Futureproof by Design

As the Design Center of the Philippines and the British Council collaborate on a project dedicated to formulating the Philippines’ National Design Policy, we discuss the path they face ahead

Interview Pipo Gonzales
Images Design Center of the Philippines

Dr. Anna Whicher of PDR International Center for Design and Research, and Kenneth Biunas of Design Center of the Philippines, Header: Monina Arandia, a basketry cultural master in Balut Island from Davao Occidental, is about to lose her eyesight but not her vision to keep the Blaan tradition weaving through the next generation. She was part of the twelve selected indigenous communities under the School of Living Traditions (SLT) project, and Escuela Taller de Filipinas Foundation Inc., a technical school for heritage conservation. The initiative celebrates the beauty of the Philippines’ diverse heritage and enables the showcase of traditional heritage arts and crafts in a specially designed entrepreneurship development program spearheaded by the DTI-Design Center of the Philippines.

Design Counts, as the Design Center of the Philippines defines, is a national research initiative that aims to co-create and build the country’s National Design Policy with local artists, designers, craftsmen, and artisans—that it may elevate the local creative sector to a global level. We were able to talk to two of the projects’ leads, Kenneth Biunas of the Design Center of the Philippines and Dr. Anna Whicher, Associate Director of Research and Head of Design Policy for PDR International Center for Design and Research

Tell us about the Design Counts project.

Dr. Anna Whicher: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m really excited about the Design Counts project. I think it’s such a fantastic initiative and I’m excited that the Design Center is taking this approach to informing a National Design Policy. The Design Counts project looks at, not only a quantitative understanding of design in the Philippines but also a more qualitative understanding. We want to look at both the composition of the design economy in the Philippines and also mapping out the connections in the design ecosystem—which is the landscape and the connections between design in the Philippines.

Kenneth Biunas: Just to add also with what Dr. Anna has said, the Design Center’s ambition has always been for the world to learn what the Philippines is really capable of—that we are a global force for design and creativity. And we would all agree for a fact that design here in the Philippines is often unrecognized, less explored, under-supported, and underappreciated. But we’ve always believed that true design counts. We want to be able to establish design as a force for good—to drive innovation, strengthen our national competitiveness, and at the same time, help position the Philippines as a global leader for design. So, that’s where Design Counts comes in right now. 

Design Counts would be the country’s very first National Design Economy Mapping Study. We’re working with our awesome partners, the British Council, our research partners—Pushpin Visual Solutions, Nordicity, Bayan Academy, as well as with Dr. Anna Whicher, who is actually our lead policy adviser. What we hope is to be able to gather insights that would be influential or instrumental when we craft the National Design Policy, as well as projects and programs that would nurture the design industry.

Can you walk me through the rationale of the study of Design Counts?

Biunas: For Design Counts, I can start first with a short overview of what design economy is. Design economy looks at the value created and generated by the design sector in the bigger national economy. It looks at the exports, employment, productivity, and revenue generated by the design sector. 

So aside from just looking at the economic factors, Design Counts also looks at the design ecosystem of nine cities. We’ve identified nine cities from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, as well as in Metro Manila. Manila, Makati, Taguig, and Quezon City, for NCR. For Luzon, that would be Baguio and Pampanga. For Visayas, that would be Cebu. And for Mindanao, that would be Davao and Cagayan de Oro. 

Just some relevant statistics about other design economy studies across the world: In a UK design economy report, the design sector has accounted for a total of £85.2 billion in terms of economic value or contribution by the design sector. And that has generated around £168 billion in employment. 

So having this kind of specific statistics would really be helpful in terms of assessing the country’s design landscape, understanding what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, and it would be helpful in terms of crafting policy actions in programs that would shape the way how we want the design industry to be known for. That’s just a short overview of what Design Counts is.

Whicher: What I would add to that, is that it’s really important to create this evidence-based approach to informing the policy. That has been successful in other countries—in the UK, in Ireland, other countries in Europe like Denmark and Finland, and also elsewhere, like in Singapore, the Republic of Korea, and in Taiwan, as well. 

