about design dialogues

The Design Dialogues site houses all online publications from the School of Design Strategies at Parsons School of Design.

This site is funded by the Stephan Weiss Lecture Series on Business Strategy, Negotiation and Innovation. This lectureship was launched in 2002 to commemorate the life of the late artist and sculptor Stephan Weiss, husband and business partner of the fashion designer Donna Karan. Weiss co-founded Donna Karan International in 1984, and was instrumental in every significant venture the company undertook: launching and structuring new brands, most notably the Donna Karan Beauty company; signing new licenses; establishing in-house legal and creative departments; devising its computer design technology; orchestrating the company’s initial public offering in 1996; and negotiating its sale to the current owner LVMH Moet Hennessy – Louis Vuitton.

about the school of design strategies

The School of Design Strategies is an experimental educational environment. We advance innovative approaches in design, business and education. In the evolving context of cities, services and ecosystems, we explore design as a capability and a strategy in the environmentally conscious practices of individuals, groups, communities and organizations. For more about the School of Design Strategies, visit the SDS Magazine.

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Section 1: Design, Sustainability, and Social Change

SMALL, LOCAL, OPEN, AND CONNECTED: Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability

Ezio Manzini
The only sustainable way to get out of the cur
rent worldwide financial and ecological crisis is to promote new economic models, new production systems, and new ideas of well-being. To define and implement these new models is, of course, very difficult. But it is not impossible. And we do not have to start from zero. In fact, over the last few decades, a multiplicity of social actors—including institutions, enterprises, nonprofit organizations, and most of 
all, individual citizens and their associations—have proved that they are capable of acting outside of the mainstream economic models. In so doing, they have created a large reserve of concrete experiences that could consolidate and spread to become the most convincing answers to the dramatic challenges that we must now begin to face.

The Emerging Scenario
Thanks to the promising experiences accumulated to date, we can outline a new scenario. This emerg
ing scenario lies at the intersection of three main innovation streams: the green revolution (and the environmentally friendly systems it makes available); the spread of networks (and the distributed, open, peer-to-peer organizations it generates); and the diffusion of creativity (and the original answers to daily problems that a variety of social actors are conceiving and implementing). We will refer to it as the SLOC Scenario, where SLOC stands for small, local, open, and connected. These four adjectives, in fact, neatly synthesize the sociotechnical system on which this scenario is based: a distributed production and consumption system in which the global is a “network of locals”—that is, a mesh of connected local systems, whose small scale makes them comprehensible and controllable by individuals and communities.

The SLOC Scenario is useful because it directs us toward sustainable solutions, indicating in particular that sustainable solutions necessarily refer to the local (and the community to which this local mainly refers) and to the small (and the possibilities in terms of relationships, participation, and democracy that the human scale makes possible). At the same time, it tells us that to implement solutions, we have to consider these small entities and these localities in the framework of the global network society in which the local and the small are both open and connected. This change in the nature of the small and local has enormous implications: With the new networks, it becomes possible to operate on a local and small scale in a very effective way. Moreover, utilizing these networked systems is the only way to operate in the complex and fast-changing environment generated by the present crisis and by the double transition towards a knowledge-based and sustainable society.

Social Innovation
Practical applications of SLOC-oriented initiatives already exist. Some of them are rather diffuse. Others are still quite marginal. But all of them are practical working prototypes of new ways of living and doing. Considered as a whole, they demonstrate that the SLOC Scenario is not a utopian dream, but a potentially viable perspective. The challenge, therefore, is to transform its potentiality into a mainstream reality. To do that it is necessary to better understand the complex interplay between social and technical innovation that generates the cases on which the SLOC Scenario is based. In fact, all the promising cases alluded to here emerged from a virtuous interaction between social and technical innovation: They have been conceived and implemented (mainly) by the involved actors, who used their personal capabilities, their direct knowledge of the problems to be solved, and the application and deployment of existing technologies, often in unforeseen ways.
This positive interplay between technological and social innovations could become a powerful promoter of sustainable ways of living and producing.

This positive interplay between technological and social innovations could become a powerful promoter of sustainable ways of living and producing. Technological innovation, especially in the digital realm, opens up new opportunities (in terms of unprecedented forms of organizations) while social innovation mobilizes diffuse social resources (in terms of creativity, skills, knowledge, and entrepreneurship). This positive double link between grassroots users and technology is particularly relevant in the transitions toward sustainability: If small and local systems are concerned, nothing can happen without widespread creative participation on the part of the people directly involved. These people are the only ones who can creatively adopt distributed and peer-to-peer models and adapt them to local specificities. In other words, given their penetration into people’s everyday lives, the peer-to-peer model and the distributed systems approach cannot be enhanced without substantial changes in the way people think and behave—that is, without social innovation.

Promising Cases
At present, in every country in the world, there 
are promising cases of social and technical innovation, including collaborative social and residential services, bottom-up urban improvement initiatives, local and organic food networks, distributed production systems, and cases of sustainable local development. These examples, which can be seen 
as significant steps towards sustainability, are the result of many initiatives performed by a variety of people, associations, enterprises, and local governments. From different starting points, these actors are moving toward similar ideas of well-being and production: an active well-being based on a sense
 of community and shared goods and a production system composed of networks of collaborative actors that is based on a new relationship between the local and the global. In their diversity, these cases have a fundamental common characteristic: They all refer to places—that is, to local resources and local communities.

Even if in quantitative terms these cases are
 more or less marginal, in qualitative terms they are extremely meaningful. In fact, they can be seen as viable anticipations of sustainable ways of living 
and producing. Of course, these emerging features assume different meanings in different societies and places. Nevertheless, their presence in situations so remote from one another raises the possibility that they may constitute a first set of sustainable features. In other words, they can be seen as the building materials for developing sustainable alternatives to the unsustainable ideas of well-being, production, and economy that dominate today.

