Designing networks and metadesign

Transcript from his talk at the colloquium on metadesign on 29th June 2007

By Ezio Manzini

Good afternoon. This will be a digestive speech. As I have spoken with many of you, I spent yesterday thinking about what was better to do and where to focus my speech on. The one thing I know about communication: when you make a speech you have to say only one thing and be very clear on that. But in this case, given I am not so clear, there will be more than one thing. And I hope it will be helpful in any case. I will also add that in the last period all the conferences that I gave was about what is my major line of research in these years, which is about grassroots innovation for sustainability and design. As it has been mentioned by somebody, a research that we did with Jan and also with others and is continuing now. But now I decided not to talk about that and to try to converge on the discussion that is about Metadesign, even if, as I said, I have some doubt on this terminology. But what I recognize as really needed is the discussion we had. So I don’t know if I will use this term, but I totally recognize and I totally participate in the same kind of concern that bring some of you to propose this term.

So, it’s about design, of course, and design is about something that can be seen as a mixture of creativity – but creativity per se is not enough, because design is also about transforming creativity in some action in the reality. So, some capability of planning, comprehending where are the possibilities and where not, and also reflexivity, which means - the capability of being critical on what you have done. And case by case, person by person, group by group, and also in different moments in history, there has been a different mixture of these four elements in my view. And the richness of design is not only because there are different fields of applications, as we have said this morning, but also because each one of these fields of application and maybe also each group can have different accent on creativity, or on planning, or on planning capability, or on critics and reflexivity. And then I say, I know around the world there are very good schools that have totally different mixtures of these four things. Some are very strong in creativity, the Design Academy in Eindhoven, just to give an example. Some that are much better in planning capability, for instance some designer who are more near to engineering. Some that are more on reflexivity, maybe could be here, or different mixtures. And – this is a little bit stupid but I have to say it: I need to know which kind of design we are talking about. Because in our discussion, we can talk about everything but the important thing is to know: Who are the designers we are talking about.

So, please forgive if it is so hyper-simplified reality. It is blurry, is not so simple, but we can talk about design A: Everybody can be a designer, everybody has a mixture of creativity, planning capability, reflexivity. So, we can talk about design as something diffused in all human beings. We can talk about the design of other experts, the engineers design, they can design. It can be discussed about the design of engineers or others. And we can talk about the designers, that means the design that is the participation, the collaboration of a multidisciplinary activity that is the design process. That is this participation, that is performed by people that have been taught, that have developed a specific toolkit. That participate in a social conversion with other designers. They are the design community. And in my view the last presentation was mainly a presentation with some concern related to the design C. And I just said something that – and I don’t want to repeat myself – if the design process is by definition multi-disciplinary so you cannot, especially today, have a good design process, if you don’t have different components and different knowledge, but inside this multi-disciplinarity there is the problem of what we designers bring in this discussion. And I repeat because I briefly told it before. Having been somebody that has always been accused by my colleagues: What are you doing? This is not design! Because I was designing with strategic design, service design, system design. They said: no, but this is not design. But exactly because I tried to see what happens in this which has been the new frontier for me in design, I now am more and more convinced that we, we the community of designers, have a problem here. Exactly because we participate in so many different tables we have to be able to discuss with so many different interlocutors. We have to say: Yes, but who is the me that is talking? What am I bringing to the discussion?
So I will concentrate about the thing I wanted to talk about with you. From now on in my speech when I talk about design, I mean the community of people that discuss, in the same arena, that comprehend some technical, and some social and some cultural elements. To be a designer of the design C - it has to be a culture that brings technicalities, criticism, reflexivity, etc. - all together. So, of course, also an engineer can be reflexive, can be critic, but he is not taught in this way. So we are talking about this community of designers.

