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SIE Interviews Ezio Manzini

For more than two decades Ezio Manzini has been working in the field of design for sustainability. Recently, he focused his interests on social innovation –he started, and currently coordinates, DESIS, an international network on design for social innovation and sustainability.

Throughout his professional life he worked at the Politecnico di Milano. Parallel to this, he has collaborated with several international schools, such as: Domus Academy (in the 90s),  Hong Kong Polytechnic University (in 2000) and, currently, Tongji University (Shanghai), Jiangnan University (Wuxi), COPPE-UFRJ (Rio de Janeiro), Parsons (New York).

Recent books include:

Sustainable everyday, Milano: Edizioni Ambiente, 2003 (with Francois Jegou);

Design for environmental sustainability,  London: Springer, 2008 (with Carlo Vezzoli);

Collaborative services. Social innovation and design for sustainability, Polidesign: Milano, 2008 (with Francois Jegou).

In 2012 he co-promoted Public & Collaborative NYC— a program of activities, developed by Parsons DESIS Lab and the Public Policy Lab in New York, to explore how public services can be improved by incorporating greater citizen collaboration in service design and implementation.

You are known for coining the term ‘design for social innovation.’  What does this mean, in practical terms?

Design for social innovation is an “umbrella concept” that includes “whatever design can do to trigger and support social innovation” (here, the term “design” refers to the design community, including whoever is using design knowledge in an expert way: from professional designers to researchers and theorists, from design schools to design journals and publishers).

Given this very general definition, let’s move to the second part of your question: what does it mean, in practical terms.

Consider, as examples, two solutions ideas as co-housing (family living nearby, sharing some residential services and collaborating in facing some everyday life problems) or car-pooling (people using the same car in order to share the journey expenses and reduce the traffic). They are examples of social innovation we can find in Europe and world-wide. Of course, other and very diverse examples could be chosen. But these ones seem to me quite clear and sufficiently well known to be effectively used as examples for our discussion.

Both co-housing and car-pooling have been started by “ordinary” people who have been capable of imagining something new, that is, something radically different from the mainstream way of thinking and doing. In fact: the co-housers formulated a concept of housing based on a original mix of private and community spaces and services; the car-poolers had the idea of using private cars as a quasi-public service (and to become, as car owners, quasi-public drivers). Further to this, all of them have been able to move from these visions to reality, setting up the appropriate processes and becoming active agents in the delivery of the imagined results. Now, given that to imagine something that does not exist yet and to make it happen is, by definition, a design activity, it results that these co-housing and car-pooling solutions are, by all means, the results of successful design processes.

These specific observations can be generalised saying that all the social innovation processes are design processes. And all the involved actors, adopting a design approach, are (consciously or not) designers.

If we take all of that as given, then the question is: if all the social innovation actors—“ordinary people” included—are de-facto designers, what is the role of the design experts and of their design community?

To make a long story short, we could say that the design experts’ role is is to use their expertise (that is, their specific design knowledge) to empower the other social actors’ design capabilities.

Let’s try to be clearer. The starting point is the observation that to adopt a design approach corresponds to the use of a basic human capability (that is, a capability that every human being has). This potential human capability, as every other capability, from creativity to music sensitivity, can be cultivated or not. In particular, it can be applied in a naïve way or in an expert way. And here we are with the specific issue raised by your original question: the human capability to adopt a design approach can be applied inventing, or re-inventing, what to do—and how—from zero. Or, it can build on an existing knowledge (previous experiences, appropriate methods and skills, cultivated sensitivities). This specific knowledge, to which we can refer with the expression design knowledge, is what design experts, and more in general the whole design community, can bring to social innovation.
It comes, in conclusion, that design for social innovation is what the design experts can do to trigger and support a more effective co-design processes.

In an interview last year with Sarah Brooks you said 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.” I’d like to explore that further: what can designers do to ‘consolidate the ideas’ we generate and articulate them to our peers?

To answer in a concrete way, I will return to the co-housing example.

