In the complexity of contemporarysociety, social innovation is spreadingand its potential, as a driver of sustainable change, is increasing. To facilitate this process, the design community, in general, and design schools, in particular, can play a pivotal role.

Social innovation is a new idea that works in meeting social goals” (Mulgan, 2006). In other words, social innovation can be seen as a process of change emerging from the creative re-combination of existing assets (social capital, historical heritage traditional craftsmanship, accessible advanced technology) and aiming at achieving socially recognized goals in new ways. A kind of innovation driven by social demands rather than by the market and/or autonomous techno-scientific research, and generated more by the actors involved than by specialists.

Over the past decade social innovation has spread: a variety of social actors throughout the world (institutions, enterprises, non-profit organizations and, most of all, networks of collaborative people) have moved outside mainstream models of thinking and doing, generating a variety of promising initiatives such as community-supported agriculture, co-housing, carpooling, community gardens, neighbourhood care, talent exchange and time banks. These initiatives propose viable solutions to complex problems of the present (e.g., social cohesion, urban regeneration, healthy food accessibility, water and sustainable energy management) and, at the same time, they represent working prototypes of sustainable ways of living.

Today, social innovation is generating a constellation of small initiatives. Nevertheless, if favourable conditions are created, these small, local social inventions and their working prototypes can spread. They can be scaled-up, consolidated, replicated and integrated with larger programs to generate large-scale sustainable changes. To do that, new design competences are needed. Indeed, social innovation processes require visions, strategies and co-design tools to move from ideas to mature solutions and viable programs. . That is, they ask for new design capabilities that, as a whole, can be defined as design for social innovation.

Design for social innovation can find in the design schools a major driver for its application and diffusion. In fact, design schools (and, more in general, all the design-oriented universities) can orient their didactic and research activities towards social innovation. That is, they can become design laboratories where new visions are generated, new tools are defined and tested and where new projects are started and supported. 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.


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