The Duwamish Cohousing complex in West Seattle, Washington. Photo credit: Joe Mabel

In recent years, we’ve started to see cases of promising sharing and collaborative practices falling into the traps of neoliberal ways of thinking and doing: carpooling and time-banking ideas transforming into the likes of Uber and TaskRabbit, co-housing concepts producing closed and exclusive gated communities, and so on.

How should we prevent the social potential of sharing practices from being neutralized by the power of the neoliberal ideas and economy? How can promising collaborative practices spread while maintaining their social value, which is to contribute in the transition toward a resilient and sustainable society?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to introduce three interlinked concepts: collaborative organizations, relational goods, and social commons.

Collaborative organizations are relevant for us for two reasons. Being based on collaboration, they permit us to face otherwise intractable social, environmental, and economic problems. They also generate social value. In fact, when people collaborate to get a result — like taking care of kids or the elderly or setting up community workshops — they may also produce, as a kind of side effect, relational goods — immaterial goods such as trust, empathy, friendliness, and attention — the existence of which depends on the quality of human interactions.

In turn, these relational goods can add up in the community where they have been generated, assuming a larger social value. That is, they become social commons. More precisely: Social commons are produced and cultivated by a mesh of interactions between people, and between people and the places where they live. They are quite diverse, ranging from the sense of safety in a city or the mutual trust in a neighborhood to common views on human rights and democracy, or to open and inclusive attitudes newcomers. They may also have specific competences such as creativity, design capability, or entrepreneurship. And when they are sufficiently spread in a society, they become one of its characterizing aspects.

Social commons are the glue that keeps it together, giving cohesion and social resilience. The collaborative organizations’ social value is, therefore, the contribution they may give to this social commons building process.

Collaborative organizations may produce what is desperately needed to fight the social disease of hyper-individualization, loss of social cohesion, and fragility that are increasingly characterizing present societies. The issue is by all means a design issue. So, how do we make this potential social value real? And not only in the promising practices initial stages, but also when it matures and is successful, how do we make it spread?   

To evaluate collaborative organizations, two dimensions must be considered: their effectiveness and their social value. Effectiveness indicates the results they achieve in relation to the efforts they ask of involved actors and social value stands for their ability to produce relational goods.

A GreenThumb community garden in New York. Photo credit: Fiona Bradley.

The effectiveness/social value trade off

Social value production is not for free. The relational goods on which it is built requires time and attention — two resources that are very limited. Therefore, in conceiving collaborative organizations, a trade off between effectiveness and social value appears: the search for maximizing the first, aiming at reducing also the requested time and attention, downgrades the second. And vice versa.

As a matter of fact, to be more accessible and capable to be adopted by a large number of people, collaborative organizations are asked to be more effective. And in the name of this effectiveness, they tend to lose their social value. The result is that, even though they are successful in practical terms, not generating relational goods, they do not contribute to the social commons building process. And therefore, their spread doesn’t contribute to improve the social quality in terms of cohesion and resilience.

On the contrary, if social value is very high, collaboration is highly demanding too (in terms of time and attention) and, for this same reason, its effectiveness and accessibility is — or is perceived to be — low. Therefore, not many people have the possibility and/or the will to participate. The result is that cases like these, even though the organizations could be doing interesting and meaningful work, they do not contribute to the overall society improvement. In fact, the relational goods they produce, being confined in small groups of highly committed actors, do not accumulate, connect, or become social commons.

Therefore, the core of any design strategy aiming at spreading collaborative organizations without losing their social value consists in defining, case by case, the most appropriate balance between effectiveness and social value. They must be effective enough to be accessible to larger numbers of people and, at the same time, they must be endowed with those relational goods that the people who could potentially be involved might appreciate and be available to produce. When this balance is successfully found, these collaborative organizations spread and the related social values too, collaborating in the social commons building process. 

Take, for example, the 500 or so community gardens in New York City that involve a large number of people operating with a spirit of community. This kind of collaborative behaviour has the capacity to last through time — some gardens have now existed for more than 30 years. This fantastic result has been obtained thanks to the mutual understanding of those involved and, most importantly, and by the support of a public organization, GreenThumb, which gently strengthens the communities of gardeners and gives them some simple rules.

In my view, this example clearly tells us how the balance between effectiveness and social value can be made possible by an appropriately designed — or, even better, co-designed — system of products, services, procedures, norms, and economic support. Being very well known, this example has the advantage of requiring only a few words to be presented.

Luckily, several other lesser-known ones can be found in all areas of everyday life. One of my favorites is a program of collaborative living developed in Milan by the Social Housing Foundation that can be seen as a mature evolution of the co-housing idea. In this case, hundreds of families, in several different projects, have been supported in community-building processes that happened in parallel to the their future home-building processes. The aim has been to support their collaboration in designing and managing their houses and common spaces. In this case, too, the role of an institution — the Social Housing Foundation — was to create an enabling system capable of gently supporting a learning process: people, who initially didn’t know each other, had to learn how to collaborate in an effective way (in the design and then in the collaborative management of their homes). The program established friendly interactions and openness among the group.

What do these examples, and the many other similar ones that could be proposed, show us? 

In terms of innovation trajectory, they reveal that it is possible to move from solutions suitable for a few, committed people (the social heroes who started their first applications), to ecosystems offering opportunities to solve problems producing social values to many, less committed participants: normal people whose normal choices contradict the mainstream trends towards hyper-individualization and social fragility. I will call the very special conditions in which these choices can be done “disruptive normality.”

Design for a disruptive normality

By disruptive normality I mean a set of practices that, even though they might become normal in a given context (and therefore can locally spread), could be disruptive in other contexts, where mainstream practices are still dominant. For instance, in several places in the world today, as in the New York City example, you do not need to be a social hero if you like to spend a few hours per week in a community garden.

The same is true to adopt some forms of collaborative living or to go with your family to buy groceries in a farmers’ market. Nevertheless, individuals and families who do it, with their choices, with the normality — for them — of their actions, revolutionize urban planning and managing, and stand up against the large and unsustainable agro-food corporations.

Given that, what can be done to extend disruptive normality to larger areas? The answer, in my view, is to develop three interlinked design activities:

1. Find, case by case, the best equilibrium between effectiveness and social value.

2.  Improve the existing socio-technical ecosystem in order to create an environment where collaborative organizations can emerge and spread. This means to conceive and develop appropriate material and immaterial elements such as digital platforms, products, places, services, norms, and incentives.

3. Generate narratives on collaborative wellbeing and on the relational goods and social commons on which it should be based. In fact, to extend the areas of disruptive normality we need both new practices and new ideas. More precisely, we need disruptive practices based on new ideas on wellbeing. 

To conclude, I would like to underline this last point: Even though the practical design issues of effectiveness and accessibility are important to designing collaborative organizations, the cultural issues are just as important. They give such organizations a chance to thrive and maintain a meaningful social value. In fact, when creating collaborative organizations to deliver a service, a common vision of what is being done together and why it needs to be done is very valuable. In particular, we need a vision that recognizes the value of relational goods and social commons for both our personal and social well-being.

Looking attentively around us, we can observe that this vision is emerging. But, in my view, it is still weak and, sometimes, too shallow. To help in making it stronger and deeper is a very important design issue.

Ezio Manzini


Ezio Manzini

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,