Design, When Everybody Designs

Social innovation and design for a new economy

By Ezio Manzini

In a fast and profoundly changing world everybody designs. The result of this diffuse designing is that society as a whole can be seen as a huge laboratory in which new social forms, solutions and meanings are produced. These transformative activities require unprecedented economic models and courageous design choices.


My starting point is that in a fast and profoundly changing world everybody designs. ‘Everybody’ means not only individual people, groups, communities, companies and associations, but also institutions, cities and entire regions; and ‘design’ means that, whether they like it or not, all these individual and collective entities are forced to bring all their designing capabilities into play to devise their life strategies and put them into practice.

The result of this diffuse designing is that society as a whole can be seen as a huge laboratory in which unprecedented social forms, solutions and meanings are produced and social innovation is created.1

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Social Innovation

The result of this diffuse designing is that society as a whole can be seen as a huge laboratory in which unprecedented social forms, solutions and meanings are produced and social innovation is created.

In the boiling pot of contemporary society we can find a growing number of cases of social innovation. Examples of them can be found everywhere: from how we deal with the most general issues, to the ways in which we organise our everyday lives. If they often go unrecognised it is because, being radically new, they doesn’t emerge just where we are looking and often we have to change our point of view and approach them from a different angle. In the complex and contradictory present society these innovations can change the systems in all the possible directions. Some of them, the ones that are interesting for us here, can be seen as promising steps towards sustainability and I will refer to them as promising cases of social innovation towards sustainability.

With this expression I refer to all those new ideas emerging over the last 10-20 years that have led a growing number of people to act in their everyday lives in ways that are promising in terms of social and environmental sustainability. One field in which these innovations have led to particularly evident results is that of food and the relationship between city and countryside. All over the world we have seen new food networks being created based on organic production and on seasonal and proximity consumption. Other examples could be: forms of mobility in alternative to individually owned cars; social services conceived as collaborative activities; models of housing and neighbourhood living better geared to the current reality of family life; activities aimed to redevelop the social and environmental quality of cities. The list could continue.

Looking at these examples more closely we can see that, diverse as they are, they share a fundamental characteristic: while solving specific problems they also produce sociality (and thus contribute to rebuilding the social fabric) and new qualities (thus contributing to the production of new value systems). In short, they can be considered as experiments in new ways of thinking and doing things: working prototypes of a sustainable everyday life.

Given this short overview on social innovation towards sustainability (to which, from here on I will refer to simply as social innovation), I can now move to design and to describe the possible interactions between the two.


Diffuse and Expert Design

The first observation to be done is that, as I’ve mentioned in the introduction, the social innovation I’m talking about can be described as an interweave of co-designing activities. So all those who foster social innovation, though in very different and differently commendable ways are also actors in complex, and frequently contradictory, co-design processes. In effect, it is easy to note that an awareness of the need to adopt a design approach, and consequently also design tools, has been spreading in recent years. For example, the expression ‘design thinking’ has recently been meeting with success worldwide, impacting on social enterprise and the institutions. However, we can go further.

This diffuse design (i.e. the design as a diffuse human capability) is not the only form in which today design is appearing. We can find it also in a second form, the one of the expert design.

This diffuse design (i.e. the design as a diffuse human capability) is not the only form in which today design is appearing. We can find it also in a second form, the one of the expert design: the design performed by who has acquired special skills and tool, becoming a design expert. Precisely because everybody designs, it becomes useful and even necessary for someone to help them to do so, someone equipped with the cultural and practical skills required to integrate and promote the design abilities of the others, the non-experts. This means someone who is expert in the various ways of stimulating and supporting wider, more complex co-designing processes.


Emerging Design

In a rapidly and profoundly changing world, the activity conventionally known as ‘design’ has also changed. And like everything else, it has changed much more than the cultural categories normally used to interpret it have evolved.

To cut a long story short, we can say that design as a discipline and profession, which here we are calling expert design, emerged at the beginning of the last century in relation to the changes brought by industry. The result was that its initial definition was tied to what, at that time, was making it necessary: industry as it was then and the products it was generating. So, design was mainly seen as industrial design and was associated with mass-produced industrial products.

However, nowadays, the change has spread to and impacted on not only products, but also services, organisations and a growing number of everyday activities.

It follows that all these entities can no longer be reproduced conventionally (i.e. by replicating and adapting ‘the way it has always been done’). Now they require designing. Therefore, they require that everybody participate in the design process (where everybody designs) and, in principle, they also call for the intervention of design experts. The result of all this is what we can call emerging design2 (see Figure 1: A design modality map).




