Written by Teresa Franqueira, ID+ DESIS Lab, University of Aveiro, Portugal

Ezio Manzini launched a new challenge to all Desis Labs’ and to the design community at large placing the climate and environmental sustainability at the heart of our academic and research practice. The text Social Innovation for the Planet is very clear on the need and urgency of re-orienting and up-grading our DESIS activities and I totally agree with that.

Design for social innovation and design for sustainability usually walk hand in hand. But design for social innovation differs from design for sustainability in the sense that the later tends to have a more technical approach to the intervention and construction of the artificial world, whilst the first tends to have a more “liquid” and enabling intervention in the way people organize and are called to act on behalf of a common well-being.

In just one decade new societal realities have emerged and design has strived to keep up with them. In that context, it has enabled the emergence of technological and then social and cultural innovations, more and more necessary when we witness the planet giving signs of exhaustion in ever shorter cycles, illustrated by global climate “weirding”, oceans of plastic that start to infiltrate the food chain, etc., not to mention that on the 29th July we have already used up Earth’s resource budget for 2019 (and every year the overshoot day arrives earlier).

This clearly signals that it is strikingly urgent to act to protect our shared home, even if it isn’t really new for those that have been involved in this field of design, from Papanek to the Desis Network.

What is fundamentally different is the urgency of taking action, and the way people are self-organizing to tackle this problem. There are signals that collectively is possible not only to “fix” the problem, but to regenerate the planet. Even if some actions are not more of a palliative (tackling the results and not the underlying causes), they highlight a collective desire to address and solve it. Similarly to other social innovations (examples of which Ezio Manzini has shared in his latest book and also others that are available on the Desis Network website) that have their main driver in the lack of governmental response to social, economic or environmental issues that people are faced with in their everyday lives, so these self-organized actions to clean beaches, plant trees, etc., stem also from the realization that political leaders are failing to deliver the necessary change with the required speed.

If we take a closer look at some cases of social innovation developed by Desis Labs and other communities, we can see they have positive and enduring side effects and even a regenerative principle at its core, mainly in urban areas. In other cases, like in the ever-so-sustainable Scandinavia, the city of Helsinki is piloting an initiative dubbed Think Sustainably, which is a iinnovative sustainable city guide to tackle the climate change with the collaboration of all citizens. Cities are responsible for a high percentage of natural resources consumption and I would like to challenge the design community to design systems based on social innovations for a Regenerative City in order to innovate, not only with “quick fixings” but mainly in creating, collaboratively, regenerative and renewed solutions for urban life, based in a circular flow of local and natural resources.

Some of the bottom-up climate change movements must be supported by the community of designers with the same energy and drive that have led their interventions in the areas of social innovation. The design community (particularly all Desis Labs around the world) must pull together and embrace a leadership role, both through knowledge and practice, to find solutions that will help regenerate the planet.

Regenerate and repair actions should happen in tandem: on one hand, designers must work to diminish the ecological footprint in production; clean up the excesses of consumption and recycle, reuse and repair instead of producing new “future” waste and use finite natural resources wisely; and on the other hand, they must support and design suitable processes to assist existing groups of self-organized citizens in their efforts to save and regenerate our common home.

Initiatives like the Cumulus Green Competition gives Design Schools the chance to embrace this topic, motivating the students and future designers to research, reflect, debate, foresee and design better solutions. Joining the DESIS labs will also allow to showcase ongoing social innovation projects and disseminate best practices that can shape design’s role as a force for positive change.

(This article is part of a DESIS Conversations 2020, a new initiative launched by DESIS Network to raise discussion about the climate and environmental sustainability related to academic and research practices.)


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