Enabling platforms for creative communities[1].


Ezio Manzini, Indaco, Politecnico di Milano, 18. 3. 2005


“If someone is hungry do not give them fish. Give them a fishing rod and teach them how to fish”. This ancient wisdom shows us, now more than ever, the way out of the tunnel that a mistaken idea of comfort, and an equally mistaken idea of economic growth, have driven us into.

A social learning process


Today, the 20% of the world population that lives more or less according to this model of well-being, consumes 80% of the physical resources of our planet. If nothing changes, the remaining 80% of the world population, who we are trying to make dream the same dream, will have to squeeze into that remaining 20% of environmental resources, consuming them totally - and here lies the environmental disaster – and in any case without a hope of reaching the promised results. In other words: the dream of a well-being based on consumption is based on a promise that we now recognise as impossible to keep.  Hence the defensive stance of the rich Northern world, unwilling to change its lifestyle; the aggressiveness and frustration of the East and South, poised between its attempts to make its own space and the frustration of realising that, however you turn it, the cake is just not big enough to allow everybody to take part in the party so many have talked about, and  that TV adverts promulgate. Hence the commercial aggressiveness, on one side, and the social and political disaster on the other, which unfortunately we see growing every day: the conflict, wars and terrorism that, in this widespread frustration, sprout and prosper on fertile ground. 


So what we must do is change direction. We must move in a direction where our design energies and our technological potential are focused on rendering individuals and communities better able to work together and find a way of living better, in autonomy; or rather, to learn to live better (everybody: in the North just as in the South and East of the world), consuming less, far less, of our environmental resources.



A new idea of well-being. The transition towards a sustainable society is a massive social learning process. The radical nature of the objective (learning to live better leaving a light ecological footprint) requires vast experimentation, a vast capacity for listening and just as great a degree of flexibility in order to change when it becomes evident that a road embarked on does not in fact lead in the desired direction. So, contrary to the most common clichés, in social and political terms seeking sustainability is the opposite of conservation or, to be more precise, the conservation and regeneration of environmental and social capital means breaking with the currently dominant models of living, production and consumption, and experimenting new ones. If this experimentation does not take place, if we do not build up different experiences, if we are unable to learn from these, then real conservation will continue. The conservation that means keeping our current, catastrophic ways of living, producing and consuming.


A social learning process on this vast scale must involve everybody. This is, in itself, a much abused phrase. We are always saying it: “Everyone must remember to switch off the lights when they leave the room and everybody must make the effort to put their rubbish in the right container,…….” Sure, but it doesn’t stop there. In fact, this way of seeing  participation as little personal efforts in the upkeep of our own household or of our own Planet, in the long run may even prove to be misleading. What is required of everybody is not only a little incremental improvement on what the normal model of life proposes. What is required is, as we said, a change in model. A radical change that, if it is to take place, does not require the acceptance of a new duty (the duty to make an effort for the good of the Earth and/or to help the poor). On the contrary, it requires a drastic re-orientation of the idea of well-being. It requires us to go so far as to consider positive, ways of being and doing that in the currently dominant model are seen as indifferent or even negative. We need to re-discover the pleasure of moving on foot, of eating local fruit, of feeling the cycle of the seasons, of caring for things and places, of chatting with neighbours, of taking an active part in the life of the neighbourhood, of gazing at the sunset…..

Is this change possible? It is possible to adopt a viewpoint where what has been said is lived, not as an obligation, but as a new, positive way of living and doing.



Promising forms of radical social innovation. The definition of radically new ways of being and doing is an epoch-making event. It requires the bringing into play of all the capabilities that an individual or community possesses, if it is to come about: from technical-scientific knowledge to practical skills; from philosophical reflection to artistic experience; from deductive logic to individual and social creativity. Each of these fields for experiment holds its own prerogatives and its own specific history, which deserve telling. However, here we shall limit ourselves to the last of the fields mentioned: the one where it is precisely creativity that generates promising forms of social innovation.


The questions to be asked are: do cases of radical social innovation exist that are promising from the point of view of sustainability? If the answer is yes, what impact could they have?


