Ezio Manzini, 25.07.2014 

The notion of design for social innovation is frequently considered similar, if not coincident, with the one of social design. In my view, to do that is an error: the two expressions refer to different activities and have very different implications.

The problem begins with the double meaning commonly attributed to the adjective “social”. One of them, that is also the one used in the expression design for social innovation, indicates that we refer to something concerning social forms. That is, concerning the way in which a society is built. The other one, instead, indicates the existence of particularly problematic situations (such as extreme poverty, illness or exclusion, and circumstances after catastrophic events) to which both the market and the state fail in finding solutions. In other words, when used in this way, “social” becomes a synonym for “very problematic condition”, which poses (or should pose) the need for urgent intervention, outside normal market or public service modalities. It is with this meaning that this adjective made its entrance into the design debate several decades ago, generating the expression: social design.

It comes that, social design, in its original interpretation, is a design activity that deals with problems that are not dealt with by the market or by the sate, and in which the involved people do not normally have a voice (for the simple reason that they do not have the economic or political means to generate a formal demand). From here arises the ethical, noble nature of social design.
But also, its limit: if these socially sensitive issues do not express a formal demand, neither can they sustain the costs of design. And therefore, design experts must work for free, in a charity mode (in some cases, they can work for a charity organization and be paid for that; however, this occurs within the framework of initiatives that, on the whole, are charitable in nature).
Therefore, implying the idea that there is a normal design that operates in economical terms, and another one that is promoted for ethical motivations and enhanced in a charity mode, the second, i.e. the social design, is intrinsically a complementary activity: a design that, to exist, asks for someone else who generously can and will pay for it.

On the other side, design for social innovation starts from quite differentpremises. The first, as anticipated, is that it intends social in its more precise sense. That is, related to the way in which people generate social forms. The second is that what it produces are meaningful social innovations. That is, solutions based on new social forms and unprecedented economical models. The third, is that it deals with all the kinds of social change towards sustainability: the ones concerning the poor, of course, but also the ones concerning the middle and the upper classes, when the social and cultural changes they generate are capable to reduce the environmental impact, regenerate common goods and reinforce the social fabric.

For this reason, it can be stated that the design for social innovation, even though, at the moment, is still very far from being mainstream, by its same nature, is not a complementary design activity. It is, or at least it could be, the anticipation of what, hopefully, will be the design of the 21st century. And therefore, and very pragmatically, it proposes a design activity in which, if the more favourable scenario would be realized, the majority of the design experts could have a role and make their living.

Post Scriptum. Having made this schematic differentiation between social design and design for social innovation, it should be added that, in contemporary reality, this differentiation tends to blur because social design and design for social innovation are converging and areas of objective (and very productive) overlap are created: social design is increasingly oriented towards social innovation, recognizing that this is the only possibility for solving the problems it traditionally deals with. In turn, facing the extension of the economic crisis, design for social innovation is more and more frequently involved in initiatives that invest socially sensitive issues.