Ezio Manzini

Ezio Manzini - designer, engineer, architect, educator and author - is one of the most important thinkers in design today. Manzini's works are based on strategic design and design for sustainability, with a focus on scenario building and solution development. He acknowledges the influential role design can play in changing our ways of thinking and living. Manzini challenges designers to re-orient creativity towards sustainable solutions.
Ezio Manzini is currently professor of Industrial Design at the Milan Polytechnic and Chair Professor of Design under the Distinguished Scholars Scheme at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He has held the position of Director of Design at the Domus Academy in Milan and has been involved in several international commissions, expert panels and working groups including the Scientific Panel of the National Environmental Agency (1998 – 2000) and the Expert Group on Competitive and Sustainable Production (2000). He is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Industrial Ecology (USA), the Journal for Sustainable Product Design (UK), and the Eternally Yours Foundation (The Netherlands). As well as a number of books, he has written for many international magazines and has been responsible for several research papers for public bodies and private companies. Professor Manzini recently established the Chinese Network for Design for Sustainability.

small, local, open and connected

A scenario for social innovation towards sustainability


The only sustainable way to get out of the current global financial and ecological crisis is to promote new economic models, new production systems and new ideas of wellbeing. To define and implement these new models is, of course, very difficult. But it is not impossible. And we do not have to start from zero. In the last decades, in fact, a multiplicity of social “actors” (institutions, enterprises, non-profit organisations, but also and most of all, individual citizens and their associations) have been capable of acting outside of the mainstream models. And, doing so, to create a large amount of concrete experiences that could consolidate, spread and become the most convincing answers to the present dramatic challenges.

The emerging scenario. Thanks to the promising experiences accumulated to date we can outline a new scenario. This emerging scenario strength is given by the fact that it can be built at the intersection of three main innovation streams: the green revolution (and the highly environmental friendly systems it makes available); the spread of networks (and the distributed, open, peer-to-peer organisations it generates); the diffuse creativity (and the original answers to daily problems that a variety of social actors are conceiving and implementing). We will refer to it as the SLOC Scenario, where SLOC stands for small, local, open, connected. These four adjectives, in fact, synthesise very well the socio-technical system on which this scenario is based: a distributed production and consumption system where the global is a “network of locals”. That is, it is a mesh of connected local systems the small scale of which makes them comprehensible and controllable by individuals and communities.

Small, local, open, connected

These four words are important because, synthesising the results of 20 years of discussions and concrete experiences, they clearly indicate that there is no hope to design sustainable solutions without moving from the notions of local and the community to which this local mainly refers. At the same time, there is no hope of implementing them without considering these localities in the framework of contemporary transformations. That is, without considering that, in the globalised network society, the local and the small are, at the same time, open and connected.

The SLOC Scenario

The scenario is useful because it gives a clear direction of where to look for sustainable solutions. In fact, it indicates that sustainable solutions necessarily refer to the local (and the community to which this local mainly refers) and to the small (and the possibilities in terms of relationships, participation and democracy that the human scale make possible). At the same time, it tells us that to implement solutions, we have to consider these small entities and these localities in the framework of the global network society where the local and the small are both open and connected. This change in the nature of the small and local has enormous implications: with the new networks it becomes possible to operate on a local and small scale in a very effective way. Moreover, these networked systems indicate the one and only possibility to operate in the complex and fast changing environment generated by the present crisis and by the double transition towards a knowledge society and a sustainable society.

Social innovation

Practical applications of SLOC-oriented initiatives already exist (see the Promising cases BOX). Some of them are rather diffuse. Others are still quite marginal. But all of them are practical working prototypes of new ways of living and doing. Considered as a whole, they demonstrate that the SLOC Scenario is not a utopia, but a potentially viable perspective. The challenge, therefore, is to transform its potentiality into a mainstream reality. To do that it is necessary to better understand the complex interplay between social and technical innovation that generates the cases on which this scenario is based. In fact, all the promising cases we are referring to here emerge from a virtuous interaction between social and technical innovation: they have been conceived and implemented (mainly) by the involved actors, using  their personal capabilities, their direct knowledge of the problems to be solved and applying at best (and, very often, in a totally unforeseen way) existing technologies.

