Archive for ‘framework: to understand what we are talking about’

April 28, 2008

A paper on the Rotman Magazine

Rotman Magazine has just published an excerpt of a paper on social innovation and design previously published on Design Issues. The paper has been published in the Spring 2008 issue (“The All Consuming Issue”).

April 26, 2008

The strategic dimensions of design policies and highly individualised solutions

I discussed the need for design policies for local and highly individualised solutions in other occasions (Morelli 2007), in this post I would like to consider what the criteria could be for those policies and how those design policies can be articulated. I also consider some examples in some relevant areas of intervention.

Some design criteria

In order to support local and highly individualised solutions, design policies should support horizontal process of peer production and collaboration. Such processes are often developing as “natural” processes; the activation of such process “by design” is made easier by the availability of advanced communication technologies, such as social web applications, but still requires firms and institutions to abide to some criteria. The horizontal process of innovation has several analogies with the emerging cases of peer-production processes, which are being widely documented and discussed (Lessig 2004; Von Hippel 2005; Tapscott and Williams 2006). Therefore the characteristics of those processes may inspire a set of criteria for the definition of design policies to support this approach to social innovation. Tapscott and Williams’(Tapscott and Williams 2006) principles to address business strategies towards peer production, for instance, inspire the following criteria for design policies:

  • They should highlight and empower existing and emerging initiatives of social innovation Grass-root initiatives can be identified by observing emerging and spontaneous cases of cooperation between citizens, in order to solve relevant needs. Such initiatives provide information about local and individual needs and also about feasible and admissible solution strategies.
  • They should support the generation of a critical mass likewise natural and social ecosystems, local cooperative initiatives are based on a large and motivated participation to the co-production process.
  • They should supply physical, social and institutional infrastructures for cooperation by making sure that communication networks are in place, citizens are empowered to express their needs, their opinion and ideas, information is provided about the way local initiatives work or may work
  • They should negotiate governance structures and rights. Unlike top-down decision processes, design policies based on value co-production should build the rule and structure of cooperation on the basis of an iterative process.
  • They should make sure that all the participants can work for their own value. Identify and make explicit actors’ motivation. This is also the basis of negotiation among participants, in order to realise the value of their cooperation.
  • They should abide to community norms. The rules and structure of the cooperation should be built upon shared value and norms in the community. This requires a deeper understanding of tacit knowledge and shared experience that links people sharing the same local context, the same needs, or the same practice.
  • They should raise people’s aspirations. The development of new solutions depends on people’s aspiration and confidences in their capabilities and attitudes. Raising such confidence means increasing people’s responsibilities upon their own solutions, choices and lifestyles.
  • They should support and empower creativity at the community level. Examples, scenarios, test and mock-ups can be used to provide inspiration and tangible suggestions that would enhance creative process emerging from the cooperation within a community.

The dimensions of the design policy

The redesign of public policies in the new perspective should take into account of three dimensions:

People: this dimension defines the actors, the capabilities, tacit knowledge,

Contexts: this dimension defines the social, geographical and natural context in which solutions should be developed, including possibilities for interaction within each contexts and among different contexts

Solutions: this aspect defines the nature and the characteristics of the functionings in terms of products, services, technologies and organisational forms used, including the possibility to generate organisational structures that would support the reproducibility of solutions with different actors and in different contexts

The combination of elements in each of those dimension may generate different policy actions, for example:

Areas of intervention


Prevention strategies in healthcare may be based on the association of different people having the same problems. This is particularly relevant for people suffering of “social” diseases, such as Diabetes, blood pressure and heart problems, cholesterol and fat control. In many of those cases an adequate treatment and prevention strategy consists in creating “horizontal” communication systems between patients, that overlaps the “vertical” flows of information from the doctor to the patient. People can help each other in solving everyday problems that the “codified” knowledge of the doctor cannot solve (e.g. what is the right recipe for low cholesterol food? What is a nice walk for doing daily exercise?)