So by understanding both the economic and social contribution of design, you’re able to engage with the government and create this really robust case for government intervention to support both the improvement of the supply of demand and also stimulating greater demand for design as well.

The ASEAN Creative Cities Forum and Exhibition, an event initiated by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) through the Design Center of the Philippines, with support from the British Council. The forum took place at Bonifacio Global City, Taguig from April 26–27, 2017. The aim is to nurture the creative economy and explore the potential of developing creative cities or hubs in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Through this project, are you also connected with local government units (LGUs), considering all those nine cities mentioned?

Biunas: Yeah, we’re absolutely working with a lot of DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) regional offices. In the past weeks, we’ve been working with Bayan Academy and DTI regional offices and coordinating with LGUs, to help us pull up relevant data about the specific sector categories based on priorities. And that also falls under the design sector. 

One of the challenges we’ve found out is that there is a lack of data systems that would help us unearth those relevant design statistics. Through this study, what we also hope for is to be able to help LGUs to establish that kind of data pipeline as a source, in terms of better understanding the design sector through numbers.

Being that we are in the middle of the pandemic, has it been a struggle in terms of collecting data and doing all the plans that you have so far?

Biunas: When the pandemic started, there were a lot of surveys that have already been launched related to the creative industry. And a lot of it really focused on the impact of the Coronavirus situation and the lockdown. So if there are specific challenges that we have faced, it’s really more of making sure that our participants won’t experience any survey fatigue with a lot of surveys being launched and released. 

We did adjust our methodology. We changed it in a way that would be different from others. So the Design Counts methodology right now is composed of strategies to turn the patterns of exclusion into participation. We still have the surveys, but we also have workshops and interviews. And what makes it unique is it’s very design-driven, it’s very hyper-collaborative, and it’s very people-powered. 

What we want to do differently than other surveys to ensure that we can really gather all support is be able to build longer tables for everyone, especially for all our stakeholders. That it’s not just a one-shot survey. Everyone has an access to this kind of conversation to better understand what their needs are and how we can better support them. 

So through this methodology, we don’t just hope to gather the numbers, but to make sure that the insights that we will be pulling up from this study are reflective of the current systems and processes here and the Philippines. And through this public engagement participation type of methodology, we hope that aside from just getting the numbers, we could create that big design and creative network that would be influential in terms of decision making when the design economy mapping study and National Design Policy formulation reaches to the policy tables.

Can I circle back on the selection of cities that you mentioned earlier? Were there certain criteria to meet with those choices that you made?

Biunas: Just for additional info, Baguio and Cebu are two of the country’s UNESCO Creative Cities: Baguio for Crafts and Folk Art, and Cebu for Design. Quezon City can be a creative city in terms of media and tech. Makati, Manila, and Taguig are business centers. Pampanga is known for products and furniture. Davao and Cagayan de Oro are known for fashion and textiles. So the selection of the cities is really based on the regional concentrations of design activities. But since this is a baseline study, we started with nine. And this could really expand as we continue the study in the next three to five years so more and more cities will be part of this design pool.

Design Week Philippines is a week-long festival and hub activation platform celebrating the many facets of design through Design Talks, Design Tours, and Creative Workshops. It serves as a platform in strengthening and reinforcing the country’s claim as Asia’s foremost design destination by fostering local and global awareness of the creativity and design capabilities of Filipinos

Since you targeted more populated cities that are well-known in the design community, what about the other cities or that are not as famous? Cities with fewer attractions. How can this study affect those in the future and benefit from it?

Biunas: That’s a really good question because it’s often asked to us a lot about the selection of cities. And what we always say is that the selection of nine cities for the focus is only for the case studies. So this is understanding the ecosystem of the nine cities, but the other methodology that we have, such as the surveys and in-depth interviews, would really be looking at the nationwide sector. So we’re not limited to just the nine cities. But we’re also considering referrals, through snowballing, to ask other design ambassadors here in the Philippines to identify what are the sectors that could also be part of this study that could be represented through the study. And this could also be helpful in terms of providing us insights on how we can be able to craft the National Design Policy and better contribute in terms of the data that we need.

