(Written by Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network Founder)

Designing for Reimagined Communities: this is the title of the call for papers for a special issue of CoDesign. It would be nice and useful if many members of the DESIS network participated.

To this invitation that I make to you, I would like to add a personal reflection on why it seems to me that today it is so important and urgent to “re-imagine communities”.

Since its beginning, DESIS Network has been concerned with the communities that were the engine of the social innovation it wanted to support. Today this attention to these communities must be confirmed. But, at the same time, their meaning must be updated to take into account the current context: a context that is very different from the one in which we began to focus on and characterize them 15 years ago. And that is why, as we said, they must be re-imagined.

The communities we started from, were born from and confronted with contexts characterized by the dominance of the most classical neoliberal ideas and practices: more market and less state, and even fewer commons; more global and less local; more individualism and less sense of community. The implications of all this in daily life have been the growth of problems that, in that conceptual and economic framework, people were faced with alone. Or, more precisely, increasingly connected in the digital world, but increasingly alone in the physical one. And it is precisely in opposition to all this that, in the last 15 years, new communities and the transformative social innovation they have produced have been born.

Today this picture has changed: the disasters produced by neoliberalism are so great and evident that they are not only opposed by the transformative social innovation we have dealt with, but also by other ideas and other practices. The latter, while maintaining some fundamental characteristics of the original neoliberal ideology, oppose it, proposing themselves as anti-globalists and, in their own way, communitarian. In doing so, they produce social forms that we could define closed communities: groups of people who recognize themselves as groups built on the safeguarding of claimed territorial identities and interests and on the distinction between themselves and “others” (who are seen as “different” and, ultimately, “enemies”).

It is important to add that, although these closed communities often refer to tradition, they are not “traditional communities” at all (that is, they are not the communities that could be found – and still can be found – in villages and neighbourhoods not yet “modernized”). On the contrary, they are contemporary communities, built thanks to deliberate initiatives, and capable of fully exploiting the potential of new media. Ultimately, they too are, in all respects, social innovations.

A notable aspect of the reality in which we find ourselves is therefore this: the new communities that today must be re-imagined arise from, and are still confronted with, competitive individualism, the virtualization of experience and the connected solitude of the neoliberal world, but they must also fight with intolerance and the narrow and selfish localism of the new closed and unsustainable communities.

Even if this short article is not the place to discuss in depth how this difficult and slippery path can be found and followed, it seems to me that some characteristics of the communities we would like to see developed are already sufficiently clear. And that this allows us to indicate some fundamental guidelines: these communities are the ones which promote collaboration between people and connect them with the places where they live (that is, they are communities of place). And, at the same time, avoiding the trap of becoming closed communities, they are as open and regenerative as possible. That is, tolerant, inclusive and capable of being an active part of the web of life for which we are all jointly responsible.

However, while these general guidelines are clear enough, how to implement them is not. And this is because the context in which to do so is extremely complex and in movement: the dimension of the current crises (with the effects of the pandemic, the environmental disasters and the economic, political and democratic crises) has reached a level such as to produce increasing social tensions which, of course, also affect the nature and role of communities, however they are (i.e. both the open and inclusive, and the closed and intolerant ones).

Furthermore, it is necessary to consider another powerful driver of change that makes new social forms unprecedented, and therefore still to be understood: the spread of digital technologies and artificial intelligence which, by shifting the centre of gravity of every activity towards the digital space, effects on the nature and form of systems and interactions between actors. And, therefore, of course, on communities and community building.

In conclusion, we can say that the field of action that we find ourselves practicing today is much more difficult than the one in which we operated 15 years ago. And we can add that by requiring us to clearly state what our goals are and what kind of community we refer to, it is undoubtedly, much more than in the past, a political field of action.

For this reason, returning to the point from which we started, it is necessary to re-imagine the communities and the way to build them. This is an activity that, as it is in the practice of design for social innovation, starts from the observation that, in the contradictory complexity of today’s society, we can find also promising ways of being and doing: cases in which groups of citizens, often in collaboration with institutions and other organizations, practice ideas, behaviours and communities, which anticipate what, hopefully, could be the ideas, behaviours and communities of a sustainable future.