Riccardo Giacconi

Ezio Manzini (engineer, architect and theoretician of design)
in conversation with Riccardo Giacconi
October 2010

Can you talk about the notion of ‘creative community’?

The starting point is the phenomenological observation of reality: when looking at the complexity of society, we can observe that there are several people that, collaborating with others, invent ways of solving everyday problems in an original way. We defined such groups as creative communities. They are communities because the solutions they propose are not something you can do alone: in some way, you have to reduce the individualism that has been – and still is – dominating in our society, and try to find a form of collaboration with others. At the same time they are creative because they invent something which did not exist before, and normally they do so using what already exists, in a sort of original recombination of existing elements, be it ideas, technologies or forms of organization. Creative communities are one evident example of a diffuse social innovation that is characterizing this period. With my group of research we study creative communities and social innovation in general, and we try to collaborate with those who are more involved in social entrepreneurship.

Can you make some examples of creative communities?

One of the areas where this phenomenon is more evident is food and agriculture. The reorganization of food networks moves from the renewed idea of farmer markets, that we can find in every continent in the world, toward food cooperatives or community-supported agriculture – which is, in my view, a more mature way of organizing un-intermediated relationships between farmers and citizens. I mentioned some main ideas, but there are several specific cases, each of them with different articulations. Put together, these practices start to generate the vision of a new way of considering agriculture and food. But we can move from food towards mobility, to find the very well-known cases of car-sharing, car-pooling, the renewed way of using bicycles in the city and the different ways of organizing multimodalities in transportation. Or we can move towards housing, where we can have different ways of sharing services: cohousing, condominium shared services, neighbourhood shared services. At the same time, we can talk about the remarkable examples of the community gardens in Europe or in the United States – where groups of people squat a piece of land that has been abandoned and transform it into a beautiful garden for the community – or about the renewed idea of urban agriculture, that is the use of empty spaces in the city to cultivate and produce vegetables. Or we can consider all the new social services moving away from the traditional idea of welfare toward what is normally called ‘active welfare’ where, in some way, you design services considering the capability of the people, and where the citizen is not only a patient or somebody who brings a problem but also somebody who can be part of the solution of the problem. In this field, there are a lot of interesting cases, such as mutual help, time banks, elderly people who live together to help each other and so on, toward all the activities that can be found in the city under the umbrella of the so-called ‘creative city’, such as condominium parties, festivals and any kind of initiative that can regenerate the urban social fabric.

It is a very large spectrum, and I would say that the discussion has evolved from the observation of individual communities toward recognizing the beginning of a new scenario: it is no longer only a matter of groups of people doing something interesting – it is something new which starts to emerge. For instance, thirty years ago in the area of food and agriculture there was only one idea of the future, which was the hyper-industrialized farming; now there is at least an alternative option. Everybody, everywhere in the world, starts to understand that we could also imagine a different food network, a different agriculture and a different relationship with food, based on organic food, locality, seasonality and direct relationships between producers and farmers. I will not say that this is already the mainstream, but it is not only a marginal alternative: it is something that starts to appear. The same can be said of social services, where we move from individual services to whole ideas of active welfare, and of mobility: once upon a time, it was impossible to imagine the future of the city without cars. Nowadays, even car companies envisage cities without cars. What I want to highlight is that individual cases of creative communities and social innovation that, at the beginning, formed a sort of archipelago, are starting to cluster and to generate some potentiality. I have the impression that the battle is totally open and that the discussion has to be moved to another level.

You wrote that the idea of ‘creative communities’ is opposite to the consumption-based model industrial society has generated, and that the world calls for a systemic discontinuity. Can you expand on that?

Even if people are very diverse and society is very complex and contradictory, I think everybody agrees that there are some paradigms, some basic ideas that are quite general and strong. The last century generated, first in Europe and America and afterwards worldwide, the great success of a certain model in which the idea of wellbeing is mainly linked to the idea of consuming more. At this time we know that, whatever was the good intention at the beginning, the result is catastrophic because this model cannot be proposed to six, seven or eight billion people on this planet without destroying it and/or destroying the structure of the societies that live on it. Nowadays, the idea that a very deep change has to take place is rather diffuse. Less diffuse is a clear picture of what could be done. But I am sure that every person at the top of any organization has a clear idea that something does not work with this model. Some may they think that it is not possible to change, so they try somehow to fix the current system and move through the crisis. But all the examples we talked about show that something else is happening, which is not about the past but about the future.