To the first, fundamental, question my reply would be affirmative. Observing society as a whole and in all its contradictoriness, we can see that alongside numerous unfortunately extremely worrying tendencies, signals are also emerging that indicate different and far more promising developments. Signals, still weak, but all the same stating clearly that another way of being and doing is possible. Signals that, to quote the slogan of many contemporary movements, show that “another world is under construction”. 



Creative communities


Looking at society carefully and selectively in this way, what we can see are people and communities who act outside the dominant thought and behaviour pattern. Creative communities that when faced with a result to achieve, organise themselves in such a way as to achieve what they want directly themselves. Groups of people who re-organise the way they live their home (as in the co-housing movement) and their neighbourhood (bringing it to life, creating the conditions for children to go to school on foot; fostering mobility on foot or by bike). Communities that set up new participatory social services for the elderly and for parents (the young and the elderly living together and micro-nurseries set up and managed by enterprising mothers) and that set up new food networks fostering producers of organic items, and the quality and typical characteristics of their products (as in the experience of Slow Food, solidarity purchasing and fair trade groups). The list of promising cases could continue[2].


What do these examples tell us? They tell us that, already today, it is possible to do things differently and consider one’s own work, one’s own time and one’s own system of social relationships in a different light. They tell us that the learning process towards environmental and social sustainability is beginning to build up a body of experience and knowledge. They tell us that there is an inversion of tendency from the disabling processes of the past (and sadly still dominant today): the cases we are talking about here are the result of the enterprise and ability of certain people – creative communities -  who have known how to think in a new way and put different forms of organisation into action. 



How can we strengthen the signal? However interesting the promising cases and creative communities may be, they are as yet only minority phenomena. We can ask ourselves what possibility they may have of spreading; what chance there is for them to achieve the scale effectively required by sustainability issues. The future is open and this legitimate question obviously has no definite answer.


However we can bet that these cases are not just a flash in the pan but represent the beginning of a new story. Sceptics will certainly point out the size discrepancy between big business, big finance, the great world military system and a solidarity purchasing group, a mutual help network, the adoption of a tree by part of a class or a family, an association of senior citizens committed to fostering green neighbourhood areas, a group of children adventuring to school on foot  …. However, these phenomena, small and weak as they seem, represent the seed of a plant that if properly cultivated, could grow and prosper. Obviously, we cannot know if this will really happen and that the seeds will find the ground and proper nutriments for growth, but we do know that their future also depends on us.


What must we do then, to cultivate these seeds? To move out of the metaphor: how can we amplify these signals, as promising as they are weak?

The answer to these questions is twofold: on the one hand we must facilitate the spread of each of the promising cases by promoting specific solutions, able to render them more socially and environmentally accessible and effective. On the other, we must foster a favourable context in more general terms. A context in which it is more probable that promising cases like these may appear and having once appeared may stand time, and spread beyond the specific conditions of the context where they were born.



Enabling solutions. Creative communities are such because, in their own context, they have invented different ways of behaving and thinking. Looking at them more closely we realise that they emerge in very specific conditions and, above all, they are the result of the enterprise of very special people. People who have been able to think and act by breaking out of the cage of dominant thought and behaviour. Although this almost heroic aspect is the most fascinating side of these phenomena, it is also an objective limit to their diffusion (and often also of their lasting power): exceptional people are not so common and, above all, they are not eternal.


To help these ways of doing things last and spread we must therefore start with these experiences, and the organisational model they have invented and brought to life, and propose products and services specifically conceived to increase their accessibility. In other words we must reduce the difficulties we meet when setting up a similar venture. In short, going back to the terminology introduced previously, we must imagine and enact enabling solutions specifically thought up to facilitate the diffusion, and increase the efficiency, of this kind of promising self-help organisation.   


For example: the intention of a group of parents to start up a micro-nursery could be facilitated by an enabling solution that includes, not only a step by step procedure indicating what must be done, but also a system of guarantees that certify to the suitability of the parent organiser and the house, and health and educational support for problems that cannot be solved within the nursery itself. Similarly: a solidarity purchasing group could be supported by special software designed to manage shopping and guarantee relationships with producers; a co-housing project could be facilitated by a system that puts potential participants in touch, helps find suitable buildings or building plots, and that helps overcome any administrative and financial difficulties … The list of examples could continue.    


