Enabling solutions, social innovation and design for sustainability




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Enabling solutions, social innovation and design for sustainability


Ezio Manzini, DIS-Indaco, Politecnico di Milano, 27.9. 2005


If someone is hungry do not give them fish. Give them a fishing rod and teach them how to fish”. This ancient wisdom shows us, now more than ever, the way out of the tunnel that a mistaken idea of comfort, and an equally mistaken idea of economic growth, have driven us into.


In the last century the dominant idea, the idea generated and propagated throughout the world by the west, was: “If someone is hungry give them fast food or a tin of ready-to-eat (or, if they can afford it, give them a luxury restaurant)”. Whatever you do, give them something that requires no effort, no thought, no knowledge of how to prepare food; something that boosts the economic activities around food preparation. To be more precise, give them something that leads to a reduction in the informal economies of self-production and non-monetary exchange and an increase in the formal economy where, to meet a demand for food, there are other entities (private enterprise or public networks) that produce and deliver the services and products necessary.


The case of food is obviously emblematic of a far wider tendency that tends to invade every aspect of our daily lives: from healthcare to our children’s education, from the maintenance of our possessions to that of the homes and the places we live in, from the basic ability to entertain ourselves (to be on our own without getting bored, to that of socialising (engaging in different forms of conversation with others). In this way, healthcare requires doctors, hospitals, and medicine. Our children’s education requires schools, gyms, televisions and electronic gadgetry. The upkeep of our things is replaced by throwaway objects, the production of public spaces by visits to shopping malls or theme parks. Our capability of entertaining ourselves and others is swept away by the wave of reality shows. And all this, so it is said, turns the wheels of the economy and produces wealth. For everybody.


This way of seeing things began in the last century and for almost a century remained with no real, strong rival (in actual fact it should be said that it was even totally absorbed by the ideology and practice of the communist regimes). Today the prevailing neo-liberalism has transformed it into a religion where consumption is put forward as a moral obligation: in Italy, for example, an institutional television advert was broadcast over and over again showing a gentleman carrying shopping bags who was thanked warmly by all who crossed his path, simply because he had bought things. The moral of the story being that by so doing he had done everybody good (little does it matter what there actually is in the bags!).


Now however something is changing. Even though this proposal for well-being is still as pervasive as ever, today it no longer holds the same ability to convince. Above all, its predominance no longer goes unchallenged: nowadays other ideas and other proposals are circulating1.


Disabling solutions and their crisis


In this article I want to talk about how the story told so far is changing and how it can change. I want to talk about the new ideas emerging and the new experiences we are gaining; about the new opportunities that are opening up. To do so however we must start from the crisis in our previous ideas and practices. I shall do so by briefly tracing the environmental, social and psychological dimensions of this (auspicious) crisis.


80/20. End of the party. The most evident, and somehow irrefutable, crisis is environmental: after crossing a certain threshold this way of conceiving well-being, and the economy sustaining it, produces disaster. Today, the 20% of the world population that lives more or less according to this model of well-being, consumes 80% of the physical resources of our planet. If nothing changes, the remaining 80% of the world population, who we are trying to make dream the same dream, will have to squeeze into that remaining 20% of environmental resources, consuming them totally - and here lies the environmental disaster – and in any case without a hope of reaching the promised results. In other words: the dream of a well-being based on consumption is based on a promise that we now recognise as impossible to keep. Hence the defensive stance of the rich Northern world, unwilling to change its lifestyle; the aggressiveness and frustration of the East and South, poised between its attempts to make its own space and the frustration of realising that, however you turn it, the cake is just not big enough to allow everybody to take part in the party so many have talked about, and that TV adverts promulgate. Hence the commercial aggressiveness, on one side, and the social and political disaster on the other, which unfortunately we see growing every day: the conflict, wars and terrorism that, in this widespread frustration, sprout and prosper on fertile ground.