So what we, the community of designers, should do, in my view? We should promote well- being, so at the end, we exist to promote well-being. And well-being is not only a technical issue, it’s a mixture between functionalities, practical things, and the quality of life, as it has been said. I say promoting and not designing, because I think nobody can design well-being. We can promote conditions for well-being by collaborating with – because we work with others – so it is not only our issue, conceiving and developing meaningful artifacts.
Well, meaningful is particularly stressed because in the multi-disciplinary group we are the ones that should have more capabilities and more tools to work on the meanings of things. Others know better about economics, others about the technologies, we should be particularly strong in meanings. So, meaningful artefacts… Artefacts is a very generic term, also in some way a speech is an artefact. So artefact, in this, is not the physical artefact, but a system of different elements. And here is for me the major point, maybe the major point of the discussion I will present you. I find that even if there have been a lot of conferences etc etc. for some reason there is a lack of real conversation in the community of designers. And when we meet we are starting really from zero, from the beginning, with a possibility of ambiguity that is enormous. Probably because reality changes so quickly that even if we discuss our capabilities – the discussion does not cope with the speed of the change. In any case, my point of view is that we, as a community, have to make two steps into a direction, so we will arrive at a certain point, making two different steps of different natures.
One step is to recognize the implication of the ongoing change. And a lot of our discussion, even the majority of the discussion with Naomi is about this one: What is happening? How the company has changed? What means a system of production and consumption today? What do people want? How society has been reorganized? And inside these big changes, what we designers can do? What are our new tools? And the discussion about metadesign for me – and maybe here we do not totally agree – is mainly here: If Metadesign means something, it means that today you have to talk about the relationship between designers and what they have to do in a different way. But this one is fundamental, because if you don’t solve this problem, you cannot go on. But it is neutral, I would say – I don’t know for the Meatdesign – but for the strategic design, for instance, even a new campaign for Coca-Cola could be strategic design, so there is nothing good per se in understanding how the world is going, it is only necessary not to say something that is out from the history. So the first step is really to understand where we are and what we can do. And eventually how to reposition in the imagination of the other actor what design is.
And the second step is to recognize the changes that we have seen here. If nothing happens brings it to the catastroph. So what we can do, as designers, is to come back to the origin of European design, at least. There was the origin that was critic. The design activity was, and not Metadesign, the design activity was a critic attitude towards what existed. For this, of course, I think it’s a very good idea for several reasons to have the term Metadesign, but I fear that if we concentrate the good ideas on metadesign, we leave the term design and the concept of design to something that is neagtive, that is part of the problem and not part of the solution.
For me, we should, as community of people dealing with design, fight to recognize that design is not only to design products, but is to design (what you wrote here on the right part of your slide). This is design, so you have to understand that we are doing that. And afterwards, we are doing that with a critical attitude, proposing something that could change or try to change, or help to change the direction of the change. We are preparing (I am not sure that we are able to do it) but I can tell you, because we are a little group, we are preparing a conference that will be called “Changing the change”. The idea is we have to know that we are part of the big change, which is happening, and in some way we are promoting it, but at the same time, we have to help in changing this direction. And changing the change, in my view, is the challenge. And at least, before all other issues that we have to understand better, I will be so happy if the design community could have a basis on discussing the recognition that we are part of the change, active part of the change and that we should be an active part in changing the direction of the change. And after that, maybe, to discuss the meaning of the second change. Of course, we cannot all be of the same opinion, but at least to have a common denominator, there is a change, we are part of the change, everything is different, but we have also to change the change.