I think it all boils down to how we value the local contextualization of data. So as you’ve mentioned there are a lot of design policies all over the world and design economies studies, which we can learn from and be inspired. However, a well-grounded, inclusive, and actionable policy will always be dependent on how well we deeply explore the local context where this policy and study will be implemented. 

Since the Mappings Inception Phase, we have been collaborating with a lot of organizations beyond those nine cities that we have mentioned. And we have this kind of culture to always question and reflect on the data that we have. For example, during the design scoping workshop, Dr. Anna always asks us if this is reflective of the current processes and industries that the Philippines have so we have this kind of 360-degree point of view, making sure that every insight that we’ll be pulling out can be applied to the current production and processes. And I think that’s the value of really putting collaboration at the core of the study. At the end of the day, as we prioritize contextualization, design economy really aims to be able to craft policy or action plans that would be targeted than a generic one. It’s not a one size fits all solution or insight.

In terms of the methodology of this study, can you run me through the entire process from start to finish?

Biunas: During our inception phase, we began with two Design Scoping Workshops that were organized by Dr. Anna Whicher. You can visit our social media pages for the specific results, visualized by Pushpin Visual Solutions. That Design Scoping Workshop aims to identify or contextualize the current context of design here in the Philippines and identify what sectors make up the design economy. 

We also have surveys, which are being developed by our partner, Nordicity, which will be focused on quantitative data about the design economy. Meanwhile, our partner Bayan Academy will be working on developing the nine case studies aimed to understand the design innovation ecosystem of the nine cities and identify how they interact and behave with each other and how we can leverage from understanding that interaction to develop policies, programs, and projects to further nurture the design industry. 

During these workshops and methodologies, what we’ve noticed is that our context of design here in the Philippines is strongly anchored at a cultural chord that puts people first and considers multi-dimensional impact. So it’s less about strategy and competitiveness. We see this as an opportunity because what we saw is that our definition context of design is heavily influenced by how we experience and use design. And we see this as an opportunity again, to unlock another layer of how we view design, which is to really integrate it with a lens of economic competitiveness, strategy, and sustainability. 

This methodology will run until June, and we’re about to launch a survey early next week (the third week of April). We’re targeting around 300 to 1200 respondents and the support of every organization and every community would be really valuable because it’s working with the government and the business sectors. 

As a data practitioner, one thing that I have learned is it’s difficult to improve, invest, and manage something if you cannot measure it. So we want the design sector to be recognized and be supported. It’s very important for this to be measured. We need to demonstrate the impact to a lot of policymakers, and tell stories and humanize these numbers because that is how I think we can influence policymakers to further recognize and support the design sector.

From left to right: Christopher Gomez (Chris Gomez Creative Design), Stanley Ruiz (Estudio Ruiz Design Studio), Maria Francesca Nicole Cabanlet (CDO Handmade Papercrafts), Jowee Alviar (Team Manila Graphics Design Studio) and Redemptor Bitantes (Freelance Designer) during the workshop of Masterclass for Design Professionals.

Masterclass for Design Professionals in an assembly of experts who will undergo series of Master–level modules to collaborate and innovate a new and modern design framework. This framework will be propagated to the local designers all over the regions, with the ultimate goal of elevating the country’s design industry.

Pinyapel is a result of the materials research and development initiative of the DTI-Design Center of the Philippines, and is a collaborative project between Design Center, Nature’s Fresh Pineapples (supplier of discarded pineapple leaves), CDO Handmade Paper (paper sheet processer), and Ideatechs Packaging (converter to food packaging applications). Pinyapel won a Wood Pencil at the D&AD Future Impact Award in New York City, USA in November 2019.

What about your plans on rolling this out to the public?

Biunas: Well, we’ve already developed our marketing communications plan, and a lot of it is inspired by the different challenges that Dr. Anna Whicher and her team have faced when they did it in Scotland and Wales. And if there’s one thing that piqued our interest during that process, is that the challenge with the low engagement is that not everyone has that broader lens in terms of understanding the broader capability of design. So what we hope with our marketing strategy is to communicate how design can be connected to make it more relatable to their everyday life and how we can further demonstrate the impact with the case studies that Dr. Anna Witcher and other countries have published. 