A population of incapables? Now let’s move on to the social dimension. Some time ago I read in a newspaper that elementary cookery courses had been set up in Japan for retired single people: after a life of work they realised that they did not know how to answer the most basic questions about their domestic lives and there was no possibility of offering them all the support services their inability made necessary. I don’t know if this story is true. Even if it is not, however, it is very true to life. Another example: for the past few years in Italy, at every ‘flu outbreak, hospitals have been flooded with ‘flu sufferers and the entire system goes into a state of crisis. Is this because today’s ‘flu is worse than the ‘flu of yesterday? No, it is just that ever more often people find themselves alone and they don’t know how to cope, or they are accompanied by others who in turn do not know how to, are unable to and do not want to deal with the problem.

Generalising from these examples, the question we must ask is: can we really consider sustainable a society where every need, even the most basic and mundane, is met by a costly, complex system of products and services? In particular, this welfare model, in which the user is merely a carrier of problems for which the service must always have a complete answer, can no longer function. The idea that the user, by definition, is only a carrier of problems to solve, may even have seemed practicable as long as the problem carriers (and therefore those who needed the service) were few, and the young, vigorous population, able to produce the wealth necessary to fuel such services, was large. Nowadays, with the demographic pyramid turned upside down and the elderly outnumbering the young, this vision of social services can no longer hold. Another dream shattered?


Comfort as dis-involvment . Any attempt we wish or are able to make, to go beyond the models of well-being outlined so far, cannot avoid an in-depth study of the reasons for their existence and their profound implications.



Here I will merely observe that they came into being with the diffusion of the mass production of consumer goods. In particular, they were born with the enthusiastic discovery that artefacts could be created, able to work for us like modern mechanised slaves. From here, and from the memory of the weight and hardship of many aspects of pre-mechanised daily life, came the idea of comfort as minimisation of personal involvement: the idea that when faced with a result to achieve, the best strategy was always the one which required the least physical effort, attention and time, and consequently, the least of ability and skill to actually bring into play.


The success of such an idea may be taken for granted. Indeed this is how it was: who, if in the position to do so, would not try to reduce the fatigue, time and psychological stress of trying to solve the heavy and/or irritating tasks of daily life?


The contradictory nature of human beings. Fortunately, however, human nature is not so simple and mono-logical. The legitimate desire to avoid the hardship of many aspects of pre-industrial life and the boring repetitiveness of others is not an all-inclusive aspiration, extendible in the same way to everybody and every activity. Human beings can incline towards laziness and passivity, they can legitimately draw pleasure from being served, but they can also move in a completely opposite direction. They can find satisfaction, even enthusiasm in a job well done. Or they can rationally weigh up “action strategies” to find which is for them most opportune, discovering that in the end it is worth doing certain things for yourself (because, when all is said and done, this is the most economical solution and the one that offers the greatest freedom).


Of course, even this potentially active and participatory component of human nature should not be considered as a one-and-only way to be (always and only so) or as the only ethically acceptable (as demanded the value of work rhetoric of certain sadly remembered regimes). Human nature is contradictory. It offers the possibility of operating according to varying logic and differing aspirations. This is its richness.


Disabling and enabling solutions. In the framework of positive contradictoriness and variety of ways of being and doing outlined here, we should look critically at a mono-logical system of production, way of seeing services and idea of comfort. One that is orientated in a single direction: one that has progressively lead us to sequester formerly widespread knowledge and skills to integrate them into technical machinery and organisational systems. In so doing, it has tended to take away from individuals and communities those skills, abilities and know-how that enabled them in the past to deal with the most diverse aspects of daily life. We must now discuss whether and how it is possible to change direction, or rather, whether and how it is possible to imagine a technical system able to look also to the active side of people and their capabilities in terms of sensibility, competence and enterprise.


Effectively, focusing on what interests us most here, we must place a new idea of service alongside the currently dominant one of services as disabling systems.

If today the most widely held idea is one in which a service itself is designed considering users only as an expression of problems (problems to solve requiring a minimum of participation on their part), the new idea of service must instead start with what the user knows how to, can, and wants to do. In other words, the service must be conceived as an enabling system, one that matches a user’s desired result, with an offer of the means by which to achieve it using his own capabilities to the best advantage and, if appropriate, stimulating his desire to do and delight in taking part in the game.