Ways of Living and Producing
In regard to human well-being, a closer look at these promising cases reveals another fundamental common characteristic: Each compensates for a decrease in the consumption of products with an increase in other qualities. These qualities pertain to physical and social environments with the rediscovery of commons; to relationships with the rediscovery of communities; to being active with the rediscovery of individual and social capabilities; to time with the rediscovery of slowness. All these new qualities are based on traditional qualities reinterpreted in the present context. To be appreciated, all of them require a human scale, that is, they require small (comprehensible, manageable) systems. At the same time, given the present high level of connectivity, these small systems can be (and have to be) 
to the interactions with wider flows of people and ideas that characterize contemporary global society. For this complex relation between being small and being open we reserve the expression cosmopolitan localism.

Looking at these promising cases in terms of production, what appears is a new relationship between the local and the global in which local-but-connected systems of production and consumption are emerging. This general feature can take different forms, including the sustainable valorization of local resources (from natural environments and agriculture to craftsmanship and local knowledge); the realization of symbiotic production processes (from zero-waste systems to industrial ecology districts); and the development of distributed systems (from power generation to manufacturing and to the whole economy). What unites these diverse phenomena is that each exemplifies a connected local, where knowledge, money, and decision-making power can circulate in worldwide networks, but where most of these resources remain in the hands of those who produce them.

Small, Local, Open, Connected
These emerging features, and the cases of sociotechnical innovation on which they are based, are characterized by the four keywords mentioned before: small, local, open and connected.

These four words are meaningful because they are visionary when considered as a whole (they generate a vision of how society could be), comprehensible when considered one by one (their meanings and implications can be easily understood by everybody) and viable because they are supported by major drivers of change (the emerging complex relationships between globalization and localization, the power 
of the Internet, and the diffusion of new forms of organization that the Internet makes possible).

These four words are also important because, in synthesising the results of 20 years of discussions and concrete experiences, they clearly indicate that there is no hope for designing sustainable solutions without starting from the notions of local and of 
the community to which this local mainly refers. 
At the same time, there is no hope of implementing sustainable solutions without considering these localities in the framework of contemporary transformations—that is, without considering that, in the globalized network society, the local and the small are at once open and connected. This point is crucial and requires further development.

Small Is Not Small
Some 30 years ago, E. F. Schumacher wrote his very famous book Small Is Beautiful. At that time, because the degree of connectivity was relatively low, the small really was small and the local really was local (i.e., isolated). Therefore, Schumacher’s option in terms of the small and local scale could be proposed only as a cultural and ethical choice. Today, it is no longer like that: With a much higher degree of connectivity, when the small can be a node within various networks and the local can be open to global flows of people and information, the small is no longer small and a local is no longer local, at least not in traditional terms.
In the globalized network society, the local and the small are at once open and connected.

This change in the nature of the small has enormous implications, for better and for worse. Al-Qaeda, for instance, is a bad implication. It is,
in fact, a constellation of small groups of terrorists that, by virtue of being connected, became as powerful as a big army. On the other hand, a (potentially) good implication, and the most interesting one for us here, is that networks make it possible to operate on a local and small scale in a very effective way. Indeed, the development of flexible networking systems indicates the one and only possibility for operating in the complex and fast-changing environment generated by the double transition towards a knowledge- and sustainability-based society.

Local Is Not Local
Similar considerations emerge with regard to the notion of local, and the related notion of place. In recent decades, there have been long and important debates on the emerging world of flows and, therefore, on the end of places and localities. In my view, the observations from these discussions were and are still correct: It is important to recognize the role of flows and the crisis of traditional places (with the corresponding diffusion of “no-places”). But these observations do not entirely capture the complexity of the new reality. In fact, by looking into this complexity, we see that a growing number of people are actively searching for places—that is, for specific local traditions and new forms of localities.

In so doing, they establish an articulated and often contradictory relationship with the global. Thus, for example, we see the emerging phenomenon of localisms that exist in the global framework or rather that exist because of the long-term trend toward globalization. This phenomenon also has two sides. The negative side is the dangerous emergence of a “local” as the idealized roots of a dreamed-of pure and solid identity that is in opposition to the identity of “the others”—a closed localism. The positive side is the local as a generator of original possibilities and cultures to be cultivated locally and exchanged globally—a cosmopolitan localism.

Design for Social Innovation
Designers and design researchers can do a lot to empower social innovation for sustainability. They can feed the social conversation (i.e., the interplay between social and technological innovation) with visions and proposals. They can also collaborate with diffuse social innovators (to help them conceive and manage their initiatives) and with technologists, entrepreneurs, and policy makers (to develop products, services, and infrastructures to make the most promising initiatives accessible and replicable, thereby opening new markets and economic opportunities). These design activities, considered as a whole, can be termed design for social innovation and sustainability.

Design for social innovation and sustainability
is of great potential significance, but it is still in its initial stage. All the topics discussed here need different kinds of research to be developed. Not all of them have to be developed by designers, but many of them do require some specific design knowledge, including scenarios to articulate in different contexts the general vision of “small, local, open, and connected”; solutions to implement these scenarios in a variety of specific applications; tools to facilitate the new networks and, more generally, to support ongoing social learning processes. In short, going back to what was said at the beginning, the topics synthesized by the words “small, local, open, and connected” can be considered as general guidelines to trigger and orient a broad, open, and collaborative design research program.
Arjun Appadurai


Arjun Appadurai
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