Ezio Manzini

by Maxwell Jeffery, STIR magazine no.14, Summer 2016
detail of the cover to Manzini's latest book, published by MIT Press

We met with Italian design theorist and activist Ezio Manzini to discuss the ideas explored in his latest book, Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation

What does the future of work mean to you?

Having worked a lot on design for social innovation, I’ve seen that the constellation of new initiatives we see emerging everywhere is very diverse, yet they have something in common. They all challenge some ideas that have been basic to modernity – the idea of time, the idea of space, the idea of relationships and the idea of work. What they share is that they overcome the traditional break between what work is and what is considered free time. This creates a distribution between what paid work is and something you do because you like it. Those who work in this way can be quite diverse, so each has an ecology of different work held together.

Many people, myself included, think that this will be the future of work. Imagine that throughout our lives we have different moments in which we have different combinations of work. This could be work we are paid for at a certain level that is socially acceptable. The work could be a project that I do because I like it a lot, for which I would like to be paid but not necessarily at market rates. And the work that I do for free simply because I like to do it. And during the life of a person these three varieties of work could be combined in different ways depending on the stage of life.

One of the key points made in John Thackara’s most recent book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy, is that solutions to global issues are articulated at the local level in order to find viable approaches on the ground. How have you addressed this interface between the local and the global in your new book, Design, When Everybody Designs?

Well, again, I’d like to start from a phenomenological observation. Many people, such as myself and John Thackara, as well as many people from diverse ethical and cultural backgrounds, share the idea that in order to escape from the traps that we currently find ourselves in, we have to restart from a certain view of the local.

And I would say – what is the local? You cannot talk about the local without talking about the community that inhabits it. So the local is not only a physical space without meaning, the local is a physical space plus the people that live in that space. They are in some way related to this space, they give it meaning and you have a place because it’s a space with some meaning. So for me, the discussion about the local is always a discussion about the relationship between people and between people and place. And given that people are connected, immediately all these places are connected, and therefore the local and global come together. But the starting point is to rediscuss what is the local and what are the community that lives in those places. This is in my book but this is a topic that I’m developing more and more in this period. For me it is fundamental to ask what are the communities today in order to better understand the places. Because we all, John Thackara, myself and many other people talk about the importance of community and place, but very often when we talk about this we refer to the community and place of the past. Or at least mentally, people think of communities as being stable, homogeneous, rooted in a place, relatively closed. This kind of community and place basically does not exist anymore and today the people talking about this are normally the right wing.

Therefore for us outside of the right wing movement, it’s crucial to better understand what we mean when we talk about community and place. To make the story short, for me it’s a kind of ecosystem of interactions that are sufficiently fluid that you don’t have to buy the overall package. You don’t have to enter into a community that is rooted in this place and this is your destiny for the next period. You have the possibility to have several other layers of relationships, you can choose how to organise it, you can enter and you can exit. All this could have some relationship with the place but without being black and white, without having to make this kind of choice, maintaining a certain kind of fluidity. I think that if we consider the evidence of experience, the communities and places that are emerging from social innovation are very similar to this one. They are not going back to the village of the past with the community of the village of the past. It’s creating networks that are open, that can be linked to a place but also linked to something else, and this is my view of community and place.

One of the common criticisms of the left in recent years is that the failure to present a unified front has resulted in a lot of disparate activity at a time when the right has been gaining a lot of populist support. You write about the convergent developments in design and grassroots organisations as a way to navigate this complexity by making sense of the situation, as well as providing the technical innovation. Do you feel this can really make a difference to the left in the future?

Yes. To be clear I always speak from the left but now I would prefer to not make reference to the left because it could be a bit confusing. Let’s say, there is something happening that hopefully will not totally betray the traditional values of the left, but it’s also very different. I am linked to the traditional version, but I hope to be sufficiently open and to look with a great interest and enthusiasm at what is happening that is so diverse. Given that, yes I think that there is really a lack of capability to have a narrative, to use the term that is always used today. To be more precise, for me it is not exactly a narrative, it should be a kind of meta-narrative for the sake of the diversity, which is valuable. It is valuable in relation to the need to be resilient, and resilience means to have different points of view, different stories.

