Written by Carla Cipolla, DESIS Coordinator and UFRJ/Coppe Rio DESIS Lab, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

DESIS Conversations 2020 has been a discussion about the present and the future of social innovation, design and sustainability. The opening contribution, from our DESIS president Ezio Manzini, included the question: what we are doing collaborates to make concrete the sense of environmental urgency that we all should feel today?

This question led us to the definition and characteristics of DESIS Network and to reframe the question: what a network of design labs based on higher education institutions (HEIs) could make?

HEI’s have been instrumental in transforming societies, and the DESIS Labs are making an effort to play a role and contribute to the needed transition for more sustainable ways of living.

Professors and students participate in the DESIS Labs activities in different ways. Usually, professors are coordinators or collaborators and students engage directly and indirectly: directly when they are part of the team, indirectly when they participate in projects and initiatives proposed by professors, members of DESIS Labs. They may be undergrad or grad students.

The description of DESIS highlight the power of students as agents of change: “If a worldwide movement towards sustainability calls for the best possible use of all existing resources, design schools, with all their potential in terms of students’ enthusiasm and faculty experience, should be considered a very promising social resource: a potentially powerful promoter of sustainable change” (from DESIS Website).

Therefore, it is our key focus to prepare design students to perform transformative roles, producing a new design knowledge and developing projects focused on sustainable goals with them

Students have always been an essential and active part of DESIS Network. However, until now, DESIS has proposed networking and knowledge exchange activities focused on interactions between professors (or researchers).

Would be arrived the time for professors in DESIS Network to create initiatives to connect the students directly? Or even: would be students interested in promoting initiatives on DESIS, developed autonomously by them?

If yes, it would be a new perspective, and very positive, for DESIS, to have students as leaders – in a collaborative way – if this could support and improve their role as change-makers now, in their current educational process, or later, as professionals.

This leadership on DESIS could be an invitation for them. Initiatives led by students, or connecting them directly, could bring new energies and knowledge exchange processes for DESIS. The sense of environmental urgency could be carried on by students directly in DESIS. Professors could perform a supportive role.

Some promising signs have been already identified, in some pilot activities with students developed in the UFRJ Rio DESIS Lab, which hosts the DESIS coordination. The Lab invited students to autonomously propose and lead projects on public spaces of Rio de Janeiro.

There was no lack of interest in proposing a project and performing a leading role. Students request guidance from professors. Also, they worked in a very collaborative way by seeking support from their peers. But, more important to our discussions here, they expressed a high environmental awareness and included the SDG in their proposals.

This experience benefited from the framework promoted by Brazilian universities, on which students should perform 10% of their credits to obtain their degree by performing activities outside the university, with the support of a professor. UFRJ Rio DESIS lab has framed the process under this rule. This framework may have favoured the engagement of the students, even if some of them show no sign of disinterest after the required credits.

DESIS Network has more than 50 Labs and, if this proposal seems promising, each DESIS Lab will find the best way to invite students and support their actions towards sustainable goals. Students could promote workshops (inside or outside their classes) connected with other DESIS Labs, international on-line activities (DESIS coordination can provide Zoom access), etc.

There are many possibilities and, if students find it interesting, initiatives led by them may enlarge the contribution DESIS Network to drive our future towards sustainability.

(This article ends the first cicle of DESIS Conversations 2020, an initiative started in 2019 by DESIS Network to raise the discussion about the climate and environmental sustainability related to academic and research practices.)