Written by Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network president

1. I think that the environmental theme should be at the centre of our initiatives. And it should be so with a sense of urgency and adopting a radical approach. That is, with more urgency and radicalism than it has been in recent years. In fact, even if it is true that DESIS Network was born with a strong environmental sensitivity (and that its name DESIS means “design for social innovation for sustainability”), I believe that the environmental catastrophe we are living in obliges us to reconsider our work by asking ourselves these questions: how much of what we are doing collaborates to make concrete the sense of environmental urgency that we all should feel today? How do they collaborate in changing the catastrophic trends in progress (and in doing it as soon as possible)? How much does the energy of social innovation accelerate and orient the environmental transition that today becomes dramatically necessary?

As these questions should clearly indicate, what I am proposing here is not a change in DESIS basic nature. DESIS must remain a network oriented towards social innovation. But I think that, in our activities, we must also consider (or, at least, we must consider much more than it has been done until now) the environmental impact of the social innovations we are dealing with.

2. Let’s see better. From the beginning, our field of action has been cases in which the creativity and initiative of the people have led to results that were to be considered as positive for the involved actors, but also for the community of which they were a part and for society in general, including in this latter level also a favorable environmental impact. For example, we have always been aware that collaborative living is to be seen as a transformative social innovation also because it can lead to reducing the consumption of space and resource. Or: that a collaborative food network could be transformative because, being based on organic products and on direct links with the farmers, it can also contribute to the ecological regeneration of the territory. Or again, that a car-pooling initiative can be transformative because it can also lead to a reduction in the environmental impact of mobility. The examples could continue. Each of them would tell us the same story: an environmental improvement can result as a positive consequence of choices driven by other motivations (of a personal, economic, social or cultural nature).

This way of working, which has led to significant results, should not be questioned. However, I believe that the urgency and the dimension of the environmental problem are such as to require us to take one more step, or better two more steps, on this ground.

3. The first step is simple and clear: it is about giving more weight to the environmental dimension of what we are already doing. In fact, while it is true that collaborative living can reduce the consumption of space and resources, the possibility of this happening in a meaningful way must be clearly and explicitly included among the objectives of the project. The same can be said for forms of mobility that are alternative to the use of individual cars, or for the production and consumption of local and organic foods. And so on. Ultimately: the first step to be done is to give evidence and maximize the environmental value of transformative social innovation, as we have practiced it until now.

The second step is, for us, newer and with more need for discussion: it is a question of implementing social innovations that have as the first and fundamental objective the interests of the Planet. That is, the regeneration of the ecological systems which compose it (such as: rivers, woods, plant and animal species, entire bioregions). The novelty compared to what we have done so far is that, in this case, the main motivation for action is the production of an environmental value. In other words, what we have to trigger and support are social innovations in which people change their behavior and act collaboratively, giving voice to entities that, in themselves, are “voiceless”: a river, an endangered species, an ecosystem. They can be teachers and school children who organize themselves to clean the riverbed together. Or: a local community that becomes responsible for guaranteeing the quality of the aquifer. Or again: sensitive people who take care of maintaining the biodiversity of an ecosystem. All these are examples of organizational, cultural and behavioral innovation motivated, first of all, by environmental reasons. Obviously, since the environment is everyone’s home, caring for the environment also means worrying about everyone’s own future. But, since this is not always recognized (let alone recognized as a priority), to ensure that this happens is ultimately the result we would like to contribute to achieving.
Transformative social innovation has taught us that people can take action on issues that concern them by practicing what they would like to get (and not just by asking others to make it happen). And we have seen how design can help these initiatives, collaborating to create favorable conditions for them to emerge, last in time and spread. Now we should strive to make this happen also for the well-being of the Planet, recognizing it as our common home.

4. In this spirit, I believe that DESIS should take the two steps now indicated and operate at two levels:

Re-orientation of ongoing activities. The objective is to highlight the environmental dimension of our projects and, if necessary, to up-grade them, improving their regenerative capacity. In particular, given that many of our projects refer to the theme of social innovation in city making, an event of the Thematic Cluster Design for Collaborative Cities could be planned, focusing on the mutual link between the collaborative city and environmental sustainability.

Opening a new line of work. The goal could be to focus on the theme of social innovation for the environment. This could be done with some Philosophy Talks dedicated to this topic and with a repository of examples. That is, as is the tradition of DESIS, we must look around, recognize virtuous initiatives and make them more visible, discussable and usable for starting ones.

At both the levels we need to collaborate with social actors, communities and institutions that have already started working as regenerative agents of the ecosystems in which they live. Doing so, we should use all that we have learned over the years working on the field of design for social innovation, putting it at the service of this necessary widespread process of social innovation for the Planet.

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