Having this specific data, and at the same time incorporating storytelling, would be really helpful to make sure that what we do is not intimidating and scary for others and ensure that we can build that connection. And we have already developed that relationship by design. It’s already something we’ve been doing every day. And it’s very important to further explore what design is capable of and use it to create that space where you can help the industry, a talent, or a city, to thrive. Our methodology is super inclusive, people-powered, hyper-collaborative, and very design-driven. That’s how we want to target the public.

Upon accomplishment of this project, what’s next for this initiative?

Biunas: Well, I think for Design Center, as we finish the design economy mapping study, we hope to further involve our stakeholders on that bigger table that we have and be able to identify which policy actions we need to prioritize. In R.A. No. 10557 which is the Philippine Design Competitiveness Act, we have identified six priorities: design promotion nationwide, design education, professional development, the institutionalization of design culture, design protection, and as what Dr. Anna mentioned earlier, to cultivate constant demand on good design. Those are the six goals and targets of R.A. No. 10557.

As we gather data, we can involve all stakeholders, identify what among the six goals should be given the greatest importance, and identify which specific targets or action plans we need to incorporate on each goal to make sure that this would be valuable for the communities that we’re supporting. This will be an exciting journey, and we hope that we can launch the National Design Policy at the end of the year, and the results during the International Design Conference in September.

Why do you think has this not been a focus in many conversations on design?

Biunas: We’ve always believed, as Design Center, that not having a National Design Policy hinders us from reaching the economic competitiveness that we’ve been really aiming for. As I mentioned earlier, design is always unappreciated, less recognized, and less explored here in the Philippines, because our notion of design has always been boxed on aesthetic and styling. 

But what we are pushing forward here, and what we’ve also noticed with the workshops that we’ve organized with the help of Dr. Anna, is that design has always been part of our everyday creation and decision-making process. And Design Center wants to push this forward to incorporate design as a strategic tool. That it could be incorporated in terms of how we can drive innovation, invest in design competence, that through design, we could attract more investments, we could invest or incentivize the use of design here in the Philippines, and further nurture our talents. 

All of these studies are very timely in the need for a National Design Policy because this would help us create strategy and support mechanisms in design support, education, public policy, and government aspect. There was this research in Finland where the National Design Policy has helped them to overcome the economic stagnation that they have faced and allowed them to move forward in terms of global rankings—specifically at second place. And that’s what we hope for the Philippines. For people to appreciate design beyond just aesthetic and styling. That this could be incorporated into their daily processes and in helping elevate their sectors, whether it’s tourism, healthcare, ICT, and more.

Rolling Manila: The Design Center collaborated with Inteligencias Colectiva, an organization focused on utilizing local context and culture in maximizing a place’s skills, materials, and urban and rural planning potential. The team redesigned food stalls in Intramuros, Manila, using a methodology divided into four stages: fieldwork, documentation, ideation, and prototyping. The outcome of the collaboration included design solutions for vendors to earn better income, and create a safe, comfortable place of work.

Dr. Whicher, can also share a bit of your experience from across the other countries that you’ve worked with?

Whicher: Yeah, absolutely. So just going back to the example of Finland, Finland was the first country in the ‘60s to map that innovation system to inform National Innovation Policy and they were also the first country to map their design ecosystem to inform Design Policy. This is something that has been successful, using the same kind of structures used for innovation, industrial, and business policy, and being able to frame how design contributes to innovation and how it contributes to growth and productivity, as Kenneth has said.

This is all about creating an economic rationale for government to support design and at the same time, educating government, bringing them on the journey, and making them realize that innovation is a big part of design, and that design is much broader than that. 

Design also has an impact on society, and culture, and many other drivers. So it’s about supporting the government to realize the contribution of design to innovation, as well as wider drivers. So that’s possibly why previously, there hasn’t been so much government interest in design, because it’s only perhaps more recently that government has understood that wider application of design.

