Social design rant 4 — Ezio Manzini

As part of our Expert Workshop, we asked participants to each make a 4-minute rant on a designated topic.

We are blogging the text of some of them, with thanks to their contributors.

The third of these is by Ezio Manzini, founder of the DESIS network, and chair of design for social innovation at UAL. This text is an extract from Design when everybody designs. To be published by MIT Press.


‘Design for social innovation vs. social design’


In the 21st century social innovation will be interwoven with design as both stimulus and objective, indeed it will stimulate design as much as technical innovation did in the 20th century. At the same time, it will be what a growing proportion of design activities will be seeking to achieve. In principle, design has all the potentialities to play a major role in triggering and supporting social change and therefore becoming design for social innovation. Today we are at the beginning of this journey and we still need a better understanding of the possibilities, the limits and the implications of this emerging design mode, but what is already clear is that design for social innovation is not a new discipline: it is simply one of the ways in which contemporary design is appearing. Therefore, what it requires is not so much a specific set of skills and methods, but a new culture, a new way of looking at the world and at what design can do with and for people living in it.

Design for social innovation

Given these examples and the reflections on them, to help frame a discussion on what design for social innovation is and what it does, I will propose a rough, but in my view, already meaningful definition:

“Design for social innovation is everything that expert design can do to activate, sustain and orient processes of social change towards sustainability.”

By giving this definition I simply mean that in order to talk about it we do not need to introduce new models or new definitions, in addition to those we have already seen when discussing design in general and the way it appears in the networking world. Design for social innovation (writer’s note: from now onwards this expression will be used to mean social innovation towards sustainability) is not a new kind of design: it is one of the ways in which contemporary design already functions. However, since it requires a special sensitivity and a few conceptual and operational tools, it seems to me useful to give it a name and focus on its peculiarities.

From the above definition it appears that, when talking about design for social innovation, we are referring to a vast field resulting from the intersection of the entire range of social innovation phenomena (outlined in Chapter 1) with expert design in all its contemporary shapes and forms (outlined in Chapter 2). It is therefore a constellation of activities, each characterised by a different acceptation of these two terms.

In conclusion of this part, we can say that design for social innovation is the expert design contribution to a co-design process aiming at social change. In practical terms, it is a blend of different components: original ideas and visions (from design culture), practical design tools (from different design disciplines) and creativity (which is a personal gift), within the framework of a design approach (deriving from previous reflexive design experience).

Design for social innovation vs. social design

The question of similarity and difference between design for social innovation and social design has been much discussed within the design community and has created no few misunderstandings outside it. To my mind it all depends on the double meaning commonly attributed to the adjective “social” in many languages. Although, strictly speaking, it refers to the ties between people and to the organisational forms that characterize a society, it is very frequently used to connote particularly problematic situations, such as extreme poverty, illness or exclusion, and circumstances after catastrophic events. In other words, when used in this way, “social” becomes a synonym for “highly problematic condition”, which poses (or should pose) the need for urgent intervention, outside normal market or public service modalities. It is precisely in this acceptation that the term “social” made its entrance into the design debate several decades ago, generating the term: social design (BOX 3.1 Social Design).

BOX 3.1 Social design

The application field for Social design is that of problems which are not normally dealt with by the market, and its interlocutors do not normally have a voice there (for the simple reason that they do not have the economic means to generate market demand). From here arises the ethical, noble nature of social design and also, traditionally, its limit: if these socially sensitive issues do not express an economically receivable demand, neither can they sustain the costs of design. In some cases, the work that a design expert can offer to a charity organization that proposes to deal with such problems, is also considered social design. In this case the designer may even be paid. However, this occurs within the framework of initiatives that, on the whole, are charitable in nature. It is exactly for this reason that, until now, social design has been professedly marginal. In fact, in this conceptual framework, we assume that there is “normal design” that operates for the market and, alongside it, there is another activity, the social design that we should operate to bring into being and that should be based on ethical motivation: a well-meant design, to do in one’s free time.

Social innovation design starts from quite different premises. The first is that it concerns the “social” in its general sense: the way in which people interact together generating social forms. The second is that what it is proposing is not to meet an urgent need, but to produce an innovation. In other words, it seeks to produce a change as a local discontinuity: as a step towards sustainability. The third, deriving from the first two, is that design for social innovation is to be seen as a new field of action for expert design.

As a matter of fact, design for social innovation is related to the role that behavior and social forms play in the sustainability field (environmental, but also social, and touching on questions of equity and democracy). It follows that, in this perspective, questions concerning social groups that do not appear problematical under the first acceptation of the adjective “social” become interesting. An obvious example concerns the behavior of the new middle classes in the emerging countries: how they will decide to live (meaning their choices in terms of food or type of home and transport) will impact heavily on the environmental future of the Planet. Therefore it is of great importance to social innovation design. Furthermore, we can and must add that, in the spirit of social innovation design, the choices and behavior of the wealthy classes is of great interest since, as we have seen in the past for issues such as food, homes and mobility, their orientations (or at least those of certain social groups who are prosperous but culturally and socially open-minded) may open the way to the feasibility of innovative solutions. This is not only because they make it possible to create the first prototypes, but also because they contribute to their visibility and positive connotations.

Given that, it follows that the fact that today it is an activity practised and requested by few, is not a structural fact. The hypothesis is that it may become an important, if not actually dominant, component of design in the future. The fourth premise, deriving from the previous one, is that design for social innovation has an ethical base that lies, or should lie, at the basis of all design activities (where the wellbeing sought after is the wellbeing of the people for whom and with whom we are designing and of the Planet on which we live, and on which our children will have to live). Having said this, it requires no further addition on ethical ground. What it does require however is to translate these “normal” design ethics into practical and aesthetic choices that contribute to the quality of people’s “normal” everyday lives in a connected world, while grappling with this discovery of the Planet’s limits.

Post scriptum

Having made this schematic differentiation between social design and design for social innovation, we should say that in contemporary reality the criteria it is based become less and less easily applicable. This not only because those who talk about them often mix the two meanings of the term “social” (this would simply imply a banal question of terminology). It is also, and more substantially, because the fields on which social design and social innovation design have so far been working are moving closer and creating areas of objective (and very productive) overlap. In fact, social design is increasingly oriented towards social innovation, recognizing that this is the only possibility for solving the problems it traditionally deals with. In turn, facing the extension of the economic crisis, design for social innovation is more and more frequently involved in initiatives that invest socially sensitive issues.

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