Disabling design, and beyond. All this obviously has much to do with design. Design seen as both professional activity and as the culture of the designer community, was born and consolidated with the diffusion of industrialised products in everyday life. It’s ethical DNA was formed on an idea of democracy of comfort (the comfort described above), on the basis of which everyone had the right to laziness brought by the mechanical aids that industry was able to produce and design was able to invent. Design, then, has been mainly a dis-enabling activity.


However, in the genetic code of design, or at least of its more thoughtful part, there has also been a strong idea that its role should be one of improving the quality of life; to act as a bridge between technical and social innovation to the point of proposing artefacts able to help people to live better.


Today, this role as a creative link between technology and society with the prospective of a better life still exists.. Only that, as we have tried to argue so far, it is the idea of “living better” that needs to be radically redefined. And with it must also be redefined the conceptual and operative tools of a design that does not wish to abdicate its most profound reason for existing.


Enabling solutions and their possibilities




Changing direction. So what we must do is change direction. In view of the complex nature of human beings, we must move in a direction where our design energies and our technological potential are focused on rendering individuals and communities better able to work together and find a way of living better, in autonomy; or rather, to learn to live better (everybody: in the North just as in the South and East of the world), consuming less, far less, of our environmental resources, and in order to do so, produce products and services that consider people and what they know how to, can and want to do as valuable resources to nurture and develop.


This option is, for the reasons expressed in the previous paragraphs, a necessity. However, what we would like to argue here is that it is also a concrete possibility. Of course, it is not an inevitable destiny, not a future that will develop anyway. It is a possible future that could become real if we are capable of creating it.


In fact, if the crisis of the disabling model can be described in its three dimensions, environmental, social and psychological, the same can be done for the reasoning behind the new model of well-being emerging today.


A social learning process. The transition towards a sustainable society is a massive social learning process. The radical nature of the objective (learning to live better leaving a light ecological footprint) requires vast experimentation, a vast capacity for listening and just as great a degree of flexibility in order to change when it becomes evident that a road embarked on does not in fact lead in the desired direction. So, contrary to the most common clichés, in social and political terms seeking sustainability is the opposite of conservation or, to be more precise, the conservation and regeneration of environmental and social capital means breaking with the currently dominant models of living, production and consumption, and experimenting new ones. If this experimentation does not take place, if we do not build up different experiences, if we are unable to learn from these, then real conservation will continue. The conservation that means keeping our current, catastrophic ways of living, producing and consuming.


A social learning process on this vast scale must involve everybody. This is, in itself, a much abused phrase. We are always saying it: “Everyone must remember to switch off the lights when they leave the room and everybody must make the effort to put their rubbish in the right container,…….” Sure, but it doesn’t stop there. In fact, this way of seeing participation as little personal efforts in the upkeep of our own household or of our own Planet, in the long run may even prove to be misleading. What is required of everybody is not only a little incremental improvement on what the normal model of life proposes. What is required is, as we said, a change in model. A radical change that, if it is to take place, does not require the acceptance of a new duty (the duty to make an effort for the good of the Earth and/or to help the poor). On the contrary, it requires a drastic re-orientation of the idea of well-being. It requires us to go so far as to consider positive, ways of being and doing that in the currently dominant model are seen as indifferent or even negative. We need to re-discover the pleasure of moving on foot, of eating local fruit, of feeling the cycle of the seasons, of caring for things and places, of chatting with neighbours, of taking an active part in the life of the neighbourhood, of gazing at the sunset…..

Is this change possible? It is possible to adopt a viewpoint where what has been said is lived, not as an obligation, but as a new, positive way of living and doing.


Promising forms of radical social innovation. The definition of radically new ways of being and doing is an epoch-making event. It requires the bringing into play of all the capabilities that an individual or community possesses, if it is to come about: from technical-scientific knowledge to practical skills; from philosophical reflection to artistic experience; from deductive logic to individual and social creativity. Each of these fields for experiment holds its own prerogatives and its own specific history, which deserve telling. However, here we shall limit ourselves to the last of the fields mentioned: the one where it is precisely creativity that generates promising forms of social innovation.