There have been so many adjectives to describe the society in which we are; the knowledge society, network society, etc.... each one of them captures part of the reality. I wanted to give an idea what is happening using the term ‘fluid work’ that is a little bit similar to what is called ‘the liquid modernity’. So, in my view, the change of the design activity depends on the fact, now I speak for very synthetic claims, that we have been formed as a community, in a world that appeared to be solid, in which people were talking about things, and the product, the artefact, was by definition, a physical artefact... and solid were the organisations, solid it was in some ways, the groups in the society. You could talk about specific groups in the society and imagine that they remain in time as they were. So, I kind of idea of stability. For some reason, all this static, solid world has melted, and we live in an environment that appears to be continuosly changing, and everything changes: the organisation changes, the society changes, the group changes, new kind of project-oriented groups appear, and the products, the company produces, then is also obsolete, because there is not only one company... there are always groups of companies, partnerships, they create to generate something. But what is generated by the industriosity of people cannot be synthetised in one product, but more than in a product is manifested in a kind of flow of interactions.

In my view, but I don’t have the time to go into detail, a lot of this change is based on the increase of the connectivity. Connectivity not in the high, deep sense, that Otto presented us, but connectivity simply as the possibility to manage a lot of interactions with different people. That is the result of the information technology revolution, and I say, the connectivity is a little bit as heat, because the more the connectivity is high, the less the shape of the interaction is stable, and the more there is a tendency to reshape them continuously. It is a little bit as the world was a kind of solid matrix, where everybody has its own position, and the kind of relationship with the interface was fixed in time, to something which could be more, like this. There are different elements moving and time by time, you create groups that are result-oriented and this is, at least, for what I know, written in all the more updated management books, you have to work for projects. You create the organisation around the project, the organisation lasts the time of the project, and afterwards it melts again and it will be formed again in another way. This is the same for the parties, for the families, is the same for more or less everything that we see in our society. If you take China that everybody talks about, I have an image for China: frozen Chinese and melted Chinese. You still have hundreds of millions of people that are still in the villages, frozen, in that position, in the village, in the traditional communities, and afterwards something happens and they melt down in the big cities and they are another form of society. In this condition, the organisation became flexible and project-oriented, so they need to be designed to use design tools in some way, not the Design C, design in general.
To survive, some important sociologist said, the characteristic of contemporary society is that everybody has to design their own life, if they like it or not, because when everything moves so fastly, you cannot simply do what has been done before. Now, a family, now two people, man and a woman - they meet, they have to design what it means to stay together. They have a lot of options, when they will have a kid, they have to design what it means to give an education to the kids because nothing is written, everything has to be continuously redefined. This continuous redefinition of your identity or what you want to do, is not only for people but is also for every collective entity. Cities have to continuosly redefine themselves to have a project, to define what it means to be New York: ‘I love New York’, lets start with this, give an identity, create an image of what you are, the companies have continuously to redefine what they are, the regions are trying to define themselves. So every entity that appears in some way as a kind of subject, has a problem to continuously redefine what they are, and redesign their own strategies. So, we live in this fluid world, in a world in which continouosly, there are reorganisations of networks of design. We need to understand what is the role of designers if everybody around us is in some way designing.

We have a paradigmatic change that could be synthesized in the fact that we move from things mainly to interactions, and just to react to Ian, When we have the paradigmatic change, it is not that the previous things disappear, the only issue in the paradigmatic change is that you see them in a different way.
In the reality, if the reality exits, always we have production, as not only the production of products: but products, services and communication. For many years, to talk about products, physical products, was enough. Services, etc. was a bit more complicated model. Nowadays, for some reason which I cannot answer in detail now, it is much more helpful to use a model in which you look at everything as producing services, and to see the products and the physical component of the services as the evidence of the service. But you read that the companies that produce cars, not so much as “car plus services” but the services of offering a certain dream of mobility that is materialised through the car that is proposed.

If you move from products that are mainly on three dimensions in space to service or to interaction, you have the 4th dimension of time. One of the major changes in our profession is that time became one of the very important issues, when we design something, when we try to give some quility to something. Of course again, also before time was important, but not so important in the beginning. You can start to design a table without really thinking about the interaction of the table, whereas now, you start to think about the interaction of the table and afterwards, design the table.