In Milano, some years ago, the DESIS Lab of the Politecnico di Milano developed, with other partners, an enabling system dedicated to groups of people willing to realize co-housing initiatives.  This system included a digital platform (to create a large community of interest regarding co-housing).  Several specific services were also included to help potential co-housers in the co-housing realization process: from the search for suitable areas to the co-housers’ group building, and from real estate experts’ services to the specific technical expertise needed in the co-design of shareable services and spaces. Parallel to that, a communication strategy (to make the co-housing advantages more evident and attractive) was developed. The first result of these design initiatives was the creation of a dedicated company ( which promoted, and it is still promoting, several cohousing initiatives in Milano. The second, and probably most important, result was that this experience generated a design knowledge that, successively, has been adopted, and further developed, by the Fondazione Housing Sociale (Social Housing Foundation)—an important institution dedicated the support of the social housing in Italy. The Fondazione Housing sociale now integrates the notion of collaborative housing in its programs and utilizes several design ideas and tools coming from the previous co-housing experience.

Trying, in this case too, to generalize this specific experience, we can say that if it is true that cases like these, historically, have been frequently started by ordinary but highly committed people, to last in time and to spread they had to be reinforced by appropriate top-down interventions. It is in this delicate interplay between bottom-up and top-down initiatives that design for social innovation can play a major role.

The mainstream way of doing it is, for design experts, to facilitate existing cases of social innovation, helping them to become more effective, accessible, pleasurable and, potentially, replicable. But designers can also act as activists, triggering, or even initiating, new collaborative organizations (replicating good ideas or starting-up brand new ones). Changing of scale, design experts can also promote large systemic changes synergizing a variety of local initiatives and developing specifically conceived framework strategies. Finally, they can feed the social conversations with scenarios and proposals, aiming at building shared visions of the future.

Why is it important to give a common name (design for social innovation) to this variety of design activities?

The short answer could be: considering the size of the problems we are facing, and considering the need to orient and accelerate the transition towards sustainability, social innovation asks for a growing amount of design knowledge. Unfortunately, this necessity is still not commonly recognized. To change this situation, a first step has been to give this specific application of design knowledge a name, in order to make its potentialities more visible.

Probably, it is also useful to add that, design for social innovation refers to an up-dated notion of design. A theory and a practice that are very far from the consolidate stereotypes on what design discipline is and on what professional designers do. In fact, design for social innovation refers to a contemporary idea of design intended as a combination of ways of thinking, knowledge and skills to be applied to the most diverse kind of artifacts, including services, communication, organizations and even policies.

I must say that, today, some years after the introduction of the expression design for social innovation, the picture is already changed. And that the idea of design as a relevant agent in the social innovation processes is widely recognized (by both the social innovators and the design community).

What can the European Commission do to enhance/embed design for social innovation?

In my view, the main thing the European Commission can do is (simply) to recognize that design can be crucial component in the social innovation processes and consequently, to support its integration in them. Let me articulate this statement.

I think that, in the context of this interview, we can assume that the importance and the potential role of European Commission in supporting social innovation should be clear. In particular, it should be clear that the European Commission should and could be a main driver in the creation of the social, cultural, normative and economic context in which social innovation might flourish and consolidate. In order to do that, several programs should be launched. In some of them design could play a crucial role. As an example, I like indicating three possible programs of research and action I find particularly interesting and timely:

Social innovation and economic crisis: how does social innovation emerge in contexts particularly hit by the crisis? How can it help in facing everyday life difficulties and in generating new jobs opportunities? And, finally, how could these new solutions become the seeds of more sustainable ways of living and producing?

Social innovation and emerging cultures: how does social innovation generate, in parallel with unprecedented forms of organizations and economic models, new ideas on wellbeing and everyday life quality? For instance, how do we understand the quality of good relationships, the quality of slower times, the quality of localities and places in an open and connected world.

Social innovation and public innovation: can public innovation be based on, or even be driven by, social innovation? And vice versa: can public agencies trigger and promote social innovation? Can social innovation support the development of an active welfare (based on service co-design and co-production)? 

You’re involved in the Public & Collaborative Project in New York. What have you learnt from that?

The P&C Project in NYC (which, by the way, has been developed in parallel with 11 other DESIS Labs in Europe and in USA) has been based on this main research question: “How do public agencies change when citizens are considered collaborators (that is, when citizens become main actors in the process of conceiving and delivering public services)?” Developing the Project we verified the interest this topic could raise in different interlocutors and, on this basis, we started several conversations aiming at analyzing existing collaborative services and developing new ideas.

Are there examples of public agencies that changed when they started to consider citizens as collaborators?

