Dundee has gained a reputation as ‘Britain’s coolest little city’ and a worldwide ‘hot destination’. Here Mike Press, Co-Director of Open Change a service design and innovation company, and Emeritus Professor of Design Policy at the University of Dundee, tells us about the origins of Creative Dundee and how design is being used to solve the social challenges facing the city and the vital role it plays in creating new opportunities for economic growth.

“Britain’s coolest little city”

The five hundred people who regularly attend Creative Dundee’s sell-out Pecha Kucha nights are evidence of the buoyant mood of Dundee’s creative community, the UK’s sole UNESCO City of Design. This designation triggered several initiatives, including a design festival which transformed a long-abandoned printing works into a vast celebration of design-led innovation in the city. The festival was supported by the V&A Dundee team, whose iconic waterfront building recently opened to the public. Dundee has a track record of applying design-led innovation in building a new future for itself. Offering one of the UK’s top-rated design schools, and Abertay University has an international reputation for its computer arts and gaming courses.

A tale of two cities

Dundee languishes in the bottom ten for employment, business start-ups and deprivation, along with other measures. More sobering, in Dundee’s population of 148,000 there are 42,000 people living in deprivation and nearly 18,000 children in poverty. Nearly one third of Dundee’s citizens are poor.

Design plays a vital role in both creating new opportunities for economic growth and employment, tackling the acute social and health problems created by the collapse of its traditional industries. The city is increasingly successful in attracting the “creative class” to its research and creative industries but at the same time, there has been a steady and relentless erosion of manufacturing and the persistence of permanently marginalised communities that have no employment prospects, boasting only some of the UK’s worst health statistics.

Creative Dundee

Creative Dundee began its life as a website, is now an independent well-funded network of creative practitioners and others with an interest in supporting the creative economy. Creating this community has proved essential in both attracting and retaining design talent. Until recently, the hugely talented designers graduating from the city’s two universities would develop their careers in Glasgow, Edinburgh or London – there was no community, employers or start-up spaces to support them.

Biome Collective is an example the new projects now flourishing in the city. It is a community and co-working space for people to create, collaborate and explore new frontiers in games, digital art and technology. Their work includes BAFTA-nominated games and an installation commissioned for the London Design Biennale 2018. Malath Abbas and Tom deMajo are behind the Biome Collective and the Shpeel project shown in London which asked the question “What can video games do to help young people start talking about their mental health?”. This project reflects how bridging “the tale of two cities” is part of the DNA of Dundee’s design culture.

At its inception, the project pulled together Dundee-based designers, mental health professionals, campaigners and specialist clinicians to set clear relevant objectives. A co-design approach was taken with the project being developed in collaboration with Dundee youth collective Hot Chocolate Trust, and The Corner, an NHS drop-in service for young people based in the city centre.

Healthcare Designed in Dundee

The Times recently ran a feature on Rod Mountain, a consultant surgeon based at Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital. Rod has been a champion of design-led innovation in the NHS for some years and curated the healthcare design section of V&A Dundee’s Scottish gallery. He has brought together a network Healthcare Designed in Dundee that includes NHS staff, designers and others to help embed design within NHS Tayside. His vision is for a health service in which all staff use design methods to solve problems, innovate and approach health challenges in new ways.

Leading change by design

Gaining the UK’s first UNESCO City of Design designation in 2014 gave Dundee a challenge. What sort of city of design was it? If it focused on the V&A project and the ‘creative’ sector, then this city of design would clearly exclude the one third of the population who live in relative poverty. A small team drafted a document that defined the “aims and values of UNESCO City of Design Dundee”.

These aims include: “using design to solve the social challenges faced by Dundee” and “embracing design principles in our work, from designing new projects to redesigning existing approaches”. Dundee is the first city in the UK to develop a set of design values and objectives, with the explicit aim of bringing the whole city behind its commitment to use design as an engine for the city’s transformation.

The City Council has since developed into one of the national champions for The Scottish Approach to Service Design - the Scottish Government’s programme for building user research and service design capacity in Scotland’s public sector.

Design: think global, act local

On 5-7 June 2018 a disused shop in the centre of Dundee was taken over by Global GovJam – 80 public sector professionals from a range of organisations participating in a design jam. GovJam events were being held over the same two days in over thirty cities worldwide from Buenos Aires to Leeds, San Fransisco to Athens – and this year Dundee was the Global HQ for an event that uses social media and video to link together public-sector design innovators across the globe.

Making connections is what the new design-led Dundee is all about – making connections and gaining new opportunities through being part of the UNESCO Creative Cities network, engaging with innovative networks like Global GovJam, and building a unique local network – Creative Dundee – that other cities have emulated.

In tackling its own very distinctive challenges through design, the city’s approach is best summarised using a phrase first coined by Patrick Geddes, Professor of Botany at University College Dundee from 1888 to 1919: “Think global. Act local.”

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