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Paola Zini:
An Interview with the Director of Torino World Design Capital

By Mark Vanderbeeken

Paola Zini is the director of Torino 2008 World Design Capital, a position that puts her at the helm of ICSID's first designated "world design capital" city. I sat down with Paola last month to discuss the initiative, its implications for Italian design, and for the citizens of Turin itself.

 

You are a new face for many people, so let's start with you introducing yourself and telling us how you became the director of this initiative.
I am Paola Zini, 32 years old and for the past five months have been the director of Torino 2008 World Design Capital. I actually have an economics background, and worked before mainly on the topic of urban economic development--particularly Turin's development. Up till recently, I was involved with the implementation of the first strategic plan of the city, which by the way was the first strategic plan of any Italian city, and this has definitely been a crucial factor in me now being able to coordinate this design year.

You worked for an organisation called Torino Internazionale.
Yes, it is a mixed public-private agency that is in charge of the city's strategic plan. Working on economic development also meant promoting design in Turin and in Piedmont, and that was the origin of what I am doing now. So the relationship with ICSID--the international design organisation--grew out of our activities within Torino Internazionale. It was a gradual process that eventually lead to the nomination of Turin as the first World Design Capital, with its own organisational committee.

Nowadays, it is impossible to speak about form as a goal in itself, disconnected from its function and its economic repercussions. That's why the first part of the year is aimed at the general public, not at a professional audience, because we want to reach out broadly about what design can be and how it can affect our daily lives.

THE TURIN NOMINATION WITH ZINI AS DIRECTOR

Why did ICSID choose Turin?
ICSID was looking for a city to host its headquarters, and Turin was one of the candidate cities. (The organisation ultimately took up residence in Montreal.) We participated because we thought it would be good for Turin to host another international organisation [in addition to several United Nations offices], and in particular one that dealt with the topic of design. Our proposal was more than a mere political one: we had the support of important foundations and of ADI, the Italian Association of Industrial Design. With our proposal we created strong international relationships, got to know players in the field of design worldwide, and were able to share the history of our city that is now reinventing itself. We just had the Winter Olympics, one of the events in this carefully prepared transformation trajectory. All this provoked a process whereby ICSID started focusing not just on the move of its headquarters, but also on its communication strategy. So our proposal and our changing city became a very interesting European reference point for ICSID. That's why our city has been chosen as World Design Capital.

You then became the director of this initiative, which is not an obvious choice in this country where power positions are often in the hands of older, well-connected men. You are instead a young woman who is not originally from this city. Why did they choose you?
I think the organisers wanted to give a strong signal by making an unconventional choice. I have to thank the Mayor, Sergio Chiamparino, and the people of our Board for insisting on me accepting this offer.

 

A CITY IN TRANSFORMATION

The project has very high-level support and comes after a series of major events, including the Winter Olympics, through which Turin is trying to reposition itself on the global map. What is the impact you are trying to achieve?
There are many events now--not just in Turin, but also in the wider region--that aim to reposition this territory. The Winter Olympics were of course crucial in making people understand how committed the city administration was to the development of its future. The Games were not a goal in itself, but a first step in a process. The design year will be very different from the Winter Olympics; we want to stimulate a large number of activities all over the region. It will not be a curated festival, but a collective one, made by all those who live here, by our citizens and by students, but also by those who come to visit us professionally or as tourists.

What image do you want to leave behind? How would you like Turin to be perceived in 2009?
We would like to position Turin throughout Europe and throughout the world as a city that is renewing itself, as a city in transformation. Turin has always been seen as the city of FIAT, maybe also as the city of Juventus, but there are other and newer facets of the city that we cherish and are now being embraced by the citizens. We would like to share these concepts with all those who don't know Turin yet.

How does Turin want to use design in its transformation and what is the role of Torino 2008 in that?
The title of World Design Capital is not awarded to cities that are already design capitals and that are already known as such, but to those places where design is used for the social, cultural and economic transformation of the city. Turin has already made big steps forward in its transformation process. Ten years ago, Turin was a very different city from what it is now. Its economic make-up has changed fundamentally. The cultural industries have diversified our region and there is now a strong service sector. So a lot of transformation has actually taken place already. I think that the title of World Design Capital can help people realise that design, as a process of qualitative change, can further improve many things.

