A scenario for social innovation towards sustainability (by Ezio Manzini)

On Tuesday I had the lack to attend for the first time a lecture from one of my most inspiring figures: Ezio Manzini, a design thinker and thought leader in the area of sustainability for almost twenty years. I found the content of his lecture at (rethinkclimate.org) and I just copy-paste it here for the ones following this blog. Enjoy it!

Small-Local-Open-Connected (SLOC) : 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.

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Three great books for football aficionados…

Today is the first day in the World Cup without a game, and it already feels strange…To fill the “gap” I would like to recommend three great books for football aficionados (and not only…):

Futebol, the Brazilian way of life (by Alex Bellos)

A fantastic book by Alex Bellos on how a sport of 100+ years old has shaped so much the culture and the life of Brazilians and visa versa how Brazilians has changed football for the better. The writer tells riveting stories about World Cups, great matches, players-legends like Pele and Garrincha, but also anecdotes about voodoo and football, football played by cars (Autoball), and more strange and lovely stories that you will love to read again and again. Definitely, a great book to read that will also make you understand and appreciate more the Brazilian players that have played for your club ;)

Soccer in sun and shadow (by Eduardo Galeano)

A really beautiful book by Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan poet and writer, who can handle words like Ronaldinho handles the ball. Galeano, coming from a country that has won two times the world cup, is a real football aficionado, romantic, loving the sport and not the packaging that FIFA’s presidents like Joao Havelange and  Joseph Blatter are trying to wrap football with…

Galeano tells the history of football and life during the 20th century based on World Cup tournaments, being critical and political whenever it is needed, reminding to the reader what football really is and why people love it!

Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football (by David Winner)

A brilliant book by David Winner, on what Dutch football is, how Dutch perceive it and why Dutch are playing it like this. Living in the Netherlands for three and half years, I can tell that David Winner has really immersed into the Dutch culture and has been impressed by Dutch to write this book, and explain why the Total Football was born in the Netherlands. How Dutch perceive space to farm their land, but also in architecture (Bauhaus), painting (Mondrian) and eventually in football…How has collectivism in daily Dutch life  led to Total Football and how has Dutch arrogance led to underachievement in football…? These and many more  questions are answered in David Winner’s Brilliant Orange…Must Read!

The design of Jabulani ball

Jabulani is the name of the official ball for the World Cup 2010 in South Africa. It means “rejoice” in Zulu or “Oh my God!” in the goalkeeper’s language… The reason is that it has caused a lot of troubles to most of the goalies so far, who look helpless to predict the move of the ball in long and hard shots.

Watching at youtube videos it seems Adidas has put great effort on making the best ball ever, innovating on the design of the ball which consists of eight (down from 14 in the last World Cup) thermally bonded, three-dimensional panels. These are spherically molded from ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) and thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPU). The surface of the ball is textured with grooves, a technology developed by Adidas called GripnGroove that are intended to improve the ball’s aerodynamics.

The videos are quite impressive, but it seems that the players (the users) were ignored during the whole development process (sponsored adidas players don’t count as serious user research).  Some reactions from other topclass-players (sponsored by other companies, don’t know how objective this can be):

Brazil (Nike) goalkeeper Júlio César compared the ball to a “supermarket” ball that favors strikers and works against goalkeepers. Italian (Puma) keeper Gianluigi Buffon said, “it is very sad that a competition so important as the world championship will be played with such an inadequate ball, whilst Brazilian striker Luís Fabiano called the ball “supernatural”, as it unpredictably changes direction when travelling through the air. Brazilian striker Robinho stated, “for sure the guy who designed this ball never played football. But there is nothing we can do, we have to play with it.”

Adidas  was surprised by the negative reaction of the ball stating that the ball had been used since January of 2010 (?!!!), and that most feedback from players had been positive…

Well, Adidas should better start working from now on the next ball of the World Cup 2014 in Brazil, and lets hope this time will involve the users from the beginning and not only during the last 6 months to test the ball…

My music experience in the web…

First, it was the WOW effect of Pandora, 6-7 years ago, when me and my friends laughed our pants off with the stations we were creating based on one artist or song (e.g “Barbie Girl” radio station). But then the effect didn’t last long enough, neither Pandora which limited its broadcasting to the U.S only.

