Written by Nicola Morelli, AAU DESIS Lab,  Aalborg University, Denmark

One day, about 25 years ago, in an office of the Submarine (a section of Politecnico di Milano, so called because its office were below the street level), professor Manzini started a conversation with the groups of researchers working with him – I was one of them – proposing some considerations about a study from the Dutch Government on the strategies for sustainability in medium terms, that means in the following 50 years (that means by 2040) (Jansen, 1994).

The study was considering some key parameters of growth, welfare and population to come to the conclusion that we need to reduce the environmental impact in respect to 1990 by 90 to 95% by 2040. At that time, the effort that this reduction would imply was already considered too high to be solved just by technological innovation. At that time, it was already evident that a radical shift in the way we leave was needed, that means a big effort of social innovation, that could trigger deep societal changes.

The conversation was triggered by Professor Manzini’s question: “are we thinking radically enough?”. At that time thinking radically meant proposing substantial changes in the developing model of Western countries, in the view that the primary responsibility of those countries was to propose a very resource-demanding model of living and behaving, that other countries were imitating, in their path towards development.

If on one hand, designers have little control over the details of technological development, on the other hand they have the capability to figure out possible future ways of living and work out desirable solutions towards more sustainable developments. This is why some designers engaged in the debate about sustainability.

But at that time, thinking radically was not easily accepted. Although the dream of a technological linear progress towards bright futures started to reveal its weakness, the production and consumption system was still assuming this dream as its ground: the faith that technology will find a solution to the emerging environmental problems was very strong, and in fact it is still strong now. Such faith in a bright technological future was and is still inspiring governments and policies in several countries (those countries that keep rejecting any environmental agreement, for instance).

Since the time at our conversation in the Submarine though, something has changed, not as much in the proposals inspired by that conversation, but especially in the context.

The proposals were assuming a post-capitalist society, in which conviviality, sharing and citizens’ participation could compensate the effects of a highly profit oriented economy. It was the time when the concepts such as sharing goods, repairing, services strategies, were proposed as a solution to work towards a sustainable future. (Ministerie Van Volkshuisvesting, Ruimtelijke Ordering en Milieubeheer, 1994).

Those proposals had a wide systemic perspective, that were linking environmental perspective to the perspective of substantial social changes. At that time though, the environmental crisis was only described as a possible scenario in the projections of certain studies (as for the Club of Rome), but it was not as evident as it is now. The lack of a real alarm, in comparison to the radical approach of the proposals, was making them really unacceptable.

After 25 years, the worse environmental predictions are turning into reality, but many of us are still working, living and making business according to a production and consumption system that has not substantially changed as it should have.

The news is that someone, especially the new generations, are realizing that a big change is needed and are now urging for society to thinking radically, really radically.

In the meantime many things have changed, technology has changed, some of the solutions we were discussing in the room at the Submarine have been turned in practice, but a market logic has transformed some of them in just another form of exploitation of labor. For sure, we cannot just come back and re-propose the same things, but designers and innovators can now think more easily beyond the boundaries of market logics, the logic of profit and the logic of linear growth. The environmental crisis is opening cracks in the walls that delimits what is possible to do in the market logic and what cannot be done. New perspective can be seen through such cracks, that were previously not admissible. Thinking radically today is no longer radically impossible, and this makes designers even more compelled to look beyond the domain of the logic that generated the present environmental crisis, in order to mobilize any possible resource.

The reason why this change cannot happen without a substantial social innovation is not only quantitative (i.e. related to that 95% efficiency improvement advocated by the studies in the 90s) but also qualitative: the urgency of change requires the whole society to imagine and design a radical shift; a super-imposed change would simply not happen. The present movements are making the younger generation aware of the urgency of a change; there is a growing pressure on the old generations to come out with new projects and new proposals, but the scenarios of desirable future in this perspective are still not well defined. The sense of urgency does not correspond to a diffuse attitude in society towards shared projects. The role designers can have is to support solutions that give people spaces to think and get organized, give them opportunities and tools to co-design their own solutions and give them democratic access to knowledge, data and technologies to figure out how to harness their potential towards directions that are shared by larger communities.

But of course, the question remains: is this radical enough? Is it enough to move people, schools, communities to care about their surrounding nature? What level of transformation is enough to trigger systemic changes? … and is this enough to make sure that the resulting change in the development model be attractive not only for developed countries, but also for those countries that are still organizing their development according to the western development model?

(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:

A Response of “Social Innovation for the Planet” (Miaosen Gong)

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)