So are these the main goals: change the image of the city and change the mindset of the people?
Those are indeed two important goals: strengthen the position of Turin and Piedmont on the international map of design, and spread a design culture with our citizens and within companies, within schools and institutions. We also want to leave some legacy behind. This year should be more than a thought-through, qualitative event, but the start of a wider change process. Everything we do should have an effect after 2008, and all activities should leave something behind, physically or culturally.

 

FLEXIBILITY

What issues are you trying to address?
Cities today are in constant change, and these changes affect all aspects of the social, cultural and economic life of a city. Think about the radically changing composition of the population, and what that means for social integration and our public services. Think about our changing living habits and what that means for mobility and our transport infrastructure. Think about how the concept of work is changing and what that means for companies. These are just a few examples. We citizens are changing our own behaviour constantly to adapt to these changes. Our design and research activities have to take on a flexible approach as well to adapt to the changing nature of things. Design can be a very valid tool in continually confronting these changes.

Flexibility is the "fil rouge" of the year.
The theme builds upon the very idea of what a World Design Capital means for ICSID. What can design do to help a city in transformation? We think that flexibility is the answer. To be "adaptive" or "responsive" means finding answers to the many changes. Because these changes often happen very fast, it is crucial to be able to adapt to this evolving context with appropriate tools, and design is one of them.

The year is divided in four thematic phases.
Yes there are four phases, each of roughly three months, and each phase has a focus. The first one is called public design, so it is about making people aware of the power of design, of the value it can have in improving our daily lives. The second phase is more connected to the business world and the focus is here on understanding how design can transform the economy of our region and of our planet. Then there is the phase dedicated to education and design . This third phase will also overlap with the time when Turin will host the World Congress of Architecture, so there will be many young people in town. The last phase is a crucial one because it closes and summarises the year, and is about design policy . We want to invite national design institutes from all over the world: centres that are responsible for policy development, for making their countries more competitive, and for raising the level of quality.

 

BROADENING DESIGN

Let's discuss some of these four focus areas a bit more in depth. First, what do you mean by "design"? What are its boundaries? What do you want to focus on? Do you consider the redesign of work flows and social relationships within the public administration or the industry to be part of your focus?
Many still think of design as styling. We want to focus instead on design as a process that can be applied to products, communication, public policy, education and services. Torino World Design Capital wants to broaden the concept of design as much as possible, emphasising innovation that starts from our society's needs. Conveying this contemporary interpretation of the word "design" implies a cultural challenge that will require extensive communication and education.

Indeed, many still see a designer as somebody who creates shapes and forms. How will you change that way of thinking?
This is one of the missions of Torino World Design Capital. Nowadays, it is impossible to speak about form as a goal in itself, disconnected from its function and its economic repercussions. That's why the first part of the year is aimed at the general public, not at a professional audience, because we want to reach out broadly about what design can be and how it can affect our daily lives. Norman Potter wrote in his seminal 1968 book "What is a designer " that all people are in fact designers, because we all create something. I think it is very important to focus on our basic education: we are setting up an initiative aimed at primary schools, to share with children what a design project is and what the word designer means.

 

DESIGN FOR INNOVATION

You spoke about innovation earlier on. "Design" and "innovation" are on everybody's lips. Design is seen as a tool for business innovation and this thinking is getting a hold in Italy too. Do you think Italy is indeed going through a cultural shift? If so, how is this happening? How will Turin 2008 contribute to it? What, for instance, can companies expect from you in this sense? What is your vision on design and innovation?
Innovation is still often seen as something that happens in research centres. Obviously this is part of the story, but there is more. Design can act as an innovation tool as well, and we need to support that. To stimulate this type of innovation, the Regional Government of Piedmont will soon launch an initiative to create better synergies between designers and companies--not just companies that are already using designers, but also those that are not yet convinced of the benefits of a design approach, or those that need to become more acquainted with the design process .

How else do you plan to structure the collaboration with companies?
Most of that planning is now in the making. There is great interest from companies, and also from abroad. I think it is because we are the first World Design Capital, because Italy is seen as an interesting design context, and because we recently hosted the Winter Olympics. Not just local, but also foreign companies are now planning to be present here in 2008.