Phenomenologically, we have seen big systems changing in history: the feudal system turned into the industrial capitalistic one – it was a radical change, as historians tell us. The issues of sustainability ask for a similar change: we are in the middle of this phenomenon and we have to see if we can, in some way, help the process. Now, how does a complex socio-technical system with strong paradigms change? It does so as all complex systems: the general framework of the system tends to remain, while inside it some micro-transformations start to take place. The macro- transformation of the overall system happens when discontinuities in the micro-scale gain enough power to produce the so-called ‘tipping point’. Basically, what is needed to prepare the macro-change is proposing and developing micro-changes. To make a simple example: changing and improving the quality of a car – even if the improvement might be very interesting and useful – do not change anything about the system of transportation, the ideas of mobility and wellbeing. Instead, if you use the existing cars and streets and you find a way to have cars with at least four people in it, this acts as a micro-discontinuity because it affects the idea of mobility, of freedom and the same concept of “car”. As another example, to start cohousing is a very small undertaking but it represent a local, radical discontinuity because it breaks very deep ideas of private space and domesticity.

Does it mean that, according to you, capitalism has in itself the possibilities for counteracting the negative aspects of a consumption-oriented system?

I can surely answer to this question, but I am mostly a designer so that is not specifically my field – you probably know that design is to know everything and nothing. For me, the problem is not capitalism or the market economy per se; the problem is the belief that all the economical issues in society could be solved by one economy. This is the very big mistake. Everything that could be sustainable cannot be based on one winning idea. In the notion of social economy, which is a kind of ecology of economies, to solve a complex problem you need to have different kinds of economies: market economy, state economy, the economy of foundations and the economy of people’s energy, capability and will to do. All the examples that we have considered are not entirely inside the market economy, but they could integrate it inside them. I know that market economy per se cannot solve all the problems: the best examples are combinations of different kinds of economies. The idea of many collaborating economies is very ecological in the deep sense of the term, because every ecological solution is a solution that is based on a multiplicity of components.

In 1970 Victor Papanek, in Design for the Real World, calls for a “social and moral responsibility” of the designer. Can you talk about the responsibility of the designer today, 40 years after Papanek’s call?

I have a high respect for Papanek but, frankly speaking, I think he has not made a good service to the design community. This is because if you say that, to be an ethical designer, you have to work only when some very crucial problem is given and very often in contexts where you cannot be paid, you say something that everybody will agree with, but which is actually impossible to apply. We surely have to look at what happens in very remote villages, in rescue camps or in very marginal groups of people, but I don’t agree on the idea that the only way to do something good – since ethics is about what is good and what is not – is working on those specific contexts. Even if they would like to, the majority of designers don’t have the possibility to do it.

So, how would you define the responsibility of design?

You have to find a narrative that generates some guidelines, even if you are a designer who works in Milano within the system. It’s not said that you have to be a responsible designer only when you have the opportunity to design something specifically dedicated to the most disadvantaged. My opinion is that you can have a basic deontology, which tells you what you must not do. For instance, you can choose not do design with plastics. Speaking of myself, I design with plastics since it is not beyond my deontological guidelines, but I will not design weapons or work with carcinogenic materials. Everybody has to decide what they will not do, as an application of their personal view on the world, a minimum bottom line.

On the top of this, we know that there are general directions, which are not as strong as ethical principles. For me, one of them is the fact that people should all have the same possibilities to express their own capability. Amartya Senprovides us with directions about how to improve people’s capability: you can try to follow them whatever kind of design you happen to be doing. Guidelines are unlike rigid principles: in different ways, with different levels of freedom, different designers can use them to decide what to do and to try and move in a good direction. That is why I will never say, that, in principle, “you cannot design a new chair because there are already so many chairs”, but I will say: “ try not to design only chairs but, when it happens to you this opportunity, try to do it in a way that could orient users towards more sustainable qualities in living. It could be difficult, but it is not impossible!”

I would like you to talk about DESIS, the network you co-founded. On its website I read, “design can give social innovation important contributions. And, vice versa. Social innovation can be a large and growing opportunity for a new generation of designers”.

We can observe the phenomenon of social innovation from a designer’s point of view. The activity of designers is always linked to innovation: they are frequently said to be the ones who look at innovation and transport it in everyday life. But, until now, when the term ‘innovation’ is used without any adjective, everybody thinks about technological innovation. Therefore, the typical design activity, until now, has been to look for technological innovation and bring it into society generating some meanings around it. Nonetheless, in the last period it has been observed that technological innovation starting from some laboratory is not all there is; there is also social innovation, which in some way emerges within society. Thus, if designers have something to do with innovation, they cannot disregard social innovation. The first step we took in our journey with DESIS (design for social innovation and sustainability) was simply to say that we don’t have to change so much about the classic idea of what designers do: they still have to deal with innovation, but not only with technological innovation – also with social innovation. The traditional way of bridging technology and society was to move from the first towards the second. Perhaps there is also a another possibility, which is to look at innovation happening in society, bring it into the technological arena and see if it is possible to develop products, services and infrastructures that could be helpful to support, enable and scale up such social innovation. At DESIS, we think the designer can help the most promising cases of social innovation to emerge and spread and, in doing so, be the driver of a sustainable change. In short, a designer can carry on two activities. One is to look at social innovation and try to support it, while the other is to selectively look at some cases, promote them and help them to become stronger and influential on the overall society.