A good and clear example we can refer to is the one of the Community Gardens in NYC. At a certain point in their evolution, community gardeners started a positive collaboration with the City Council. It happened when the Council, recognizing that Community Gardens were generating a high social and environmental value for the neighborhood and for the whole city, established the Green Thumb Program: a public-private partnership, specifically designed to support them. Today, in NYC, thanks also to this positive interaction between grassroots initiative and top-down ones, there are 400 Community Gardens that, in average, are in good shape and produce highly appreciated social and environmental results.

Learning from experiences like this it emerges that what public agencies should do is: to recognize the values generated by promising social innovations; to listen to their explicit or implicit requests and, consequently, to decide what to do (and do it) in collaboration with the involved actors.

Of course, every case is different and this capacity to listen, recognize, understand and collaborate is not the most common way for public agencies to operate. Nevertheless, in public agencies there are often enthusiastic civil servants who, if the opportunity is given (i.e. if a strong bottom-up initiative already exists and makes some explicit or implicit requests), are more than happy to re-orient their standard ways of working.

In conclusion, we can say that, when a particularly strong grassroots initiative appears and asks for the support of public agencies, it may find in them people capable to understand this request and act accordingly. The situation is very different, and much more difficult, when there are no strong, pre-existing initiatives.

In these cases, can public agencies trigger brand new local initiatives (or even simply spread good practices in new contexts)?

On the basis of our experience so far the answer is: yes, they can. But it is quite difficult.

More precisely, we arrived to the conclusion that, to become triggers and promoters of co-created and co-produced solutions, public agencies should (directly or indirectly) set up a new kind of space: an experiment space where different actors, civil servants included, can meet, interact, discuss different possibilities and develop prototypes to verify them.

How exactly this idea of “experiment places” emerged?

As already said, this idea originally came from our experience in the P&C Project. We observed in fact that the public agencies transformation we were looking for asked for a systemic change that could not be done in the ordinary conditions of their daily operations.  In order to make it possible (at least in the early phase of this transformation) an extraordinary environment had to be created. And, from here, we arrived to the idea of these experiment places.

I must add that, when this idea appeared from our experience, we started to look around and we discovered that, in reality, this was a quite diffuse idea: everywhere someone was trying to promote radical innovations in the public sector the same need of a “place for experiments” appeared. The proposals could, of course, have different names (as: Living Lab, MindLab, Change Lab, Solution Lab), but they all had a strong common character: they were imagined (and sometime practically realized) as free spaces where social and institutional experimentations could take place in a relatively easy and safe way.

Now, the convergence of independent groups of researchers and institutional actors around this proposal makes us think that this idea is a very strong one. That is, that whoever is trying to break the inertia of existing systems and the risk-averse attitude of public administrations arrives at the same conclusion: the necessity to create these experiment spaces where active and collaborative people (i.e. grassroots groups and social innovators) can meet other interested actors (i.e. public agencies, planners, traditional social enterprises, creative industries, service agencies, manufacturers, investors, etc.) and, together prototype and pilot innovative solutions. 

To conclude, our aim, presently, is to promote the creation of these experiment places: spaces where it becomes easier to trigger and support positive loops between bottom-up initiatives and public agency innovations. And, therefore, where the complex systemic innovations that, today, are drastically needed can emerge and hopefully flourish.

In doing all that, what have been the main challenges?

In doing that, we surely learnt how complicated it can be to openly discuss the role of the state in people’s lives and how sensitive it is to propose new partnership models between citizens and the state.

In particular, reflecting on the P&C Project experience as a whole (and on our next steps– the Project in fact is continuing the next year), we have understood that the challenge is not only to learn how to empower citizens in the framework of new public services, but also, and even more, how to empower public agencies to play this new role. And to do it while avoiding the big political risks we found, and we are finding, dealing with this subject both in Europe and in USA.

As it happens, proposal from public agencies promoting citizen-driven solutions tends to be intended as way to reduce their responsibilities and minimize the role of the state in the creation of social welfare. In reality, as I hope it has been clear from my previous answers, the P&C Project proposal indicates a totally different direction—the direction of a public realm based on a new relationship between citizens and the state—a public realm where public agencies are less service providers and more active citizens’ partners.  And to become a partner, the State, and its agencies have to re-orient and reinforce their role, not reduce it.

For me, to make the meaning of this state-as-partner perspective clearer is the main political challenge we will face in the near future. And the best way to move in this direction is to start a number of positive and successful experimentations (and to effectively communicate their results). Saying that, we are clearly back to the experiment places and to their potentially crucial role for supporting a socially sustainable public innovation.