As a society that is constantly reinventing itself, Taiwan has in recent years tried to position itself as a regional innovator in design. For starters, over 98 submissions from the island won awards at the Red Dot Award in Germany in 2015, including the likes of this Taiwan Folk Toy concept to describe life in the 1940s and 50s.

But Taiwan design isn’t just about toys and gadgets; designated as the World Design Capital this year, Taipei joins ranks with previous design cities Torino, Seoul, Helsinki, and Cape Town, with an eye towards using design principles to make its urban life more “attractive, competitive, efficient, and livable.”

As part of the yearlong designation as World Design Capital, a summit conference was held last week from October 15 to 16 on International Design Policy. The conference is a foray for Taipei to dig into how design and designers can contribute to public policy that affects the city and its residents.

President Tsai Ing-wen spoke at the opening ceremony, remarking that she hopes  “the Taiwanese society can respect the expertise of designers and really understand  the value of design. Design can be used to change our lives, and can be an indispensable part of improving our national strength.“

The seminars throughout the two day conference looked at the different ways design extends beyond aesthetic and function to include technology, public discourse and methods of deepening democracy.

Ideas and tools

Julia Kloiber of Open Knowledge Foundation Germany emphasized that public data is not accessible to the average citizen due to its sheer volume and complexity. Kloiber brought up the example of Tempelholf Airport, where citizens could choose between three different redevelopment options, made easier to understand and compare thanks to 3D visualization.

Cally O’Neill, an architect from New Zealand, spoke about Generation Zero, an initiative working toward carbon zero. The initiative uses a collaboration tool called Loomio to aggregate discussion. The tool allows anyone to create a proposal with a clear course of action and set timeframes for voting or acting on each action item. The process helps the participants better understand the proposal, even if they do not come to a consensus at the end.

Taiwan’s Digital Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang urged everyone to “hack” the government–making things like public data and public projects more accessible and meaningful. Currently the youngest minister to serve in Taiwanese government, the open source civic hacker and self proclaimed “conservative anarchist” spoke of her experiences “forking the government” with the civil community known as g0v.tw (零時政府). “Fork” is a computer science term, meaning to start a separate, independent development path based on the same source code.

Here, Tang analogizes legislation to source code, and asked if code can be forked, why not public policy? Instead of legislating using a linear process, g0v works by having participants create their own versions of what they want the government to do. g0v functions as a “shadow government” of sorts, a laboratory of experiments. Many times these forks don’t go anywhere, but with sufficient citizen participation and evolution, one fork could become law through iteration and trial and error.

Tang emphasized the importance of imperfection and continuous trial and error. Not every fork will be successful, but some are and will continue to evolve. By canvassing citizen opinions and facilitating open discussion, actual laws can be drafted.

How realistic?

It is of course a good thing to have so many experts from outside of Taiwan discuss some eye-opening and thought-provoking ideas, but how does that actually fit within Taiwan’s political environment? After all, public policy is ultimately made not by brainstorming but through the process of political bartering and compromise.

In Taiwan, reforming the system of government has long been an existential issue, since its transition from authoritarian military regime to democracy began in the 1990s. The New Power Party (NPP), a startup political party that was elected to parliament for the first time this year, was propelled to success by young people in Taiwan yearning for reforms and transitional justice. (This author has worked as a volunteer in the NPP legislator Freddy Lim’s campaign.) Freddy honed in on the importance of deepening the young democracy that has flourished in Taiwan during the campaign, and NPP press releases were built around “reform” and “transitional justice” as slogans.

Unfortunately, in Taiwan’s political theater today, these two phrases are thrown around so much that by now they’ve become catchphrases without much actual meaning. Implementing some of the ideas from the conference, such as communication platforms like Loomio, could help to inspire people to think deeper about Taiwan’s democracy.

That is because although Taiwan has a formal electoral representative government right now, Taiwanese citizens still don’t feel that they can influence public decisions in a direct and meaningful way. A trade agreement with China was so poorly handled that students and activists felt the only way to stop the agreement was to storm and occupy the parliament. Freddy’s own electoral district, Wanhua, is a historic part of Taipei but also full of neglected neighborhoods; residents want the area revitalized but are often at the mercy of corporate land developers.

These are precisely the kinds of problems that can be helped by design and technological tools that facilitate collecting public opinion (Loomio), making public questions easier to understand (Tempelhof Airport), and aggregating disparate individual choices into actual legislation (“government forking” with g0v.tw). Traditional political parties like the NPP should be coordinating much more with digital ministers and tech and design experts to implement some of these tools.

Finally, Taipei’s designation at an international event of this caliber is important in furthering Taiwan’s long standing effort to find its voice in the international arena. Taiwan is already a regional leader in healthcare, recycling, environmental protection, sustainable energy, and carbon reduction, but has been passed over by major international gatherings because the United Nations does not recognize Taiwan as a state. Recently, a Kaohsiung delegation to the UN Habitat III conference in Quito was shut out of the door and told not to step inside the venue.  Taiwanese passports are not recognized at UN conferences, resulting in difficulties for those wishing to participate in important international forums, such as indigenous peoples.

In light of Taiwan’s difficulty being heard on the world stage, participating in World Design Capital has a deeper meaning for Taipei. The organizing party, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, has United Nations Special Consultative Status, which is granted to non-governmental organizations that are specialized in fields relating to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Through these kinds of connections, Taiwan is somewhat able to join professional epistemic communities internationally and make its voice heard that way–at least for the time being.

Conclusion

It is not yet clear whether Taiwan’s efforts in reforming its own democratic system through design, or making itself more relevant globally, will be as rosy as how I felt coming out of the conference last weekend. Certainly there were many wonderful ideas and resources that were discussed at the conference; especially in regards to increased and meaningful civil participation.

The public policy conference itself is only the beginning, a step in the right direction to increasing citizen participation and decisionmaking in Taiwan’s evolving democracy. The appointment of a civic hacker to digital minister is another promising sign. Yet, as I have stated, it is up to the people involved in the political process to take those ideas seriously enough to implement them. I am hopeful–since Taiwan is always reinventing itself–for the better.  

(Feature photo of Session Three of the International Design Policy Conference, Design for Future Living. From left to right: Wei-Bin Lee, Commissioner of the Department of Information Technology, Taipei City Government; Mike Orgill, Director of Public Policy for Asia Pacific, Airbnb; Julia Kloiber, Project Lead for Open Knowledge Foundation Germany; Audrey Tang, Digital Minister without portfolio of the Executive Yuan; Cally O’Neill, Architectural Designer; and discussion moderator, Yi-Shan Chen, Deputy Editor of CommonWealth Magazine; from DDG PR.)

 

Darice Chang

Darice is an artist, writer, model and translator residing in Taipei. She volunteered with a metaller turned legislator and facilitated for stories appearing in the BBC, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, L’Orange, and Metal Hammer. She was previously Community Manager at FutureWard Central, Taipei's largest co-working and makerspace. In her spare time she enjoys amazing vegan food, photoshoots, and music festivals.