Written by Davide Fassi, PoliMi DESIS Lab, Politecnico di Milano, Italy

In the development of design for social innovation projects, we got the habit to take sustainability for granted because it is part of our DNA as researchers. After an initial phase where the “sustainability tag” was a must-have in most of the design outputs (and treated as something to be clearly declared in the title of projects, strategies, courses names etc), we moved to have the sustainability issues as hidden, implicit, perfectly integrated in every design action we face.

This led to some unexpected results: from one side most of the researchers, practitioners, academics, professionals included the sustainability issues (environmental, social end economical) into their projects, from another side people (users/citizens/beneficiaries) have still some difficulties in understanding the sustainable values of the projects and recognize which are the benefit for their life and the planet, and even more, to act as ambassadors of the “green values”.

This must push us to let clearly emerge sustainable values every time we are developing, communicating, disseminating, practicing our research and applied projects and from the users/citizens/beneficiaries side to develop a sense of responsibility towards every single action dealing with the surroundings (spaces/people/services) and to be able to translate inputs from virtuous projects into everyday practices.

The role of the communities is crucial. The environmental catastrophe we are facing today could be avoided by starting from a more impactful education on sustainability of the local communities, in a kind of acupunctural actions that could evolve to best practices to be replicated. Small groups (associations, social streets, informal groups etc) mainly acting at the neighbourhood level have a great potential to become a model for a larger one. “Giving voice to the voiceless ones” is the way, where the voiceless are the commons in a wider meaning (public spaces-streets, squares, sidewalks, parks-, rivers, lakes, forest etc.): spaces where people are interacting, resources that people are sharing. Implementing good practices about the involvement of the communities in the commons could be the way to be more effective for the planet.

DESIS has created an international network done by design institutions who develop, most of the time, design solutions in small context with small group of people. The diffused network of these small actions is the change we need and education is the key. As academics dealing with in-the-field design research and actions we have the task to take care of the educational process by implementing innovative ways to improve the actual situation: by using interactive projects to prototype solutions, by intertwining the local public governance of the city with the citizens, by looking for possibilities to scale-up (or even simply to replicate) successful solutions together with small groups who have great ideas.

(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.)

More on DESIS Conversations 2020:

Social Innovation and the Environmental emergency: How Design can contribute in this scenario? (Teresa Franqueira)

Social Innovation and Biodiversity, or the Merit of Salamanders (Louise St. Pierre)