Active mobs Mobs are small groups of people who carry out activity together on a regular basis. They are connected by the Activmobs system. Activmobs is a platform for activity. It provides webbased tools to help people find, suggest and start mobs, to monitor their progress, set goals and reward commitment. It provides support roles to motivate mobs and ensure their activity is effective.(Murray, Burns et al. ND)


An increased flexibility to the transport system may be created by linking people living in the same area, making it possible for them to coordinate their movements (e.g. sharing a car, coordinating shopping), and reducing the amount of local traffic. This solution may require the use of advanced communication technology (e.g. GPS), though the solution has to reach the user using existing technological devices (such as mobile phone or internet) and with a reduced complexity. The generation of solution of this kind would therefore benefit from a centralised policy for the development of the technological infrastructure, but would be operated at the local level. A policy to support those instances would be particularly effective for certain social groups, such as elderly people living at home or people moving across medium distance location (e.g. from city to city, when the trip requires a minimal planning)


Car sharing Several car sharing systems are emerging in cities where traffic and parking problems are taking too much of people time, or in countries where the cost of owning a car is too high (e.g. Special cases of car sharing are lift-sharing scheme that encourages people to offer and request lifts to their venue.

Lunch Couriers: Meal delivery services are offered to provide lunch to employees working in central areas, where companies cannot afford a canteen for their employees. Similar services are very common in India -where meals are prepared in peripheral areas of the city and delivered to central areas at lunchtime- and in some European countries, where meals are prepared by local restaurants and delivered by a courier service. The service reduce the need for movement at lunch time in central areas, while providing employees with meals that may not be available in the closer proximity of their office

Micro entrepreneurship

So far technological systems have created global markets in which even small sellers can reach buyers located far away. This kind of commerce is giving new chances to small producers, however some small firms are challenged by the relevant logistic problems that may emerge in the new market. The internet, however, may be also used to promote local communication among people, thus creating a market for small scale production and individual exchange of goods and services. Small scale production system are a resource for local economy, though they are often economically unsustainable for the lack of an adequate market, that links offering from small producers to the buyers. The presence of an adequate communication infrastructure at the local level can create a network that links producers directly with their final customers, thus reducing costs and in some cases creating opportunities to optimise production processes and increasing environmental sustainability. The communication system may require a centralised effort to generate the basic technological infrastructure (as for NEM), but can also work on the basis of local events (such as in Middelsborough) or use the existing social network and basic communication infrastructure, such as phones, and SMS, as for GAS


Neighbourhood e-Market is a marketplace where anyone can directly sell their time, around other commitments in their life, with total control and all the information they need about localised patterns of demand/supply and pricing for the kind of work or services they wish to offer. The market works through the internet. NEMs are neutral, very low-cost, user-protecting, marketplaces with facilities that can barely be imagined in low level sectors today. They would be designed built and run by private sector companies but directly underpinned by the highest authorities in the land.

Urban Farming makes it possible for people in urban areas to take care and use local green areas, cultivating small allotments with fruits and vegetable plants. The food produced locally is sold or made available to the community in kitchen playgrounds (where people learn new recipes) or in Meal assembly centres, where people can buy ready made ingredients for preferred meals.

Purchasing groups are set up by a number of consumers who cooperate in order to buy food and other commonly used goods directly from the producers or from big retailers at a discounted rate. Such groups can support local production of food and other local products, because they can create a solid local market for small local producers. By organising pre-ordering of products, local producers can plan their production in advance, thus avoiding wastes and inefficiencies. This is particularly relevant for agricultural products and food.

Residual capabilities

People’s residual capabilities are often held back by the lack of opportunities to use them. Besides their normal job or when retired, people can be active in cultivating their hobbies or exercising their skills. There are many things that people are good at and can help others in their own living area, but the lack of communication systems that make it possible for citizens to know who can do what hides this diffuse opportunity.


Rent a Granny is an initiative that activate ageing people in Germany and Denmark, connecting them to single parents who need occasional assistance (baby sitting or even some suggestion). Ageing people and single parents are put in contact through a website managed by an association, which takes the responsibility to create trust between people. Public institutions are sometimes contributing by providing information and education.

+bici is an association of people with the passion for bicycles and the capability to repair them. The association has several workshops in Milan, where the members are teaching people how to repair their bicycles.

Creating local networks and reintegrating externalities

Externalities from a production system are often useful for other production systems. Yet this exchange does not happens and many resources are left apart, just because of the lack of communication between different production systems. Such a communication network would also generate opportunities for collaboration and exchange of knowledge among firms citizens and other actors located in the same geographical context. Stronger links have already been considered as the basis of success for several districts (Castells 2000; Becattini 2004).

