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Design for social innovation: An interview with Ezio Manzini

A recent conversation with Neal Gorenflo led to the idea of a column dedicated to exploring the Shareable tagline – Sharing By Design. As a design strategist and interaction designer, I’m passionate about the role and responsibility of design to create a more shareable, just, and better world; so is Neal, so we’re embarking on a process of discovery through a series of conversations with designers.

Ezio Manzini is an Italian design strategist, one of the world’s leading experts on sustainable design, author of numerous design books, professor of Industrial Design at Milan Polytechnic, and founder of the DESIS (Design for Social Innovation towards Sustainability) network of university-based design labs. His work over the past 30 years in sustainability and social innovation has coalesced around four watchwords: small, local, open and connected. On a recent Friday morning we spoke via skype and I was immediately impressed with his easy manner, warmth and balanced optimism.

Q: What's most interesting to you right now?

A: Right now, what’s most interesting me is what we can do to catalyze the most abundant resources we have on the planet, which are our human capabilities. This is, if you want, my motto and it is also a very deep philosophical issue. If we consider that we have a very small heavily populated planet, to move to sustainability we have to make best use of all the resources we have.

We can look to the people of the planet in two ways. We can see 7 billion people on the planet today or 9 billion people tomorrow as the biggest threat and the biggest problem, because we are a little planet. But given that those 7 billion people are you, me, my friends and the people we know, we see them not as problems but as people with capabilities, intelligent operators. So the planet is very rich with potential intelligent operators. What does it mean to enable all the potentialities of so many intelligent people? The system can help in catalyzing the best, or catalyzing the worst. Or in making people more stupid than normally they are. I think this is a very big challenge. This is the biggest challenge with the most potential. Collectivity can help.

Slide from Manzini's Interaction 10 presentation. Photo by Simon King on Flickr

There is, in my view, a new model of organizing society and the production and consumption and whatever. When I use the words small, open, local and connected, this is my way of telling the story. People can tell it in another way, but the result is similar. Of course it’s a metaphor: having small entities that when connected, become bigger entities. It’s evident that it comes very strongly from the network. But once it appears, it’s not only related to what you can do, strictly speaking, in the network and technologies. It’s a way to imagine the way in which the social services are delivered in society and the way in which we can imagine economies that are at the same time rooted in a place and partially self-sufficient but connected to the others and open to the others. This is a very interesting relationship between being local, being related to a certain context and at the same time being open and connected, not provincial or one closed community that risks being against the others. This is an idea that is clear and strong if you talk about the arena where people are dealing with networks, open source and peer to peer. But it can become a very general metaphor, and embed itself in some realities to become a powerful way to organize a sustainable society.

Having dealt with sustainability for the past 30 years, I have had to reframe several times my way of discussing the problem. A lot of sustainability topics were simple to discuss in a naive way 30 years ago because nobody, us included, had concrete ideas on how a sustainable society would have been. Now, luckily, a lot of experiences have been done and good ideas have spread. As a researcher I look for ways to propose a topic in a relatively new way that can help the process to move faster, or find a better direction. Today, for instance, my way to deal with sustainability has shifted toward social innovation.

For me, dealing with the needed sustainable changes that are mainly cultural and behavior change, the pivotal moment has been when I moved from saying “What can I do to help people change behavior?” toward the discovery that a lot of people (even if they aren’t yet so visible) had already changed, and in a good way, their behaviors. And that therefore, the right question is: ”What can I do to trigger and support these new way of thinking and doing? How can I use my design knowledge and tools to empower these grass-roots social innovations?"

Ezio Manzini-Keynote: Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Q. Can you describe one or several specific examples of organic innovation at the grass-roots level and what makes them successful in your view?

A: We can look for example at “zero-mile food”, where not only a new way of eating but also a new relationship between production and consumption, and between the city and the countryside, are established. Or collaborative services where elderly people organize themselves to exchange mutual help and, at the same time, promote a new idea of welfare. Further examples are neighborhood gardens set-up and managed by citizens who in this way improve the quality of the city and its social fabric, or groups of families who decide to share some services to reduce the economic and environmental costs, but also to create new forms of neighborhood.

Once we start to observe society and look for this kind of initiative, a variety of other interesting cases appear: new forms of social interchange and mutual help (such as the local exchange trading systems and time banks); systems of mobility that present alternatives to the use of individual cars (from car sharing and car pooling to the rediscovery of the possibilities offered by bicycles); the development of productive activities based on local resources and skills which are linked into wider global networks (as is the case of certain products typical of a specific place, or of the fair and direct trade networks between producers and consumers established around the globe). The list could continue, touching on every area of daily life and emerging all over the world.

Looking at such cases of social innovation we can observe that they challenge traditional ways of doing things and introduce new, different and more sustainable behavior. Of course, each one of them should be analyzed in detail (to assess their effective environmental and social sustainability more accurately). However, at first glance we can recognize their coherence with some of the fundamental guidelines for sustainability.

First of all, many of them have an unprecedented capacity to bring individual interests into line with social and environmental ones. For example, one side effect is that they reinforce the social fabric, and they generate new and more sustainable ideas of wellbeing, a well-being where greater value is given to the quality of the social and physical context, to a caring attitude, to a slower pace in life, to collaborative actions, to new forms of community and to new ideas of locality.

Behind each of these promising cases of social innovation there are groups of people who have been able to imagine, develop and manage them. A first glance shows that they have some fundamental traits in common: they are all groups of people who cooperatively invent, enhance and manage innovative solutions for new ways of living. And they do so recombining what already exists, without waiting for a general change in the system (in the economy, in the institutions, in the large infrastructures). For this reason, these groups of people can be defined as creative communities: people who cooperatively invent, enhance and manage innovative solutions for new ways of living: social heroes who find in themselves the capability to break the rules of the game (i.e. the mainstreams ways of thinking and doing) and successfully operate in a creative and collaborative way.

Given that, the key point for me as a designer is to help these communities to exist and consolidate and the ideas they generate to spread and replicate. That is, to scale-up from being relatively marginal towards becoming more diffuse, and hopefully, in the future, the new mainstream.

Photo of Manzini by overlobe on Flickr.

Q: What do you see as the most contentious issue in design for social innovation? And where do you stand on the issue?

A: To move in the field of social innovation designers need to define a set of conceptual and practical tools. But, first of all, they have to recognize that design activity is not defined by the products to be designed, but by a specific body of knowledge that can be applicable to a multiplicity of objects and in diverse nodes of the design processes. In other words, if you don’t recognize that design can also be strategic you cannot imagine that design can play an important role in triggering, supporting and scaling-up social innovation.

At the same time, designers must recognize that they are not alone in doing this kind of work, that several other actors are involved with different crucial roles and that, therefore, their original contribution has to be better understood by the other partners (and, sometimes, by the designers themselves.)

In part two of our conversation with Ezio Manzini, to be published next week, Manzini discusses the design issues surrounding social innovation, his current projects, and community-supported agriculture.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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