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The fakeness of San Diego as world design capital

'Expecting that the money will magically appear is unrealistic'

Mayor Gloria flanked by the World Design Capital Team
Mayor Gloria flanked by the World Design Capital Team

You may not know it, but we’re smack in the middle of a cross-border celebration: San Diego and Tijuana were jointly awarded the title of World Design Capital 2024. Both cities are celebrating the power of design to shape and inspire new cities of the future. There are hundreds of community events, conferences, and earnest discussions being held on both sides of the border.

Sounds good, right? Or at the very least, harmless. But the story behind the award may be a little less benign and/or beneficial. It’s a story about government priorities and waste, one that considers the difference between a legitimate event and a scam, and explores how well-meaning elites may bill taxpayers for their pet projects.

First, the backstory. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the city’s decision to apply for consideration as a World Design Capital had its genesis in a conversation between design guru Don Norman — the force behind UCSD’s Design Lab — and Srini Srinivasan, who was “Norman’s longtime friend and then-president of the World Design Organization.” The group is an international, not-for-profit organization that, every two years, selects a city to be World Design Capital. The story relates that Srinivasan suggested to Norman that San Diego apply for the title. Norman then convened a group of design organizations and stakeholders to prepare a bid for the 2024 competition. A coalition, including the UCSD Design Lab and Design Forward Alliance, was formed to lead the bid process. The Burnham Center for Community Advancement joined in, along with the city’s Arts and Culture Commission. The group received initial corporate support and some $18,000 in donations from a Go Fund Me campaign. This included a $5000 donation from Norman, who viewed World Design Capital as an opportunity to spread his gospel of “design thinking” and “human-centered design” from the ivory tower to the people.

Binational Bid

Philanthropist Malin Burnham felt strongly that the bid should include Tijuana and thus position the two cities as one binational metropolis of seven million people, notwithstanding the border, the wall, and the separate governments. Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero was on board, as was San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria — with the caveat that no public monies would be spent on the project. A 250-page binational bid, the first of its kind, was submitted to the design organization.

Michèle Morris, at the time the president of Design Forward Alliance, told the U-T in June 2021 that she was “very optimistic” and “confident that we will make the short list.” The source of this confidence was unclear. What we do know is that Srinivasan, who once wrote a praiseworthy blurb for Norman’s book, Design for a Better World, became a member – and chairman – of the 2024 selection committee while simultaneously serving as president of the World Design Organization. A review of their website, which lists past presidents and selection committee members, indicates that with the exception of the 2024 award, Srinivasan never before or since served on the selection committee. (The group has held the biennial competition since 2008.)

Bertrand Derome, managing director, World Design Organization.

In Nov. 2021, the World Design Organization, which started in 1957 as the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, announced that the San Diego/Tijuana bid had edged out Moscow, earning the bi-national partnership the title of World Design Capital for 2024. No other U.S. city has received this honor.

Ethical Quandries

Dr. Tara Salinas is a business ethics professor and department chair of management at the University of San Diego. “In and of itself, the fact that the president of the [group] is suggesting that someone he knows apply isn’t necessarily problematic,” she says. What complicates matters is that Srinivasan was not just the [organization’s] president, but at the same time the chairman of the 2024 selection committee. Salinas says Srinivasan should have recused himself. “As human beings, as rational as we say we want to be, we’re going to give advantages to the people that we know. That’s just human nature.” (Srinivasan, chairman and chief executive officer of Lumium Design, declined to be interviewed for this story.) But Bertrand Derome, managing director of World Design Organization, suggests that rules can counter this aspect of human nature. “We have several protocols in place to ensure an ethical and rigorous evaluation and selection of each bid.” One rule is that selection committee members don’t have “direct contact with representatives from a bidding city.” He says he’s confident that no favoritism was shown San Diego, and that there was no need for Srinivasan to recuse himself from the selection committee.

The World Design Capital is no ordinary competition. Cities that don’t pay don’t play. It all starts with a $10,000 application fee; cities that are short-listed must pay an additional $25,000 for that honor; and, finally, the winner pays a one-time $600,000 management fee. Since the [group] is a Canadian organization, the actual fee is in Canadian dollars; converted, it adds up to roughly $500,000 USD to obtain the title. This doesn’t include the costs involved in hiring staff and implementing a year-long series of snazzy events and celebrations, seven of which are mandated by the organization. Derome says the fees cover their costs, enabling them to provide direct support to the partnership. “These funds are reinvested into the program to support its administration and ensure continuation and strategic growth.” The contract began in Nov 2021, when the partnership was notified that it had won the title, and will end in the first part of 2025, says Derome.

Burnham Steps Up

Jonathon Glus is the executive director of San Diego’s Arts and Culture Commission, a World Design Capital partner. He says what some critics may call pay-to-play is “not unusual for global efforts like this,” citing the Olympics as an example. “If you think about global events like this, there is typically a fee that is assigned to the host committee.” In this case , they provide “not necessarily monetary resources” but marketing and on-site support, says Glus, who’s also a board member. “They’re constantly making connections for us.” He emphasizes that taxpayers are not on the hook for the application, shortlist, and management fees. The $1 million donation from their partner, the Burnham Center for Community Enhancement, will cover those costs.

Paying a significant fee to receive a title of dubious value may be a deal breaker for some cities. Adelaide was competing for the title when the state government of South Australia forced it to withdraw. Although no reason was cited, Australian media speculated it was related to the contract and assorted fees.

