Bottega Altromercato, an example of social innovation from Sustainable Everday
"The main activity of designers will be as social innovators," said Ezio Manzini during an intimate conversation with o2NYC on May 6. Ezio's talk outlined an exit strategy for conscious designers, a shift from making things to designing tools for a better society. For those of us who have signed on to the green revolution, who commit to having the conversation with clients, sourcing better materials, reducing life cycle impacts, doing the hard work of greener design, we need an exit strategy. How do we stop making things less bad and start actually solving for climate change?
Ezio Manzini has been thinking about the sustainable design problem for 20+ years. A professor of Industrial Design at Milan Polytechnic, he is Director of CIRIS (the Interdepartmental Centre for Research on Innovation for Sustainability), and is the author of several books on sustainable design: The Material of Invention, Artifacts: Towards a New Ecology of the Artificial Environment and Sustainable Everyday. Ezio feels he has "been telling the same story for 20 years. Always change it by the end it is the same." What has changed lately, though, is his rhetoric, from the soon to be possible to the here and now. That is the opportunity that crisis brings – a chance to rethink how we've been operating as a society, and offer new visions for how we can live.
Ezio first pointed out the problem with the green design movement, and its focus on "fixing the past," which is "doomed because it requires asking people to 'reduce,' asking them to have 'the same, but less.' Instead we need to offer them 'different, but better.'" So what's better?
Ezio points to a movement started in Europe that's recently gained ground here in the US: Slow Food.
Findhorn Ecovillage, an example of social innovation from Sustainable Everyday.
A response to the negative effects of an industrial food system, Slow Food provides access to local, diverse food sources, connects them to actual farmers, and celebrates quality. Slow Food is not a product innovation like organic packaged noodles or natural chocolate cookies, it is a product service system that enables end-user consumer to become co-producers of the food that they eat. The end result creates a better tasting product (the food), a more authentic connection to the food (transparent production chain, relationship with farmer), and enjoyable experience (participation in community supported agriculture, communal meals in natural settings).
So what is social innovation exactly and how can designers help?
A definition from EU President Jose Manuel Borosso: "Social innovation means the design and implementation of creative ways of meeting social needs. It covers a wide field ranging from new models of childcare to web-based social networks, form the delivery of healthcare at home to new ways of encouraging people to use sustainable means of transport." We can begin to see the designer's role then in this process. The skills and practices that are unique to designers can be applied to find the next social and sustainable innovation, and to amplify its adoption:
Much of the work and practice in social innovation to date has been lead by social scientists, economists, and NGO workers – long on policy, short on truly creative problem solving. Designers can fill this role by being realistic optimists, by looking for opportunities that require this kind of innovative design thinking, and stimulating the strategic discussion with visions, proposals, and tools to implement change. As Ezio says, "there is a difference between the transformation that happens normally and a designed system. Designed systems are stronger and more replicable. Designers transform an idea into practice."
Product to Prototype
"Prototypes are appearing. they provide the building blocks of a future society." What can a designer bring to the equation? "The challenge is to transform the prototypes into products." To learn from the small and local, and to reinvision how an edge practice can become mainstream. Designers know from experience how to transform prototypes into products, and know the promise and limitations of this work. The very act of creating a prototype has value, as Ezio reminds us. "The purpose of a prototype is to show that something is possible."
Cafezoide, an example of social innovation from Sustainable Everday
Right now, those prototypes are emergent as grassroots one-off examples in neighborhoods all over the world but are the work of local heroes. Community supported agriculture. Timebanks. Neighborhood gardens. Co-housing. How do we create a model where this kind of social practice becomes the norm, and does not require heroics to succeed?
Designers also know, however, that in the work of moving from prototype to product, something is often lost, "this is not without risk as they lose some of their original qualities." The role of designer then shifts from making things into mass produced consumer objects, to shepherding local sustainable practices into wider mainstream society.
An evolution of product service systems, enabling solutions go beyond meeting customer needs to allowing individuals or communities to achieve their own results with their own skills and abilities. Slow Food is a solution that works because individual actors participate in a system that creates value for everyone involved. Materials are becoming scarce, but "in a small, densely-populated, highly connected planet, social resources are the most abundant." The work of the designer then is not to solve the problem with a perfect object or service, but to create a platform for co-designing with individuals in context within their local community.