Designing for Social Innovation: An Interview with Ezio Manzini

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Professor of Design at the Politecnico di Milano, Ezio Manzini, took time away from airline food, flatbed seats and a view out the window of the Himalayas to talk to us about designing for social innovation and his work with the DESIS network.

Ezio Manzini

SB: Can you tell me a little about the DESIS network and the work you do there?

EM: DESIS is a network of schools (design and others), institutions, companies, and non-profit organizations interested in promoting and supporting design for social innovation and sustainability. It’s a light, non-profit organization, conceived as a network of partners collaborating in a peer-to-peer spirit.

More precisely, DESIS supports social innovation using design skills to:

  • give promising cases more visibility;
  • make them more effective;
  • facilitate their replicability;
  • help companies and institutions to understand the promising cases potentialities in terms of enabling services, products and business ideas.

At the same time, DESIS reinforces the design community’s role in the social innovation processes both within our community (developing dedicated design knowledge) and outside it (redefining the perceived design role and capabilities).

SB: What is social innovation? How does it differ from other types of innovation and garage invention that have been the norm for hundreds of years – the two guys in a workshop or the college room-mates with an idea?

EM: Social innovation is a process of change where new ideas emerge from a variety of actors directly involved in the problem to be solved: final users, grass roots technicians and entrepreneurs, local institutions and civil society organizations. The main way in which it differs from traditional “garage” innovation is that here the “inventors” are groups of people (the “creative communities”) and the results are forms of organization (the “collaborative services”).

Some well known examples of social innovation include:

  • zero-mile food networks, where not only a new way of eating but also a new relationship between production and consumption and between the city and the countryside are established.
  • co-housing initiatives, where groups of families decide to share some services to reduce the economic and environmental costs, but also to re-create a neighborhood
  • collaborative services where elderly people organize themselves to exchange mutual help

Looking attentively to the complexity of the contemporary society shows many cases of these worldwide (for more, see the Sustainable Everyday project). While the stories are diverse, they have one clear (and expected) common denominator: they resulted from the initiatives of people who collaboratively invented new ways of living and producing and who have been able to enhance them, solving specific problems and, at the same time, making concrete steps towards sustainability happen.

Car Sharing in Milan - one of the Sustainable Everyday examples

Car Sharing in Milan - one of the Sustainable Everyday examples

That said, it must be emphasized that social innovation has always existed. But now there are good reasons to say that its role is expanding and will continue to do so in the next future. In fact, previous experiences show that social innovation flourishes when two contemporary conditions are given: when society is facing difficult problems and when some new technologies, having spread in it, open new and (partly) still unexplored possibilities. No need to be said that both these conditions exist and are particularly relevant today.

Previous experiences show that social innovation flourishes when two contemporary conditions are given: when society is facing difficult problems and when some new technologies, having spread in it, open new and (partly) still unexplored possibilities. No need to be said that both these conditions exist and are particularly relevant today.

SB: You talk of ‘diffuse creativity and entrepreneurship’ – can you tell me a little more about these concepts?

EM: Let me start from the phenomenological consideration we did before: in the complexity of the contemporary society it is possible to recognize promising cases of social innovation. These cases can be found in a variety of fields and have usually been conceived and implemented by the actors involved, moving from their direct knowledge of the problems and their own personal capabilities (namely their creativity and entrepreneurship).

These people have been able to recombine existing entities (technologies, organizations, both traditional and new existing ideas) to give them a new use and meaning (that is exactly what, in one of its best definition, creativity is). At the same time, they have shown an incredible skill and sensitivity in term of entrepreneurship, as every one of the new solutions they invented had to be imagined, realized, and managed in the real world and in economic terms.

The economy to be considered here is a complex and sophisticated one: a social economy emerging from the combination of different economies; the market one, of course, when marketed products and services are needed; but also the economy of time and attention of the involved actors, when their active participation is required; and sometimes also the economy of the gift, when some voluntary activity is included too. I think that is more than enough to say that whoever succeeds in imagining, realizing and managing this kind of organizations is a real champion in terms of creativity and entrepreneurship!

SB: What does a favorable environment for social innovation look like? Are there some key characteristics we should look for, or design for?

EM: Given its spontaneous nature, social innovation cannot be planned. Nevertheless, the invention and implementation of new ways of living and producing are more likely when creativity and design thinking are diffused and, most importantly, where local institutions have a collaborative and tolerant attitude (this is what, in my view, can be defined as a favourable environment). In parallel to this, they become more robust and spread when they are empowered by specific sets of products, services, and communications that can support them and make their realisation easier (that is, when appropriate enabling solutions had been developed).