If we move from products to services interaction, services by definition are co-produced: services are defined by the interaction of somebody and somebody else that together create a value. So, if you move towards this fluid society to tell and to repeat that we are a co-production is obvious, is part of the rule of the game, and it is not said that simply because there is co-production then it goes in the right direction. You can also co-produce something that is totally bad, totally in the direction of unsustainability.

As I said, inside this framework, the designer became a specialist that helps to operate in and for the design network. What does it mean in and for? There are two different modalities of our possibility to intervene: design in means, just to take an exaple from our experiences, we are promoting co-housing initiatives and we can have designers that work with these people to help generate this co-housing system, and this is to work with them, to help them to understand what they could do together, etc, etc… so this is working directly in the community to be part of the network, designing network. But you can also, as has been mentioned, design something that is a platform that creates higher probability for many networks like this to exist. And so this is to design for the network, for the possibilities of having this kind of activity. And the tools that we need in one case or the other, are not exactly the same.
In the network we can feed the conversation of the others with our idea, with our vision, with our proposal, imagining that afterwards the co-design will bring to a certain result. If we design the network or the platform, we are to find: Who could be the other partner that can design the platform? To be more clear, if I can, even if we are in a fluid world, if you consider the internet, internet is very fluid, but to exist it has a basis that somebody has to design, has designed. So every possibility to connect people, for people to organize something freely, needs some infrastructure that permit this to exist. So we can participate in the design of this infrastructure to generate more probability to have positive and promising group of people doing interesting things. Of course, you remember that there were two steps, one was: How do we change? How our profession changes in this fluid world? The second one was how to go towards sustainability? and I think that now I am out of time, so I cannot really tell it. Let me maybe only say something, that is a conclusion.

To consider what it means to be in this changing world with all the paradigmatic change that we have to face, and to be able to be an active part in the change of direction, of course, is a very complex task. Of course it is good that we are stimulated by the metaphor of nature, by the idea of complexity that permits us to understand the dimension of the problem that we have to face. But, I hope not to be misunderstood, we afterwards have to be able to simplify and to find how not to be overwhelmed by complexity. Because what could happen, and it happened at least in Italy, its that when we, we community of intellectuals discovered complexity, 25, 30 years ago, the result of the discovery of complexity has been the paralysation. Everything is so complex, we cannot do anything. So, in my view, and this is the last message, when we say: What are the characteristics of the contemporary designer? He has to have some strategic capability. And the strategic capability has to be diffused for every kind of designer, especially if they want to have a role in hopefully reorienting in a promising way the direction of the change. And the strategic capability is to recognize the border, of the system in which he can operate. To tell it in a simple way: What is the margin of freedom that I have. To say holistic is very simple, but if you look holisticly you probably don’t know what to do. To know what to do, you have to understand the whole and to find the way to seperate the part, to understand what are the drivers, who are the actors, who are the ones who could be my collaborators. To help them and to put them together. I am not talking about sustainability in general, but in my view, in this moment, it’s sufficiently clear, three, four main elements of what a sustainable scenario could be. The problem, and we have also seen that there are people that are doing very interesting things in this direction. So now the idea is what we can do? How we can define sub-problems that maintain sufficient complexity but are in the same time and in some way manageable? And manageable depends on who are my partners. And so, the issue is: sustainable solution oriented partnership. The definition of the system in which we have to work, we have to work on systems, but after we have seen the overall system, we have to find the system that is manageable. And the system that is manageable depends on the partnership. So you will define something that will be the environment, that you cannot directly influence, as it has been said by somebody, and inside this, a subsystem that is so big as the power of the partners that are working with you, and this capability to understand who are the partners. The partners could be the public – the people who like what you are proposing, the business, the politics. Who could be interested in this proposal? And I have to be intelligent enough to understand who are the partners that are interested, that can make businesses. And this capability to recognize the partners that could converge towards realizing a local discontinuity – this is our job. To recognize the partners and to create, locally, something that is possible, but is new – and offers a different way to look at how to organize things.