Ezio Manzini

Design has always played a social and political role. Directly or indirectly and whether consciously or not, it has assumed all kinds of stances towards dominant social, cultural and economic systems: ranging from enthusiastic support to radical criticism and alternative propositions. Nowadays, in view of the pervasiveness of neoliberal thinking and practices, and the numerous catastrophes they are leading to, a growing number of designers are deciding to oppose majority tendencies and work for a cultural and social change towards resilience and sustainability. That is, towards a new civilization.

From the beginning, DESIS has been in this group, recognizing in social innovation a positive driver of change, and in design for social innovation an agent to trigger and support it.

Today, several years later, we can see that social innovation spread, that islands of sustainable ways of being and doing are emerging and that some main characters of an emerging (resilient and sustainable) civilization can be recognized. But, at the same time, we must also tragically recognize that the pace of social innovation towards sustainability is too slow and these small rising islands of a new civilization risk to be hit and submerged by the catastrophic waves generated by the cramps of the old civilization multiple crises.  Facing all that we, as all those who are committed in supporting social innovation towards sustainability, have to rethink our ways of doing. That is, to redefine our way to be in the present political arena: an environment where trends and contra-trends interacting and clashing are generating new landscapes of risks, limits and opportunities.

2.To make a long story short, let’s put it like that: design has a very special way to be in the political arena. It doesn’t “do politics” but “is politics”. In fact, with its projects, it can reconfigure behavior, sensitivities and visions on expected wellbeing. It comes that, for us, the political acts exercised by design are not made apparent by putting design at the service of politics, but rather by producing events, services and products that offer, and give easier access to opportunities for sustainable behaviors. In particular, design for social innovation does not promote a new civilisation by making propaganda (much less by supporting political parties or movements that wave the banner of this new civilisation), but co-creating favourable conditions for ways of living that are themselves aspects of this new civilisation.

Looking at the DESIS Labs projects, we can say that this is exactly what we do. But, in my view, the way we do it is correct but it is not enough: facing the present catastrophic waves, should we say that for DESIS there is nothing special to be done more than, or different from what we are already doing? Obviously not: facing all that, our way of working must be up-dated and up-graded and the opportunity for new everyday life politics must be proposed. In this spirit, in my view, it must be better understood what to do to accelerate and support social innovation, helping promising practices to spread and, at the same time, preventing them to fall in neoliberal traps. In terms of innovation trajectory, this means to move from solutions suitable for few, very committed people (the social heroes who started them), to ecosystems offering opportunity to solve problems producing social values to many, less committed participants: normal people, whose normal choices contradict the mainstream trends towards hyper-individualization and social fragility. We could call the very special conditions in which these choices can be done “disruptive normality”.

3.With the expression disruptive normality I mean a set of practices that, even though they became normal in a given context (and therefore they can locally spread), could be disruptive in other contexts, where mainstream practices are still dominant. For instance, in several places in the world, today, you do not need to be a social hero if you like to take care for some hours a week of a community garden; or if you go with your family to buy some food in a farmer market. Nevertheless, individuals and families who do it, with their choices, with the normality – for them- of their actions, revolutionize urban planning and managing, and stand up against the large and unsustainable agro-food corporations.

Given that, what can be done to extend disruptive normality to larger areas? The answer, in my view, is in developing three interlinked design activities: (1) to find, case by case, the best equilibrium between effectiveness and social value (that is what has been shortly discussed in these notes); (2) to improve the existing socio-technical ecosystem, in order to create an environment where collaborative organizations can emerge and spread being, at the same time, effective and endowed with social value (this means to conceive and develop appropriate material and immaterial elements, such as: digital platforms, products, places, services, norms and incentives); (3) to generate narratives on collaborative wellbeing, and on the relational goods and social commons on which it should be based. In fact, to extend the areas of disruptive normality we need both new practices and new ideas. More precisely: we need disruptive practices based on new ideas on wellbeing. To produce them, both the practices and the ideas, it the specific design way to be active in the present, more promising political arena. That is, the one of everyday life politics.