taipei to a global audience not be encouraged to share news on an award-winning piece of modern architecture — in one such case, the opening of the new Taipei Performing Arts Center designed by world renowned architecture firm OMA — nor share news of other privately-held architecture projects that were scooping up international accolades for their eco-friendly design? Why would we not be permitted to report on a second incarnation of the groundbreaking event Eataipei, which had excited Londoners in 2015 with a sophisticated interpretation of Taipei cuisine. The answer was simple: these events did not originate from the department in control of the World Design Capital budget, and therefore there was no interest in supporting nor promoting these events.

Honestly, this strikes me as appallingly self-serving, and worse yet, perplexingly short-sighted of our city government. In an age where cities compete against each other for status, talent and valuable outside investment, why would our city government put the initiatives of a single department over the narrative of the entire city? It is this kind of narrow-mindedness that kept World Design Capital Taipei 2016 from achieving its full potential.

I am, however, not so hasty as to assign fault to a single department. Instead, I place the blame squarely on the inward-facing culture that evidently pervades our city government. An absence of global thinking is clearly holding Taipei back. For Taipei to successfully compete with the likes of Shanghai, Seoul, and Singapore, we require a city government that is capable of recognizing the global challenge at hand (not just paying it lip- service), and for our city councillors, local corporations, and we the citizens to work with that government to make Taipei a more global competitive city.

World Design Capital afforded Taipei an unprecedented opportunity to apply design in the creation of a meaningful, even inspirational identity for our city. It was never supposed to be a series of events to entertain citizens. It was a chance to put Taipei on the global map by showing Taipei is truly a city of design. Unfortunately, it didn’t achieve that goal. And so, I ask that our government do what any good designer would do following any failed project. That is to sit down, to discuss what worked and more importantly what didn’t, and then to get about "designing" a better process; so that next time an opportunity like World Design Capital comes along, the job gets done right. If there is only one legacy resulting from this, "Taipei’s Year of Design," then please let it be this one.

Editor: Olivia Yang