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. In part one of this two-part interview, Sarah Brooks spoke with Manzini about his design philosophy (“small, local, open and connected”) and building innovation at the grassroots level. In this second part, Manzini discusses the issues surrounding design for social innovation, community-supported agriculture, and the business component of Shareable design. 

Q: Are there issues surrounding design for social innovation you feel are important to examine, yet currently ignored? And how do you suggest we address them?

A: In my view, one of the most challenging issues related to design for social innovation is the quality of its results.

In fact, when we discuss traditional products, in general, we have a language and the needed sensibility to discuss their qualities. Vice versa, when we talk about design for social innovation, things are quite different and we still don’t know how to do it.

Let’s consider, for instance, a solution based on the sharing of places or products. Given the title of your magazine, Shareable magazine, I suppose that you think that to share is good. And I agree. But, what are the qualities you consider to give this positive evaluation? How do you discuss them? As a matter of fact you can share something in many different ways. We should be able to judge how much effective and economically viable each one of these different solutions could be. But also, and in my view, here is the designers’ specific responsibility. We should have the criteria and the words to discuss different ways of sharing, endowed with different sets of soft qualities. As you can imagine, this is today a particularly challenging issue.

Image via loucaspapa

Q: Who are the people you look to for inspiration?

A: I’m doing what I am doing because during research I was engaged in five years ago, I met groups of people who opened a window of new possibilities. I was supposed to search for emerging users’ demands, and I found creative communities. I discovered that they were much more than users – they were the social heroes who where changing the world. Those people became very important to me. Only some years after that discovery I (finally!) recognized that they were an expression (a fantastic expression, indeed!) of a larger ongoing phenomenon: social innovation.

Beyond that, of course there are also some thinkers who have been very important to me. I like to quote Amartya Sen. He’s a Nobel Prize-winning economist who introduced me to the notion of “capabilities”. His main work deals with social equity. His approach focuses on positive freedom, a person’s actual ability to be who they want to be and do what they want to do. It’s the idea of empowering the capabilities of people. In my view this is a very strong idea for design. In some way, when you design, you search for problems to be solved. If you take the capability approach, you search for capabilities to support. This is a paradigmatic change in the way that we think. This is connected to social innovation. You don’t ask what you can do to make people behave differently. You ask what you can do to recognize people’s capabilities and help people use those to solve the problems they face.

Q: What projects are you working on currently?

A: Before answering this question I must say that I am a design researcher working in a team. In the last period my team has been the DIS-Unit of Research at  the Politecnico di Milano. Here, the projects we have been involved in have been mostly related to what we call collaborative housing (forms of living where people share some spaces and services) and new food networks (improved and de-mediated relationships between the city and the countryside). Beyond these kinds of projects, we have been (and still are) very busy also in promoting and coordinating an international network on design for social innovation towards sustainability (DESIS). It is a network of design labs, based in design schools and design-oriented universities, actively involved in promoting and supporting sustainable changes. I have to say that majority of my time now is absorbed by this kind of work (and I like it a lot!).

Q: Can you describe your new food network projects in some more detail? 

A: At present, the most relevant project we have in this field is Nutrire Milano (Feeding Milan). It is an initiative promoted and developed in Milano by Slow Food, Politecnico di Milano, Facoltà di Scienze Gastronomiche and several other local partners. This project aims at regenerating the Milanese peri-urban agriculture (that is the agriculture near the city) and, at the same time, at offering organic and local food opportunities to the citizens. To do that implies to promote radically new relationships between the countryside and the city. That is, to create brand-new networks of farmers and citizens based on direct relationships and mutual support.

The project’s first step had been recognizing the existing (social, cultural and economic) resources and best practices. Moving from here, a strategy has been developed considering the emerging trends towards a new possible synergy between cities and their countryside (as the ones towards zero-mile food and proximity tourism). On this basis, a shared and socially recognized vision has been built: the vision of a rural-urban area where agriculture flourishes, feeding the city and, at the same time, offering citizens opportunities for a multiplicity of farming and nature related activities.

To enhance this vision, the program is articulated in local projects (which are several self-standing projects, each on of them supporting, in different ways, a farmer’s activity) and framework actions (including context analysis, scenario co-creation and communication, promotion and coordination of the different individual local projects).

It is remarkable that, in a large project like this (a five-year project involving a very wide regional area), thanks to its adaptability and scalability, a first concrete result (a very successful Farmers’ Market) has been obtained in less than one year since starting-up, that two other initiatives will be realized in the next years and that several others are underway and will be implemented in the near future (keeping in account the very concrete experiences of the first three).

Q: If there was an idea you’d like to see catch on, what would it be? 

A: To find the way to combine, in a positive, sustainable way, the small and local with the global and connected. In fact, humans live in a locality and have the possibility to control a relatively small amount of variables. Therefore, the quality of their experiences and sense of control on their lives are higher if they are rooted in a place and have the real possibility to control some relevant elements of their daily life. If this is true, and this is what I strongly believe, to have a place to refer to and to have the possibility to participate to the definition of your everyday life context are, in my view, two main pillars in the building of a sustainable quality of life. And therefore the sustainable society as a whole.

But, at the same time, we have to recognize that  to promote the small and local perspective can also be very dangerous. In fact, it can bring people to jail themselves in closed communities. To isolate themselves. And moving from here, to create a fake identity of who is inside his/hers “gated community”, against all the others. That is what, unfortunately, today is happening in many places in the world.

Vice versa, what we have to search for is to be local and open, at the same time. To create permeable interfaces between communities and places. To cultivate diversity to permit, at the same time, the free flow of people and ideas.

All this, of course, is very difficult: to blend the local and the open could appear to be a quasi-oxymoron. But maybe, it is exactly from dealing with this kind of quasi-oxymoron that a sustainable society will find the ground to emerge. A society that is based on a multiplicity of interconnected communities and places will appear as a large ecology of people, animals, plants, places and products.

Photo of Manzini by overlobe on Flickr.

Q: Can you speak further about the relationship of social innovation and the public sector?

A: Yes, there is another important and very concrete point I would like to add to our conversation: until now we have spoken about social innovation (and therefore a collaborative and sharing attitude) assuming the points of view of active people, creative communities and designers. But it has to be said and underlined that this same issue has a very important business side too. If what we have discussed here is true (even only partly true), new forms of organization are appearing and new products and services will be required to fit them. In other words, looking to social innovation companies can focalize the businesses of the future.

In parallel to that and, in my view, even more important and urgent, something similar has to be said about considering the impact of this kind of social innovation on the public sector.  In fact, the services traditionally delivered by the public sector consider their users to be passive recipients.  What happens if we imagine a new generation of public services attuned to active and collaborative citizens?

Not only: typically, the design and development of public services has been based on top-down processes. What happens if a new generation of services emerges from a collaborative, largely bottom-up, design process?

We cannot deal with what could be the answers to these questions in this interview. But I can anticipate that they will be the core of a program that will be launched in few months. Maybe, we can continue the discussion on this point when the program has been officially presented.

Part one of Sarah’s interview with Ezio Manzini can be found here.

Sarah Brooks


Sarah Brooks

Designer, artist, and advocate for social change, Sarah Brooks creates systems, products and services that are good for business and good for the world. A leading proponent and collaborator in