We are in difficult and dangerous times. For many years, we lived in a world that, despite its problems, was nevertheless committed to principles of democracy in which human rights, fundamental freedoms, and opportunities for personal development, were increasing. Today, this picture has changed profoundly. There are attacks on democracy in several countries – including those where democracy had seemed to be unshakable. Faced by these developments, we believe the design community should take a stand, speak out, and act: practitioners, researchers, theorists, students, journalists, publishers and curators – all who are professionally involved in design-related activities” [1].

This is the incipit of an Open Letter to the Design Community Victor Margolin and I wrote one year ago, March 2017. Since them several things happened, several discussion took place and several reflections have been done. The following one is a contribution moving in this same direction. It doesn’t deal with the whole issue of democracy regeneration, but it focuses on the one of participatory democracy. More precisely, it proposes following question: can the experiences of social innovation in general, and the ones of design for social innovation in particular, help to update and upgrade the ideas and practices of democracy (and, specifically, those of participative democracy)?

In order to start this discussion a scenario is proposed, i.e. a scenario of a project-centred democracy. The idea is to extend the definition of democracy by considering its ‘designing’ dimension: democracy as a hybrid, physical and digital space, equipped to offer people an increased possibility to meet, to start conversations, to conceive and collaboratively enhance their projects. That is, a democracy that not only gives people the freedom to meet and collaboratively design their lives and their world, but that also has to be seen as a space equipped to give these conversations and codesign processes a better chance of concrete results [2].

Lessons learnt from social innovation

In recent years, the crisis of democracy has not spared participatory democracy. But I think it has affected it in ways that are different and less disruptive than those we are witnessing in representative democracy. Above all, it has left space for significant signs of vitality and renewal. More precisely, I think that, on this field too, as in many others, social innovation, converging with technological innovation, is indicating us a viable direction. That is, how to make new forms of participation possible.

To discuss it, let’s start from some simple, naïve questions: why should people participate? In other words, why should they invest time and energy in participatory actions? Why should they commit themselves, imposing constraints on their own freedom of action? The traditional reply is that they should do so out of a sense of civic responsibility: because it is right to take part in decision-making, and in the actions this entails, when it concerns the entire community. I think this reply is still valid, but we should add to it another; one which refers to the motivations and the capabilities of active citizens, as they emerge — as I said — from a perusal of recent social innovation.

For example, let’s consider people deciding to live collaboratively. Why do they do it? The experience says: they do it because they think sharing residential spaces and services is useful, feasible and economically advantageous. Furthermore, they undoubtedly also recognize value in sharing with their neighbours, and in relational quality in general. Lastly, they very probably think that what they are doing is also positive for the neighbourhood and the whole city (in that it produces social commons and feeds conversation on this theme with innovative ideas about living better). The same can be said for the farmers and local citizens who create farmers’ markets, and for all those committed to mutual help (in the general frame of collaborative welfare) or who organize neighbourhood cultural activities (such as local initiatives of urban regeneration); or for makers and the new craftspeople (when they are involved in open production activities, distributed over the local area).

All this highlights a first lesson that social innovation teaches us: there is a new kind of civic sense. The civic sense of a person who not only takes part in discussion about issues of public interest, but who also puts into practise and manages what he has discussed. He does so for himself, for the people he collaborates with, and for society as a whole.

Participating as codesigning

The cases offered as examples also teach us another lesson: they are forms of participation in which decision-making is directly linked with putting things into practice. It is not only a question of talking about what to do, but also of doing what has been talked about. In other words, the people discussing must also be in a position to actually do what has been discussed. So, the second lesson to be learned from social innovation is this: the composition of the group collaborating to achieve a result defines the field of possibility within which that result can be imagined and achieved. Or to put it the other way round, having established what we wish to achieve, we must create a group that is able to achieve it. It must not only be willing, but also technically capable and possess the political power to do what has been decided.

This way of proceeding, which to all intents and purposes is a designing activity, has the advantage of obtaining tangible results but, given a context, it also limits the field in which this form of participation can operate. However, this limit is not a fixed one. It depends on the coalition that can be formed. Coalitions composed almost entirely of active citizens, like those that animated the cases I previously referred to, mainly lead to local-scale initiatives. On the other hand, coalitions may also include other actors and therefore other competencies and powers. When this happens, they may aspire to developing much wider projects and thus extend the field in which this participatory model can take place.

A new participatory democracy

Let’s imagine society as an interweaving mesh of networks of people intent on discussing and making decisions about what to do and doing (or trying to do) what they have decided. The environment in which this is happening may be more or less favourable, meaning that it may make it more or less probable that such conversations take place and that, focusing on the common interest, they become decisions and then collaborative actions. The environment in which all this can happen in the best way imaginable is democracy. More precisely, it is project-centred democracy, meaning a participatory enabling ecosystem in which everybody can develop their projects and achieve their results, in so far as they do not reduce the possibility of other people doing the same. On the other hand, since we cannot design and produce alone, it is also a democracy that is born out of collaboration and produces collaboration. In doing so it fosters the regeneration of social commons.

In this scenario, project-centred democracy is therefore an environment that tends to give everybody the possibility of meeting and collaborating and, in so doing, to achieve objectives pursuing interests that are both individual and collective. In this definition, the co-existence of these two planes, one personal and the other collective, is the characterizing aspect. If the environment were only to provide favourable conditions for individual projects, it might appear to offer people greater freedom, but this would only occur within the limits of what the system in which they would be operating were able, and willing to, offer. On the other hand, as we have seen, an environment that provides favourable conditions for collaborative projects gives space to coalitions that have, or can assume, the power to carry out their decisions. In other words, they can themselves build the conditions by which to accomplish what they wish to achieve.

