Ezio Manzini: Design when Everybody Designs

Written for Introduction to Design for Social Innovation, taught at Carnegie Mellon University by Dimeji Onafuwa & Silvia Mata-Marin

Prompt: Give your thoughts (in a minimum of 300 words) on Ezio Manzini’s ideas on diffuse and expert design, his work with cosmopolitan localism, as well as his theory of change (i.e. SLOC framework — small, local, open and connected).


Ezio Manzini’s ideas on diffuse design, participatory design, and cosmopolitan localism appeal to me, because I think it helps make designing for social innovation a lot more personal, manageable, and real to people. By working locally and directly with stakeholders, a designer is much more likely to have a more immediate impact on the problem than working in a top-down, large-scale project bogged down by bureaucracy. I have personally seen the rapid growth and impact of a grassroots organization located in the south side of Chicago, and that personal experience has proven to me the value of working on local problems with local people.

At the same time, the more I learn about social and transition design at CMU, the more I am convinced that sustainable, long-term, systems-level change cannot be effected without a dramatic shift in our governmental policies. Taking climate change as an example, personal, individual changes in practices are not enough to counter the tons of toxic chemicals that multi-national corporations pour into our environment every day with the sanctioning of our government. As another example, much work is being done to rehabilitate and integrate ex-convicts back into society, but on a policy level, not enough is being done to dismantle the prison-industrial complex that profits off of high incarceration rates and perpetuates the problem further.

I do not mean to say there is not value in social innovation initiatives. I believe such initiatives are not only important but critical — they help to assuage the negative impacts of bad policies that neglect or even further handicap disadvantaged groups, and they also fill in gaps that society isn’t otherwise satisfying (such as the need to care for an aging population, as Ezio mentioned in his book). These initiatives are crucial to the functioning of our society, but I sometimes feel they are more a bandage than a cure. I think policy changes can be more far-reaching, longer-lasting, and have greater impact than local innovations alone.

Perhaps I am being too cynical; I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

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