The World Design Organization distributes a press release announcing when it’s accepting bids for the contest; in some cases, however, they proactively initiate contact with cities or design organizations, encouraging them to submit a bid – as the group president did with Don Norman. Glenn Babb, a critic of Cape Town, South Africa’s World Design Capital 2014 title, confirms that the the group initiated the relationship with the city’s design stakeholders and officials. Babb suggests that, rather than an actual competition, the process can feel more like business development. When Taipei received the designation in 2016, it didn’t “come by surprise, as back in August they were the only city selected to move onto the competition’s final round,” reported the architectural blog, Arch Daily.

Scam Allegations

According to Cape Town’s daily paper, Cape Argus, the city’s bid process and 2014 title year were marked by controversy, with one politician, Lindiwe Sisulu, attacking the city for spending millions of rands on “a scam called the Design Capital.” ($1 USD equals around $19 rands.) “It seems [the group] operates on the FIFA principle. You pay us handsomely to let you wank off,” wrote Lin Sampson in a Cape Argus opinion piece titled, “Cape Town is World Design Capital – a dubious honor floated by taxpayer cash and gloopy jargon.” (FIFA is the organization in charge of soccer’s World Cup.)

Dr. Tara Salinas, a USD business ethics professor, says “As human beings, as rational as we say we want to be, we’re going to give advantages to the people that we know.”

Critic Babb was the South African commissioner of the Venice Biennale in 1993 and 1995. The international cultural exhibition, held annually in Venice, Italy since 1895, is the oldest event of its kind. The World Design Organization, he tells me, is “an organization whose sole purpose is to con innocent cities into thinking there is a benefit to be derived from this title. The whole project was a vanity project by then-mayor Patricia de Lille.” De Lille, it should be noted, went on to serve on the group’s 2016 selection committee.

When the group’s managing director Derome came to San Diego to inspect the city after doing the same for Moscow, he was treated to a jazz concert and party at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, among other tours and gatherings. A taste of Tijuana culture, culinary delights and a party awaited Mr. Derome on the other side of the border. In Cape Town, the red-carpet treatment given to the organization’s officials included trips to wineries, fancy dinners, and a helicopter ride over Cape Town. Business ethics professor Salinas, seeming both aghast and slightly envious, says it must be great to work for the group. “You’re wined and dined and get to go to all these spectacular places.” Previous designated cities include Valencia, Spain; Torino, Italy; Helsinki, Finland; and Lille Metropole, France. “That’s kind of like a scam,” she says, laughing. “I want to apply.”

Build it and they will come!

While acknowledging that FIFA’s awarding of World Cup host status “comes with its own set of heinous ethical issues,” Salinas notes that at least it “guarantees hundreds of thousands of people, an influx for at least a limited amount of time of people coming in, spending money in your hotels, your restaurants, your service industry. On the other hand, how many people are coming in to celebrate the fact that San Diego and Tijuana have won this award? What are the benefits for the city?”

The answer to that depends on who you ask. Tad Parzen, president and CEO of the Burnham Center for Community Advancement, told the San Diego Business Journal that the award would generate 4 million visitors, 1.4 million overnight stays, and 2.6 million day-visitors. This level of tourism, they claim, would lead to the creation of some 50,000 new jobs with a total economic impact to the San Diego/Tijuana region of $1.5 billion.

Once San Diego/Tijuana won the bid, the partnership hired Carlos de la Mora as CEO. Having lived in Mexico, he could also function as a binational ambassador. In an interview with the architect and writer Dirk Sutro in the U-T, de la Mora was perhaps too honest. He conceded that he’d been on the ground in Mexico City in 2018, the year that city won the title, and he was not impressed. “I began on the skeptics’ side,” de la Mora told Sutro. “I don’t want to minimize what was done, but I didn’t hear about it, there was no impact,” he said, adding that “he is determined that won’t happen” in San Diego.

In spite of his optimism, it soon became clear that the group wasn’t able to raise the necessary funds for producing that impact. In June 2023, it succeeded in lobbying the city for a subsidy. The group’s main advocate on the City Council was Raul Campillo, who helped rally the other members in a unanimous vote to hand over $3 million. This contradicted the mayor’s promise that no public funds would be allocated to support a designation that most San Diegans had never heard of.

The now retired Richard Rider, a taxpayer activist who dedicated himself to holding the line on local taxes for over 30 years, told me, “The city is facing massive pension payments, and all the mayor and city council can think of is how to spend more money.” City council candidate Coleen Cusack agrees: “It’s rather irresponsible for a luxury item purchase, given the severe budget deficits. The city council keeps spending, spending, spending, and they’re not being good stewards of our economy.” Salinas notes that the monies could have gone to addressing homelessness, infrastructure, or repaving roads. “There’s just so many other, better, more thoughtful, more useful, more proactive ways to be spending taxpayer money,” she says.

In persuading his fellow council members to support the appropriation, Campillo cited a preliminary study on the economic impacts of the Valencia award in 2022. From January through March of that year, it claimed, Spain’s third-largest city gained almost six euros for every one euro it spent on World Design Capital events and activities, driving “direct expenditure of 9 million euros” attributable to the honor ($1 USD equals roughly .93 euros.) That’s a tremendous return on investment, assuming those numbers are real. But economist Lynn Reaser of Point Loma Nazarene University told the U-T that the study’s numbers “are surely inflated.” USD’s Tara Salinas quips, “I would love to know how they quantified their return on investment.”

