Alayne Reesberg, the newly appointed CEO of Cape Town Design – the company established to deliver on Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014 commitments – is understandably busy: She has eleven months to pull together a year’s worth of design-related programming. Her busy calendar notwithstanding, she found the time to sit down with Creative Cape Town to give us some insight into who she is, what her vision for World Design Capital 2014 is, and why she brought quinces to her interview for the position of CEO.
Why did you want to be part of World Design Capital 2014?
It is a dream job in many ways. It combines many of the things that I love: design, facilitating conversations that have never happened before, certainly working under pressure, and the potential to use this opportunity as a vehicle for change. A lot of really good work was done during the bidding process to get the people of Cape Town excited and I know that ICSID – the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design – felt that the idea has somehow landed with the people. So we have at our fingertips not only world-class design, but also a citizenry who are ready, willing and able to assist and support the effort. We’ve also got the attention of a global market that is looking to us with anticipation and excitement, asking “What have you got?” My big job is to harness all of this and make sure that a lot of people are able to bring their skills to the process.
How do you intend harnessing people’s enthusiasm, as well as their skills, around World Design Capital 2014?
Broadly there will be a call for public proposals that will go out in the middle of February. The call will ask people for their most audacious ideas and how they would make them a reality. We all walk the streets and inhabit the city in different ways, and we’ve all had the experience of thinking, “If only this was like that” or “What if this worked like that?” Now is an opportunity to do something, and the challenge is to put the right pieces in place and to do it spectacularly. We’re not only looking for new projects or ideas but also for existing initiatives that are already doing spectacular work.
You’ve worked in some high-powered corporate environments as well as in diplomacy as a negotiator. How does this experience help you deliver on Cape Town’s plans and promises for 2014?
As negotiator I’ve been part of multi-party negotiations and have seen how people can, under very high-pressured circumstances, keep cool heads and work towards a bigger goal. I am sure these experiences will serve me well. The other experience that will be hugely relevant was my work at Microsoft. Working with people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, you learn that they have very high expectations. I always used to ask myself “What would Gates find interesting?” and the list isn’t very long. So it is about really knowing what your audience wants, honouring their expectations and then delivering flawlessly. If someone lands at Cape Town International Airport and their taxi ride into town isn’t up to scratch, you can never erase that first experience. We need to ensure that we are designing the whole visitor experience from the moment they step off the plane, and we need to sustain it throughout the year. To achieve this, we need everyone to be involved.
What is the City’s role in 2014 versus that of Cape Town Design? It’s all a bit confusing…
Yes, there is a great overlap between our objectives – and we are aligned in that – but the City’s obligation is public services and delivering a better life for citizens, while the Cape Town Design company is specifically focused on the design community.
Part of Cape Town’s 2014 designation involves hosting six signature events. Is planning these your first priority?
Six signature events will happen during a whole year of excitement and we will deliver them well. Other cities have delivered similar events and so we know how high the standards are, but for me the trick is to thread all of these things together into a connective tissue that doesn’t end when the whistle blows. The challenge is to sustain the attention, to sustain the dialogue throughout the year and beyond. We’re not looking to do quick opportunistic things that don’t have any legacy. Although we don’t have a large budget, we want to tackle things in bite-size chunks and put them on a solid footing so that they have a trajectory into the future.
What is your definition of design?
Simply thinking before doing. Designers make decisions based on their knowledge and the impact their actions might have. We are all designing our lives and our days. One of my favourite design objects is the Consol jar. I took one filled with quinces from Calvinia into my interview. I use the jars throughout my house, even in the bathroom, to store things in, and they also make a great flower vase. Between the first jar and the new Consol solar LED light jar is a wonderful local design history of 101 years. Design is not just about high-end things but everyday functional things that are made beautifully.
How does the ordinary person on the street get ready for 2014?
I would just ask Capetonians to participate. Become active citizens. If you live in town and usually go to Greenmarket Square, do something different and go to Stellenbosch. If you live in Bloubergstrand, why not go to the CBD for a change. Although 2014 will provide temporary interest in areas that people don’t usually go to or engage with, it is about changing behaviour more permanently. I think we should, for example, have programmes running on public transport: Free entertainment while you commute might drive new behaviour.
When visitors think of Cape Town, they often think of Table Mountain and the sea. How do we make sure they know that there is so much more to the city?
We don’t have the architectural fabric that Europe has. We have some jewels and some interesting contemporary developments, but it is not connected into a concise experience. It is up to us to write that narrative, so that when visitors come, we can take them by the hand and say, “This is our story”. We all live by stories. That is how we learn and engage. All design tells a story and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t stand the test of time. We also need to honour all the people who are part of that narrative. I want people to hear our story and feel hopeful and excited. I want them to think of coming back or of investing in Cape Town, of recruiting some of our talent, or exporting some of our design goods.
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