The questions to be asked are: do cases of radical social innovation exist that are promising from the point of view of sustainability? If the answer is yes, what impact could they have?


To the first, fundamental, question my reply would be affirmative. Observing society as a whole and in all its contradictoriness, we can see that alongside numerous unfortunately extremely worrying tendencies, signals are also emerging that indicate different and far more promising developments. Signals, still weak, but all the same stating clearly that another way of being and doing is possible. Signals that, to quote the slogan of many contemporary movements, show that “another world is under construction”.


Creative communities. Looking at society carefully and selectively in this way, what we can see are people and communities who act outside the dominant thought and behaviour pattern. Creative communities that when faced with a result to achieve, organise themselves in such a way as to achieve what they want directly themselves. Groups of people who re-organise the way they live their home (as in the co-housing movement) and their neighbourhood (bringing it to life, creating the conditions for children to go to school on foot; fostering mobility on foot or by bike). Communities that set up new participatory social services for the elderly and for parents (the young and the elderly living together and micro-nurseries set up and managed by enterprising mothers) and that set up new food networks fostering producers of organic items, and the quality and typical characteristics of their products (as in the experience of Slow Food, solidarity purchasing and fair trade groups). The list of promising cases could continue2.


What do these examples tell us? They tell us that, already today, it is possible to do things differently and consider one’s own work, one’s own time and one’s own system of social relationships in a different light. They tell us that the learning process towards environmental and social sustainability is beginning to build up a body of experience and knowledge. They tell us that there is an inversion of tendency from the disabling processes of the past (and sadly still dominant today): the cases we are talking about here are the result of the enterprise and ability of certain people – creative communities - who have known how to think in a new way and put different forms of organisation into action.


How can we strengthen the signal? However interesting the promising cases and creative communities may be, they are as yet only minority phenomena. We can ask ourselves what possibility they may have of spreading; what chance there is for them to achieve the scale effectively required by sustainability issues. The future is open and this legitimate question obviously has no definite answer.


However we can bet that these cases are not just a flash in the pan but represent the beginning of a new story. Sceptics will certainly point out the size discrepancy between big business, big finance, the great world military system and a solidarity purchasing group, a mutual help network, the adoption of a tree by part of a class or a family, an association of senior citizens committed to fostering green neighbourhood areas, a group of children adventuring to school on foot …. However, these phenomena, small and weak as they seem, represent the seed of a plant that if properly cultivated, could grow and prosper. Obviously, we cannot know if this will really happen and that the seeds will find the ground and proper nutriments for growth, but we do know that their future also depends on us.


What must we do then, to cultivate these seeds? To move out of the metaphor: how can we amplify these signals, as promising as they are weak?

The answer to these questions is twofold: on the one hand we must facilitate the spread of each of the promising cases by promoting specific solutions, able to render them more socially and environmentally accessible and effective. On the other, we must foster a favourable context in more general terms. A context in which it is more probable that promising cases like these may appear and having once appeared may stand time, and spread beyond the specific conditions of the context where they were born.


Creative communities and enabling solutions. Creative communities are such because, in their own context, they have invented different ways of behaving and thinking. Looking at them more closely we realise that they emerge in very specific conditions and, above all, they are the result of the enterprise of very special people. People who have been able to think and act by breaking out of the cage of dominant thought and behaviour. Although this almost heroic aspect is the most fascinating side of these phenomena, it is also an objective limit to their diffusion (and often also of their lasting power): exceptional people are not so common and, above all, they are not eternal.


To help these ways of doing things last and spread we must therefore start with these experiences, and the organisational model they have invented and brought to life, and propose products and services specifically conceived to increase their accessibility. In other words we must reduce the difficulties we meet when setting up a similar venture. In short, going back to the terminology introduced previously, we must imagine and enact enabling solutions specifically thought up to facilitate the diffusion, and increase the efficiency, of this kind of promising self-help organisation.


