Photo credit: Design Thinking & Beyond 

Ezio Manzini, a leading thinker in design for sustainability, founded DESIS an international network on design for social innovation and sustainability. He is Honorary Professor at the Politecnico di Milano, Chair Professor at University of the Arts London, and currently guest Professor at Tongji University, Shanghai, and Jiangnan University, Wuxi. His lastest book is Design, When Everybody Designs (MIT 2015).

We'll start with the most obvious question: What is your new book about?

Our starting point is that, in a fast and profoundly changing world, everybody designs. "Everybody" means not only individual people, groups, communities, companies, and associations, but also institutions, cities, and entire regions; and "design" means that, whether they like it or not, all these individual and collective entities are forced to bring all their designing capabilities into play to devise their life strategies and put them into practice.

The result of this diffuse designing is that society as a whole can be seen as a huge laboratory in which unprecedented social forms, solutions and meanings are produced and social innovation is created.

The book starts here, in this world in which everybody designs and everything is designed, and goes on to discuss what expert design does and could do. Here we are referring to that community of professionally trained social figures who are skilled in promoting and supporting various kinds of design processes on different scales.

Frankly, the first part of your answer sounds rather too optimistic. Do you really believe that our society today can be seen as a laboratory of social experimentation?

Obviously I do, since I have taken this idea as the starting point of a book! But I understand your quandary. The fact is that the social innovation I am talking about is very radical. That is why it often goes unrecognised. It doesn't emerge just where we are looking and often we have to change our point of view and approach it from a different angle. For example, that our entire political system is changing is beyond doubt and with it the very notion of democracy. It is equally clear that, for better or for worse, new forms of politics and democracy are taking shape. However, the speed and radicalness of the transformations are such that we struggle to recognise them and adjust our interpretation criteria in order to evaluate them. Examples of similar situations to this can be found everywhere — from how we deal with the most general issues to the ways in which we organise our everyday lives.

This enables me to introduce another important consideration: Saying that society is a laboratory of social experimentation does not mean that the results are all positive. I mean, there is social innovation in phenomena that may be detestable, like the ways in which ISIS communicates and recruits, or in dubious everyday happenings, like the hyper-uncertainty of the job market brought about by the spread of the platform economy (the Uber model, to put it simply) or the transformation in schools with the introduction of new behaviour and technology (such as the way in which, in Italy, some students have recently been using Periscope in the classroom).

Having said this, we should add that in the boiling pot of contemporary society there is also a growing number of interesting, promising cases. In the book I refer to these as social innovation for sustainability. I believe that these should be recognised and helped to grow and express their full potential for change. It is this that the book talks about, focusing particularly on what design experts do and could do.

Could you explain exactly what you are referring to when you talk about social innovation for sustainability?

I am referring to all those new ideas emerging over the last 10 to 20 years that have led a growing number of people to act in their everyday lives in ways that are promising in terms of social and environmental sustainability. One field in which these innovations have led to particularly evident results is that of food and the relationship between city and countryside. All over the world we have seen new food networks being created based on organic production and on seasonal and proximity consumption. Other examples could be: forms of mobility in alternative to individually owned cars; social services conceived as collaborative activities; models of housing and neighbourhood living better geared to the current reality of family life; activities aimed to redevelop the social and environmental quality of cities. The list could continue.

Looking at these examples more closely we can see that, diverse as they are, they share a fundamental characteristic — while solving specific problems they also produce sociality (and thus contribute to rebuilding the social fabric) and new qualities (thus contributing to the production of new value systems). In short, they can be considered as experiments in new ways of thinking and doing things — working prototypes of a sustainable everyday life.


Wonderful, very interesting. But what has this to do with design?

It has a lot to do with it! First of all, as I've already mentioned, the social innovation I'm talking about can be described as an interweave of co-designing activities. So all those who foster social innovation, though in very different and differently commendable ways are also actors in frequently complex and contradictory co-design processes. In effect, it is easy to note that an awareness of the need to adopt a design approach, and consequently also design tools, has been spreading in recent years. For example, the expression "design thinking" has recently been meeting with success worldwide, impacting on social enterprise and the institutions; service design is another rapidly growing field that is contributing to the redesign of numerous activities both in the public and private sectors.

However, we can go further. Design is also pertinent in its second meaning, that of "expert design." Precisely because everybody designs, it becomes useful and even necessary for someone to help them to do so, someone equipped with the cultural and practical skills required to integrate and promote the design abilities of the others, the non-experts. This means someone who is expert in the various ways of stimulating and supporting wider, more complex co-designing processes.

I don't think the design expert you are talking about is much like the designers people usually think of. How come?

The fact is that in this rapidly and profoundly changing world, the activity conventionally known as "design" has also changed. And like everything else, it has changed much more than the cultural categories normally used to interpret it have evolved.

Could you explain that more clearly?

To cut a long story short, we can say that design as a discipline and profession, which here we are calling expert design, emerged at the beginning of the last century in relation to the changes brought by industry. The result was that its initial definition was tied to what, at that time, was making it necessary — industry as it was then and the products it was generating. So, design was mainly seen as industrial design and was associated with mass-produced industrial products.

However, nowadays, as I have already said too often in this interview, the change has spread to and impacted on not only products, but also services, organisations and a growing number of everyday activities.

It follows that all these entities can no longer be reproduced conventionally (i.e. by replicating and adapting "the way it has always been done"). Now they require designing. Therefore, in principle, they also call for the intervention of expert designers.

Does the change you are talking about now only affect social innovation design, which your book is about, or design in general?

The change I'm talking about is totally general and, in my opinion, what is emerging is the design of the 21st century — expert design as a mix of skills, sensitivity, and cultural tools (the culture and tools of design) that can be applied to problems of all kinds, from the traditional concept of a product, to the co-creation of a social service, or proposals for new forms of democratic representation.

Clearly, the first people who should understand the nature of this emerging design, and adopt a way of being and acting coherent with it, are the design experts, (designers and the schools in which they receive professional training). This is happening, but more slowly than I think is necessary.

So what is the relationship between this emerging design and design for social innovation?

I'll answer that with two considerations.

The first is that design for innovation is not a new design discipline. Rather, it is a new ability that can be extended to all expert design — the ability to recognise the most promising social dynamics and work with them. In other words, design for social innovation is everything that design can do to foster and support social innovation, to make its results more widely accessible and its meaning richer and deeper.

The second consideration I would like to make is that design for social innovation requires as a precondition the adoption of a theory and practice more coherent with those of emerging design. If we cling to the definition of 20th century design, as too often happens, we cannot hope that design will play a significant role in this field, and even less that its actions can enrich the social conversation, and contribute to steering it toward a sustainable future.

Having said this, I'm afraid you will just have to read the book to find out more.

Daniela Selloni


Daniela Selloni

Service designer, PhD, researcher and contract professor at the Politecnico di Milano – School of Design.  Her research interests cover service design and design for social innovation, focusing on collaborative