Sponsored
Sponsored

As it happened, I knew how. The evaluator, Pau Rausell of the University of Valencia economics department, based his calculations on the assumption that one out of three visitors to the area were “directly or indirectly caused by World Design Capital Valencia 2022” from January through March. Salinas is skeptical. “One out of three? Wishful thinking. Now that’s just fabricating your data. It doesn’t pass the smell test,” she says with amazement. “I’m sorry, but as an elected official who has the ability to dole out public funds, Campillo has to do better. You have to do some due diligence. You need to understand what the data is that you’re looking at.”

Rausell adds in his report that he suspects his methodology understated the impact on the local economy. On the contrary, he may have overstated it, not just by using the one-out-of-three metric but also by attributing the influx of tourists in March not to Las Fallas — the biggest and most popular festival in Valencia that attracts visitors from all over Spain and Europe — but, disproportionately, to the design exhibits. The organization’s Derome, describes the study as “exceptional” and confirms that it “will undoubtedly be shared with other cities,” including San Diego and Tijuana, “as a recommended benchmark for future impact studies.”

When Councilman Campillo held up Valencia as a model World Design Capital, he focused on the economic impact study, but neglected to mention that he’d recently visited the charming city of Valencia. He was part of the San Diego/Tijuana delegation that traveled there in 2023 to attend and speak at the convocation ceremony, where Valencia passed the torch to San Diego. “I would love to hear how the trip to Valencia, if it was paid for by taxpayer dollars, is more important than the several tens of millions of dollars of shortfall the San Diego Unified school budget have this year,” says Salinas. (Representatives from the partnership were contractually obligated to attend the convocation ceremony in Valencia, just as a delegation from Frankfurt, Germany, the 2026 designee, will be here in November for San Diego’s convocation ceremony.)

In the first week of January 2024, CEO Carlos de la Mora was fired, reinforcing the suspicion that all was not well in the World Design camp. The group chose not to fill the CEO position, using a “shared leadership model” instead. It currently has 12 paid, full-time staff members, in addition to “project-specific contractors and one paid intern,” says Glus.

Events for Everyone

But if World Design had a rough start, it may have since found its footing. It produced an updated, impressive website and is implementing two categories of events: seven events mandated (but not funded) by the parent organization, which include weeklong festivals and designer dialoguing opportunities on both sides of the border; and a calendar of community-based events billed as “366 days of design.” The local group didn’t create or fund these events, but helps promote them on its website and social media channels, says the city’s Glus. Examples include Museum Month and “James Hubbell: Architecture of Jubilation – A Mountain Home and Studios,” an exhibit which runs from March to August at local libraries throughout the county.

The group used a portion of the city’s subsidy to give grants — in the amounts of $10,000, $25,000, and $75,000, or $550,000 in total —to nonprofits and small businesses aligned with its mission. “More than 100 organizations applied for funding and the level of interest was extraordinary,” reports Glus. But one grant in particular, $75,000 for The Design Academy, raised eyebrows. The company is led by designer and president Joan Gregor, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, was a “member of the World Design Capital  transition team” and played an instrumental role in setting up the 2024 nonprofit, in addition to performing other WDC-related roles and activities. She’s listed as a founding board member of Design Forward Alliance and as a designer in residence (a fancy term for consultant) with the World Design Capital and UCSD Design Lab.

Valencia’s WDC pavilion, the Agora, before it was disassembled and relegated to a warehouse where it now sits.

USD ethics professor Salinas says Gregor has multiple entanglements. The group’s decision to mete out money to a company run by a peer and colleague who was instrumental in the creation of the group, shows “both a conflict of interest and favoritism. When someone has power, they also have a responsibility to wield it thoughtfully,” she says. Glus denies the conflict of interest and favoritism allegations, noting that Gregor’s Design Academy is not affiliated with the World Design organization or its partners. Her organization met the eligibility requirements and was reviewed by “a diverse seven-person independent community panel,” he says.

Salinas thinks it’s also questionable for the group to take public dollars and give some of it “to a private company run by a woman with involvement in the World Design application process/design award.” (The Design Academy, it should be noted, was not the only small business to receive a grant.)

The Disconnect

Adding Tijuana to the bid may have been a nice touch, but it also asks that we suspend disbelief, suggests Salinas. The platitudes about cooperating and communicating with our friends south of the border — that we’re one, inter-dependent region, culturally and economically — may be true. But also true is the grim reality that in Tijuana, cartels and corruption are alive and well, the mayor is living in military barracks, the gap between the haves and have-nots is staggering, journalists are being killed, and raw sewage is being exported to San Diego. Politically, the wall that separates us is getting taller while border politics get nastier. By all means, we should work together on infrastructure and transportation projects that affect both cities. But is design a top-of-mind issue for 95% of the people who live in Tijuana? “So much of this seems to be removed from the reality of people’s everyday lives,” says Salinas. “Is design what Tijuana needs? No. From an academic perspective, I understand the concept of driving change. Academics can bring useful ideas into the real world, right. I understand that. I believe in those sorts of things, but it also has to be grounded in reality.”

