Special Interview: Ezio Manzini

1. The theme of this year's Seoul Design International Forum is 'Re-connect: Design as a value creator'. What do you think the city government should do to improve the value in the cities and in the lives of their citizen through design? And for that, how should the city's design organization be structured? 

To answer this question a premise is need. To do it, I refer to what I wrote a decade ago​1)​ : in a fast and profoundly changing world, everybody designs. ‘Everybody’ means not only individual people, groups, communities, companies and associations, but also institutions, cities and entire regions; and ‘design’ means that, whether they like it or not, all these individual and collective entities are forced to bring all their designing capabilities into play to devise their life strategies and put them into practice. 

The result of this diffuse designing is that society as a whole can be seen as a huge laboratory in which unprecedented social forms, solutions and meanings are produced and social innovation is created. 

Therefore, to discuss “What do you think the city government should do to improve the value in the cities and in the lives of their citizen through design” we can refer to two types of design skills: (1) that of experts (expert design) and (2) that potentially widespread among citizens and citizen organizations (widespread planning).

It follows that, for cities, the main objective should be to promote the design capabilities that are widespread in citizens and in their organization. This is the way to release the energies that exist in the city. To do this it is necessary to develop a new type of governance which could be called collaborative governance.

In this framework, the role of design experts should be to activate and support the capacities of citizens and their organizations to be active and to use their widespread design potential.  

2. If there is an important case as an example of efforts made by city governments or public institutions to create social value, please introduce it.

There are several very interesting cases that can be considered as successful examples.
Of course, I could quote what the city of Seoul did in the past years that, for me, has been an outstanding effort of creating value in the city and for the citizens through design. Moving to Europe, I could refer to Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam. But I prefer to use the case of Milano, because I know it better, having been in different ways involved in it. 

In Milano, in the past decade, the City Council has been capable to trigger and support the citizens’ initiatives in different neighborhoods and on different topics. These initiatives have been dealing with all the areas of daily life but, at the same time, they have been converging in the same direction: to establish a collaboration between citizens and the city. An in-depth study (done by Davide Fassi of the Politecnico di Milano in relation of a specific neighborhoods called Nolo​2) indicates that the role of the city’s governance in relation to the interventions carried out by the neighbourhood communities. This role can be summarised in three approaches:

(1) Endorser: some activities were backed by the municipal administration with a simple form of non-financial endorsement, while however recognising their innovative value. That helped to put the media spotlight on the neighbourhood and attracted such interest as to have the results conveyed through the City Council’s official communication channels and disseminated in institutional spheres. 

(2) Facilitator: The City Council facilitated the execution of some of the scenarios resulting from the activities carried out by the local initiatives. Consequently, it provided a number of administrative tools (one of these has been to allocate unoccupied spaces within the municipal market for the construction of a district laboratory, “Off Campus Nolo”, coordinated by Polimi Desis Lab).

(3) Partner: In some cases the role of the administration has become more direct. As, for instance, the City Council helped the local organisations to experiment in the area with a number of identified slow mobility solutions and in the processing of requests for the occupation and temporary transformation of public areas into socialising spaces (in line with the emergency regulations linked to the Covid-19 emergency). 

These examples highlight how the City Council has managed over time to create a balance between the grassroots approach of the community and the top-down decision-making of the governing bodies, where the project proposals of the former correspond to the support tools of the latter.

3. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living through challenging time. How can design strive for social innovation or improvement of public life in the post-COVID era? 

The pandemic has been and is a tragedy and a huge social experiment in which millions of people have had to change their ways of living, the implications of which are still to be understood. Nevertheless, some of them are already clear. Here, for the sake of a discussion on the city, two seem to be particularly relevant: the emergence of a new micro-sociability, and the increase in the use of services and digital media in everyday life.

Around the world, people developed strategies to cope with a new reality of being grounded in their immediate vicinity. As a consequence, many became increasingly aware of how the crisis was affecting their neighbors. 
To be more concrete here I will refer to Barcelona, a case that I studied with some colleagues from Care Lab and Elisava School of Design and Engineering​3) . When the pandemic hit the city, civil society mobilized rapidly at the neighborhood’s scale to provide care to the most vulnerable when authorities had difficulties to do it. While large, centralized hospitals neared collapsing, horizontal solidarity allowed help to arrive to the elderly, the frail, and the sick who could not leave home. Relational connections between neighbors were formed or further strengthened from within confinement, highlighting the importance of proximity in responding effectively to the pandemic. As it has been anticipated, for many of them, the pandemic led to a (re)discovery of micro-sociability, i.e, the value of getting in touch with those who live really close, in the same building and/or in the same street. In this spirit, neighbors and small shop owners organized to deliver groceries and check in on the sick and elders who could not leave home; school children sent digital postcards to patients in hospitals; healthcare professionals who live nearby reached out to neighbors when official helplines were collapsed; social workers coordinating with neighbors to get food to a hungry family, while the welfare system struggled to respond rapidly enough to the disproportionate demand generated by the pandemic.  
The above examples were “life hacks” generated by the need to quickly adapt and survive in an unprecedented context. 

The second observation is that all these activities have been done in proximity but in distance, through digital social networks and platforms, which have been paramount to coordinate private and public activities in the midst of the crisis. Due to the nature of such exceptional events, not all these initiatives will produce lasting social forms. Nonetheless, they indicate the possibility of inhabiting a hybrid physical-digital space with our immediate neighbors. 

This indicates that the possibility to challenge the status quo and move forward from a traditional, centralized system to a decentralized model that incorporates telehealth in complement with presential, face-to-face care consultations. 

​1)​ Ezio Manzini, Design, When Everybody Designs (MIT Press 2015): 
2) Davide Fassi, Events and the city: when Arnold meets NoLo». In In the neighbourhood, a cura di Davide Fassi e Barbara Camocini. Design International. Milan: Franco Angeli. 2017
3) Julia Benini, Ezio Manzini, Lekshmy Parameswaran, Care up, close and digital: Covid-19 learnings on hybrid proximity, in Design in the Pandemic: Dispatches from the Early Months, Design and Culture, Volume 13, Issue 1 (2021)

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