Interview with 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.