- We started DESIS seven years ago: in these 7 years social innovation has spread further and consolidated both in practice and as a topic of conversation, even in the mass media addressing the general public. At the same time, the theme has acquired greater weight both in public policies and in company agendas. It could not have been otherwise: the drivers for change that have created the wave of social innovation which DESIS is dealing with have become even more powerful over the past years. The pressure of the economic, environmental and social crisis investing the entire planet in different ways has increased. The same can be said about the diffusion of network and information technologies, with all their destructive potential for existing social forms and with all the new opportunities they can offer (if and when recognized). Lastly, it must be said that social innovation has tended to converge with this technological innovation creating unprecedented economic and organizational models that, in these years, have been much discussed worldwide (talked about in different, but interrelated, terms of collaborative economy, sharing economy and platform economy).
Facing all that, we must update our original views on social innovation and on what design should/could do to trigger and support it and to orient it towards sustainability. These notes intend to start a conversation on this needed updating in the DESIS Network arena.
- When we started DESIS, seven year ago, the creative communities we were looking at were mainly low tech: very few among them were using digital technologies or social media in a meaningful way. Social innovation and digital innovation were two quite separate stories.
Today it is difficult, if not impossible, to find social innovation initiatives without, at least, a digital platform as communication and organizational tool. In fact, many of the organizatons driving the present wave of social innovation are not only based on social media; digital and geo-localised tools are what enabled them to come into existence in the first place. The result is that the collaborative organizations that are driving social innovation, and the enterprises delivering digital tools and social media platforms, have converged in an arena in which social and technical innovation blur and a more complex and dynamic innovation process appears. What have we to say about it?
After several years of experience, we know very well that ideas and practices emerging from the socially and environmentally sensitive creative communities can evolve in very different directions. The one that in the past decade became most visible is the one bringing towards a number of big players (often hyper-big monopolists) operating on a platform economy: an economy flourishing on privately owned enabling systems, permitting everybody to deliver micro-services. In these cases, in the name of effectiveness, and for the profit of the involved venture capitalists, not only the original social sense of the initiatives are overturned (no more sense of sharing, no more social and environmental concerns), but also people depending on the platform for their incom, are pushed to “freely” exploit themselves, in totally deregulated working conditions. Uber and Rabbit are, of course, the best know example of that. But, by all means, this one appears to be an highly successful trend. We can refer to it as the Uberization of social innovation: an innovation journey that, started from socially concerned groups of people, ends-up betraying the original ideas, swallowed by the wildest XXI century neo liberal economy.
- Luckily, there are cases for which maturity has not been in contrast with the aim of maintaining meaningful components of the original spirit. Examples of this innovation journey are in general far less known and visible than the Uber-like ones. But they exist and can be found worldwide. A beautiful and relatively well known example is given by the community gardens in New York: many of them exist since more than 30 years, being still characterized by a strong sense of community (that is: they exist because local communities exists and, vice versa, their existence re-generate the local community). But we can find several other examples with similar characteristics, form food coops, to circles of care, to collaborative living, where collaborative services, lasting in time, evolve becoming part of the normal daily life of large groups of people. Looking attentively at these examples we can see that, diverse as they are, they share a fundamental characteristic: while solving specific problems they also produce something else: highly valuable side-products as trust, empathy, capability and will to collaborate. That is, they produce the social commons on which a healthy society and good people’s lives may exist.
- Given all that, what design could/should do? Even though the traps and opportunities we are facing today are relatively clear, a lot should be done to better understand how to avoid the firsts and maximise the seconds. This is, of course, what a design should contribute to do. But to move in this direction, it must be recognized that it is not enough to consider design as a good problem solver (the Uber-like platforms are technically very well designed!). Its role as sense maker must be rediscovered too. It must be rediscovered the importance of a design culture capable to indicate values and qualities of a resilient sustainable society. This is, in my view, what DESIS should do. And, in turn, to do that, to search for a new balance between problem solving and sense making in social innovation seems to me its main reason for existence today. Seven year after its beginning.