So as to how to combine the need for diversity and for each position to have a story, with the need to give a common view. I don’t have the precise answer but let’s use this term, a kind of metanarrative that could be a sort of spirit of the age, that could hold together many different stories in a metastory that offers a vision of where we’re going to. I think that at the moment this is really the weakest part of this movement. On one side we have solutions and on the other side we have stories. We already have a lot of solutions but we’re prevented from creating a synergy between them to become catalytic of a bigger change by not having enough strong stories to tell of what could be a desirable future, in order to come up with this metanarrative. This is evident for everything but I’d like to take this opportunity to say that there are ways to do so, particularly if we talk about migration. In this period I am focusing my interests on migration but it’s one hundred percent influenced by dealing with social innovation, because the migrant will be, for the good and unfortunately maybe also for the bad, a driver of social innovation. And in the case of the migrant it’s really very sad to say that the ‘bad guys’ have a much stronger narrative. About what we want to have, what we want to maintain and why we are now in danger due to the arrival of these people from outside who disturb our communities, which are described as the Christian, European, stable, homogeneous community. Well of course, this is not true. It’s not true that we are stable or that we are homogeneous, it’s not true that we are all Christians, and so on and so forth, but in any case people feel that this is a story that could be important.

The other ones, the ‘good guys’, what do we say? Do we say ‘oh we have to be good and to accept them’? Yes, but for which kind of Europe? We accept them to do what? After all there are those who say ‘ah yes, because we are an elderly population we need young people to pay our pensions’. Yes it’s true but it’s not such a big story to say that we need them to pay the taxes to provide the money for our pensions, it’s not a vision of Europe. So we should really find a way that we can say something of this objective that it could be younger. We have to really understand what it means to be an elderly population that could be more dynamic. That having more difference could mean even more resilience, and on this very basic consideration try to imagine a future for Europe that is capable of having this diversity and to create a new era of cosmopolitanism.

Could you give an overview of the interplay between traditional ‘expert design’ and what you refer to as ‘diffuse design’ coming from grassroots organisations and cultural activism?

Well, the interaction between the two is what I call design for social innovation. My definition of this is everything design can do to support the grassroots, and also the interplay between grassroots and institutional change or changes in the environment. If you put all of this together there is a palate of many different approaches: you have a designer who is more of an activist that proactively makes something happen, who starts to make the machine work. This is one way. It’s normal to have creative people that feel politically engaged, but you can also have somebody that likes to enter into the community and work with the community to help with some design sensitivity day by day. You can also have a more ‘traditional’ design agency looking at how certain communities can proceed in their own maturity, who can design some specific application or some specific product or service to support them. In this case it’s a more traditional approach of working for somebody but that somebody is a community or a number of communities instead of a single person or customer. This has been very important to design because, traditionally, the designer has only designed for, but it’s still not the case that all design has to be design with—if you design a washing machine for co-housing, you design a washing machine, even if it is for co-housing. If you design a bicycle for bike sharing, then you’re designing a bicycle, but you’re also designing for the community. And if you design for a London council, say a new system for transportation or a new system for creating some infrastructure for food distribution and a reduction of food waste, you can design for the community also. It depends what you’re trying to do.

Ezio Manzini is renowned for his work on design as a catalyst for social change toward sustainability. He is the founder of the international DESIS Network, a university professor and author of several books including his most recent Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation published by MIT Press. He was recently awarded the ADI Compasso d’Oro in recognition of his lifework.

We already have a lot of solutions but we’re prevented from creating a synergy between them to become catalytic of a bigger change by not having enough strong stories to tell of what could be a desirable future

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Published in STIR magazine no.14, Summer 2016