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Big Ideas: Columbus as a City of Design?

 Michael Bongiorno Big Ideas: Columbus as a City of Design?
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I would like to suggest the following: Columbus is now and will develop further into an international design capital and an idea city of the future. Sound impossible? Let me tell you why it isn’t.

Michael Bongiorno, principal and senior designer at DesignGroup.

In August of 2010, my wife, Sarah Bongiorno, and I gave an impassioned and well received presentation at Pecha Kucha Columbus that argued for our city to seek appointment as a UNESCO City of Design. For those of you that don’t know about UNESCO, it is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an entity whose stated purpose is to promote international collaboration through education, science, and culture. Under the category of “culture” UNESCO has established a “Creative Cities Network” within which creative cities work together towards a common mission for cultural diversity and sustainable urban development. Member cities are recognized as “Creative hubs” that promote socio-economic and cultural development through creative industries.

Within the framework of the Creative Cities network sit a variety of cultural categories. There are cities of Literature, Film, Music, Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Media Arts, Gastronomy. Only two U.S. cities are in the network: Iowa City, Iowa (Literature) and Santa Fe, New Mexico (Crafts and Folk Art.) Only one North American City, Montreal, is a City of Design. The other design cities are Berlin, Buenos Aires, Graz, Kobe, Nagoya, Saint-Etienne, Seoul, Shanghai, Shenzhen.

The thing that inspired us to give the Pecha Kucha presentation was what we experienced on a trip to Montreal, Canada in 2009. We were impressed by the design-centered culture of the city, citizens’ awareness of the importance of design, and how they promoted opportunities to engage design both locally and internationally. Design and ideas are integral to city life and it is the differentiator that they promote to visitors. So it was a pleasant surprise when we discovered that Montreal behaves the way it does because it is a UNESCO City of Design, recognized internationally as a design hub.

Once Columbus is appointed to the Network, it can share experiences and create new opportunities with other cities on a global platform, notably for activities based on the notions of a creative economy and “Creative Tourism.” Creative Tourism is considered to be a new generation of tourism that involves more interaction, in which the visitor has an educational, emotional, social, and participative interaction with the place, its living culture, and the people who live there. They feel like a citizen.

You are probably wondering, why Columbus? Do we really have what it takes to become a UNESCO City of Design, especially alongside such notable international cities?

The answer is absolutely yes. The UNESCO designation is not about being recognized only for what you have done, but for what you could be. It is an invitation to develop Columbus around its creative forces in design. Columbus, as Montreal did, exhibits all the latent and nascent attributes required to be a City of Design. Consider the following UNESCO City of Design selection criteria against our strengths.

  1. Established design industry: We are the home of numerous, internationally recognized fashion, architecture, graphic design, advertising, planning, engineering, and industrial design industries. By promoting this strength instead of hiring out of town design firms for major commissions, our largest civic and business leaders, and our local economy, will reap enormous benefits from untapped talent.
  2. Design schools and design research centers: Columbus College of Art and Design, The Ohio State University, The Columbus Museum of Art Center for Creativity, Fort Hayes and the Wexner Center for the Arts are internationally recognized design, design research, and thought leadership institutions. How can we expand and enhance their impact upon Columbus?
  3. Promotion of the creative local scene: The Short North Arts District, Jenis’s Ice Cream, etc. continually receive national exposure. Do we promote enough of our other scenes? Can we do the same for the burgeoning Franklinton Arts District, King Lincoln District, and all of our other local entrepreneurs?
  4. Experience in hosting fairs, events and exhibits dedicated to design: Fashion Week, Columbus Arts Festival, Agora at Junctionview, Urban Scrawl, Pecha Kucha Columbus, TedX. While we have a lot of fairs, we could do a much better at educating our citizens about, and promoting, good design.
  5. Collaboration among diverse groups: We can do much better. The new AIA Center for Architecture is developing its mission and programming toward becoming the collaboration and outreach nexus of the allied design industries (architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, industrial design, graphic design, urban planning, urban design, computer design, engineering, fashion design, etc.) in Columbus. Dialogue among diverse groups working at their highest creative capacity leads to innovation and shared success. It is what will be required for successful and sustainable 21st century cities.
  6. Cultural landscape fuelled by design and the built environment: We are getting there, but we need to do a lot better by raising the level of expectation for what constitutes great design. There is an enormous difference between passable and great. It pains me to say this but a lot of our current physical environment is just “passable” where it has the opportunity to engage and inspire. We should aspire to be the kind of place we’d like to visit.

While we can do better in all of these categories, it should be pretty clear that we have both what it takes and the potential to do even greater things. We need to recognize what our strengths are (stop looking for external ones!), capitalize on them, and then proclaim it loudly; this is critical for talent attraction and retention. Cities like Columbus that are without mountains, beachfronts, oceans or sublime weather can rely only on culture and the quality of our built environment to capitalize upon as resources of seduction. Figuring out how to make the creative culture-environment combination a competitive advantage at an international level is where we should be spending all of our energies.

The benefits of the UNESCO City of Design designation are measurable. According to Montreal, collaboration with other cities in network has been an enormous boon. They build on each other’s strengths and cross-market. Collaboration opens up other markets to Montreal innovators to work internationally and to participate in international conferences. If a UNESCO city is holding a conference, preferential invitations, opportunities to present, are given to designers and innovators within the network. Montreal’s tourism office directs international journalists to their Design Bureau and the Design Bureau then provides tailored experiences that will show the city in the best light. For example, design tours for these journalists are led by leaders in the design community.

Your next question might be: This sounds great, how do we make it happen?

Work is under way and we have a launch pad. Sarah and I have already begun conversations with the Bureau of Design in Montreal and they are eager to help us on our mission. We have opportunities to collaborate with some concurrent initiatives happening over the next year and are continually pitching our idea to community and business leaders with positive reception. In addition, with assistance from AIA Columbus and The Columbus Architecture Foundation, we are leading a group of designers from the allied design industries to create meaningful programming for a design calendar in October 2012 that celebrates the local creative scene. These events could support the Columbus 200 Bicentennial efforts as an additional layer of exciting programming. Imagine a Columbus “Design Week” or even a “Design Month,” where, yearly or biennially, people come from far and wide to be creative tourists in our city and experience and engage with all that our local talent has to offer in the form of unique tours, inspiring lectures, innovative competitions, exhibitions, celebratory galas and interactive workshops. If we time it right, our first series of events can serve as the launch of the City of Design pursuit.

One last thought I’d like to leave you with is that Columbus, UNESCO City of Design, is a collective project that, to become a reality over time, demands that all stakeholders (elected officials, citizens, experts, entrepreneurs and designers – in short, all of you) buy into it and make it our own.

The challenge now is to bring this designation to life and make it tangible for us. The call therefore goes out to everyone: it is time to build “Columbus, UNESCO City of Design,” together.

Our time is now, let’s not miss this opportunity.

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