The Valletta Design Cluster was officially launched as a Valletta 2018 flagship project in June 2015. This marked the formal designation of the Old Abattoir building – at that stage an abandoned structure in the heart of one of Valletta’s residential quarters – as the base of the new Cluster and as an infrastructural project that would catalyse urban development in this long-neglected area of the capital city. By the end of the summer, the necessary contracts for initial clean-up and structural propping works were published and awarded, and the first restoration works on adjacent facades started at the end of October 2015.

While work on the physical interventions progressed, the Valletta Design Cluster started establishing itself as a point of reference relating to design initiatives both locally and internationally. By the beginning of 2016, the Cluster had applied and been accepted as a new BEDA member (Bureau of European Design Associations) and has been invited by the EU-Japan Fest for an exploratory visit to Tokyo, with the aim of building links for a programme of multi-annual collaborations with Japanese design practitioners.

On a national level, the Valletta Design Cluster has started to build the groundwork for its main strategic objectives, linking education, industry support, awareness building, and research and policy initiatives aimed at strengthening the contribution of design to social and economic wellbeing. One direct result of this is the Cluster’s inclusion in the Malta Council for Science and Technology’s action plan that emanates from the National Research and Innovation Strategy 2020. Another is the research conducted and published by the Economic Policy Department of the Ministry of Finance, presenting initial insights into the links between design activity in Malta and the general economy.

Collaborations with educational institutions and initiatives is key for the Cluster’s and the design sector’s long-term success. In April 2016, the Cluster partnered up with the Design and Technology Learning Centre, within the Ministry for Education, for the 2nd National D&T Expo. This was an excellent opportunity to connect with design pedagogical activity within primary and, especially, secondary schools, bringing students, teachers and the general public together under one roof. The Valletta Design Cluster collaborated with Creolabs Ltd – a local creative thinking start-up – as well as with FabLab Valletta and Interactive Architecture Lab (Malta), to set up a number of workshops for students.

The project’s proximity to the Valletta resident community is a major element in the project’s development phase. An exploratory community workshop was held in February 2015 in collaboration with Dr Oleg Koefeld, Director of Culture21 Nordic (Copenhagen), with the aim of exploring the avenues of cross-fertilisation between community needs and creative cluster dynamics. During 2016, the Cluster partnered directly with the Valletta 2018 Foundation as well as with the Centre for Environmental Education and Research at the University of Malta, to build on this first step in community engagement. This led to the Cluster hosting a neighbourhood unconference – an informal meeting arrangement, following an Open Space methodology that allows for the community itself to determine its own agenda for discussion and an open, inclusive approach towards dialogue between the various stakeholders. During the coming months, the Cluster plans to take this initiative further in collaboration with the neighbouring community, by providing a platform for a Local Action agenda that empowers action directly by the community members to improve the quality of life in its shared common spaces.

On a final note, the months ahead should also see the Cluster deepening its collaboration with the Malta Business Bureau (MBB). This following a very successful MBB-led initiative linking its Design for Europe ambassadorial status with the needs of the local services industry, through a Service Design workshop also held in June 2016. Through these collaborations, the Cluster’s role as catalyst for change in the appreciation and adoption of design-intensive practices and the benefits arising thereof are amplified and disseminated further amongst all collaborating stakeholders.