Window shopping for sustainable innovation

In relation to sustainable innovation, the design professionals are looking for ways to gather new ideas regarding sustainable societal practices. Such approaches call for open distribution of knowledge and best practices. The fitting term for sustainable transformation in society – “social innovation” – refers to “changes in the way individuals or communities act to solve a problem or to generate new opportunities”, as work by Ezio Manzini and Francois Jegou suggests (see Jegou, F., & Manzini, E., Collaborative services: Social innovation and design for sustainability, 2008). Online platforms by the aforementioned authors, such as Sustainable Everyday Project (www.sustainable-everyday.net) or DESIS network (www.desis-network.org) present case studies, within which people have been self-organized to meet their everyday needs in new and sustainable ways. But there is also a lot of social innovation that never gets into the discourse, for example in many indigenous cultures and among the developing contexts.

While many of the aforementioned examples of social innovation offer a promise of more sustainable mode of being, their dissemination or adaptation does not arrive without great difficulties. This type of development in design calls for new approaches to recognize knowledge as a commodity that can be traded and leased or then shared in an open manner. Within the scope of social innovation this raises questions of ownership and utilization. An open approach to innovation and design has many challenges in areas such as management, focus and ethics, and to tackle these challenges the contributing participants must be able to leverage the power of the system for themselves (see Faste, H., Opening “Open” Innovation, 2011 – from the DPPI 2011 conference).

The represented ideas for social innovation showcase many interesting concepts that are emerging from the grass roots. These examples, however, remain sometimes slightly superficial, focus on urban and developed contexts, and are often also bound to their small niches. Furthermore, the approach for their dissemination seem to follow the mainstream logic in aiming towards the creation of commercial services, being mostly only an extension to the existing consumer logic. The aforementioned online platforms represent a possibility for window shopping of ideas for sustainable transformation, but are not delivering a change to the unsustainable status quo without a larger change in societal policies and politics.

Don’t get me wrong here, I really think these initiatives are valuable efforts to spread ideas on sustainability. But to implement a bigger change more needs to happen. In his book Design Futuring (Berg Publishers, 2008), Tony Fry suggests that we need a “dictatorship of Sustainment”. This dictatorship is not tyrannizing people in the society, at least not in any bigger extent than the existing imperative of the capitalist way, but it has to dictate our existence, if we want to have a future (Ibid.: 57). Such a dictatorship has to be “hegemonic”, but at the same time it is “neither singular, nor straight” (Ibid.). Thus for sustainable transition, there also has to be a design action to develop new kinds of power structures.

Sustainable transformation requires a change that can arrive from “an ever growing number of redirective actions” ranging from “modest to major acts of practice” fusing into “an unstoppable materialized force of change” to which the political regime has to respond (Fry, 2008: 49). For this to happen, however, the designers have to also address power relations, to amplify the voices that otherwise remain unnoticed, to leverage the power for the contributors themselves.