Drivers of change

Generalising what we have just observed, we can assume that this positive interplay between technological and social innovations is a powerful promoter of sustainable ways of living and producing. Technological innovation opens new opportunities (in terms of unprecedented forms of organizations) and social innovation mobilizes diffuse social resources (in terms of creativity, skills, knowledge and entrepreneurship). This positive double link between grassroots users and technology is particularly relevant in the transitions towards sustainability - if small and local systems are concerned, nothing can happen without a diffuse and creative participation of the people directly involved. And vice versa. These people are the only ones who can creatively adopt (and adapt to the local specificities) distributed and peer-to-peer models. In other words: no distributed systems without social innovation.

Ways of living

A closer look at the SLOC Scenario in terms of wellbeing, indicates that, in their diversity, they have a fundamental characteristic in common. Each one of them compensates for the reduction in consumption of products with an increase in other qualities. These qualities include the quality of physical and social environments with the rediscovery of commons; the quality of relationships with the rediscovery of communities; the quality of being active with the rediscovery of individual and social capabilities; the quality of time with the rediscovery of slowness. All these new qualities are based on some traditional ones, re-interpreted in the present context. All of them, to be appreciated, require a human scale, that is, they require small (comprehensible, manageable) systems. At the same time, today, given the high level of connectivity, these small systems can (and have to) be open: open to the interactions with wider flows of people and ideas that characterize contemporary global society. For this complex relation between being small and being open we can refer to the expression: cosmopolitan localism.

Ways of producing

Looking at these promising cases, in terms of producing, what appears is a new relationship between the local and the global where new, local but connected systems of production and consumption appear. This general feature can take different specific forms: the sustainable valorization of local resources (from natural environments and agriculture to craftsmanship and local knowledge); the realization of symbiotic production processes (from zero waste systems to industrial ecology districts); the development of distributed systems (from power generation to manufacturing and to the whole economy). Considering these features as a whole, what appear is a new relationship between the local and the global. A connected local, where  knowledge,  money and decision making power can circulate in worldwide networks. But where, nevertheless, the larger part of them remains at the local scale. That is, the major part of knowledge, money and decision making power remains in the hands of those who produce them.

Small is not small

Some 30 years ago E. F. Schumacher wrote his very famous book Small is beautiful. At that time, because the degree of connectivity was (relatively) low, the small was really small and the local really local (that is, isolated). Therefore, Schumacher’s option in terms of the small and local scale could be proposed only as a cultural and ethical choice. Today, it is no longer like that: with a higher degree of connectivity, when the small can be a node of the networks and the local can be open to the global flow of people and information, the small is no longer small and a local is no longer local, at least in traditional terms.

Local is not local

Similar considerations can be reviewed with regard to the notion of “local”, and the related one of “place”. In the last decades there have been long and important debates on the emerging world of flows and, therefore, on the “end of places” and of localities. In my view, the observations from these discussions were and are still correct: it is important to recognize the role of flows and the crisis of traditional places (with the corresponding diffusion of “no-places”). But these observations do not capture the entire complexity of the new reality. In fact, looking into this complexity, we also see that a growing number of people is actively searching for places (that is, for specific local traditions and new forms of localities).

Design for social innovation

Designers, and design researchers, can do a lot to empower social innovation for sustainability. They can feed the social conversation (i.e. the interplay between social and technological innovation) with visions and proposals. And they can collaborate with both diffuse social innovators (to help them conceive and manage their initiatives) and with technologists, entrepreneurs and policy makers (to develop products, services and infrastructures (to make the most promising initiatives accessible and replicable and, in this way, to open new markets and economic opportunities). These design activities, considered as a whole, can be defined as design for social innovation and sustainability. 


Promising cases

Looking at the complexity of present day society, we can find out that, in every country in the world, there are promising cases of social and technical innovation coherent with the SLOC Scenario: they deal with: collaborative social and residential services, bottom-up urban improvement initiatives, local and organic food networks, distributed production systems, cases of sustainable local development.

Some promising cases examples can be found in the Sustainable Everyday Project, in particular, for what regards Europe - Africa - China - Brazil - India

These examples, are the result of a multiplicity of initiatives performed by a variety of people, associations, enterprises, and local governments who, from different starting points, move towards similar ideas of wellbeing and production: an active wellbeing based on a sense of community and common goods. A production system intended as networks of collaborative people and based on a new relationship between the local and the global. In their diversity, these cases have a fundamental common characteristic: they all refer to places. That is, to local resources and local communities.