There are plenty of examples of design-driven elites at the World Design Organization and title cities missing the larger context or simply paying lip service to it. Here’s Lin Sampson, writing for Cape Argus during the height of the 2014 Cape Town event: “Consider Donne in Delft with two kids, who lives on grants of 1800 rands a month. Will the 60-million-plus budget benefit her? Will she be visiting one of the many workshops on uplifting the poor, or joining a mountain bike initiative, or ‘design-storming for stakeholders,’ or even getting a ‘green’ house, given that she hasn’t got a house at all.?

Seoul, South Korea’s capital, became a World Design  city in 2010. The administration sought a new international image for the nation. But could imposing a new image on the country mask the fundamental problems it faced? “Politics is the governance of people. When people who make up the nation are adequately cared for, the desired national image will come along in time,” wrote Hyun-Joung Lee, in 2013, in The Politic.

Will the legacy have legs?

The way Glus sees it, the 2024 title is the “beginning of our ongoing work.” What he calls legacy is about creating long-term impact. The idea is that the event “not be just a one-and-done thing” but that the spirit of collaboration and design-driven change are sustained for years to come. “I think that’s one of the really important distinctions between this and another global initiative that comes to town, like a major sporting event.”

Cape Town and Valenica, however, illustrate the difficulties in sustaining and funding the legacy. The late Zayd Minty, a leader in the Cape Town event, wrote in his blog, “The proposal to convert the World Design Capital department into an innovation unit after 2014 was not followed through and it was sadly disbanded in mid-2015,” ending the official use of design thinking within Cape Town’s local government.

Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero (center), at the 2023 convocation ceremony, where Valencia passed the torch to San Diego.

After its 2022 title year ended, Valencia created a foundation to fuel and finance its legacy projects. The San Diego/Tijuana partnership is also considering setting up a foundation “to nourish and ultimately produce the legacy work,” says Glus.

Two of Valencia’s most important legacy initiatives were to maintain the Agora and build a design center, writes Carlos Garsan. The Agora was located in the center of town and regarded as an icon, a place where intense design discussions were held, along with workshops and community events. Today, the Agora sits, disassembled, in a warehouse, representing the dashed hopes of the Valencia campaign. (The San Diego/Tijuana partnership’s version of the Agora is called the EXCHANGE Pavilion and will be installed in front of Tijuana’s city administration complex, Palacio Municipal de Tijuana, before it is moved north of the border to Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park.) The Design Center, a space that would house a design museum, serve as headquarters for Valencia’s legacy foundation, maintain design archives, and more, was one of the great dreams of enthusiasts and became the foundation’s main priority. It remains unbuilt.

As the World Design Organization shifted gears to the upcoming San Diego/Tijuana award, the spirit of collaboration and creativity that swept Valencia in 2022 seemed to dissipate, replaced by a nasty drama pitting Valencia’s association of designers against the legacy foundation, which was having difficulty raising money. Some accused the legacy foundation of threatening members of the design association for criticizing the foundation, which in turn accused the designers of harming the “design ecosystem” that they’d formed.

Reality soon set in. The title was gone and so was the funding that had fueled Valencia’s year-long party. There were allegations of nepotism, corruption, and waste. The team in charge of Valencia’s 2022 bid talked early on about the importance of securing funding without going to the taxpayers, as did their counterparts in San Diego and other such cities I reviewed. However, Valencia’s city government ending up footing most of the bill — four million euros. The city’s auditor wanted to know why Xavi Calvo, who’d been CEO of the group, had been paid so much. He reviewed almost 30 vendor contracts that he said were grossly inflated. Meanwhile, there was political turnover, as new officials with no connection to the event were elected.

Derome sticks to the script, insisting from his Montreal office that the University of Valencia’s economics department “concluded that the reverberations of this successful program are still being felt now.” And yet Calvo himself recently conceded that there is “no immediate benefit from the designation. Time will put everything in its place,” reports Valencia Plaza. Laura Garces, writing for Las Provincias, observed that the World Design Capital had been a boost to the design community but did “not improve urban planning.”

What the Valencia legacy foundation has exceeded at was putting on more events, which seems to be the go-to tactic of all the groups. As Australian design leader Joanne Cys told In Daily after Adelaide withdrew from a previous competition, “Rather than short-term events that are fleeting…we need some hard, practical attention on design. We don’t need any more events.”

Some of the legacy work seems designed to benefit the World Design Organization, such as helping with their marketing and business development activities. Derome says Valencia worked with them to create a documentary “on the entire Valencia 2022 experience” and shared its experience with “interested candidate cities.” The foundation posted a video on YouTube of Calvo presenting tips for other cities that want to submit future bids.

For its part, the San Diego partnership is already identifying potential legacy projects on both sides of the border, projects which are impactful, aligned with the mission, and could benefit from their support. That, of course, presumes the legacy budget materializes.

Legacy, like most things in life, comes with a price. Before the party’s over, the price tag could be along the lines of the $8 to $10 million that the city of San Diego originally projected. “Expecting that the money will magically appear is unrealistic. The city will end up paying almost the entire amount,” Reaser of Point Loma Nazarene University told the U-T.

Will the San Diego/Tijuana learn and sidestep the problems of its predecessors? Economist Kelly Cunningham is a realist. “Like many effective schemes, it certainly sounds appealing in preproduction and planning, but how effective it actually turns out will be a challenge to fully realize.”

Almost ten years later, Cape Town’s Glenn Babb is still worked up about it. “In its entirety. World Design Capital offers ephemeral rewards to us who were paying for it. We were being fleeced for minimal, if any return. The rest has disappeared like mist before the morning sun. May San Diego not fall into this illusory trap.”