 

THE ROLE OF ITALY IN THE GLOBAL DESIGN CONTEXT

Italy has played a leading role in design in the past. Today all eyes are turned towards the more edgy and innovative British and Dutch designers. Who do you think is showing the most stunning creativity in Italian design? Or do you think that these geographical boundaries are no longer relevant today?
Geographic boundaries are not so relevant anymore; innovation can be Italian, British, German or Dutch. I don't believe that Italy or any other country possesses a magical creative or design formula. What matters is dialogue and where that dialogue takes place. Next year one of the meeting points will be here in Turin, so it will be about Italian culture dialoguing with other design cultures. The last part of the year, which is devoted to design policy, is all about that dialogue. We will invite Design Centres from all over the world and give them their own spaces, much like the national pavilions during the Olympic Games. The goal is to have each of them share their design culture with us and with each other. At the end of the year, Turin will then inaugurate its own Design Centre.

Are you thinking about a national design policy for Italy?
There is no national public entity in Italy that implements and promotes a strategic design policy. There is however ADI, the Italian Association of Industrial Design, that has been promoting the Italian design culture for over fifty years, with internationally known initiatives such as the "Compasso d'Oro" award.

Which countries are you planning to involve?
During the last part of the year, we want to focus with these international design centres on exchanging international experiences, creating a network of relationships, and starting a debate on best practices in national design policies worldwide. We have already initiated relations with Hong Kong, Montreal, Nagoya, Taipei, Budapest, Copenhagen and Singapore.

 

MILAN

It is however the city of Milan which is seen as Italy's design capital. How do you plan to articulate the relationship with Milan during (and possibly after) 2008?
When you read about cities and regions nowadays, you hear a lot about competition, but also about exchange. Turin has looked at Barcelona a lot to compare its own development over the last ten years. It is of fundamental importance for us to collaborate with Milan. We cannot be in competition. Turin is working hard to become a design capital but it is not yet one. It still has a lot to learn from Milan. Having more than one design-oriented city can only be an advantage for our country. If ten Italian cities would be known internationally as design cities, it would only increase the international credibility of Italian design and of the role of design in our culture. I view our relationship with Milan as one of mutual exchange, rather than one of competition.

 

COME VISIT US

I heard that you are eager to have many young creative people from all over Italy and all over the world come visit Turin during 2008. What can they expect? Why should they come?
We would really like to involve creative and young designers, as visitors, as a critical audience, as contributors in the events, or as active participants that help to shape this event. Hence the relevance of the initiative of the Piedmont regional administration that I told you earlier about: foreign design students working with local companies will provide the former with new professional experiences and the latter with fresh and creative design ideas, developed by people who come from very different contexts. The World Congress of Architecture provides us with another opportunity to bring together the worlds of education and design straining with the international stars of design and architecture.

So the summer is the liveliest period of the year?
For sure it will be the time when we organise many activities for students, and will involve design schools from all over the world.

How can people participate?
The wider public will be immersed in a city that will host a large number of initiatives: exhibitions, conferences and events that are conceived with the aim of connecting ordinary citizens with design. There will also be a number of installations that will be set up in very popular squares and locations. People who are professionally involved with design will be treated to many debates, meetings and discussions. But they will also be involved in actual creation: at New Year's Eve for example, when Torino 2008 will be inaugurated, we will invite some designers to dress up the city with ad hoc projects to provide visibility to the event and to strengthen its identity. In the summer we will focus on students who can join training projects specifically created for 2008: summer schools, workshops, and the World Congress of Architects are some of the key events for them.

What are some of the highlights of the year?
We cannot disclose everything yet, but definitely New Year's Eve which will be the event that will launch the entire year: we are working on a big celebration that will involve the entire city, with specific events in the various historical squares of Turin. In May we will host some major activities devoted to graphic design, publishing and advertising. The Design Houses, which will host the world's main Design Centres, will provide an opportunity for learning and sharing, but also for involving all the citizens.

 

 

The interview took place in February 2007, and was conducted by Mark Vanderbeeken, senior partner of the Turin-based international user experience design consultancy Experientia, and author of the people-focused innovation blog Putting People First, with valuable support from both Régine Debatty (incomparable technology and arts blogger at we-make-money-not-art.com and former Turin resident) and Chiara Somajni (a journalist of the Italian business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore and its associated magazine Ventiquattro).