Getting government to think design

department of design logo medium

By Rory Williams


As a legacy of the World Design Capital, the City of Cape Town has taken on the task of making design-led thinking integral to its administration. The Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille has said, “We are finding ways to build on the many extraordinary innovations of the past and present, and to entrench creative thinking as a means of developing sustainable solutions to service delivery challenges, in partnership with the citizens of Cape Town.”

To help achieve this objective, the City’s World Design Capital Department (within Tourism, Events and Marketing) is running a series of ward co-design workshops across the city, and introducing a design thinking awareness programme for city officials. Both of these initiatives take a strongly collaborative approach to design.

As part of raising awareness among city departments, a pilot two-day workshop was facilitated at Department of Design by SAP, an organisation that helped the city use information technology to transform its systems when the smaller municipalities were merged into one, and continues to provide software systems to the city.

Where system failure happens, the cause is often lack of consideration of human factors. So SAP is taking-design thinking to its customer base to demonstrate that there is another way to think about business, focused on innovation that can emerge from empathy with the user’s requirements.

In 2005 the founder of SAP donated money for the establishment of d. School Institute of Design at Stanford, to pursue design-thinking. The City of Cape Town asked how a municipal government could access learning from d.School, and SAP offered their design-training. The pilot workshop at Department of Design brought officials from a wide range of municipal departments into one room to see how design thinking works, and to encourage its adoption in their workplaces.

The officials looked at some of the real challenges on their desks, and learned to base design on an enhanced understanding of their clients: the city’s residents. In an increasingly complex environment, the ethos of World Design Capital suggests that design-thinking is a powerful tool for improving service delivery.

It can encourage home-grown solutions that are not just technical but respond to the full range of human needs, using an experimental approach that can reduce risks and costs while encouraging learning from doing.