Based on your experience, Dr. Anna, have you ever had any difficulties working with governments, especially like the Philippines, a third-world country with a very tight budget?

Whicher: It’s not uncommon for governments not to want to invest additional resources. I think it’s great to create new design support mechanisms. But I think it’s also about integrating design into the wider innovation ecosystem. There exists in the Philippines, many different programs to support businesses. But very often design is not included in those. And so what’s important is to have both dedicated design support programs, which could be run, for example, by the Design Center, but also for design to be included in the wider business support mechanisms run by potentially other institutions. Because that way, it raises awareness of design among a wider cohort of companies and individuals. And it is certainly cheaper to expand the scope of existing programs rather than necessarily create something totally new. I think you need both approaches. 

I think you do need to create new policy mechanisms and new design support programs. But I also think it’s important to ensure that current innovation programs are fit for purpose and that they include design in innovation, financing, grants, tax credit schemes, that kind of mentoring programs, those kinds of things. So yeah, it’s not uncommon for governments not to want to invest additional funding, but there are ways to enhance the current innovation mechanisms to incorporate design.

Have you encountered any country which might have a very similar experience with the Philippines?

Whicher: I think the key thing is that the country context is very specific to individual places. And I think that’s why it’s so important to conduct this research in the Philippines, because there is, as we’ve talked about, there’s no one size fits all, you can’t do a cookie-cutter approach to design policy, it has to be specific to the needs of companies and individuals in the Philippines. And of course, you have such a vibrant craft and design sector here, which perhaps is, certainly different to new parts of Europe and South America and even other parts of Southeast Asia. So the context is absolutely key here. There is no blueprint for these design policies.

15 Young Newly Design Graduates of the New Design Graduates Training Program developed by the Design Center of the Philippines. A track under Design Center’s Design Competency Development Program, it serves as an avenue for young designers to enhance their skills and competencies through intensive training conducted by recognized program mentors. The program is envisioned to have three phases: Incubation, Apprenticeship, and Atelier.

Thank you very much. Do you have any final words before we end the interview?

Whicher: I’m not just saying this for the sake of saying it, but having a National Design policy in the Philippines really would put you on the map. It’s something that is increasingly being recognized as a kind of strategic opportunity. And I think, as I said, it would really be such a phenomenal opportunity and really promote Filipino design in a global context because this is something that is unique. So I will certainly be excited about that.

Biunas: Just to add also with what Dr. Anna has mentioned, there was this research by the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA) where it mentioned that Filipinos now are greatly engaged in reviewing policies and understanding how they will impact their businesses and communities. So everybody wants to create an impact, in their industries and communities. And everybody wants to be involved in designing or setting the agenda and designing the solution, especially for the most in need. 

This actually reminds me of one of my favorite case studies, which is the Latvian Design Action Plan. Their manifesto underscored that design is for the people and we all have a right to better understand and explore design’s broader capabilities and integrate them into our innovation processes. That would help us strengthen not just our competitiveness, but also how we want to be known as a global leader for design.

So, Design Counts gives opportunities for people to exercise their rights in design. And Design Counts would create that space where we empower and give people an opportunity to help us be more confident in helping design reach its full potential to understand how we can further contribute to competitiveness and well-being and to collaboratively use design to create opportunities or solutions that will positively respond to the changes and challenges that our communities face. Our favorite motto here at Design Center is, design is a force for good, and it’s everyone’s—especially the government’s—role and accountability to create every opportunity, like Design Counts, where we can better understand the broader capabilities of design, exercise our rights in design to help nurture this design innovation ecosystem here, place and create those policies, and help everyone thrive. So as our tagline says, stand up and be counted.

Help the Design Center of the Philippines in their Design Economy Mapping efforts and National Design Policy formulation by answering the Design Counts survey

Pipo Gonzales is a Manila-based freelance journalist. He is a former managing editor for Lifestyle Asia and OneMega.com with a wide range of experience in interviewing various personalities, from business owners to local celebrities, to political movers, and society figures. Prior to his tenure in the publishing industry, he was a global communications executive for a BPO company, handling crisis management and campaign strategies for Latin America, China, India, and EMEA.

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