Local business networks can be created with the help of technological platform that enhance communication and collaboration, sometimes sharing competences and experts among different companies-e.g. New York– or by transferring and integrating expertise and externalities produced in the same geographic area Costellazione Apulia


Becattini, G. (2004). Industrial districts. Cheltenham, Edward elgar.

Castells, M. (2000). The rise of the network society. Oxford ; Malden, MA, Blackwell Publishers.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free culture : how big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York, Penguin Press.

Morelli, N. (2007). “Social Innovation and New Industrial Contexts: Can Designers “Industrialize” Socially Responsible Solutions?” Design Issues 23(4): 3-21.

Murray, R., C. Burns, et al. (ND). Open Health, Design Council – RED.

Tapscott, D. and A. D. Williams (2006). Wikinomics. How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. London, Atlantic Books.

Von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England, The MIT Press

April 23, 2008

A critical view of experience economy

A critic to the experience economy

Experience economy is seen as an opportunity for business to propose new services based on entertainment and immaterial contents

As such, experience economy is often presented as a way for industrialised countries to re-gain the competitive advantage lost with the relocation of production activities to developing countries: they argue that experience requires an advanced design and planning activity that can only be performed in developed countries (with technology, cinema, and other media) and anyway is strictly linked to the culture of the receivers, therefore it is strongly dependent on the market location (and the biggest markets for experience-based industry are still western countries).

In this sense experience economy is event based: the event is the product to be sold to users in the experience economy. Users are passive receivers of the event proposals

This is a top-down interpretation of the term, which is based on a dichotomy service provider/served client. Of course this perspective is also based on the direct involvement of the served client in the development of the experience, but the characteristics of being event-based, or ephemeral, is recurrent in several experience-based services and activities.

Although this view may have a strong economic foundation I would also consider an alternative perspective that starts from a different idea of what experience is. I am thinking of a bottom-up approach that focus on the true meaning of the word: experience, from ex-perire, that means to try, to get knowledge about something through direct involvement. For this reason a bottom-up approach should start from the assumption that users are in fact an active part of the process, not just spectators.

Furthermore the term experience refers to an activity that generates knowledge, in this sense any activity that implies direct involvement is experience, not just a special event organised by someone else. For this reason experience should be considered our everyday life, rather than a special event.

Is this a basis for an economical development? Is there anyone that could develop a profitable business out of this perspective? Probably not, because the term concerns an aspect of our life that we should be able to manage by ourselves. Yet, if we look at our life, we realised that many activities of our daily life could have been perfomed by ourselves, instead we ask for help from someone else, often (more and more often) from someone we pay for help. Our economic system, based on an invasive diffusion of products and technologies that have replaced several activities perfomed by ourselves is making us unable to perform basic functions and we need a help. Among such functions there are also social functions, such as talking with new people, visiting friends, knowing the right person. An opportunity emerges, whether it is acceptable to put it in business terms or not, to support people in recovering such daily functions, also considering that the lost capabilities to perform such functions are in fact implying a personal and social cost that must be paid.

In Amartia Sen’s terms (Sen 1985; Sen 1999) when we start missing the capabilities to use our own resources for get to our desired results (Functionings) we are in fact decreasing our well-being, therefore a socio-cultural system that makes us more and more dependent on external help to perform the most basic experience-related functions we are in fact decreasing our well being. From this perspective the experience economy may be no longer seen as an area of opportunities, but rather as a question that requires urgent social and cultural intervention, even at the level of public institutions.

In those terms experience economy may seem much less attractive to business and design, but I am convinced that, even in this perspective (or possibly especially in this perspective), huge possibilities for innovation can be discovered.

Sen, A. (1985). Well-Being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984, Journal of Philosophy, Inc. 82: 169-221.

Sen, A. K. (1999). Development as freedom. New York, Knopf.

April 20, 2008

Creativity of everyday

For a moment I try to sift the perspective from the macro level of economies and large political and social systems to the individuals that represent the molecules of such systems. Every moment in people life is based on individual choices, which in turn are based o the context in which such choices are developed.

Apart from some emerging phenomena, such as Second Life or other social forms we can now observe in Web 2, the real dimension of the consumption process is still local, whereas production process are globalising: products are produced in different parts of the word, but the process of consuming, or experiencing a product is related to the place and time in which it is located. Of course the context in which individual choices is also connected to other contexts: for instance getting info on holiday resorts and the availability of adequate (time and moneywise) forms of transportation, puts me in the conditions of deciding to spend the holidays in contexts I have never seen before (and of course this also implies an environmental cost), however the process of consumption (the experience of holidays in an exotic place) is locally and temporary placed (the holiday resort, the holiday period) while the experience of dreaming before the holiday itself, and organising the trip appropriately is located in my everyday context of life.

