Ezio Manzini on sustainable design, or, dinosaurs had their day, too

Ezio Manzini is a leading Italian thinker in the domain of sustainable design with a focus on social innovation. I won’t bore you with all his credentials (you can read about them in his CV), suffice to say he has been around as a student, lecturer, and professor across the world for a long time!

Ezio is in Australia as part of the Social Innovator Dialogues series, presented by ASIX, TACSI and CSI. The Social Innovator Dialogues aim to “challenge us to think differently about the big issues affecting our nations and communities and to find practical ways to integrate innovative approaches into our responses to unmet social needs”.

On Wednesday night as the rain poured down, Ezio addressed an eager audience at Treasury Theatre in Melbourne to talk about Designing innovation. Here are a few of the thoughts I noted down:

The basics of civilisation under threat

Ezio opened the evening with the idea that many of the things that a healthy society needs to function are under threat from our current way of living.

Quality of relationships

We must move towards recreating trust, rebuilding communities
De-mediated interactions are imperative

Quality of space

Public space is diminishing
We need to re-conquer public space, re-generate it and improve it

Quality of time

‘Fast’ has it’s place, but ’slow’ is valuable too
We need time to contemplate

Quality of being capable

People have skills and capabilites that must be used and valued
There is pride in being able to offer a skill to the community

On this idea of capability, Ezio said that over time, the idea of welfare has become quite passive. He believes that instead of passively accepting welfare or the notion of wellbeing, citizens should become more engaged and activated in creating their own wellbeing – co-creation as a means of engagement. People should be encouraged to use their capabilities. With over 6 billion people on earth who are capable of solving the world’s problems, we need to ensure they have the skills, knowledge and tools to participate in the journey towards sustainability.

The answer? SLOC

Ezio believes that in reaction to these crises of quality, some deep trends are emerging – namely, a transition to a society more focussed on the concepts of small, local, open and connected. He says that the interplay of these four concepts is the way forward to sustainable social innovation.


Small used to be a synonym for inconsequential in a more hierarchical structure. In the networked society, small just means one part of a larger organism; small still has the power to make things happen and influence those around it


Increasing globalisation has reintroduced the concept of localisation. Our local identity is important, as we often define ourselves by who we are in a place, in our surroundings. The ‘local’ can be leveraged to affect change on a small scale, and then to influence the greater society.


Be open to new ideas, share with others
Don’t become so focussed on the ‘local’ that you block others out


Connectedness allows for a flatter structure – nodes can talk to each other, and there is no need for top-down dissemination of information

The future: Distributed systems

To make the switch to sustainable lifestyles, Ezio suggested that we need to challenge the hierarchical, top-down nature of society and transition to a world in which networks are distributed.  Distributed networks, he argued, are more resilient and adaptable. Hierarchical, pyramid-style structures are fragile and break easily, whereas distributed networks are better able to deal with complexity and turbulence as any issues that are arrived can be dealt with locally.

Similarly, infrastructure is beginning to become more distributed – think of domestic water tanks, solar power generated by individuals that feeds back into the grid, peer-to-peer computer networks. We are finding that by connecting to each other we are more efficient than relying on a single, larger source.

Ezio says that these distributed networks will succeed in recruiting members of society when their alternative ideas/methods/outcomes are successful – people will not be forced to join, they will want to opt in to these new ways of thinking because they are appealing.

But how?

Ezio cited several concrete examples of people innovating sustainably in different (and appealing) ways:

And the dinosaurs?

After Ezio’s speech, some audience members asked questions, mainly to do with the practicalities of innovating. Someone wanted to know how we could possibly hope to persuade large corporations and governments to adopt a more sustainable and/or socially innovative perspective.

Obviously this is not a straightforward question, and Ezio began by reminding us that dinosaurs, too, had their day. He said there is a tipping point where the minority becomes the majority, and there is no reason to think the transition to sustainability will not happen – most of us would agree it is a question of when, not if. Every empire eventually falls, and it is the idea of distributed networks that is important in overthrowing the current, unsustainable way of operating. Making connections with other like-minded people and continually finding and advocating for more innovative solutions is the way forward.

Hear for yourself

I managed to find Ezio Manzini on Youtube so you can get a feel for the man himself. In this video from 2009 he is talking about social innovation, so there are many similar ideas.

What next?

Listening to thought-provoking talks such as Ezio’s always leaves me wondering how I can make a difference. With my skills in user experience, I am working with a team on an online platform to bring together and strengthen real-world groups. It’s a spare time project, but we’re making slow progress! I’m always on the lookout for other cool ideas that are happening, particularly around inner Melbourne, where I live.

What are you doing to to make your life and the lives of others around you more sustainable? Do you know of any exciting social innovation projects in your area? Share your story in the comments.

Update: Searching for more information on Ezio Manzini, I came across Suze Ingram’s fantastic Service Design Hub post about Ezio’s talks – she also links to the same video. Check out her post too!

events, service design

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