Given these characteristics, project-centred democracy is a form of participatory democracy that supports, integrates and, hopefully, collaborates to regenerate other forms of democracy. It enriches them with ideas and practices from the new civicism of those who operate to produce value for themselves and for the community they belong to. The issue that arises now is to understand better how all this can happen, or in other words, how the relationship between these different forms of democracy will take shape.

Active citizens, and the others

We shall start with the following, rather obvious, consideration: the projects made possible by project-based democracy are the result of the actions of groups of citizens who are particularly sensitive to the issue in question. They are active citizens who find the time, attention and energy required to participate. On the other hand, just because they are so active, these people are often not representative of the majority. Indeed, very often, the most interesting and dynamic experiences of social innovation have been promoted by small groups of active citizens who, at the beginning, were not understood by others. Sometimes, they were even in clear contrast to the ways of thinking and acting that were prevalent at that time and in that place.

However, these experiences, or at least the more successful ones, show us how to overcome this problem: if the ideas thought up and enhanced by small groups of citizens are good, they gradually spread, become more consistent and are finally democratically discussed and approved. The neighbourhood gardens, urban vegetable gardens and organic food projects are clear examples of how this has in fact happened: at the beginning these activities were proposed and carried out only by small, fringe groups of activists (sometimes even illegally). Then, as we know, they grew in number and at a certain point, they have been acknowledged and regularized by the public administration, which means also that they have been formally approved by the organisms of representative democracy.

It follows that in the participatory and enabling ecosystem we are talking about, a virtuous circle may develop between groups of active citizens, who informally generate new ideas, and the organisms of representative democracy, which have the authority to approve and institutionalize them. Thus they are democratically approved and regulated, becoming part of a more favourable ecosystem.

A democratic infrastructure

How can we create the conditions that make the existence of project-centred democracy more probable? How can we bring the group actions of active citizens and the practices of representative democracy together so they support each other? How can a democratic infrastructure be produced for project-centred democracy?

The experience of mature social innovation enables us to answer these questions too: the infrastructure of project-centred democracy corresponds to the existence of an enabling ecosystem: an infrastructured environment where variety of projects can emerge and thrive [3]. To play this role, this enabling ecosystem must include various elements, as: the rules of the democratic game (which make sure that every project respects the right of the other projects to exist with equal possibility of succeeding), the physical and virtual arenas (where people can meet and decide on their aims and how to achieve them), the online services and offline support (which make the co-designing and co-production activities more accessible and effective) and the social commons (such as trust and shared values which, as we have already seen, are the precondition for all forms of collaboration).

As well as these elements, infrastructure is also characterized by the way in which it supports the project activities. This is never in fact neutral; it always entails a certain orientation. We can refer to this characteristic as affordance: the capacity of an artefact to invite a certain mode of use. A way of being that does not force any particular behaviour, but which makes it more probable than others. In our case, the affordance we are talking about is the capability of the infrastructure to orientate the projects it supports, which means that it invites their designing coalitions to consider the knowledge and values that are embedded in the infrastructure (and that are the knowledge and values that the community which conceived and created that particular infrastructure considered relevant).

It seems to me that the theme of affordance in democratic infrastructure is of great practical and theoretical importance. It is also delicate, in that it is easily misunderstood: how do we reconcile the orientation given by the affordance of the infrastructure, with the fact that democracy is, by definition, the regime where autonomy and diversity of opinions are cultivated? To answer this question we have to keep in mind that democracy is also a regime capable of learning. This means that it is capable of accumulating well-pondered experiences, filtering the best and embedding them within itself in the form of shared knowledge and values. This means that cultivating diversity does not coincide with an idea of neutrality at all levels. For example, the idea of democracy we refer to today is not neutral towards human rights, and its infrastructures should include affordances capable of inviting us not to act against them. The same should be true, in the case of project-centred democracy, for certain basic themes we have been talking about: collaboration, the interweave of relationships between people and the places they live in, regeneration of the commons. In short, we can say that the role of affordance is to connect the operational level of infrastructure (enabling projects) with the cultural level (orientating projects).

A space of possibilities

The project-centred democracy uses digital technologies but clashes with the presently most diffuse experiments of digital democracy that very often reduce it to the idea of a direct democracy online: an idea which, in using the appeal of digital technology and social media, proposes a dangerous simplification of reality if pursued unilaterally, reducing choices relating to the public good to a sort of continual plebiscite in which everyone is invited to express his/her individual opinion, without the effort of creating shared opinions and mediating between different opinions.

In contrast to this drift towards plebiscitary democracy, project-centred democracy enriches the general idea of democracy with a new dimension: one which, when added to representative democracy, feeds it with meaningful conversations. It is democracy intended as a space of possibilities in which the (often long and difficult) construction of shared ideas and practices takes place. In turn, precisely because they emerge through dialogue, and the effort it involves, these ideas and practices may lead to results that are more coherent with the irreducible complexity of the world.


  • [1] Manzini, E. Open Letter to the Design Community: Stand Up For Democracy, 2017. http://www.democracy-design.org/
  • [2] Manzini, E. The Politics of Everyday Life. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.
  • [3] Manzini, E. Design, When Everybody Designs. An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. MIT Press, 2015.