Today, the basic features of emerging design are already clear. And they are very different from those dominant in the 20th century. The main difference is that its focus has shifted from ‘objects’ (meaning products, services and systems) towards ‘ways of thinking and doing’ (meaning methods, tools, approaches and, as we will see, design cultures). In so doing, design becomes an agent capable of tackling widely differing issues adopting a human-centred approach: from traditional product-oriented design processes to complex and often intractable social, environmental and even political problems).3 A second main change, linked to the first, is that all design processes are, de facto, to be considered co-design activities involving a variety of actors: professional designers, other kinds of experts and final users.4

Now, given this overview on the recent evolution of the notion of design, I can go back to the initial question concerning its relationship with social innovation. And introduce the notion of design for social innovation (to be more precise I should name it design for social innovation towards sustainability. But let’s assume that, from here on, writing ‘design for social innovation’ I will always refer to the one oriented ‘towards sustainability’).


Design for Social Innovation.

From this introduction it is clear that the design (both diffuse and expert) that is involved in the social innovation processes is quite far from the idea of design that has been prevalent in the past century.

The recognition of this difference is crucial: to understand the possible relationships between design and social innovation we have to, as a precondition, understand how much design has changed in the past decades. If we cling to the definition of 20th century design, as too often happens, we cannot hope to understand how design could operate and play a significant role in social innovation and in steering it towards a sustainable future.

If we cling to the definition of 20th century design, as too often happens, we cannot hope to understand how design could operate and play a significant role in social innovation and in steering it towards a sustainable future.

When this precondition is given, the definition of design for social innovation becomes quite simple: it is everything that design can do to foster and support social innovation, to make its results more widely accessible and its meaning richer and deeper.

With this definition, it also becomes simple to observe that design for social innovation is not a new design discipline. Rather, it is a new ability that can be extended to all the designing actors: the ability to recognise the most promising social dynamics and work with them.

In this framework, very different kind of design initiatives can be considered as design for social innovation. To give a general overview of them, we can group them in three main typologies:

• Design activism, when design experts actively promote social innovation.

• Design with communities, when design experts collaborate with active groups of people in making a given solution more accessible and more capable of lasting in time.

• Design for favourable eco-systems, when design experts conceive and develop material and immaterial artifacts capable of making a whole eco-system more favourable for new initiatives to emerge, flourish, spread and connect.


Emerging Economy and Design

To understand the design for social innovation potentialities we have to consider both the deep crisis of the old business models and the signals of an emerging one. An economy that (mainly) ‘produces’ services, knowledge and networks of meaningful interactions. An economy that is neither a utopia, nor a far off future possibility, but one of which the first examples can be registered today and that, hopefully, will boom in the near future becoming the economy of the 21st century.

Considering this emerging economy, and looking at it with the lens of design, there is a lot to be done. Collaborating with a multiplicity of actors, design can play a role in the ecological re-orientation of the production and consumption system (to increase its overall eco-efficiency), in triggering and supporting the social production of services (to increase social cohesion), in developing sustainable urban settlements (to face the new demands and regenerate the existing cities and slums), in developing regional eco-development programs (to promote the sustainable use of local physical and social resources). And finally, in feeding the social conversation on wellbeing (to generate a meta-narrative capable to be the cultural framework of all the previous threads of action).

These transformative activities, to take place, require unprecedented economic models and dynamic social innovation initiatives (including here also cultural and institutional innovation). And most importantly, they require courageous design choices.

About the Author

ezio-manzini-webEzio Manzini has been working in the field of design for sustainability for more than two decades. Most recently, his interests have focussed on design for social innovation. In this perspective he started DESIS: an international network of schools of design specifically active in this field.

em-book-cover-webPresently, he is Chair Professor of Design for Social Innovation at the University of the Arts London (London), Honorary Professor at the Politecnico di Milano and Guest Professor at Tongji University (Shanghai) and Jiangnan University (Wuxi).

His most recent book is Design, When Everybody Designs. An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation, MIT Press 2015.



1. This paper is largely based on the book: Ezio Manzini, Design, When Everybody Designs (MIT Press 2015)

2. A very clear statement on the nature of emerging design, and in my view of its present limits, was proposed in 2014 in a manifesto named DesignX, collaboratively authored by: Ken Friedman (Tongji University, College of Design and Innovation and Swinburne University Centre for Design Innovation), Yongqi Lou (Tongji), Don Norman (University of California, San Diego, Design Lab), Pieter Jan Stappers (Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering), Ena Voûte (Delft), and Patrick Whitney (Illinois Institute of Technology, Institute of Design). (accessed October 2015).

3. The list of authors who contributed to start this re-definition of design could be very long. My main references are: Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” Design Issues 8, no. 2 (Spring 1992); Nigel Cross, Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2011); Tim Brown, Design Thinking”, Harvard Business Review (June 2008).

4. Pelle Ehn, “Participation in Design Things”, Participatory Design Conference Proceedings, (Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Sept. 30 – Oct. 4, 2008); Ezio Manzini, Francesca Rizzo, “Small Projects/Large Changes. Partecipatory Design as an Open Partecipated Process”, CoDesign, Vol. 7 no 3-4 (2011): 199-215; Pelle Ehn, Elisabeth M. Nilsson eds, Making futures(Cambridge: MIT Press 2014).



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