Singapore’s a Unesco Creative City of Design: What that means

Singapore's efforts to develop design have received recognition from Unesco

Think of the term "City of Design" and sexy cities such as Tokyo, Barcelona or Cape Town, all with famous architectural icons and lively art and fashion scenes, may come to mind.

But clean and efficient Singapore? Not such an obvious choice.

In December last year, however, the country accepted an accolade from Unesco: It was designated a Creative City of Design.

This happened quietly and with little fanfare, in stark contrast to the nation-wide buzz five months earlier in July, when the Botanic Gardens earned the coveted status of Unesco World Heritage Site.

What is a Creative City? It is a status granted by Unesco, an arm of the United Nations aimed at fostering international collaboration usually in "softer" fields such as culture and social sciences, to cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for development.

Cities have to apply to Unesco for the status and Unesco evaluates their submissions and decides which makes the cut.

Being granted City of Design status puts Singapore in a family of cities called the Unesco Creative Cities Network. It was created in 2004 to foster cooperation among these cities, such as encouraging the sharing of best practices.

Apart from Design, the other creative fields in the network are Crafts and Folk Arts, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts and Music.

There are 22 Cities of Design, including Beijing in China, Montreal in Canada and Graz in Austria. Besides art-rich Bandung in Indonesia, Singapore is the only other South-east Asian city to be in the club.

It is a pretty unexpected appointment since Singapore, which has a prim, no-nonsense international image, is not an obvious candidate for being a design-centric city. But industry insiders say the country is deserving of the designation and hope this will go towards changing the perception of Singapore.

Ms Carolyn Kan, 43, designer and founder of jewellery label Carrie K, says: "When I show at international fashion weeks such as in Paris, people are very surprised that Carrie K. is a Singapore brand. Singapore is not known for having a strong focus on design or a rich creative culture."

The creative vibrancy of a city is hard to measure, depending in part on intangibles such as perceived buzz, but what has been certain is that in Singapore, there has been a concerted direction of public resources towards the design sector over the past decade or so.

In 2003, Singapore set up the DesignSingapore Council, whose efforts include grants to help designers launch their projects overseas and helping businesses integrate design thinking into their operations.

In the past few years, Singapore has intensified its efforts to promote design. In 2012, a university dedicated to design, the Singapore University of Design and Technology, was set up and the Singapore Furniture Industries Council launched the first SingaPlural, a design festival.

The role that design plays in the economy has also grown. In 2004, the sector's contribution to Singapore's gross domestic product was $1.06 billion. In 2013, the amount doubled to $2.13 billion.

Design strategy company Foreign Policy Design Group's creative director Yu Yah-Leng, 43, calls it a "creative renaissance", with rapid development and sophistication in the industry over the past eight to 10 years in terms of supply (artists, creators, designers and processes) and demand (creative buyers).

To make Singapore's case to Unesco, the design council prepared for the application a year in advance before submitting it in July last year. The final submission included a letter of endorsement from the Singapore National Commission for Unesco (signed by Mr Lawrence Wong, then Minister for Culture, Community and Youth) and other letters of support from design associations.

Mr Jeffrey Ho, 49, the council's executive director, says given that Singapore's design scene had been so strongly developed in the past 10 years and gained momentum especially in the last five years, "it was about time for Singapore to be recognised for its efforts".

In fact, he adds that "Singapore was designed from day one", referring to everything from urban planning to public housing policies where different races are brought together rather than live separately in ethnic enclaves.

With the Creative Cities designation, Singapore is expected not only to continue developing the design industry, but also to strengthen cooperation with other cities in the network through sharing knowledge and talent exchanges.

Singapore designer Hunn Wai, 35, who has presented on international platforms such as the Milan Design Week via his design studio Lanzavecchia + Wai, is looking forward to collaboration opportunities.

In the pipeline is an urban baby stroller he designed with engineers in Shenzhen, one of the cities in the network, and a Hong Kong pram producer and distributor.

"The Unesco designation is an opportunity to step beyond our shores. Designers need to reach out to the region. The whole of Asean is our playground," he says.

While the City of Design accolade is a boost for Singapore's design scene, it could take some time for Singaporeans to embrace the implications.

The Design Business Chamber of Singapore's president Tai Lee Siang, 52, says there is "still some way to go". "It will be fantastic when all our citizens can understand and embrace design in all things in life," he adds, the way the people in Japan and Italy do.

Mr Ho adds that Singaporeans can also expect design to feature even more strongly in their lives, with design awareness possibly being taught in primary and secondary schools in future. More details will be revealed later this year.

Ultimately, the hope is to see Singapore move towards becoming "a nation of design thinkers" and for design here to continue to affect lives, says Mr Ho.

"It's going to be exciting."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline Singapore’s a Unesco Creative City of Design: What that means. Subscribe