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In a rapidly changing world, we are all designers

14th July 2015

Ezio Manzini is a world-leading expert on sustainable design. He is founder of the DESIS, an international network on design for social innovation and sustainability. He has authored numerous books, the latest of which, “Design, When Everybody Designs”, challenges us to imagine a more socially resilient and desirable future to live in.

On Tuesday 30th June the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) hosted a discussion on Manzini’s latest book where the author was interviewed by Sevra Davis, Director of Design and Challenges.

Manzini began the talk with a provocative announcement: “just to say who the killer is from the beginning, the killer is the design culture”, shifting the focus of the presentation not only to an overview of his book but steering the conversation toward the crucial need to develop a design culture today.

What is the book about?

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 13.17.14

The map serves as a navigation tool to introduce the book and delineate the journey of the concepts presented, the grey areas being of main focus.


The book focuses on the changing nature of design (Emerging design), Social innovation and in the overlap of the two; how elements of the new design can promote and sustain social innovation.

The emerging design can be applied to any kind of problem where the practical and the cultural dimensions cannot be separated, or in other words to those problems that involve the presence of human beings and their stories, which are not “wicked problems” as some have called them. All kinds of human related artefacts, situations or systems can potentially be dealt through design capability.

The story shows how with the transformation and development of design culture, the nature of design has gone from being self referential of the design constituent (product, system or service) towards a set of capabilities or toolkit (made up of tools, methodology and culture) that defines a way of doing things.

Within the context of Social innovation Manzini highlights the concept of local discontinuities – practices that generate new ways of doing things. In this way hundred of millions of people are able to bring about change without waiting for new laws or top-down instructions. The different, radical, bottom-up social innovations all involve participation and collaboration in the search for solutions. These practices are showing above all a response to modernity’s progress towards individualization. People who are sufficiently individualized are discovering the beauty, opportunity and power that reside in collaboration. Some examples are collaborative living, working, social services and food.

Within the field of design and social innovation many solutions have been invented, which – by working as both problem-solving solutions and creators of sociality – can be seen to anticipate a way of achieving a sustainable society. In the complexity of society some of these processes are still in the phase of invention, (social heroes pioneering new techniques that are against mainstream), whilst others have already consolidated in collaborative organizations and triggered changes in behaviour (for example with the slow food movement).

The more social innovation develops and becomes mature the bigger the responsibility for expert designers.

Manzini 1


What is design?

Design is a human capability that everyone has. It is a mixture of being able to see things that are not working in society (critical sense), being able to imagine how it could be different (creativity), and understanding how to build a viable alternative (practical sense). Creativity is an essential part but it is important for people to be able to design well in order to make imagination real.

In a world where everyone is forced to invent their life and obliged to design their own biography, where the aspiration of becoming a designer or a creative is the aspiration to design well, it is important to demarcate the difference between designers and expert designers. Study and experience separate expert designers from ‘amateurs’ designers. In the connected society interactions that happen between expert designers and other people with different professions give rise to co-designing. Co-design is multidisciplinary by definition and expert design is a specific discipline, which should be defined by its own tools, methods and culture.


What is the problem with design today?

Design has always been intended as a way of putting together problem solving capability and sense making, to create a link between being able to do something and having a production of meaning about what is being done. The past two decades of emerging design has seen the conversation oriented only towards the problem-solving and pragmatic side, leaving aside the cultural dimension. This has resulted in the creation of a subculture of “solutionism”: the idea that everything can be reduced to find solutions. The environment that surrounds human beings is much more complex and demands for hope, a system of meaning, sense and stories.

In the crisis of the idea of the future it is therefore important, as Manzini advises, to develop the meanings of what can be generated, to identify what the design activity can bring beyond specific solutions and to create new ideas.


1 Comment

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