Written by Ezio Manzini (DESIS President) and Edgard Quijano (DESIS DISCALab Caribe)

The next DxCC seminar in Bogotá raises this very basic question: can we have collaborative solutions in highly challenging places? That is, in places where social and environmental problems may be tragically tangible, basic infrastructure may not exist and public institutions may be absent. Places where people may be in danger for their health and their safety and where everybody, day by day, has to invent how to live. Or at least, survive.

In this framework, one of the three threads of discussion in which the DxCC Seminar is articulated tackles this more specific theme: “The sharing of spaces and services has often been recognized as a way to improve quality of life. To be travelled, this path requires that the people involved have the chance to recognize and follow it. This is very difficult for those living in extreme poverty because urgent everyday needs undermine the perspective to self-reliance. Beside this, efforts to collaborate may continue to struggle against situations that tend to lead back to overcome urgent individual matters; some poverty traps such as teenage pregnancy, child labour, malnutrition and disease, increase the chances to fall back into poverty and hamper overcoming it”.

Therefore, in this thread of discussion, the initial question becomes: can transformative social innovation help in breaking the poverty traps? Here we would propose some notes as triggers of the conversation on this still very large but, at the same time, more specific and focused question.

Let’s start going back to the same notion of transformative social innovation. With this expression we intend the development and implementation of ideas capable to generate local systemic changes, producing positive results for the actors involved, for society and for the whole ecosystem.

More than 10 years of experience taught us that this kind of social innovation is largely based on the possibility, capacity and willingness of the actors involved to collaborate. In turn, the resulting forms of collaboration are what give these activities the ability to make systemic changes. In fact, they break the dominant trend towards individualistic and competitive behaviours and transform the role of the actors (and their power relations) in the system. Not only, they give rise to a new idea of quality of life in which collaborative services, social values and common goods are recognized and appreciated.

In other words, they produce a new idea of wellbeing, the collaborative wellbeing, based on collaboration and on the recognition of the common goods. A wellbeing that, for these same reasons, operates as a counter-trend with respect to the dominant one (based on individualism, competition and consumerism)

Given all that, the initial question evolves again and becomes: can collaborative wellbeing scenario break the poverty trap?

Considering again our 10 years of experiences, we can observe that, in the majority of the cases, the collaborative wellbeing we are now referring to emerges in problematic contexts, but not necessarily in the most challenging ones.

Why is it so? The most immediate answer to this question is: the emerging collaboration is done by choice; its conditions of existence must be built by the same involved actors. And this requires time and energy. It follows that collaborative solutions are feasible only for those who have these resources to invest. The experience shows that very rarely the poor are in this condition.

Let’s stop for a while on this fundamental point and consider what Amartya Sen says: “Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being”. That is, adopting this Sen’s approach (called the capability approach) poverty means being deprived of several capabilities. And here we could add that poverty also means to be deprived of the capability to collaborate.

In our view, this deprivation is particularly dramatic because poor are the ones who would have the most to gain from collaboration (and from adopting the vision of collaborative wellbeing as orienting scenario). To move in this direction, in fact, could imply the systemic change needed to break the traps in which they are.

Therefore, a strategy of poverty eradication should also include operating to increase poor’s capability to collaborate. In turn, for the reasons previously indicated, the search for collaborative wellbeing could be thinkable and viable by poor only if and when they were enabled to do so. That is: to emerge and last among the poor, these new forms of collaboration should be supported by specifically dedicated enabling systems. That is, by appropriate sets of services, infrastructure, digital platforms and communication.

This is what design for social innovation, today, should collaborate to do. And this is what we will discuss in Bogota and what we will introduce in our DESIS 2020 Conversations.