I like to add that, in our experience, the most successful cases (i.e. the one who lasted in time and spread) have been the results of a positive interplay between creative people, proactive local institutions, and sensitive entrepreneurs:

  • creative people who imagine (and actively participate to) new proposals;
  • proactive local institutions who understand the social value of these new proposals, tolerate them even when, as it frequently happens, operate at the margins (or even beyond) some existing laws – but it has to be said that creativity, by definition, has to break something in the existing order!) and develop innovative governance tools that permit to support the new initiatives;
  • sensitive entrepreneurs, who recognize in the emerging social innovations new explicit or latent demands, and therefore, new business opportunities.

SB: As interaction designers, what can we be doing, today, to help foster this type of innovation?

EM: Designers can use their specific knowledge to empower the social innovation processes: bringing new ideas, orienting the resulting initiatives and conceiving a new generation of enabling solutions. In this larger framework we can discuss, in particular, what interaction designer can do. Of course, this discussion is open.

In my view, speaking in very general terms, interaction designers can play a fundamental role in social innovation. The core of interaction design is of course the way in which people interact (with products and/or with other people). At the same time, the core of the new social innovation initiatives are service-oriented solutions where, similarly, the core of the overall systems are the interactions (their qualities and their effectiveness). If this premise is true, it therefore appears that the social innovation could be a “core business” for interaction designers and that a whole set of lines or research on how to improve it will appear.

Interaction designers can play a fundamental role in social innovation. The core of interaction design is the way in which people interact (with products and/or with other people). At the same time, the core of the new social innovation initiatives are service-oriented solutions where, also in this case, the core of the overall systems are the interactions: their qualities and their effectiveness. If this premise is true, it therefore appears that the social innovation could be a “core business” for interaction designers.

Moving to a more concrete discussion of the same topic, I can introduce here some considerations, which have emerged from research we are doing at the DIS-Politecnico di Milano. The topic of our research is what designers can do to conceive and develop digital services to catalyze people (in the digital sphere) and support them in some collaborative initiatives (in the physical sphere). This possibility appears very concrete and, at the same time, highly promising in social and environmental terms.

What we’ve found and focalized so far is a variety of digital service typologies aiming to support the existence and the consolidation of collaborative organization in different ways. They are:

  • Creating new producer/consumer network;
  • Mapping diffused information;
  • Aggregating social action;
  • Creating social network for conviviality;
  • Building mutual support circles;
  • Exchanging competences, time and products;
  • Sharing products, places and knowledge.

In each one of these typologies we can already recognize several interesting cases: from new networks of farmers and urban consumers, to maps of localize sustainable initiatives; from initiatives aggregating collective power (in order to achieve some social goals), to organization aiming to promote social conviviality; from mutual support circles of people suffering of the same diseases (as diabetes, allergies, obesity, etc), to platforms to exchange competences or to share products. The list goes on.

I would say in conclusion that if ‘correctly designed’, digital services and platforms really can support social innovation, and thereby improve social fabric and promote more sustainable ways of living and producing. Of course, to design them ‘correctly’ is what interaction designers should do. And what, in my view, they all have the potential to do.

Interaction 10

If you want to meet Ezio Manzini in real life: he is one of the keynote speakers at Interaction 10. It is the third annual conference hosted by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). Each year, IxDA aims to gather the interaction design community to connect, educate, and inspire each other. This year it is held in Savannah, Georgia (USA).

Steve Baty

Steve Baty, principal at Meld Studios, has over 14 years experience as a design and strategy practitioner. Steve is well-known in the area of experience strategy and design, contributing to public discourse on these topics through articles and conferences. Steve serves as Vice President of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA); is a regular contributor to UXMatters.com; serves as an editor and contributor to Johnny Holland (johnnyholland.org), and is the founder of UX Book Club – a world-wide initiative bringing together user experience practitioners in over 80 locations to read, connect and discuss books on user experience design. Steve is co-Chair of UX Australia – Australia’s leading conference for User Experience practitioners; and Chair of Interaction 12 – the annual conference of the IxDA for 2012.

5 comments on this article

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  2. Pingback: Putting people first » Designing for social innovation: an interview with Ezio Manzini

  3. You’ll forgive me, but the power of the visual won out over the words. I was totally distracted by the dissonance of the visual over the message the article was trying to send.

    You see the picture has little to do with innovation or social innovation, because it represents a model that has been operating for a decade under the label of Zipcar in the US.

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