What these examples tell us is that, case by case, enabling solutions can be thought up which, starting from what the organisers are able to do, can supply support at the weak points, integrating such knowledge and abilities that prove to be missing.



Creative contexts


The creative communities we have been talking about in the previous paragraphs can be described as bottom-up: actions from the bottom that give rise to promising cases,

i.e. forms of radical innovation orientated towards sustainability. In the same paragraphs we also saw how, case by case, it is possible to plan enabling solutions, i.e. products and services that make such cases more accessible and efficient. We now wish to discuss what it is possible to do to promote their wider diffusion. In particular, we shall look at the possibility of developing infrastructures and forms of governance specifically targeted at the creation of a favourable context for diffused creativity and its consolidation in more solid forms of social innovation.


Traditionally, by the term infrastructure we mean a set of artefacts that enable a particular activity to exist. While by the term governance, when referring to an activity, we mean a set of ventures that one or more players, whether institutional or otherwise, set up to promote and steer its development. In our case, if the activities to be developed are bottom-up ventures organised by a group of creative citizens, what top-down activities (the infrastructures and forms of governance) do they necessitate? To answer this question it is  useful to take a closer look at certain characterising aspects of the contexts of the promising cases in question.


As we said, the promising cases considered up to now have emerged in particular conditions. A closer examination however, shows common traits that result from an original combination of a demand and opportunities. The demand is always posed by urgent issues raised by the conditions of contemporary life. Opportunities can arise from different combinations of three basic phenomena: the existence of (certain aspects of) a living tradition; the possibility of using a set of products and technologies in an appropriate way; the existence of social and political conditions favourable to the development of a diffused creativity.



Traditions as social resources. The promising cases considered have grown out of problems posed by contemporary life. Whether in a metropolis in the North, or a village in the South of the world, they are responses to questions that emerge when typical problems of contemporary reality encroach on everyday life. I.e. how can we overcome the isolation that an exasperated individualism has brought and brings in its wake? How can we organise daily functions if the family and neighbourhood no longer provide the support they traditionally offered? How can we respond to the demand for natural food and healthy living conditions when living in a global metropolis? How can we support local production without being trampled on by the power of the mighty apparatus of global trade? … In short: the promising cases considered here are creative responses to questions that are as day-to-day as they are radical; questions to which the dominant production and consumption system, in spite of its overwhelming offer of products and services, is unable to give an answer and above all is unable to give an adequate answer from the point of view of sustainability.  


At the same time we can say that, in answering the questions posed by contemporary life, the creative communities we are referring to have found a more or less strong and explicit links with ways of doing and thinking proper to pre-industrial cultures. This link, that is common to all the cases in question, often leads us to say that after all, these cases are nothing new. They look to the past. They spring from a nostalgia for a village life that can no longer return (supposing someone really wanted it to). Nothing could be falser.


The “past” emerging in these cases is an extraordinary, absolutely up-to-date, social and cultural resource: it is the value of neighbourhood sociality, that enables us to bring life and security back to a neighbourhood or a village. It is the sense of season and local food production, that can put today’s unsustainable food network back in order. It is the value of sharing, that enables us to lighten the burden of apparatus and specially-equipped spaces that we must or want to have available……….. In the end, it is a heritage of knowledge, behaviour patterns and organisational forms that, seen in the light of current conditions of existence and current problems, may constitute valuable building materials for the future.



“Small” is not small. The majority of promising cases at issue here utilise modest technology in an original way, by putting products and services normally available on the market into a system. To be more specific, they use the telephone, the computer and the internet just as any ordinary member of society can do (obviously, members of society in parts of the world where telephones, computers and the internet are actually available)[3].

We should also add that this basic technology, however modest it may be, is indispensable for the development of the services: though few cases make use of sophisticated technology and products, not one of them could have existed without this elementary technology.  