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Here Comes The Neighborhood
Mayor Gloria flanked by the World Design Capital Team
Mayor Gloria flanked by the World Design Capital Team

You may not know it, but we’re smack in the middle of a cross-border celebration: San Diego and Tijuana were jointly awarded the title of World Design Capital 2024. Both cities are celebrating the power of design to shape and inspire new cities of the future. There are hundreds of community events, conferences, and earnest discussions being held on both sides of the border.

Sounds good, right? Or at the very least, harmless. But the story behind the award may be a little less benign and/or beneficial. It’s a story about government priorities and waste, one that considers the difference between a legitimate event and a scam, and explores how well-meaning elites may bill taxpayers for their pet projects.

First, the backstory. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the city’s decision to apply for consideration as a World Design Capital had its genesis in a conversation between design guru Don Norman — the force behind UCSD’s Design Lab — and Srini Srinivasan, who was “Norman’s longtime friend and then-president of the World Design Organization.” The group is an international, not-for-profit organization that, every two years, selects a city to be World Design Capital. The story relates that Srinivasan suggested to Norman that San Diego apply for the title. Norman then convened a group of design organizations and stakeholders to prepare a bid for the 2024 competition. A coalition, including the UCSD Design Lab and Design Forward Alliance, was formed to lead the bid process. The Burnham Center for Community Advancement joined in, along with the city’s Arts and Culture Commission. The group received initial corporate support and some $18,000 in donations from a Go Fund Me campaign. This included a $5000 donation from Norman, who viewed World Design Capital as an opportunity to spread his gospel of “design thinking” and “human-centered design” from the ivory tower to the people.

Binational Bid

Philanthropist Malin Burnham felt strongly that the bid should include Tijuana and thus position the two cities as one binational metropolis of seven million people, notwithstanding the border, the wall, and the separate governments. Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero was on board, as was San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria — with the caveat that no public monies would be spent on the project. A 250-page binational bid, the first of its kind, was submitted to the design organization.

Michèle Morris, at the time the president of Design Forward Alliance, told the U-T in June 2021 that she was “very optimistic” and “confident that we will make the short list.” The source of this confidence was unclear. What we do know is that Srinivasan, who once wrote a praiseworthy blurb for Norman’s book, Design for a Better World, became a member – and chairman – of the 2024 selection committee while simultaneously serving as president of the World Design Organization. A review of their website, which lists past presidents and selection committee members, indicates that with the exception of the 2024 award, Srinivasan never before or since served on the selection committee. (The group has held the biennial competition since 2008.)

Bertrand Derome, managing director, World Design Organization.

In Nov. 2021, the World Design Organization, which started in 1957 as the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, announced that the San Diego/Tijuana bid had edged out Moscow, earning the bi-national partnership the title of World Design Capital for 2024. No other U.S. city has received this honor.

Ethical Quandries

Dr. Tara Salinas is a business ethics professor and department chair of management at the University of San Diego. “In and of itself, the fact that the president of the [group] is suggesting that someone he knows apply isn’t necessarily problematic,” she says. What complicates matters is that Srinivasan was not just the [organization’s] president, but at the same time the chairman of the 2024 selection committee. Salinas says Srinivasan should have recused himself. “As human beings, as rational as we say we want to be, we’re going to give advantages to the people that we know. That’s just human nature.” (Srinivasan, chairman and chief executive officer of Lumium Design, declined to be interviewed for this story.) But Bertrand Derome, managing director of World Design Organization, suggests that rules can counter this aspect of human nature. “We have several protocols in place to ensure an ethical and rigorous evaluation and selection of each bid.” One rule is that selection committee members don’t have “direct contact with representatives from a bidding city.” He says he’s confident that no favoritism was shown San Diego, and that there was no need for Srinivasan to recuse himself from the selection committee.

The World Design Capital is no ordinary competition. Cities that don’t pay don’t play. It all starts with a $10,000 application fee; cities that are short-listed must pay an additional $25,000 for that honor; and, finally, the winner pays a one-time $600,000 management fee. Since the [group] is a Canadian organization, the actual fee is in Canadian dollars; converted, it adds up to roughly $500,000 USD to obtain the title. This doesn’t include the costs involved in hiring staff and implementing a year-long series of snazzy events and celebrations, seven of which are mandated by the organization. Derome says the fees cover their costs, enabling them to provide direct support to the partnership. “These funds are reinvested into the program to support its administration and ensure continuation and strategic growth.” The contract began in Nov 2021, when the partnership was notified that it had won the title, and will end in the first part of 2025, says Derome.

Burnham Steps Up

Jonathon Glus is the executive director of San Diego’s Arts and Culture Commission, a World Design Capital partner. He says what some critics may call pay-to-play is “not unusual for global efforts like this,” citing the Olympics as an example. “If you think about global events like this, there is typically a fee that is assigned to the host committee.” In this case , they provide “not necessarily monetary resources” but marketing and on-site support, says Glus, who’s also a board member. “They’re constantly making connections for us.” He emphasizes that taxpayers are not on the hook for the application, shortlist, and management fees. The $1 million donation from their partner, the Burnham Center for Community Enhancement, will cover those costs.

Paying a significant fee to receive a title of dubious value may be a deal breaker for some cities. Adelaide was competing for the title when the state government of South Australia forced it to withdraw. Although no reason was cited, Australian media speculated it was related to the contract and assorted fees.

