Is London still the world's design capital?

London Design Festival's Max Fraser reflects on the magnetic appeal of the multicultural metropolis he calls home.

Immediately after the London Design Festival in 2012, the New York Times published a review of the event that stated: "London is the design capital of the world". A sense of delight resonated through Festival HQ. After all, a comment like that from a publication of such calibre certainly resonates. But the statement also made us ponder the scale of London's assigned creative prowess, and with it came the weighty responsibility of safeguarding such a status.

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London is credited with a whole raft of attributes: it's a historically grounded megacity and one of Europe's central meeting points; business thrives alongside tourism and culture; it attracts a multicultural mix of young hopefuls and with it a tolerance of new values; and there's a world-class education system. All of these things make it an attractive hub for recruiting talent, and an incubator for entrepreneurialism. It strikes me that the best creativity must not be forced, falsely manufactured or bought in. The integrity of the London design scene sits at its core.

London, yesterday

London has an inherently magnetic quality, as illustrated by recent news stories stating that the number of Chinese students enrolling in art and design programmes here has soared by more than 150 per cent in the past five years. Such figures attract criticism from some, yet these high fee-paying students are an important source of income for budget-tight universities. What's more, the greater the number of foreign students, the more fertile cross-border collaborations become, which in turn feeds the potential work outlets for UK designers.

It would be complacent to assume that London is the only incubator of design talent in the world. The Chinese themselves are training an army of designers, as the realisation that 'Designed in China' has greater value than 'Made in China' takes hold. This is a strategic move, but one that needs to permeate the Chinese mindset. Students in China currently graduate with first-rate technical skills, but the educators need to embrace design thinking and research as well as cross-disciplinary work practices in order to really thrive as a creative, innovation-led force. This is in the process of happening, and the world is watching.

So is it an inquisitive advantage that is London's strength right now - the ability to continually invent and then reinvent? Our confidence to question, probe, contradict and collaborate surely gives London its competitive edge. The city's great asset is that it isn't navel-gazing. Quite the contrary. To be a global capital, London relies on the fast-moving international influx that convenes in this great melting pot and then redistributes back out to all corners of the globe. London can and must retain its magnetic allure, free from red tape or complacency, in order to stay at the top of its game.

Words: Max Fraser

Max Fraser joined the London Design Festival as deputy director in April 2012. Committed to broadening the conversation around contemporary design, he works as an industry commentator, has authored several books and owns small publishing imprint SpotlightPress. This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 226.