Let’s design and make a better Dundee


The Office for National Statistics published figures this week showing that Dundee has the fourth lowest employment rate in the UK with around 40% of local people not having a job last year. That’s the worst rate in Scotland, and in the UK only Liverpool, the London Borough of Newham and Middlesbrough perform worse.

Something is very seriously not working in the city – and not just too many of its citizens. This is the City of Design, the first UK city to secure this enviable UNESCO status. This is the city that has a bold cultural future ahead of it, thanks to the V&A Dundee project, that promises a steady stream of visitors to its blockbuster exhibitions.

Just yesterday the Business Editor of the city’s Courier newspaper wrote a challenging piece – Talent pool is huge – use it – that began with these words: “Last week I had the thoroughly depressing task of writing about yet another local company that has gone down the swanny…” It continued to describe the remarkable talents on display at the DJCAD degree show: “there was enough on show, from beautifully detailed animation works to silversmithing, graphic design to high-end fashion, to convince me the future of the city and the wider region is in good hands.” Graham Huband’s key message is that business needs to recognise and make use of the amazing creative talents of its design and art students.

I agree. I’ve been saying this (in a variety of cities) for 25 years and, to be honest, only rarely do local businesses show any more than a passing interest in creative talent. Dundee holds its fourth economic summit next week. I am sure the so-called creative industries will be mentioned. They were at last year’s summit. And do you know what will happen? Nothing. Because design is not regarded as a core capability in a city’s economy. When design was referred to at last year’s summit we saw some photos of fashion and jewellery. I love fashion and jewellery as much as the next person – but that is only a very small part of what design is and what it can contribute.

I am writing these words waiting for a plane at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. I am one of two design people going to Kuwait, along with a party from our School of Medicine to provide an innovative training and education programme for diabetes clinicians. Colleagues at Ninewells have been quick to see the benefits of service design in taking on some acute health challenges. And now health professionals in Kuwait want part of its benefits too.

Increasingly design is seen as key to transforming healthcare in the UK and internationally. But we still have a job on our hands to persuade business to really embrace design. This is one of our key challenges.

We need to demonstrate how design can make jobs, create opportunities, and transform the prospects for our citizens. Design does not reside in ‘design schools’. It is not just something you see at degree shows. It is a way of looking at the world, of framing and solving problems, of thinking about new opportunities, and exploiting the creative potential of ALL the people – not just the arty ones!

So what are the priorities? What do we need to do to design and make a better future for our city? Here is my six point design plan for Dundee.

1. Design mechanisms for citizen engagement

This is something that Catriona Macaulay and her colleagues at Scottish Government are active in doing, and we can expect some positive moves in this direction very soon. Imagine creating spaces where people can come together and prototype new services, create visualisations of how they want their neighbourhoods to be developed, move beyond talking shops and ‘committee culture’ and give people the tools to make their own future. Representative democracy has perhaps reached its limits and we should now create tools for participative democracy.

2. Embed design in policy making

Throughout the world design has been used as a tool to develop policy in both local and national government. Design labs are one of the initiatives that is transforming how government bodies open themselves up to a broader range of influences, ideas and – most importantly – citizen actions.   If you need evidence on the efficacy of this, then read the national research report Valuing Design, co-authored by Hazel White of the Dundee-based Open Change consultancy.

3. Design for sustainable development

There is an overwhelming need to create sustainable cities. As a recent government report argued: “Worldwide there is also an increasing focus on how design and other creative skills can contribute to a green transition. A major part of a product’s environmental footprint is defined through the early design phase, so many environmental issues can be solved by focusing on reducing environmental impact early in the development process… Rapid urbanisation is another example. The rise of megacities with millions of inhabitants is increasing the need for design solutions both technical and social that can meet the challenge of creating sustainable urban environments on a huge scale.”

4. Design to reclaim the high street

I have made the case earlier that design is a vital tool to make us think differently about urban spaces and in particular to think about how we bring new life, culture and enterprise into our tired city centres. We need to design a pop-up revolution – not just in Dundee, but in all of our cities – to open up the boarded up stores for use by designers, makers, and enterprising would-be retailers, restauranteurs and others. As I wrote: “The City Council should work to strip back regulation, work with other bodies in the City Centre to identify and make available properties and locations, and invite the people of Dundee to literally reclaim their streets for vibrant enterprises and cultural activities.” And I’m very pleased to say that since those words were written just months ago, we have made considerable progress.

5. Design for health

Again, throughout the world there is a growing realisation that design is key to dealing with the acute health challenges facing us – design better and more effective health services, using technology more appropriately, understanding the needs of patients and communities. Dundee has some great examples of this already – but clearly we have much further to go. This is a city with some hugely challenging health outcomes, and so there is scope for great improvement. We need to be embedding designers in health teams and encouraging innovative initiatives that target the more acute problems.

6. Design for jobs

As the Dundee Partnership has argued before: “The current financial crisis and resulting joblessness and decrease in spending power across our communities will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on people’s health and well being.” We can have all the innovation for health in the world, but unless the local economy picks up, it is unlikely to have much positive impact. We need to embed design within a local strategy for employment growth, that necessarily looks at how we support and sustain new enterprise development. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a policy gap in Scotland around self-employment and business startups, which we must address with some urgency. Self-employment and enterprise are not the enemies of a more inclusive, healthier community – they are absolutely fundamental to its development.

We’re not short of ideas, creative talent, or enthusiasm.

We could design and make a better Dundee.

If the will is there.


4 thoughts on “Let’s design and make a better Dundee

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Design is too often an afterthought, when it should be seen as an integral part of every business. Dundee has a great opportunity to showcase how things ‘should’ be done.

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