Written by Miaosen Gong, Jiangnan DESIS Lab, Jiangnan University, China

In the DESIS newsletter in this July, Prof. Ezio Manzini opened a discussion on environmental concern of DESIS initiatives, which I think would be very helpful to review our trajectory on this specific track (DESIS) and envision next step after founding for ten years. I agree that there is some kind of doubt. On the one hand, environmental sustainability is in the DNA of DESIS, by crossing issues like sustainable design, sustainable system design,product and service system design and design for social innovation with different focuses shifting from materials and product, system and life cycle, lifestyle and behavioral changes and etc. anyway, sustainability is always the original intention of our network in root. On another, looking up the overall initiatives and projects presented in DESIS, it’s true that, as Manzini mentioned in the newsletter, environmental value wasn’t emphasized enough in terms of whether they are directly driven by it as motivation and/or directly leading to it as a result. 

I’d like to present a tiny view of observation on this point by personal experience. When DESIS community starts to define Design for Social Innovation as an emerging issue, we are crossing with another social innovation field in social enterprise and civil society, also as an emerging movement leaded by Young Foundation. Somehow, we adopted DESIS initials a little bit to build connections and common language with them, which might lose some environmental values in certain sense. However, if we look at the definitions of Social Innovation by Ezio Manzini and Mulgan as follows:

Social innovation is a process of change where new ideas emerge from a variety of actors directly involved in the problem to be solved: final users, grassroots technicians and entrepreneurs, local institutions and civil society organization (Manzini. 2017).

Social innovation is innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organizations whose primary purposes are social (Mulgan. 2006)

It’s clear that Manzini’s definition regards “social” as approach of innovation, instead, Mulgan’s one regards it as purpose of innovation. to DESIS, the purpose of social innovation is predefined as sustainability indicated in our name. to Young Foundation, the social purposes are variety and includes sustainability but without necessary to emphasize it. This comparing doesn’t intend to say which one is better than the other, either to evaluate which aspect of value is more important than others. While I think it’s helpful to distinguish our specific intentions as a specific academic association in such a big issue widely discussed today. We need to be open and connect, while also to be different and specific. 

Considering the meaning of sustainability has been broadening and generalizing so much in the last decade that it has become difficult and faded to discuss on it. It’s meaningful to highlight again the original aspect of sustainability on environment: the common and living environment, ecological system and bio-ecology, planet and climate changes and etc., which, I believe, is a gate to redefine and reshape the relationship between humans and nature.

(This article is part of a DESIS Conversations 2020, an 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 for the Planet: Small groups, great ideas (Davide Fassi)

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)