The Context of Sustainability

Those of us who are paying attention to climate change know that the way that we live our lives needs to change. The way that we live needs to change urgently, markedly and systemically; this includes all that we do, every act that has impact on others, on resource consumption, energy consumption and on collective decision making. To speak of sustainability means to speak of a renegotiation of the way that we live on the earth: a dramatic reduction of our resource and energy consumption. It is about social change.

According to Ezio Manzini design for social innovation towards sustainability, or DESIS is “everything that expert design can do to activate, sustain, and orient processes of social change toward sustainability” [2]. Manzini’s work on DESIS has spanned more than a decade, and has resulted in the establishment of a network of DESIS research labs in design schools worldwide.

Origins of Desis

From the beginning, Manzini’s ideas were seen as visionary in values and design. He was able to articulate the relative importance of various approaches to sustainable design. He affirmed that while it is essential to design resource efficient products and services, the needed reduction in ecological impacts would come from changes in how people lived, worked, and connected with one another: this is social innovation toward sustainability. At the time, this was a new vision and domain for sustainable design.

The research that leveraged Manzini’s theories began with the EMUDE (Emerging User Demands for sustainable solutions) project in 2004. Working with a number of colleagues including Anna Meroni and François Jégou, Manzini decided to research what creative people were already doing to live low impact lifestyles. With support from the European Union, teams of design students from eight schools in Europe were mobilized to gather case studies of people who were shaping their lives resourcefully and creatively. The case studies were analyzed, sorted and disseminated in publications that reached a wide audience of academics, students and designers [1, 3]. This was followed by projects that collected diverse case studies and interest from around the world. It is very important that this work has been distilled from the initial case studies and inspiration to principles and approaches for designing in new ways: social innovation toward sustainability, an emerging domain for design.

The ideals of social change toward sustainability were disseminated by Manzini via his prolific international teaching and speaking career. Design schools, as places for learning, experimentation and creation of new models for design, house and support much of the DESIS research work. Participating design schools, students, and faculty are important agents of change and contributors to DESIS. DESIS holds annual assemblies in conjunction with Cumulus, the largest association of Art and Design schools around the world. This draws members together for decision—making and builds the knowledge network and community of design for social innovation and sustainability.

The DESIS lab network was formalized in 2009 by the eight original member schools and by 2016 has grown to 48 member schools around the world. The DESIS organization supports the capacities of member schools to operate as design research teams that collaborate internationally to share knowledge through research relationships, and by presenting at the annual DESIS assembly. These labs do ongoing research, promote the development of knowledge, and educate designers to meet the growing demand for design for social innovation toward sustainability.

The way that we live needs to change urgently, markedly and systemically; this includes all that we do, every act that has impact on others, on resource consumption, energy consumption and on collective decision making.

Emily Carr Design, with its strong focus on sustainability, design research, participatory methods and contextually grounded design, was an ideal candidate for a DESIS lab. We joined DESIS in 2012 and are currently the only DESIS lab in Canada. The Emily Carr DESIS lab hosts a number of initiatives including the cloTHING(s) as Conversation project (See article “Critical Design. Critical Making. Critical Use?” in this issue), Vancouver Transition Town Collaborations, and Who is Social, an inquiry into social engagement with other-than-humans.

Key Principles of DESIS

The theories, approaches and methods of DESIS are detailed extensively in Manzini’s new book Design, when Everybody Designs. Key principles to discuss here: Scale, Recombination of Existing Assets, and Redundancies. These and other DESIS principles shift the way that designers have traditionally been taught to approach our work.


Social innovations work best when they are designed for the local conditions of specific communities. They are characterized by their human scale.

Ecologically, small scale solutions are often less resource intensive. Large scale production of any type requires extensive resources, often fossil-fuel based. In her system map Eilish McVey indicates the multiple touchpoints that are potential resource impacts for a single head of hydroponic lettuce grown outside metro Vancouver. Her redesign proposes curbside neighbourhood greenhouses called Gro-Mo with member card access modeled after car share programs. This local scale greenhouse reduces travel and also increases the potential for neighbourly encounters when harvesting lettuce for dinner. This exemplifies what Manzini refers to as a small, local, open, and connected system (SLOC). The small greenhouse is positioned very close to home, open to any members, and interconnected via an information system that can monitor membership, use and maintenance. Scaling up the Gro-Mo can mean replicating a local community solution in another location, with small shifts to allow for the local context. It is more like scaling out than scaling up.

Creative Recombining of Existing Assets

The principle of recombining what already exists is foundational to lowering resource intensity. This is what you want to do when you want to innovate without increasing consumer volume.