The World Design Organization distributes a press release announcing when it’s accepting bids for the contest; in some cases, however, they proactively initiate contact with cities or design organizations, encouraging them to submit a bid – as the group president did with Don Norman. Glenn Babb, a critic of Cape Town, South Africa’s World Design Capital 2014 title, confirms that the the group initiated the relationship with the city’s design stakeholders and officials. Babb suggests that, rather than an actual competition, the process can feel more like business development. When Taipei received the designation in 2016, it didn’t “come by surprise, as back in August they were the only city selected to move onto the competition’s final round,” reported the architectural blog, Arch Daily.

Scam Allegations

According to Cape Town’s daily paper, Cape Argus, the city’s bid process and 2014 title year were marked by controversy, with one politician, Lindiwe Sisulu, attacking the city for spending millions of rands on “a scam called the Design Capital.” ($1 USD equals around $19 rands.) “It seems [the group] operates on the FIFA principle. You pay us handsomely to let you wank off,” wrote Lin Sampson in a Cape Argus opinion piece titled, “Cape Town is World Design Capital – a dubious honor floated by taxpayer cash and gloopy jargon.” (FIFA is the organization in charge of soccer’s World Cup.)

Dr. Tara Salinas, a USD business ethics professor, says “As human beings, as rational as we say we want to be, we’re going to give advantages to the people that we know.”

Critic Babb was the South African commissioner of the Venice Biennale in 1993 and 1995. The international cultural exhibition, held annually in Venice, Italy since 1895, is the oldest event of its kind. The World Design Organization, he tells me, is “an organization whose sole purpose is to con innocent cities into thinking there is a benefit to be derived from this title. The whole project was a vanity project by then-mayor Patricia de Lille.” De Lille, it should be noted, went on to serve on the group’s 2016 selection committee.

When the group’s managing director Derome came to San Diego to inspect the city after doing the same for Moscow, he was treated to a jazz concert and party at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, among other tours and gatherings. A taste of Tijuana culture, culinary delights and a party awaited Mr. Derome on the other side of the border. In Cape Town, the red-carpet treatment given to the organization’s officials included trips to wineries, fancy dinners, and a helicopter ride over Cape Town. Business ethics professor Salinas, seeming both aghast and slightly envious, says it must be great to work for the group. “You’re wined and dined and get to go to all these spectacular places.” Previous designated cities include Valencia, Spain; Torino, Italy; Helsinki, Finland; and Lille Metropole, France. “That’s kind of like a scam,” she says, laughing. “I want to apply.”

Build it and they will come!

While acknowledging that FIFA’s awarding of World Cup host status “comes with its own set of heinous ethical issues,” Salinas notes that at least it “guarantees hundreds of thousands of people, an influx for at least a limited amount of time of people coming in, spending money in your hotels, your restaurants, your service industry. On the other hand, how many people are coming in to celebrate the fact that San Diego and Tijuana have won this award? What are the benefits for the city?”

The answer to that depends on who you ask. Tad Parzen, president and CEO of the Burnham Center for Community Advancement, told the San Diego Business Journal that the award would generate 4 million visitors, 1.4 million overnight stays, and 2.6 million day-visitors. This level of tourism, they claim, would lead to the creation of some 50,000 new jobs with a total economic impact to the San Diego/Tijuana region of $1.5 billion.

Once San Diego/Tijuana won the bid, the partnership hired Carlos de la Mora as CEO. Having lived in Mexico, he could also function as a binational ambassador. In an interview with the architect and writer Dirk Sutro in the U-T, de la Mora was perhaps too honest. He conceded that he’d been on the ground in Mexico City in 2018, the year that city won the title, and he was not impressed. “I began on the skeptics’ side,” de la Mora told Sutro. “I don’t want to minimize what was done, but I didn’t hear about it, there was no impact,” he said, adding that “he is determined that won’t happen” in San Diego.

In spite of his optimism, it soon became clear that the group wasn’t able to raise the necessary funds for producing that impact. In June 2023, it succeeded in lobbying the city for a subsidy. The group’s main advocate on the City Council was Raul Campillo, who helped rally the other members in a unanimous vote to hand over $3 million. This contradicted the mayor’s promise that no public funds would be allocated to support a designation that most San Diegans had never heard of.

The now retired Richard Rider, a taxpayer activist who dedicated himself to holding the line on local taxes for over 30 years, told me, “The city is facing massive pension payments, and all the mayor and city council can think of is how to spend more money.” City council candidate Coleen Cusack agrees: “It’s rather irresponsible for a luxury item purchase, given the severe budget deficits. The city council keeps spending, spending, spending, and they’re not being good stewards of our economy.” Salinas notes that the monies could have gone to addressing homelessness, infrastructure, or repaving roads. “There’s just so many other, better, more thoughtful, more useful, more proactive ways to be spending taxpayer money,” she says.

In persuading his fellow council members to support the appropriation, Campillo cited a preliminary study on the economic impacts of the Valencia award in 2022. From January through March of that year, it claimed, Spain’s third-largest city gained almost six euros for every one euro it spent on World Design Capital events and activities, driving “direct expenditure of 9 million euros” attributable to the honor ($1 USD equals roughly .93 euros.) That’s a tremendous return on investment, assuming those numbers are real. But economist Lynn Reaser of Point Loma Nazarene University told the U-T that the study’s numbers “are surely inflated.” USD’s Tara Salinas quips, “I would love to know how they quantified their return on investment.”

