What I’ve learned from five years of What Design Can Do is that surprises are more likely to come from colleagues of mine from countries like India, Colombia, South Africa or Brazil, than from fellow western designers. Dutch – or more generally western – designers shouldn’t try from behind their desks to come up with solutions for countries where the problems are so much bigger in scale. We need to go there and work together with the available knowledge in these countries.

By Richard van der Laken

In the past years I’ve learned a lot from the Indian architect and teacher Rohan Shivkumar, Brazilian product and interior designer Marcelo Rosenbaum and Mexican graphic designer and political activist Alejandro Magallanes. All three are past speakers at WDCD.

In the Netherlands, and more specifically in Amsterdam, there has been a lot of talk lately about the problems the increasing numbers of bicycles. It seems that Amsterdam has more bicycles (881,000) than inhabitants (811,185), and they cause all sorts of traffic and parking problems.

Such problems need to be addressed of course. But the mobility problems in a city like São Paulo, with 17 million (!) inhabitants, are of a totally different magnitude. The city is completely gridlocked. The mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, has presented several groundbreaking proposals to reduce car traffic in the city. He plans to construct 380 kilometres of free bus lanes as well as 200 kilometres of cycle lanes. And he shows no mercy when it comes to motorists. I reckon Amsterdam and other Dutch cities could learn a lot from him.

Brazil boasts many great, very inspiring designers, like the Campana brothers, who are rooted firmly in the Brazilian culture and nature. Take for instance Alex Atala, the number 4 top chef in the world, who develops new dishes and tastes with culinary discoveries from the Amazon. Both Atala and the Campanas will attend WDCD2015.

Unbridgeable gap

Nevertheless, there seems to be a gaping an almost unbridgeable gap between these special creatives and that much larger creative potential in the country. The creative sector lacks good government-funded education, which is why high-quality design schools are accessible only to the happy few. The highly developed infrastructure in the Netherlands, with its trade associations, funds, organizations, institutions and ministries, feels light years away from the reality of São Paulo. A lot is happening there, but creative Paulistas have to do it all by themselves.

Mayor Haddad is a shining example, and not alone when it comes to cycle lanes. He developed a housing programme for homosexuals and transvestites who were victims of violence. American publicist William Wisnik called Haddad’s reign ‘an historic turning point’. The man deserves the support of designers, who can help him address the problems of the city.

I firmly believe that the power of imagination and the change that creation can bring about will boost the further development of São Paulo. It is my belief that we as designers shouldn’t stand and look at this from a distance, offering an occasional idea or two. Instead, we should go there and look for ourselves. We should learn how people there are finding solutions.

As an international platform, What Design Can Do can bring people together, facilitate the exchange of ideas, and get people join together to work for a better future. São Paulo and WDCD seem to be a match made in heaven.

Richard van der Laken is co-founder and director of What Design Can Do

This letter is an excerpt from a column written for Stadsleven ‘De Stad door Andere Ogen’ (City life ‘The City through Different Eyes’). ‘De Stad door Andere Ogen’ is a special online edition of the live talkshow Stadsleven in which the city is seen through the eyes of special viewers and creative initiatives. Go to www.stadslevenamsterdam.nl for more columns.

Opening picture by Fernando Stankuns

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