Creative connections

Singapore was recently designated a Unesco Creative City of Design. In the first of a five-part series, Arti Mulchand finds out what it is about the country and its approach to design that makes it a valuable addition to the network.

Design is a word most often associated with fashion, architecture and other creative concepts. But great design makes itself felt in a wide range of everyday experiences and processes, from an administrative form that is effortless to fill up to a daily commute that is a breeze.

And it is in such attention to detail that Singapore excels, say international experts.

The Republic was named a Unesco Creative City of Design in December last year, becoming one of just 22 cities around the world - and one of only two in Asean - to be given this designation. The other Asean city with this accolade is Bandung in Indonesia.

The National Design Centre. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The Unesco Creative Cities Network was created in 2004 to strengthen cooperation among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for development. Besides the Creative Cities of Design, Unesco's Creative Cities Network includes other cities designated for crafts and folk arts, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music. A total of 116 cities are included in this network.

"I was hugely impressed with how seriously design was taken in every aspect of public life in Singapore," said Dundee City Council's Leisure and Culture department director Stewart Murdoch, who visited the city-state in September. Dundee is Scotland's fourth-largest city.

"Design was more than places, buildings and products… It was part of processes, from public services to public transport."

Mr Murdoch was one of the international experts invited by the DesignSingapore Council to provide input into the nation's Design 2025 Masterplan.

He also shared the Scottish city's experiences as a Unesco Creative City of Design. Dundee was granted the designation in 2014.

While here, the three experts visited Gardens by the Bay and Lasalle College of the Arts, and also took in the 50 Years of Singapore Design exhibition at the three-year-old National Design Centre.

But what struck Mr Murdoch most were the "design thinking" boot camps that public-sector officials attend, embedding design "at the policy level" in planning for everything from health to housing.

He was so inspired that he not only supported the island-state's bid when it sought to be designated a Unesco Creative City of Design, but also imported some of its ideas.

In November, Dundee held a pilot exercise challenging city officials to place bets on a horse in a betting shop and book a complicated sleeper train journey. Their experiences - obstacles and all - were recorded and they faced, first hand, how design impacted public experiences.

"It was a great idea," said Mr Murdoch. "They experienced the challenges, deconstructed their experiences and came up with action plans… They didn't just spend six months writing a strategy paper."

Singapore was clearly onto something good and, in his opinion, would be able to add value to the Unesco Creative Cities of Design network.

"We knew Singapore could make a contribution because it was thinking about design in much broader terms. There is a clear commitment to design."

Building a design culture

When Singapore was named a Unesco Creative City of Design, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, said on his Facebook page that the designation "puts Singapore's design industry on the world stage".

In a press statement, he said that it would "spur (Singapore) on in building a pervasive design and innovative culture that involves everyone - designers, communities and the public".

Given Singapore's lack of natural resources, creativity has always been core to the island's development, out of sheer necessity.

In 2002, the Singapore Government put in place the Creative Industries Development Strategy for the arts and culture, design and media sectors, acknowledging the creative sector as an engine of growth.

DesignSingapore Council, a national agency spearheading the development of the design sector, was created the following year.

Its mandate is two-pronged: to develop the market for good design, and to equip the industry here with the necessary skills to meet the ensuing demand. It has since formulated three design masterplans that have helped to promote, support and grow the industry.

DesignCouncil Singapore executive director Jeffrey Ho views the Unesco designation as an acknowledgement that Singapore has "the right infrastructure and support for design to flourish".

That was a point that the secretary-general of the Shenzhen City of Design Promotion Association, Mr Xu Ting, also honed in on.

"In Singapore, the combination of efficiency, resources and a commitment to design all add up," said Mr Xu. Shenzhen, which is home to China's thriving graphic design community, became a Creative City of Design in 2008.

He points to the President's Design Award as a demonstration of "Singapore's commitment to design at the highest level". The 10-year-old annual award is the nation's top honour for Singapore designs and designers, and the winners receive their awards from President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

Singapore's approach is an inspiration to China as the country, once the world's factory, shifts its focus to a more sustainable pattern of development - one that uses fewer resources and has a smaller environmental footprint. Design, once displaced by more pressing economic issues, has become a priority, said Mr Xu.

"China realises that design is one of the most important factors in creating sustainable industries," he said.

Network effects

In practical terms, the Unesco designation is more than just a nod to how Singapore has harnessed design and creativity to drive social and economic growth.

It also creates new opportunities for the sector, since it plugs the city-state into a network of countries that share its respect for, and interest in, developing and growing its creative industries.

The Unesco Creative Cities Network was created in 2004 to strengthen cooperation among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for development.

Besides the Creative Cities of Design, Unesco's Creative Cities Network includes other cities designated for crafts and folk arts, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music.

A total of 116 cities are included in this network.

Cities within the network participate in one another's exhibitions, forums and other events, and collaborate on various projects.

Clinching a Unesco Creative Cities designation is unlike "winning a competition or getting a cheque" - the key payoff is being "linked to this global family of cities that share an aspiration to use design well", said Mr Murdoch.

He added that the strength of the network stems from its diversity.

Dundee's history and architecture, for example, go as far back as mediaeval times. His city has had to constantly reinvent itself, most recently using art and design for cultural regeneration and to drive the future of the city.

"By comparison, Singapore has had a very short history but, boy, have you guys been busy. What Singapore has achieved has been impressive to see," he said.

Mr Murdoch sees potential for both education and performance collaboration between Lasalle in Singapore and Dundee University's Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and Scottish Contemporary Dance Company in his city.

Mr Xu, meanwhile, hopes to sign a memorandum of understanding with Singapore similar to the one Shenzhen has with neighbouring Hong Kong.

Among other things, Shenzhen co-organises the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture with Hong Kong. Hong Kong has also helped Shenzhen's design industry increase its efficiency and level of professionalism.

"Just as we do with Hong Kong, we look forward to working with Singapore in terms of design," he said, adding that he has plans to invite Singapore to be the guest of honour and to showcase the work of its designers at the Shenzhen Design Week at the end of the year. He also looks forward to welcoming Singaporean designers to compete for the Shenzhen Design Award for Young Talents next year.

"This designation isn't about recognition. You become a part of a design family and that means you can reach out to other countries and create possibilities for exchange and collaboration," he said. "It's a great network."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'connections Creative'. Print Edition | Subscribe