“Soft Revolution”: Small vs Global

Posted on January 29, 2011

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HERE IS A SMALL THOUGHT that I have been trying to formulate since we attended the Sustain Talk at the RCA, reviewed by Paula here.

During his presentation, Ezio Manzini stressed the importance of local initiatives. As Paula mentioned, he also talked about the everyday heroes, who organised themselves to design alternative ways of living, and find solutions to issues they were facing in their everyday lives. By researching and compiling examples of creative community initiatives, Manzini demonstrates that a more sustainable world is not an utopia. They are happening everywhere, and the people behind them are offering visions of possible worlds. I think the image above is a good illustration of this. It is taken from “Collaborative Communities, People inventing sustainable ways of living”, a book published by Emude Research, which can be downloaded here.

However, one of the questions that was asked by the audience after the presentation was roughly: “The issue I have with design for sustainability is that all the projects it seems to generate are small community initiatives. How can we get out of this idea of local and turn it into a more global movement?”

From what I understood, this person seemed to object the idea that small can mean impactful. One of the speakers, Julian Vincent, simply replied by asking him “Do you shop in Tesco?” The answer was yes, as it would have been for most of us. Julian Vincent then replied: “Well, I don’t, and this is where you should start.”

Although it might seem quite caricatural in the first place, I felt this answer made a lot of sense. It not only reminds us of Ghandi’s wisdom – “Be the change you want to see in the world” – but it also emphasizes the power of small. Starting by changing our own behaviour, applying the transformative attitude supposedly inherent to the work of designers to our own selves makes us realise the huge impact that simple incremental changes can have.

Ezio Manzini gave a more elaborate answer, which confirmed this idea. These local initiatives come from actual needs experienced by people in their communities – needs related to the economic crisis, and the necessity for people to find alternatives to public services. The solutions they come up with work, precisely because they are local responses to local problems. They emerge from local contexts, and this is what makes them so impactful – and sustainable.

This inspiring talk by Emily Pilloton, funder of Project H, demonstrates how small = big:

Once this is understood, it doesn’t make sense to even consider how to globalise any of these solutions. Taking the context into account is crucial to social innovation. The value of this “soft revolution” is in its diversity. One size doesn’t fit all. The smaller, the more specific, the more relevant – the more “user-centered”.

Another point Manzini made was about connectivity. The internet is allowing a rapid sharing of experiences, and very few of these stories are isolated stories. This contributes to “spreading the seeds” (not making global) of a distributed economy.

* by Fan Sissoko.

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