Planet Chef is a web based game whereby participants compete to prepare food using the least energy and resources. All factors are considered in the scoring, from how the food was grown, where it was purchased, how far it travelled to get to its destination, and how much energy was used in the preparation. The scoring also includes points in the categories food competitions are known for: visual appeal, taste, mouth feel. The culmination is a shared low energy meal at a neighborhood potluck. This design innovates social engagement by recombining existing assets: the web, food data, and friends. New social moments, educational opportunities, and networks are created without building new artifacts.

Who is social? This Emily Carr DESIS initiative researches social relations with more than humans. A more integrated relationship between people and the natural world is essential to developing priorities and values necessary for sustainability. Lisa Bolton’s proposal, In Deep, viscerally connects urban dwellers with the ocean. Drawing on existing oceanography databases, Bolton developed a smart phone app that correlates data about our bodies with data about the oceans. (See figure 1.) For this project the Quantified Self movement and the numerous apps that chart biometric data are existing assets. The new In Deep app recombines with existing sensors and adds information about how one’s body relates to live ocean data at that moment. Bolton’s app correlates body temperature to ocean temperature, heartbeat to wave frequency, body fat to ocean heat stores, and menstruation to local high tide. An entirely new social relationship is created from existing assets.

Figure 1. Lisa Bolton’s proposal, In Deep, viscerally connects urban dwellers with the ocean, shifting the Quantified Self movement to the Sensing Self future.

Recombining existing assets forces creativity of a different sort: re-forming what already exists to create new and socially rewarding experiences. This is a lean efficiency that can bring enormous design satisfaction as well as social innovation.


Redundancy is a principle adapted from the study of resilient ecosystems. A resilient ecosystem contains many species that are able to perform similar functions. This allows the ecosystem to more easily adapt to shocks and changes, because another plant or animal can step in and fill the role previously taken by another species [4]. In social innovation contexts, a diverse resource pool of small businesses allows for replacement, updating and upgrading, and constant evolution in response to a community’s changing needs. Redundancy also supports shared responsibility in a community, and together with scale, allows customization to specific contexts.

  • Book of Seeds, by Bryce Duyvewaardt, Sauha Lee, Eilish McVey, and Leah Pirani, is designed to fit in the Public Library context.

For example, DESIS Emily Carr collaborated with Village Vancouver to design seed libraries to support the practice of seed sharing in the lower mainland. Village Vancouver is a Transition Town. Along with other transition communities around the world, it is devoted to supporting the transition to a low-resource economy. Seed sharing has many benefits. It lowers the costs of gardening, fosters the selection of locally adapted plant species, and allows independence from big seed corporations. Village Vancouver supports this practice by providing seed libraries throughout Greater Vancouver that are points of exchange and learning at Street Fairs, Farmer’s Markets, Community Gardens, and Public Libraries.

Emily Carr DESIS students spent time immersed in the grassroots culture of seed sharing. Then, taking the redundancy approach rather than the traditional design approach, developed a diversity of seed libraries to be manufactured and shared locally. With the wearable Seed Apron, a roving volunteer carries seeds throughout a Farmer’s Market to have conversations about the importance of exchanging seeds. The product supports a performative and social function. The Market Box is suitable for street fairs. The Book of Seeds is designed to fit into the Public Library context, and the DIY Seed Storage is a low-cost instruction kit for Community Gardeners to build their own storage. This multiple solution approach allowed Village Vancouver to find a variety of locations within the local urban fabric willing to host seed libraries.

Concluding Thoughts

Scale, Recombining Existing Assets, and Redundancy are key principles that have emerged from years of DESIS research. The principles that underlie design for social innovation for sustainability shift our understanding of traditional design: small-scale solutions challenge standardization and mass production, recombination of existing assets challenges the tendency to produce rampant artifacts, and designing for redundancy decreases dependence on singular solutions. The degree of change represented by these shifts is significant. They help to shepherd the marked and systemic social change that we need.

Deeply embedded in the DESIS philosophy is the understanding that joy and satisfaction gained from social engagement surpasses any gratification one might find in consumerism, and offsets the notion that reduction of consumption brings any deprivation. Much of the value laden and ethical work of DESIS has been made possible by engaging research within design schools, where the pressures to provide for consumer culture can be tempered. As a result the methodologies and approaches of DESIS are changing how we design, live, imagine, feel and be.

Louise St. Pierre is the Lab Coordinator and Hélène Day Fraser is the Lab Manager. Both have attended and presented at International DESIS Lab Assemblies.


  • [1] Manzini, Ezio. 2015. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Translated by Rachel Coad. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. P. 62
  • [2] Jégou, Franćois, and Ezio Manzini. 2008. Collaborative Services: Social Innovation and Design for Sustainability. Milan: Polidesign.
  • [3] Meroni, Anna, Dr. 2007. Creative Communities. Milan: Polidesign.
  • [4] St. Pierre, Louise. 2015. “Nature’s Systems.” In The Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion, edited by Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham, 33–42. Oxon, New York: Routledge.