Ezio Manzini's (sustainist) design agenda


Ezio Manzini's design agenda for social innovation & sustainability. Slide from Manzini's Interaction 10 presentation. Photo by Simon King on Flickr (source

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One of the central questions raised in the Open Sustainist Design project is how the process and content for design change once we connect social and ecological sustainability. One of the key figures in addressing this question is Ezio Manzini founder of the DESIS Design for Social Innovation towards Sustainability and professor of Industrial Design at Milan Polytechnic, He can be considered as one of the key “sustainist” design thinkers avant la lettre.

Below some quotes from an interview with Manzini, published on the website of, whose tagline reads “Sharing by Design”. In it, Manzini elaborates on his four focal points for a social and sustainable design agenda: small, open, local and connected.

Quotes from interview with Ezio Manzini in

When I use the words small, open, local and connected, this is my way of telling the story. People can tell it in another way, but the result is similar. Of course it’s a metaphor: having small entities that when connected, become bigger entities… It’s a way to imagine the way in which the social services are delivered in society and the way in which we can imagine economies that are at the same time rooted in a place and partially self-sufficient but connected to the others and open to the others.

Having dealt with sustainability for the past 30 years, I have had to reframe several times my way of discussing the problem. A lot of sustainability topics were simple to discuss in a naive way 30 years ago because nobody, us included, had concrete ideas on how a sustainable society would have been Today, my way to deal with sustainability has shifted toward social innovation

For me, dealing with the needed sustainable changes that are mainly cultural and behavior change, the pivotal moment has been when I moved from saying “What can I do to help people change behavior?” toward the discovery that a lot of people (even if they aren’t yet so visible) had already changed, and in a good way, their behaviors. And that therefore, the right question is: ”What can I do to trigger and support these new way of thinking and doing? How can I use my design knowledge and tools to empower these grass-roots social innovations?"

As good examples of design for social innovation and sustainability we can look at “zero-mile food”, where not only a new way of eating but also a new relationship between production and consumption, and between the city and the countryside, are established. Other examples are collaborative services where elderly people organize themselves to exchange mutual help and, at the same time, promote a new idea of welfare. Further examples are neighborhood gardens set-up and managed by citizens who in this way improve the quality of the city and its social fabric, or groups of families who decide to share some services to reduce the economic and environmental costs, but also to create new forms of neighborhood.
Once we start to observe society and look for this kind of initiative, a variety of other interesting cases appear: new forms of social interchange and mutual help (such as the local exchange trading systems and time banks); systems of mobility that present alternatives to the use of individual cars (from car sharing and car pooling to the rediscovery of the possibilities offered by bicycles); the development of productive activities based on local resources and skills which are linked into wider global networks (as is the case of certain products typical of a specific place, or of the fair and direct trade networks between producers and consumers established around the globe).

For the full interview and links to Ezio Manzini’s design thinking see