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As it happened, I knew how. The evaluator, Pau Rausell of the University of Valencia economics department, based his calculations on the assumption that one out of three visitors to the area were “directly or indirectly caused by World Design Capital Valencia 2022” from January through March. Salinas is skeptical. “One out of three? Wishful thinking. Now that’s just fabricating your data. It doesn’t pass the smell test,” she says with amazement. “I’m sorry, but as an elected official who has the ability to dole out public funds, Campillo has to do better. You have to do some due diligence. You need to understand what the data is that you’re looking at.”

Rausell adds in his report that he suspects his methodology understated the impact on the local economy. On the contrary, he may have overstated it, not just by using the one-out-of-three metric but also by attributing the influx of tourists in March not to Las Fallas — the biggest and most popular festival in Valencia that attracts visitors from all over Spain and Europe — but, disproportionately, to the design exhibits. The organization’s Derome, describes the study as “exceptional” and confirms that it “will undoubtedly be shared with other cities,” including San Diego and Tijuana, “as a recommended benchmark for future impact studies.”

When Councilman Campillo held up Valencia as a model World Design Capital, he focused on the economic impact study, but neglected to mention that he’d recently visited the charming city of Valencia. He was part of the San Diego/Tijuana delegation that traveled there in 2023 to attend and speak at the convocation ceremony, where Valencia passed the torch to San Diego. “I would love to hear how the trip to Valencia, if it was paid for by taxpayer dollars, is more important than the several tens of millions of dollars of shortfall the San Diego Unified school budget have this year,” says Salinas. (Representatives from the partnership were contractually obligated to attend the convocation ceremony in Valencia, just as a delegation from Frankfurt, Germany, the 2026 designee, will be here in November for San Diego’s convocation ceremony.)

In the first week of January 2024, CEO Carlos de la Mora was fired, reinforcing the suspicion that all was not well in the World Design camp. The group chose not to fill the CEO position, using a “shared leadership model” instead. It currently has 12 paid, full-time staff members, in addition to “project-specific contractors and one paid intern,” says Glus.

Events for Everyone

But if World Design had a rough start, it may have since found its footing. It produced an updated, impressive website and is implementing two categories of events: seven events mandated (but not funded) by the parent organization, which include weeklong festivals and designer dialoguing opportunities on both sides of the border; and a calendar of community-based events billed as “366 days of design.” The local group didn’t create or fund these events, but helps promote them on its website and social media channels, says the city’s Glus. Examples include Museum Month and “James Hubbell: Architecture of Jubilation – A Mountain Home and Studios,” an exhibit which runs from March to August at local libraries throughout the county.

The group used a portion of the city’s subsidy to give grants — in the amounts of $10,000, $25,000, and $75,000, or $550,000 in total —to nonprofits and small businesses aligned with its mission. “More than 100 organizations applied for funding and the level of interest was extraordinary,” reports Glus. But one grant in particular, $75,000 for The Design Academy, raised eyebrows. The company is led by designer and president Joan Gregor, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, was a “member of the World Design Capital  transition team” and played an instrumental role in setting up the 2024 nonprofit, in addition to performing other WDC-related roles and activities. She’s listed as a founding board member of Design Forward Alliance and as a designer in residence (a fancy term for consultant) with the World Design Capital and UCSD Design Lab.

Valencia’s WDC pavilion, the Agora, before it was disassembled and relegated to a warehouse where it now sits.

USD ethics professor Salinas says Gregor has multiple entanglements. The group’s decision to mete out money to a company run by a peer and colleague who was instrumental in the creation of the group, shows “both a conflict of interest and favoritism. When someone has power, they also have a responsibility to wield it thoughtfully,” she says. Glus denies the conflict of interest and favoritism allegations, noting that Gregor’s Design Academy is not affiliated with the World Design organization or its partners. Her organization met the eligibility requirements and was reviewed by “a diverse seven-person independent community panel,” he says.

Salinas thinks it’s also questionable for the group to take public dollars and give some of it “to a private company run by a woman with involvement in the World Design application process/design award.” (The Design Academy, it should be noted, was not the only small business to receive a grant.)

The Disconnect

Adding Tijuana to the bid may have been a nice touch, but it also asks that we suspend disbelief, suggests Salinas. The platitudes about cooperating and communicating with our friends south of the border — that we’re one, inter-dependent region, culturally and economically — may be true. But also true is the grim reality that in Tijuana, cartels and corruption are alive and well, the mayor is living in military barracks, the gap between the haves and have-nots is staggering, journalists are being killed, and raw sewage is being exported to San Diego. Politically, the wall that separates us is getting taller while border politics get nastier. By all means, we should work together on infrastructure and transportation projects that affect both cities. But is design a top-of-mind issue for 95% of the people who live in Tijuana? “So much of this seems to be removed from the reality of people’s everyday lives,” says Salinas. “Is design what Tijuana needs? No. From an academic perspective, I understand the concept of driving change. Academics can bring useful ideas into the real world, right. I understand that. I believe in those sorts of things, but it also has to be grounded in reality.”

There are plenty of examples of design-driven elites at the World Design Organization and title cities missing the larger context or simply paying lip service to it. Here’s Lin Sampson, writing for Cape Argus during the height of the 2014 Cape Town event: “Consider Donne in Delft with two kids, who lives on grants of 1800 rands a month. Will the 60-million-plus budget benefit her? Will she be visiting one of the many workshops on uplifting the poor, or joining a mountain bike initiative, or ‘design-storming for stakeholders,’ or even getting a ‘green’ house, given that she hasn’t got a house at all.?

