World Design Capital Finland - The University of Helsinki’s new library is in the city centre, but is to built to block out road noise. More than 30 kilometers of books and research material fill the eight-floor library. The University is a partner in the World Design Capital.

DESIGN can do anything, from reshaping the structure of a typical workday to making it easier for women in heels to navigate city pavements.

These instances of the innovative application of design thinking are examples of projects from World Design Capital (WDC) host cities Helsinki and Seoul, and an illustration of the potential impact of design solutions on the routine urban experience.

The Finnish capital, this year’s WDC, is home to about one million residents, a fifth of the national population, and has a socio-economic profile that puts it in a different league to Cape Town – World Design Capital 2014 – 10 000km away and home to some 3.6 million people.

Yet what the two cities share is the scope for design to make a real difference in city life.

Helsinki’s theme for this year is Open Helsinki – Embedding Design in Life. Diverse projects and programmes to match the theme include “restaurant days”, on which residents are encouraged to turn their hands to cooking and transform their homes into eateries for a day, and an “urban gardening” project in which open spaces are made available to people as allotments to grow their own organic food.

There’s a strong focus on using design to improve life in the urban realm.

Helsinki mayor Jussi Pajunen refers to an “enlarged concept of design” and is determined that WDC projects must be far-reaching, stretching even to improvements in welfare services.

The WDC event has attracted investments of more than e50 million (R522m) from local government, companies and foundations.

But not all projects are high-cost, capital-intensive ventures.

One of them, Redesigning 925, involves canvassing the opinions of thousands of Finnish employees with the objective of seeing how changes in people’s working routines – such as allowing people to work from home – can help improve productivity and give people a greater sense of having a meaningful working life.

The Finnish government and eight other companies are involved in the study. More than 1 000 employees have been interviewed.

Project creator Saku Tuominin said some of the findings showed that while people were feeling more worn out, they felt they were achieving less at the workplace.

Many employees felt they were spending too much time in drawn-out meetings.

“We are measuring time, we are not measuring achievement.”

Tuominin said they would accompany their findings with more than 100 suggestions on “new ways to work”. He said that while there might be resistance from some managements, companies were moving in the right direction simply by participating in the programme.

In Seoul – World Design Capital 2010 and a city a world away from Finland – design is, among other things, making it easier for women to walk along city pavements.

Professor Kyung-Won Chung, Seoul metropolitan government’s former chief design officer and a former deputy mayor, was in Helsinki this month to share the South Korean experience of using design to make a difference.

Chung’s team won an international design award, the Index Award, for their work. The award recognises projects which make the biggest impact on people’s lives.

Chung explained that Design Seoul included a project aimed at women who wear high heels. “Happy women means a happy Seoul,” he said of the Women Happy project.

Simply enough, this involved filling in cracks on pavements to make it easier for women to negotiate the streets.

On a much larger scale, the city government’s call centre system was completely overhauled.

Chung said more and more callers were dissatisfied for often being placed on hold, or routinely getting through to the wrong department.

In the new system, a database of frequently asked questions was compiled.

Now the service is available in several languages, with consultants making sure the number is a one-stop shop for both residents and foreigners.

These ideas show the power of design. It’s not limited to the structure of buildings or the creation of appealing sculptures.

In its application, as the examples of Helsinki and Seoul illustrate, design can make huge changes in the lives of city residents. And some of the most life-changing projects do not cost the earth. These show the benefits of design in its most practical form, the type most citizens can identify with.

Cape Town, whose 2014 theme is Live design. Transform life, is grappling with very different challenges from those of the Finnish and South Korean capitals.

The most pressing are the high levels of poverty and the glaring economic divide.

But if Cape Town delivers on its theme of transforming lives, residents could be reaping the rewards of the WDC long after the hype has died down.

l Metro Writer Bronwynne Jooste recently returned from a three-day visit to Helsinki.