For example: the intention of a group of parents to start up a micro-nursery could be facilitated by an enabling solution that includes, not only a step by step procedure indicating what must be done, but also a system of guarantees that certify to the suitability of the parent organiser and the house, and health and educational support for problems that cannot be solved within the nursery itself. Similarly: a solidarity purchasing group could be supported by special software designed to manage shopping and guarantee relationships with producers; a co-housing project could be facilitated by a system that puts potential participants in touch, helps find suitable buildings or building plots, and that helps overcome any administrative and financial difficulties … The list of examples could continue.


What these examples tell us is that, case by case, enabling solutions can be thought up which, starting from what the organisers are able to do, can supply support at the weak points, integrating such knowledge and abilities that prove to be missing.


Design and social innovation. A new, different and fascinating role for the designer emerges from what has been said here. A role that does not substitute the traditional one, but that works alongside it opening up new fields of activity, not previously thought of.


The first step on this ground is to take the social innovation as a kick off point and use one’s specific skills and abilities to indicate new directions for product and service innovation (in practice this involves moving in the opposite direction from that more frequently taken by designers i.e. where, starting by observing a technical innovation the designer proposes products and services that are socially appreciated).


The second step designers must make is to consider themselves part of the community they are collaborating with. To be and act as experts participating peer-to-peer with the other members of the community in the generation of the promising cases they are working on, and their evolution towards more efficient and accessible systems.


When things are put in this way, the professional profile of a designer tends to appear rather differently from the historically consolidated form we are used to. The classic idea of a designer is of an operator who, case by case, refers his activities to a final user, working for or with a firm. In the new scenario, the designer tends to become an operator who acts within a more complex network of actors (that may certainly include firms but not exclusively) where his main interlocutor, his actual client, may be an institution, a local authority or any other social actor.


If we remember what was said about the transition towards sustainability being a learning process and ground for diffuse design ability, the designer increasingly takes the role of facilitator in the learning process, and of support for diffuse design skills. In other words, his field of action moves further and further away from the figure of a traditional designer towards that of an actor operating to make orientated events happen and make sure interested subjects participate, and do so creatively. He becomes a process facilitator who acts with design tools i.e. by generating ideas on possible solutions, visualising them, arguing them through, placing them in wide, many faceted scenarios presented in concise, visual and potentially participatory forms.


Bibliographical references


EMUDE, Emerging User Demands for Sustainable Solutions, 6th Framework Programme (priority 3-NMP), European Community, internal document, 2004


Florida, R., The Rise of the Creative Class. And How it is transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life, Basic Books, New York, 2002


Jégou, F., Joore, P. (edited by), Food Delivery Solutions. Cases of solution oriented partnership, Cranfield University, UK, 2004


Landry, C., The Creative city. A toolkit for Urban Innovators, Earthscan Publications LTD, London UK, 2000


Manzini, E., Collina, L., Evans, E. (edited by) Solution oriented partnership, How to design industrialized, Cranfield University , 2004


Manzini, E., Jegou, F., Sustainable everyday. Scenarios of Urban Life, Edizioni Ambiente, Milano, 2003


Manzini E., Vezzoli C. Product-service Systems and Sustainability. Opportunities for Sustainable Solutions, UNEP Publisher, Paris, 2002


Mont, O. Functional thinking. The role of functional sales and product service systems for a functional based society, research report for the Swedish EPA, IIIEE Lund University, Lund, 2002


Moscovici, S. Psycologie des minorités actives, 1979


Ray, P.H., Anderson, S.R., The Cultural Creatives, How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.

1 This paper is based on the first results of an on-going activity named: Creative Community/EMUDE, Emerging Users Demands for Sustainable solutions. It is a program (more precisely: a Special Support Action) that is promoted as part of the 6th Framework Program (priority 3-NMP) of the European Commission and coordinated by INDACO, Politecnico di Milano. To the program are participating 10 research centres and universities and 8 European schools of design.


2 These promising cases emerge from the researches done by the Faculty of Design and of the Department INDACO of the Politecnico di Milano, in collaboration with other European Universities and research centres, and with the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme). From this collaboration it has emerged a catalogue of promising cases and the book: E. Manzini, F.Jegou, Sustainable Everyday . Scenarios of urban life. Edizioni Ambiente, Milano, 2003.





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