Seoul, South Korea’s capital, became a World Design  city in 2010. The administration sought a new international image for the nation. But could imposing a new image on the country mask the fundamental problems it faced? “Politics is the governance of people. When people who make up the nation are adequately cared for, the desired national image will come along in time,” wrote Hyun-Joung Lee, in 2013, in The Politic.

Will the legacy have legs?

The way Glus sees it, the 2024 title is the “beginning of our ongoing work.” What he calls legacy is about creating long-term impact. The idea is that the event “not be just a one-and-done thing” but that the spirit of collaboration and design-driven change are sustained for years to come. “I think that’s one of the really important distinctions between this and another global initiative that comes to town, like a major sporting event.”

Cape Town and Valenica, however, illustrate the difficulties in sustaining and funding the legacy. The late Zayd Minty, a leader in the Cape Town event, wrote in his blog, “The proposal to convert the World Design Capital department into an innovation unit after 2014 was not followed through and it was sadly disbanded in mid-2015,” ending the official use of design thinking within Cape Town’s local government.

Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero (center), at the 2023 convocation ceremony, where Valencia passed the torch to San Diego.

After its 2022 title year ended, Valencia created a foundation to fuel and finance its legacy projects. The San Diego/Tijuana partnership is also considering setting up a foundation “to nourish and ultimately produce the legacy work,” says Glus.

Two of Valencia’s most important legacy initiatives were to maintain the Agora and build a design center, writes Carlos Garsan. The Agora was located in the center of town and regarded as an icon, a place where intense design discussions were held, along with workshops and community events. Today, the Agora sits, disassembled, in a warehouse, representing the dashed hopes of the Valencia campaign. (The San Diego/Tijuana partnership’s version of the Agora is called the EXCHANGE Pavilion and will be installed in front of Tijuana’s city administration complex, Palacio Municipal de Tijuana, before it is moved north of the border to Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park.) The Design Center, a space that would house a design museum, serve as headquarters for Valencia’s legacy foundation, maintain design archives, and more, was one of the great dreams of enthusiasts and became the foundation’s main priority. It remains unbuilt.

As the World Design Organization shifted gears to the upcoming San Diego/Tijuana award, the spirit of collaboration and creativity that swept Valencia in 2022 seemed to dissipate, replaced by a nasty drama pitting Valencia’s association of designers against the legacy foundation, which was having difficulty raising money. Some accused the legacy foundation of threatening members of the design association for criticizing the foundation, which in turn accused the designers of harming the “design ecosystem” that they’d formed.

Reality soon set in. The title was gone and so was the funding that had fueled Valencia’s year-long party. There were allegations of nepotism, corruption, and waste. The team in charge of Valencia’s 2022 bid talked early on about the importance of securing funding without going to the taxpayers, as did their counterparts in San Diego and other such cities I reviewed. However, Valencia’s city government ending up footing most of the bill — four million euros. The city’s auditor wanted to know why Xavi Calvo, who’d been CEO of the group, had been paid so much. He reviewed almost 30 vendor contracts that he said were grossly inflated. Meanwhile, there was political turnover, as new officials with no connection to the event were elected.

Derome sticks to the script, insisting from his Montreal office that the University of Valencia’s economics department “concluded that the reverberations of this successful program are still being felt now.” And yet Calvo himself recently conceded that there is “no immediate benefit from the designation. Time will put everything in its place,” reports Valencia Plaza. Laura Garces, writing for Las Provincias, observed that the World Design Capital had been a boost to the design community but did “not improve urban planning.”

What the Valencia legacy foundation has exceeded at was putting on more events, which seems to be the go-to tactic of all the groups. As Australian design leader Joanne Cys told In Daily after Adelaide withdrew from a previous competition, “Rather than short-term events that are fleeting…we need some hard, practical attention on design. We don’t need any more events.”

Some of the legacy work seems designed to benefit the World Design Organization, such as helping with their marketing and business development activities. Derome says Valencia worked with them to create a documentary “on the entire Valencia 2022 experience” and shared its experience with “interested candidate cities.” The foundation posted a video on YouTube of Calvo presenting tips for other cities that want to submit future bids.

For its part, the San Diego partnership is already identifying potential legacy projects on both sides of the border, projects which are impactful, aligned with the mission, and could benefit from their support. That, of course, presumes the legacy budget materializes.

Legacy, like most things in life, comes with a price. Before the party’s over, the price tag could be along the lines of the $8 to $10 million that the city of San Diego originally projected. “Expecting that the money will magically appear is unrealistic. The city will end up paying almost the entire amount,” Reaser of Point Loma Nazarene University told the U-T.

Will the San Diego/Tijuana learn and sidestep the problems of its predecessors? Economist Kelly Cunningham is a realist. “Like many effective schemes, it certainly sounds appealing in preproduction and planning, but how effective it actually turns out will be a challenge to fully realize.”

Almost ten years later, Cape Town’s Glenn Babb is still worked up about it. “In its entirety. World Design Capital offers ephemeral rewards to us who were paying for it. We were being fleeced for minimal, if any return. The rest has disappeared like mist before the morning sun. May San Diego not fall into this illusory trap.”

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