In the last ten years, the idea of social innovation has gained an enormous momentum. When we started looking at it from the standpoint of design, it was really something very marginal, used only in specific circumstances (namely, when facing difficult social problems). Nowadays, the idea of social innovation is really booming. The European Union, for the first time, recently included social innovation as an important section within its plans for future innovation. A large part of high-level politics is talking about it – for instance, Barack Obama created the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation at the White House, but also the Conservative Party in the UK recently declared the adoption of a very similar approach within The Big Society, their flagship policy idea.

Nevertheless, in many contexts, social innovation has still to be recognized. In particular, within design schools and, in general, within the design community, recognizing it is not so obvious. And vice versa: it is not so obvious for the actors who are involved in social innovation processes to recognize design as a useful approach (and designers as potentially important partners). But we are working on it, and the DESIS Network is one of the possible way to do it! In fact, we are convinced that there is a high potentiality for design (i.e. for design thinking and for design knowledge) to support and diffuse social innovation processes. And, vice versa, for social innovation processes to become a growing filed for designers’ work opportunities. These ones, in my view, are already strong motivations for the DESIS existence: to use good concrete examples to show, both internally and externally the design community, what design for social innovation can do.

In 2006 you coordinated, with Slow Food Italy, an international seminar (titled Slow + Design) on the design potential and implications of the Slow Model, that is, a “slow approach to distributed economy and sustainable sensoriality”. Can you talk about the ideas that were raised during the seminar, as well as the subsequent developments of the project?

As I have said before, in food and agriculture something is changing. Everybody recognizes that the Slow Food movement played a very important role in that change, because they have been able to integrate different ideas that were around at the time, to create a cultural and conceptual background and to propose something very practical that could be done. Nowadays, the “slow” approach is very well-known – you have ‘slow cities’ and ‘slow design’, for instance – but using the term ‘slow’ some decades ago, in a period when everything was to be very fast, was really challenging. But the challenge was successful, because people recognized in this term something that could answer some widespread demand.

Repositioning the idea of food has been very important, but they also provided practical structures and proposed a way to create a new model for relationships. When they started, their aim was to preserve some niche foods, which represented a very important cultural and gastronomic value. In order to maintain them alive, it was important to create a market, and to create a market for, let’s say, a bean that costs three times a normal bean, you have to create a group of people that are able to recognize the specific qualities of that bean, and that is prepared to spend the “right money” on it. For what regards food, this came to represent a very successful model. Nowadays, Slow Food moved to community-supported agriculture – their current work offers a whole vision of how agriculture could work and how the relationship between people and food should be. During the seminar, we discussed about the possibility for this model to be replicable in different contexts. I still think there are several cases in which it could be used, the first one being the issue of keeping alive different kinds of craftsmanship – in the end, the production of niche foods is a form of very specialized craftsmanship. Preserving this kind of quality requires the creation of a market that is able to recognize it, and the formation of a link between the craftsman and the market. If it takes the craftsman two days to make a certain piece of embroidery, he needs to be paid, and paid in a fair way, for two days of work. The seminar helped define a common line of research, especially on strategies to revaluate craftsmanship.

In a recent paper, you wrote that “being a designer means being an optimist”, and that “faced with a world drifting rapidly towards catastrophe, we need this designer realism-optimism more then ever”. From this perspective, how do you envisage the future of design?

There is nothing to discuss about the first part of the question: I cannot even see how you can be a designer without being optimistic. Of course, it must a reasonable optimism: I see all the disasters that are around, but I have to bet on the possibility to find some driver that can do something for the good: you cannot design for the catastrophe. The designer is an optimist who must be able to find, both in technological and social realities, some elements that can be used to do something positive. We cannot imagine controlling the future; we can, nonetheless, work at the local scale as many actions at the local scale can generate something on a very big scale.

For what regards the future of design, something is already clear. The overall system of production and consumption is changing, at least in three major trends. One is the environmental limit. The “green revolution” people were talking about twenty years ago, is here and now: we have to determine how the technology will re-organize itself to keep in account that there are some limits on the planet. This does not mean that all the green innovation will be positive for people, but in my view is out of doubt that the competition between China and United States will be on green technology. The second direction in which the system is changing is about information and communication technology, and about the new network economy that is generating forms of organization that are totally different than before. We are moving from products to services and, given that “service” means interaction between people, it is obvious that the economy is moving from products to interactions. In design, nothing so new can happen in the product per se: the real new thing happens in systems, services and organizations, where there is a lot to be designed. Finally, the third direction regards social economy. If you want to develop a healthcare system today, for example, it has to be inside the social economy – that is, as I already anticipated in relation to another question, it has to consider not only the market and the state, but also what people can do, how they can organize themselves and so on and so forth. If you put all this together, everything is different from the beginning of last century. Design should and will be, in my view, able to face this new context. To do so, a part of our tools can be brought from our past culture, but many others have to be changed, upgraded and adapted to the new situation.