The context in which each action of our life is placed represents the dimension in which our action and our choices are framed. Globalised production doesn’t just produce products and services, but also a cultural model in which such products/services will be used. In every moment of their life individuals are proposed such models and face the dilemma whether to abide by those models or shape their own individual choices using the resources and products they have, including global and local products/services and their individual capabilities. Each individual develops his/her own life strategies, deciding whether to adapt to the context conditions or to add new properties to it, in order to make it more suitable to reach his/her own aspirations and individual needs. Such an autonomous choice is a design act, whose degree of freedom depends on how much individuals are able to shape their own life independently from the global models.

For this reason individuals are always dealing with a tension between adaptation to global parameter and criteria and active Production processes at the local/individual level. Such processes are producing individual solutions.

Every time individuals abide by the model proposed by global consumption processes they give up their own chance to produce individual solutions, to invent their life. This is perfectly justifiable, as adaptation to the context conditions are as a way to reduce the effort and the stress of inventing new things and may save energy and resource to prioritise aspect of the everyday life that are more relevant. However the prevalence of adaptation behaviour or the persistence of such behaviour in long term may reduce individual creativity to the point it may become a scarce resource. At the social level the loss of individual creativity means a loss of diversity (diversity by itself is a biological/social/human resource) and a reduced potential to face the complexity of the problems generated by the modern socio-technical system.

The tension between adaptation to global models of consumption and creation of individual solutions and individual ways of living highlights the profile of individuals as actors rather than consumers; i.e. as active participants/designers rather than passive receivers of products/services and experiences. This perspective also changes the perception of the idea of people as the sum of actors that create a society or a social context, rather than a market. The active role of such context depends on its capability to generate autonomous proposals/projects about their way of living. In other words, it depends on the creativity of a social group or a social context.

Creativitry should not be seen as a monolithic resource in the hands of a group of professionals specialist, but rather as a diffuse resource that produces multiple and flexible solutions and also multiple perspectives: different ways of looking at and interpreting reality, which is particularly relevant when reality is very complex. Diffuse creativity implies a social learning process and is the engine for new forms of production.

Those reflection are partly inspired to the book “Sustainable Everyday” by Ezio Manzini and Francois Jegou

October 8, 2006

Welcome to the system design Blog

This blog has been created to disseminate and share knowledge about System Design within the design communities.

Designers are used to work on products and they learned how to control its design and production process. However the evolution of social, technical and economic systems is running very fast, changing the role and the structure of industrial production. The “industry” designers refer to has no longer the same role in our economies, nor is it organised the same way as few years ago. The whole system of production and consumption is changing, becoming more complex and diversified. The success, or even the survival of several industrial companies depends on their capability to interpret such change and to offer specific, context-dependent and highly customised solutions.

True, there may be designers in the future, who will keep working on products, whose nature and characteristics are also changing. But more and more designers will be required to work with companies, to interpret the above mentioned change in the production and consumption system and to propose innovative solutions, that are not necessarily based on material products, but are rather based on a mix of products and services (a Product Service System, or PSS).

In the last seven years I’ve been working on research and teaching activities focused on the design of such solutions and I believe it is is now the moment to put together the ideas and the findings from my research (my personal research, the discussions with my colleagues and the work with groups of very talented and enthusiastic students). It is now time to expose this knowledge to a wider audience and discuss it.

This blog will therefore include contributions from my teaching, research and theoretical activities. I will include my lectures (in the best possible form, maybe a podcast), my reflections and my doubts; and I hope to receive enough feedbacks (criticisms are more than welcome) to use this as a further opportunity to know more and possibly offer a contribution to this area of research.

In general my posts will concern:

  • HOW? How do we design systemic solutions? How do we structure the design process of PSS? How do we manage the various methodological tools? How do we develop an operative paradigm?
  • WHAT? What are those solutions? What do they imply for designers, industries, institutions or final users? What is an operative paradigm?
  • WHY? Why should we focus our attention on systemic solutions? What are the ethical, professional and political imperative that suggest us to work in this area?

I hope visitors of this blog will find it interesting

Nicola Morelli