The keynote speaker of this year’s DO–ference, in conjunction with SCAD’s Design Ethos event this weekend, is Ezio Manzini, a leading global expert in the growing field of “social innovation,” which aims to link green–type initiatives with a system of ethics and civic strength.
A professor of industrial design at Milan Polytechnic and a visiting professor at Parsons, The News School of Design, Manzini is also founder of the DESIS (Design for Social Innovation towards Sustainability) network of university–based design labs.
The affable and brilliant Italian speaks Friday at 9 a.m. at the Trustees Theater.
What’s the difference between the profound social innovation you talk about, and the technical concerns about energy efficiency that most people want to talk about?
Ezio Manzini: I’m from Italy, as you can tell from my accent, but I teach at Parsons in New York. We have a lot of traffic jams in New York City. But if we make everything electric cars, we’ll just have a lot of jams of electric cars!
People do work in the transportational field, using energy innovation to improve the efficiency of the car. Making many parts recyclable, things like that. But if we approach mobility like this, we’re not solving the problem that people face of a world of 7 billion people — 11 billion soon — who will all have the same right to that same type of mobility.
Instead, maybe look at how many people the average car trip transports — 1.2, maybe 1.3 people on average. If you succeed in raising that average to 3, 4, or 5 people per car trip, then you’ve multiplied your efficiency 3, 4, or 5 times, without that investment.
It’s about changing the social dimension and definition of a car and how it’s used. That shift involves developing a design that’s capable of making social and cultural change.
Bicycles are an excellent example — people are beginning to recognize that the bicycle is a very effective way to make that change. Then you begin to discuss accessibility, bike lanes, safety, and all designs for social innovation. You change the way people imagine they can move.
People don’t like mandates, whether by government or by academia. How can this change be realized without a top–down mentality?
Ezio Manzini: In the area of food, for example, companies are used to talking about packaging, recycling, using biodegradable material. But the real revolution in the food movement involves imagining a new relationship between citizens and farmers. It’s a change in mentality. It can’t be totally designed — you need a grassroots scenario.
I’m not suggesting that traditional design isn’t good anymore. I’m talking about simply extending the range of what can be done. Traditional innovation looks toward technical innovation. But we want to make a bridge between technical challenges and social and cultural challenges.
I’m reminded of the old science fiction shows with floating cars. But most innovation is in communications technology like cellphones and the internet. Meanwhile we still drive in the same basic car designs from 50 years ago.
Ezio Manzini: You remember Blade Runner? That was about 30 years ago. It envisioned the advanced transformation of the city. There were those cars floating in the air. But when he goes to make a telephone call, he steps into a phone booth! So we see that reality is often more inventive than we can imagine.
How do the U.S. and Europe differ in their approaches to social innovation?
Ezio Manzini: In both the U.S. and in Europe people aren’t necessarily interested in working together to solve problems. But it’s crucial to adopt an attitude that people can collaborate on solutions.
In Europe you’ve had this idea of the cradle–to–grave welfare state, where the citizen is sort of a passive recipient of state action. But that idea is dying, not only economically but conceptually. Even in Europe they’re moving more toward the idea of the state as a partner rather than as a big brother.
Americans typically see less of a role for government. What’s your vision of governmen’ts role in social innovation?
Ezio Manzini: In the U.S. you have almost what amounts to regional quasi–anarchy, where citizens are basically against the role of government in the life of the people. But in a sense that’s just a way to avoid taking positions. The idea that communities can accomplish everything and the state will just disappear goes against my experience. The state can play a role as an enabler and empowerer of new forms of social networks.
The traditional welfare state is really over, and now we need a more diffused kind of bottom–up scenario. A new kind of politics needs to be developed. There is a political dimension to design. I’m not a politician in any normal sense. I belong to no political party. But I am politically very committed. I am an activist — I’m doing something I like.
It’s a fascinating period we live in, and also tragic! I hope that we will see the beginning of some new stories.
When & Where: Fri. April 20, 9 a.m., Trustees Theatre