What is more, basic as it is, such technology still makes the cases in examination, and the communities that generated them, into phenomena to be considered not as microscopic local activities, but as knots in a vast international network. In other words, however small and localised they may be, and indeed are, they are also open, informed communities that are often in direct contact with other groups involved in similar experiences. For this reason, though their dimension and their nature might lead us to think of the “small is beautiful” of the sixties, in reality this is not so; or rather, it is much more. The “small” of forty years ago was just small. The small of today is, or can be, a knot in a network. So in the end, its real dimension is not given by its individual weight, but by the degree to which it is connected up to a network, and by the combined weight of the connected links.



Diffused capabilities and tolerance.  The promising cases we are referring to are the result of a special form of creativity. A social, diffused  creativity, the development of which requires favourable environmental conditions. The theme has been dealt with in other contexts, when talking about a creative society and the conditions favourable to its development[4]. However, the creativity we are talking about here is not exactly the same: it is not attributable to anyone who must be creative by profession (as in the so-called “creative class”). Rather, it is the creativity of people and communities who invent new ways of behaving because they need to: people who are not creative by profession but out of necessity. From this point of view, the number of creative communities does not depend on a growth of the creative professions, but on a widely felt necessity to plan our lives and, as Giddens and Beck teach us, to do so day in day out because whether we like it or not this obligation to plan every day is a characteristic trait of contemporary life. 


Having said this, it does not necessarily follow that creative communities with their promising cases will emerge automatically. This can only happen where there are diffused capabilities able to imagine, organise and managing a new way of doing things. Not only should local leaders possess such abilities but also the numerous actors involved in the co-design and co-management of the enterprise. In other words, the greater the capacity in terms of imagination and initiative distributed throughout society, the greater is the possibility of  creative communities developing and generating promising cases.


At the same time, the birth and development of such enterprises also depends on the tolerance level of their context. By definition the promising cases at issue are radically “different” forms of organisation from those normally set up. Consequently, fostering them means cultivating context tolerance, by which we mean the capacity to accept diversity. In the specific case, this means diversity in the ways of thinking and behaving intrinsic to such new forms of organisation. This tolerance must first and foremost be expressed in social and political terms, but also administratively: a nascent creative community may certainly be killed by the incomprehension of others and by political hostility, but it can also be killed (and it is often this that actually happens) by an administrative inability to accept the innovation put forward.




Enabling platforms


It has been observed that the characteristics of the contexts influence the diffusion of creative attitudes. And, for what interests us here, the possibilities for the bottom-up initiatives to start, to consolidate, to diffuse.


The contexts that we are referring to here are complex entities, characterized by several dimensions: social, economic, cultural, administrative, institutional … Even if these contexts are the result of long processes of co-evolution (and there fore they cannot be “designed”), some elements of them can be designed, i.e. can be realised through some planned actions.


For instance: the access to appropriate technologies may be facilitated; the diffusion of know-how, skills and abilities can be promoted; norms and rules can be made more flexible; the social and political tolerance may be enhanced. Considering the whole of these “designable” component of a creative context, we can refer to them as the enabling platform: the set of material and immaterial elements (products, services, infrastructures, knowledge an rules) that, implemented in a given context, enhance its possibility to be a fertile ground for creative, bottom-up initiatives. i.e. it is able to support creative communities and enable a larger number of innovative citizens [5] to move in the same direction.


Practically, what enabling platform have to do is: to facilitate the access to appropriate technologies; to promote the diffusion of know-how, skills and abilities; to define  new, flexible norms and rules; to enhance the social and political tolerance.



New governance tools. In the light of these considerations, what emerges is the demand for a new form of governance : a governance that facilitates the regeneration of specific context traditions, fosters an appropriate technological infrastructure; supports the birth and growth of new talents (new skills and abilities) and, above all, generates a favourable social, political and administrative context. But how can all this be done? Obviously, there is no single, simple answer to this question. However, there is one particular possibility which I would like to introduce in conclusion.


It seems to me that it would be possible to bring together experiences of social innovation such as those talked about in the previous chapter, with the open source organisational models.


The point can briefly be summed up as follows: applying open source to IT systems has demonstrated the feasibility of setting up peer-to-peer organisation able to develop (among other things) complex projects. These models of organisation, i.e. the set of principles on which they are based, can be extended to other fields (from eBay to Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, to the open knowledge network Wikipidia). Among these, the ones that interest us most are initiatives already in progress in the area of health care, with the introduction of the concept of Open Welfare , as it has been presented by Hilary Cottam and Charles Leadbeater. This is a concrete example of the application of open source principles that, to my mind, is already in itself an interesting application in the direction of social, and in many ways also environmental, sustainability.