Then it was and still is LastFm, scrobbling songs I listen to my itunes and ipod. The time I’m writing this post, my LastFm has scrobbled so far 33912 songs and  still counts… Monitoring my music taste and how it changes with time, having my own Charts, listening to my brother’s radio, and finding people with similar music taste has been an awesome experience! But then LastFm Radio became a paid service, which for a month I tried, but the transition from something that was a commodity  to a “premium” service with the same advantages, disappointed me and made me stop my subscription.

In the meanwhile, Web radio and podcasts monopolized my interest. Following new releases in 3voor12 (a dutch webradio station) or following KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, and listening to favorite artists playing live their music! Could I ask for more?

Oh, yes…Spotify, which just came to the Netherlands. I became a member, and with all the excitement  I started using it. I have to say I feel overwhelmed by the whole experience, handicapped to type what music would i like to listen to next. My listening experience has broken into two pieces now, my unlimited music library (Spotify) and my music taste data (LastFm). If I want to look for recommendations I check LastFm first, if I look for new releases I check 3voor12 or Popmatters, and then I have to go back to Spotify.

I’m afraid having all the music of the world in your pocket is not enough, when you don’t know what you want to pick out of your pocket…and Spotify so far is not helping out…Instead of fighting all the legal matters they’re into, they should start looking  a bit more into the user experience, making it richer but also simpler. Making more use of the playlists, and the exchange of music between Spotify users, letting music tastes and recommendations flow…Lets wait and see…Spotify is too young after all ;)

Welcome Google TV!

A couple of days ago, I was blaming in this blog litl trying to bring the web experience on TV…But now Google, with Google TV, reinvents TV! Without trying to change the role of TV in the living-room (as litl does), Google enhances the TV experience by backing it up with the world’s biggest movie database. The idea is as simple as google search;  whenever you feel like watching a movie/serie you type the name of the movie you’re interested in a google box and you watch the movie you asked for…simple as this! :)

Google sparked the interest of developers, and now we just have to wait and see where all this thing is going to…I wonder what youtube’s and netflix reaction will be on all these….?

Why a web experience on TV is wrong…

Reading  Fastcompany’s article about Litl, I’m trying to figure out how Litl won’t be a FAILED project…and seriously I don’t see any reason why Litl shouldn’t fail, when it’s based on fault assumptions…The CEO of Litl, John Chuang states “What we really want to deliver is an excellent Web experience on TV, which doesn’t exist yet.”

But Mr. Chuang or Litl’s designers have you ever been to people’s living-rooms to see how they watch TV or browse the internet? Lying on the couch, watching TV while at the same time some family members browse the web with their laptops on the lap, or with a smart-phone on the hand. And the reason is -apart from the boring sitcoms that lead to multitasking- that browsing the internet, chatting and using Facebook are private experiences.  On a Monday evening,  15 year old Kate might want to sent goodnight kisses to her boyfriend from MSN, 13 year old John might want to check out his crops in Farmville while the father is reading the news on his i-phone, and the mother might be the only one really watching Dexter…

Now, social web-apps and web-games to play on TV is another issue, but they still cancel TV instead of complementing it. I’m afraid Mr. Chuang got it all wrong…But good luck anyway!

Please rob me!


I was chatting, some time ago, with two friends about the perils of social networking and the worrying fact that people do not fully comprehend the new reality that has emerged. Once, you only had to pull your curtains to secure your privacy at home, but times have changed and not only you have to be constantly aware of the messages you transmit, but also click tens of boxes at your privacy settings hoping it will do the job.

Pleaserobme.com is a provocative idea, developed by team Forthehack, to make people a bit more aware of the information they expose when they use services like Foursquare, Brightkite, Google Buzz etc. By just dressing up Twitter search page, Pleaserobme invites potential robbers to look for  “new opportunities” aka. empty homes!

Dead simple and smart idea! It’s time all these social networking companies, to bear their responsibilities and start educating people, making them more aware of the new reality. I heard Mozilla is already taking some initiatives…