Written by Anna Meroni, PoliMi DESIS Lab, Politecnico di Milano, Italy

It is an instructive experiment to look at humankind’s actions as slow, yet progressive, efforts toward civilisation, in a trial and error journey.  Not all actions of course, but those aiming at improving our capability to live together, by the tacit or explicit share of narratives of the world. I see design as one of the most powerful drivers toward this objective, since it implies the creation and the production of visions of the future embodied in products and services. As our world becomes more populated, more close and diverse at the same time, more connected, technologically empowered, more scientifically aware and educated, the value and the principles that inform our live together evolve. They continuously set new levels of quality and acceptance for our cohabitation in this planet, so that what seemed to be normal a few decades ago, might look completely barbarian, rude or unacceptable today.

I see innovation being part of this process and the need for social innovation in particular as the awareness of the evolution of these values and principles. We seek new behaviours when we feel the old ones no more fitting with our need for a fulfilling presence in our community and on this planet, because we perceive a discrepancy with the mainstream behaviours and available solutions. Where for “we”, I consider any subject acting in the society, from the individual citizen to the policy maker, from the scientist to the entrepreneur.

It seems that today it is slowly becoming evident to an increasing number of people (yet too few) that there is no civilisation without sustainability, or better that sustainability is the only possible narrative for our contemporary civilisation.  For this people, the majority of solutions now available on this planet and the rationale that underpins them are no more adequate to their sentiment. They look barbarian as eating endangered animals or smoking in an airplane.  In a very few years, we all must look at behaviours such as using disposable tableware for eating, consuming clean water to flush the toilet, eating meat as a commodity, or travelling alone in a car as simply uncivilised. We should look at them with a mix of disgust and incredulity, feeling touched both in our rational and emotional sides.

How can we, as designers, diffuse the urgency for a rational and emotional move toward sustainability as a matter of civilisation and as a feeling of it?

Designing sustainable solutions that can creatively respond to our desires is, of course, a way. Yet, I think that today design has a second string to its bow. It is the one of activating and conducting conversations about the future. We call this co-design. It is about envisioning possibilities that might not come true as such, but that are a way to collectively think about the future and to get aware about the present. Designing together pushes us thinking pragmatically and seeing the absurdity of today behaviours. It is a way to find common interests and desires, to be developed in future initiatives while creating a sense of mutual responsibility.

Time ago, I started to use the expression “community centred design” to refer to the designer approach (and skill) of creatively making emerge visions and of designing within group of actors, often divergent for interests and motivations. Today, I believe that the power of this approach goes far beyond the actual effectiveness of producing solutions, but it relies on the fact of activating creative and engaging conversations on the present and the future. This happens more and more often at a massive scale and involves multiple stakeholders at the same time. The talent of designers to orchestrate these conversations, to steer them, to let them flourish and materialise into solutions is a unique mastery that no other experts have. Let us nurture it.

I see these conversations as very effective opportunities to raise our collective sensibility about the way we live and we might live, so as to move up our perception of what we consider acceptable in a “community” perspective and finally “civil”. They might be a way to grow the culture of living together and a way design can contribute to civilisation.

(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:

Designing as politics of nature (Virginia Tassinari)

Are we thinking radically enough? (Nicola Morelli)

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)