Ezio Manzini, Anna Meroni, December 13th, 2012

A distributed design agency: a work in progress.

Is DESIS a “distributed design research agency”? Not yet, but we are working on it!As a matter of fact, since the Meeting in Helsinki, in May 2012, several steps in this direction have been done. Some of them gave results that are already visible and quantifiable. Some of them are still “under the water”: inter-Labs discussion on possible initiatives (events and research programs) to be conceived and developed collaboratively.

As a matter of fact, in the last 6 months several initiatives have been organized by local Labs, involving regional and international audiences: two Seminars (in Liege and Wuxi), two Philosophy Talks (in Liege and Shanghai) and four Showcases (in Shanghai, Santiago, Curitiba and Rio) one Toolkit (in Shanghai).
Each one of these initiatives has been promoted in collaboration with the international Network, but it has been made possible by the energy and enthusiasm of the local Labs that, de facto, have been the promoters and the drivers of all these positive stories. In other words, this richness of initiatives, at the same time local and global, had never been possible if DESIS would not have been, as luckily is, a truly networked entity.

But these initiatives are only the most visible part of what in these months the Network generated. The other, less visible but equally (and even more) important part is the starting-up of several parallel activities. First of all some DESIS-related research programs that have been financed and are going to start, at the regional level, in UK and in China. Secondly, some complex research proposals submitted to the European Community Research Programs. Finally, and it is the kind of activities we would like to focalise now, several discussions on new possible Thematic Clusters (TCs) have been started, driven by active members of different Labs.
Using the on-going Public&Collaborative cluster as a pilot case, other topics and possible clusters emerged and are now at different stages of their building processes. They are: “Ageing and happiness”, “Rural-Urban China”, “Safer cities”, “Makers and distributed systems”, “Underserved communities”. These possible TCs, and even their same names, are still in discussion among their potentially interested Labs (and, of course, other themes could emerge and new TCs could be started). Therefore, everything in this field is still very fluid. But we like to talk about, and give some visibilities to these on-going discussions to give the other DESIS Network members and friends an idea of what is happening and how.

In fact, these activities based on “horizontal” links among peers are what we referred to, at the beginning of this article, saying that the first steps towards becoming a distributed design research agency had been done. For us in fact, a distributed design agency is a mesh of initiatives facilitated and supported by a ”platform” (in our case the International Coordination Committee Digital Platform, and the Team that manage it), but based on the ideas and the energy of the individual Labs and on their capability and will to be active and collaborate.

Coherently with this spirit the TCs themes are not chosen centrally (on the basis of what, in theory, could be considered as a priority), but they emerge from the Labs mutual recognition of being working on similar topics and rising similar research questions. It comes that the TC building process normally starts from a discussion on the field to be explored (as: public services, aging population, safer cities, etc.), but it should arrive to a more specific research question: a question asking for an original design knowledge that the different labs, collaborating, could generate. On this point it can be underlined that each concrete project related to specific field of work, could rise a variety of research questions. For instance: a collaborative group of elderly and young people, helping each other and living nearby, could participate to different TCs: the one Elderly, as a service for elderly; or the one on Collaborative housings, as a particular form of co-housing; or the one on Neighbourhood improvement, as a collaborative organization that regenerates the social fabric, … an so on).

Once this research question is sufficiently clear, the TC can start. What we have learnt from the previous experiences is that it must be a very light organization, capable to capitalize what participants already do or a willing to do, bringing the participants a triple advantage: to create a common language (to share experiences and have the possibility to discuss them in depth). To organize few but meaningful virtual and/or physical meetings (to give opportunities to make the experiences exchange and discussion possible and to learn from them). To realize a repository of related design and research activities (to make the results achieved more visible and accessible internally and externally to the TC).

Moving from here, on the basis of these shared language and experiences, it will become easier to apply for different research programs (and, of course, it these applications would be successful, the involved labs will operate with the times and modalities given by these researches). In conclusion, the TCs trajectories moves from light organizations where existing activities are aligned and valorized, to supporting platform, on which several autonomous, but interconnected, research programs could be proposed and developed. Given all that, the DESIS Network can operate as a larger platform on which these parallel initiatives become possible and more effective. But not only, beyond this very general technical role, it can trigger the starting-up of new TC (thanks to the example of others, thanks to the presentation of projects (in the Showcases, to know who is working on what) and the in-depth discussions of important topics (in the Philosophy Talks, to build the background for more precise research questions). But it would also be useful for DESIS to indicate a roadmap of events for the next 3-4 year, in order to give a rhythm to the overall initiative and create some “special events” that could become, for the whole network, a moment to evaluate the work done and make it more visible.