The question we are asking here is this: can these new organisational principles be carried over to other sectors? More specifically: can they become tools for promoting a multiplicity of creative communities? Can creative communities, and the experience and know-how they are generating, be reinforced by an exchange and understanding of peer-to-peer experiences? Is it possible for open sourcing to become an organisational metaphor that accelerates and directs the social learning process towards sustainability? Finally, in more concrete terms: is it possible to imagine a form of governance that, rather than putting forward the same traditional rigid, hierarchical models, proposes flexible, open and horizontal principles?  The answer here is yes, this possibility exists and it will generate new generation of organizational models, the open models, to enable the sharing of knowledge and continuous co-creation of services.


Now I cannot now to develop this statement more than that and I will conclude quoting again Hilary Cottam and Charles Leadbeater  when, in relation to this new generation of open models, they write: “their basic principles can be summarised as: share the goal; share the work; share the results”. Simple and revolutionary.



Bibliographical references


  • Cottam, H.,  and Leadbeater, C.  Health: Co-creating services, Design Council, Red Paper1, 2004

  • EMUDE, Emerging User Demands for Sustainable Solutions, 6th Framework Programme (priority 3-NMP), European Community, internal document, 2004

  • Florida, R., The Rise of the Creative Class. And How it is transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life, Basic Books, New York, 2002

  • Jégou, F., Joore, P. (edited by), Food Delivery Solutions. Cases of solution oriented partnership, Cranfield University, UK, 2004

  • Landry, C., The Creative city. A toolkit for Urban Innovators, Earthscan Publications LTD, London UK, 2000

  • Manzini, E., Collina, L., Evans, E. (edited by) Solution oriented partnership, How to design industrialized, Cranfield University , 2004

  • Manzini, E., Jegou, F., Sustainable everyday. Scenarios of Urban Life, Edizioni Ambiente, Milano, 2003

  • Manzini E., Vezzoli C. Product-service Systems and Sustainability. Opportunities for Sustainable Solutions, UNEP Publisher, Paris, 2002

  • Mont, O. Functional thinking. The role of functional sales and product service systems for a functional based society, research report for the Swedish EPA, IIIEE Lund University, Lund, 2002

  • Moscovici, S.  Psycologie des minorités actives, 1979

  • Ray, P.H., Anderson, S.R., The Cultural Creatives, How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.


[1] This paper is based on the first results of an on-going activity named: Creative Community/EMUDE, Emerging Users Demands for Sustainable solutions. It is a program (more precisely: a Special Support Action) that is promoted as part of the 6th Framework Program (priority 3-NMP) of the European Commission and coordinated by INDACO, Politecnico di Milano. To the program are participating 10 research centres and universities and 8 European schools of design.


[2] These promising cases emerge from the researches done by the Faculty of Design and of the Department INDACO of the Politecnico di Milano, in collaboration with other European Universities and  research centres, and with the UNEP (United  Nations Environmental Programme). From this collaboration it has emerged a catalogue of promising cases  and the book: E. Manzini, F.Jegou,  Sustainable Everyday . Scenarios of urban life. Edizioni Ambiente, Milano, 2003.


[3] Against this background of generally low technology, some examples can be seen where technology, and information technology in particular, today plays an important role. These cases give us an idea of how the situation could evolve if appropriate enabling technology were developed. The evolution of car-sharing is one such idea: twenty years ago it worked by telephone, paper and pen; nowadays it has become an application field for a variety of specialised technology packages, i.e. purpose designed to deal with bookings, the fleet of cars, and the customising of cars to the requirements of individual users.


[4] These conditions have been summarised by Richard Florida, using a typically market formula, in the principle of the three Ts: Talent, Tolerance and Technology.


[5] Citizens who, potentially, have the ability and will to re-orient themselves towards sustainable ways of living, and to reproduce the most successful examples of promising cases and/or to invent some new ones.