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= case study of Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) as a translocal network


Flor Avelino et al. :

Desis is a global network of labs based in design schools. The main idea is that design schools, based on regular activities undertaken by teachers, researchers and students and tapping into students’ enthusiasm and faculty experience could help in supporting and accelerating social change towards sustainability. It is considered to be the ‘first network of schools dealing with social innovation, specifically in the design field’ (Member, interview #1 in Cipolla et al., 2015). The POLIMI-DESIS Lab, based in the Department of Design at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy, is composed of a group of researchers adopting a strategic and systemic approach to design, with a specific focus on design for services and design activism. Its objective is exploring how design can enable people, communities, enterprises and social actors to activate and manage innovation processes, aimed at experimenting with sustainable, convivial and collaborative ways of living and doing.

DESIS operates based on regular activities undertaken by teachers, researchers and students. Programs run with no financial support and DESIS coordination only connects these activities promoting collaborative knowledge production and exchange. At a local level, members have access primarily to intangible resources by being involved in activities, but also to physical resources (office space, equipment, furniture, classrooms) available in the labs.

DESIS cannot manage any money. So, it is not an association for profit nor without profit, or non-profit. How does this work? The idea is that every project we do is done by the labs. It is a network of nodes with a network of activities and a very large and flexible coordination of everything. (Member, interview #1, ibid)

DESIS was co-founded by former PhD candidates of Politecnico di Milano, who became professors in universities all over the world and set up the first DESIS Labs. A sense of relatedness emerged based on their common history. DESIS as a platform connects their past (as colleagues theorizing about design for social innovation) to their present (practicing it in the labs). This sense of a mutually supportive community spread throughout DESIS.

The founder (and former advisor of the co-founders) performed a key role in this process:

- He (the founder) listens a lot. He is a great amplifier in a conscious and unconscious way. Sometimes I see him saying things that I have said. (…) he is a good spokesperson because he can say things that you recognize yourself. He absorbs and makes a synthesis. This is a great dowry and will be fundamental for the DESIS Network. (Member, interview #2, ibid)

DESIS aims to instil a sense of autonomy in the sense of independence from the usual body of knowledge provided to students:

- designers have mainly been part of the (social and economic) problem that we now have to face. Moving from here to become part of the solution, to become active agents in the transition towards sustainable ways of living, designers must make a profound change in their culture and praxis. (DESIS founder - Manzini, 2007)

- When we started working, at least here, with a public administration, what they expected from designers was totally different from what you delivered. They started to understand that creativity is not only something you use to produce chairs. (Member, interview #2, ibid)

The network and the local labs aim to interact to compose a platform for developing new knowledge and competence in designers to move ‘from the idea of designing to solve problems to one of designing to enable people to live as they like while moving toward sustainability’ (DESIS founder - Manzini, 2007 and to ‘promote new ways of living, in a kind of new system of solutions for people’s everyday life’ (Member, interview #2, ibid). The aim is to equip students and professionals to perform this new role: ‘this more theoretical dimension was translated into tools and into something that could influence more directly the schools, in the teaching’ (Member, interview #1, ibid).

Students are regarded as the main channel through which impact is produced. It includes the development a set of pioneering projects targeted to exemplifying a new design practice and to creating a demand for these new professionals.

Our main channel for impact is our raw material, and our raw material are the students … . (They) will be the younger designers of the next generations, and after all it is for them that we try now to conceptualize what design for social innovation is, because we are in a way, saying that a designer is not anymore who it used to be. And if we insist to train and to educate young designers for this new way of being designers, then we have to create for them the condition to work and to exist in the society. (Member, interview #2, ibid)

There is a sense of meaning derived from the belief that design education can be transformative through the development of visionary projects in the DESIS Labs. It is considered that DESIS gathers those motivated to nurture a culture of change and transformation in universities.

- It is a belief. It seems that the DESIS Network is a kind of movement, of activism. This is a disciplinary movement, people that feel themselves a different kind of designer. This is not like (other social innovation network) that wants to involve more people, parts of the population. Our view is more technical and professional; it is from a point of view of a specific discipline and job. (Members, interview #2 and #5, ibid)

DESIS considers society as a vast laboratory for creativity that can be channelled to tackle societal challenges and to promote a transition towards sustainable ways of living. DESIS Labs aim to participate in these processes and, by being based in universities, have the flexibility to explore and consolidate new frontiers, to test new ideas and projects, to prototype them, to fail and to try again. This experimental character is part of the design discipline itself and fosters in DESIS members a sense of resilience. Disempowerment in DESIS includes perceptions of limited autonomy, impact and meaning among members. There is autonomy for participants in the Labs, with a minimum requirement to be affiliated to DESIS, i.e. to promote and support social innovation processes through design. The network has a decision-making mechanism that allows to manage the key processes of the association, for example, to elect the coordinator and its coordination plan (Cipolla et al., 2015). However, the network does not have a deliberative process for members to discuss and eventually agree about issues of concern and develop common standpoints. It results that the standpoints of the founder converge with (what is considered to be) that of the network (Member, interview #2, ibid). The role of the founder and his standpoints were crucial to develop the network (Cipolla et al., 2015), but progressively, as the network evolves, there is an increasing demand for autonomy among active members and the lack of it is perceived as disempowering. The quest for participation through deliberative processes includes also the founder and expresses the will to increase the impact of DESIS. The network operates based on universities and an important expected impact of DESIS is to be influential in the design education for social change – and to influence social change per se – through educational mechanisms. Limitations to reach such impact disempower members and founder. This also has consequences in the meaningfulness for participants. The interest and affiliations are increasing, which may indicate that these disempowering aspects may be perceived more strongly by longer-term members. Paradoxically, the disempowerment aspects are also empowering since they create a tension that pushes the network to evolve. Activities to increase the knowledge exchange and participation between labs are under development and aim to create the conditions to solve these disempowering aspects." (