Design for Social Innovation

by Kevin Makice

Sarah Brooks and Neal Gorenflo of Shareable Magazine have started a regular column, “Sharing By Design,” through which they will explore the designer’s role in shaping the world. Their first interview was with Ezio Manzini, an Italian design strategist who focuses on sustainable design. Manzini founded Design for Social Innovation towards Sustainability (DESIS), a network of university design labs.

Manzini’s work over the past 30 years sums up sustainability and social innovation in four watchwords: small, local, open and connected.

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.

His work is driven by a specific goal of dealing with the human capabilities of the 7 billion people today as they plan to become the 9 billion people of tomorrow. However, the way he talks about the dynamics of social change and the role designers play in facilitating those communities can be generalized quite easily to other groups and motivations:

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.

Particularly if you are interested in issues of sustainability, it is worth investing some time reading parts I and II of the Manzini interview.

Shareable: Life & Art (July 26, 2011, by Sarah Brooks)