With the mounting pressures of climate change, rapid urbanization and an ongoing public health crisis, cities around the world are exploring new design strategies to best respond to the needs of their citizens.
And while investing in design at the city-level can take various forms, the rise of the ‘Chief Design Officer’, a position that already exists within numerous consumer good and tech companies as well as non-profits, is allowing many cities to lay the groundwork for the future. We spoke with Chief Design Officers from two former World Design Capital® cities, Helsinki (Finland) and Seoul (South Korea), to learn more about what the role entails, and the impact it can have.
Despite their population differences, with Helsinki’s modest populace of 630,000 compared to Seoul’s nearly 10 million, both cities are actively investing in design to transform their built environments. For them, the role of Chief Design Officer has allowed design thinking to guide both policy development and civic programmes, creating new platforms for systemic change.
Working directly with the mayor’s office, key government departments and civil servants, the Chief Design Officer intersects political and social lines, engaging with educators, professionals, community groups and citizens to carve out the most appropriate path forward for their city.
After being named World Design Capital in 2012, the City of Helsinki began to invest in design at a strategic level, and became one of the first cities in the world to name Anne Stenros as its Chief Design Officer in 2016. Hanna Harris, the city’s second and current CDO, and the former director at Archinfo Finland, acts as the “main collaborator and partner for design related activities across different sectors of the city.”
As part of their design strategy, Helsinki has focused on three main aspects – making the city and its services more functional, gaining a better understanding of citizens’ needs and tackling wicked societal problems.
In addition to overseeing this mandate, Ms. Harris has taken on the role of both a “connector and spokesperson.” She sees the Chief Design Officer position as a way to ensure that the “work that takes place across different divisions of the city is made visible, shared and strategically connected to city leadership and top management.”
Another former World Design Capital city, Seoul, recruited Kyung-won Chung, a Professor Emeritus at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), to serve as its second Chief Design Officer in 2009. He worked alongside then Mayor Oh Se-hoon, to formulate a design vision for the city, under the banner of ‘Design Caring for Citizens’. Focusing on five key categories: economy, environment, communication, living, and culture, Mr. Chung’s mandate aimed to guide civil servants and designers to maximize the well-being of Seoul citizens by harnessing design as a tool for improving the city’s governance and infrastructure.
As part of his two-year secondment as CDO, Mr. Chung oversaw the establishment of the Seoul Design Support Center within Seoul Design Foundation (SDF) in order to provide small and medium-size enterprises within the city with appropriate design services. SDF also oversaw the operation of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a design hub in Seoul.
For Seoul, and many other large cities, “design issues are very complex and diverse” and are often closely related to the quality of life of citizens. As the city’s head of design, both Mr. Chung and Ms. Harris argue that a Chief Design Officer has a unique responsibility to integrate various perspectives as part of their approach, working to identify underrepresented areas where design and architecture can really make a difference.
Ms. Harris points to the work she is currently doing for the creation of a thematic public playground in Helsinki, noting that while the playground itself will be impressive, it “has been hugely rewarding to talk to people and find the best way to take something like this forward in the city.” For Mr. Chung, he saw value in being able to implement design policy, and transform preconceived notions that design is only cosmetic. Over time, he witnessed “a favourable atmosphere for design-first public policy” that began to form in the city, noting, “it is difficult but rewarding to convince those who view design policies with skepticism.”
Today, as many cities begin designing their post-pandemic recovery, the value of design-first public policy cannot be understated. Helsinki has worked to transform existing urban spaces, such as the historic landmark Senate Square, into a outdoor gathering spaces for citizens. In Seoul, the city has implemented a series of ‘Smart Bus Shelters’, complete with air purification and entertainment options, transforming public transit into a safe, reliable and enjoyable experience for citizens.
Ultimately, design can play a key role in how a city fosters belonging and participation, and can offer a better understanding of the different layers and functions of the built environment. As such, a position like Chief Design Officer should be seen as an investment, rather than an expense. As stated by Mr. Chung, “it is worth remembering that if a well-capable Chief Design Officer works properly, the effect can be many times greater than the amount invested.”