DxCM explores the diverse roles of design as a city making agent, fostering social innovation, political experimentation, and radical imagination by working at the intersection between design, architecture, and the city. In this interview with Ezio Manzini, author of Plug-Ins: Design for City Making in Barcelona (Actar Publishers, 2023) together with Albert Fuster and Roger Paez, we talk about complex systems of proximity, the point of view of citizens and decoding urban life as solid vs fluid.
KOOZ You collaborated for three years with Elisava’s Design for City Making Research Lab, a research institute investigating the role of design in the material and social construction of our habitats. How does the lab approach and define the city as being simultaneously urbs, civitas and polis?
EZIO MANZINI The city is always and at the same time urbs, civitas and polis: a physical, social and political system made up of people, things and interactions.
However, only its physical component was recognised in the past as a possible object of design, thinking that the other two would follow in a quasi-natural way, without the need for explicit design interventions. Today, however, we know that the quality of the city—understood as the quality of life of its citizens—depends on how all three components are designed. This recognition, which brings with it a major cultural and operational change, is summarised in the expression “design for city making”, an expression that refers to the need to develop projects from different points of view and at different scales (among these, of course, are the traditional ways of thinking and doing city planning).
The city is always and at the same time urbs, civitas and polis: a physical, social and political system made up of people, things and interactions.
Once we recognise that urbs, civitas and polis co-exist and co-evolve interacting with each other, we must assume that the city is a complex system.Therefore, like all complex systems, its form cannot be designed as such, it emerges from the interweaving of interactions that characterise it. What we can do is to design sub-systems—touching at the same time the physical, social and political dimensions—to be inserted into the larger system and aimed at favouring changes in the desired direction. All this knowing that, given the complexity of the system and the amount of iterations involved, the outcome of this insertion is largely unpredictable.
Navigating complexity, recognising it but trying not to be overwhelmed by it, is what we define as “plug-in”.
We must assume that the city is a complex system, it emerges from the interweaving of interactions that characterise it.
KOOZ By 2050, 68% of Earth's total population is expected to live in urban areas, reinforcing the fact that “cities are the most important theatre where the present of humankind and the future of the planet are being played out”. How does the project understand and posit the city in between a depredatory entity and a liberating one?
EM As you put it, it is necessary to practise this theatre you refer to knowing that a clash between very different positions is taking place. For the purposes of our discourse as designers, it is useful to see these different positions as scenarios. And to think of the future of the city as the result of this clash between them: the clash between visions and between the practices that refer to each of them.
These scenarios can be described in different ways. It is crucial to see their relationship with two themes that seem fundamental to me today: that of care and that of proximity. In my book Livable Proximity, now also translated into Spanish, I propose three competing scenarios: that of distances, that of everything at/home, and that of proximity.
The City of Distances comes to us from modernity: the separation and distancing of functions (zoning), the individualisation of citizens and their transformation from people capable of caring for each other into users/clients of services. Today this scenario, updated with a bit of technological promise, is proposed under the label Smart City and tells us that, ultimately, everything can go on as we have known it for the last century. This scenario, while trying to fix the present, leads us to environmental and social catastrophe. An unspoken corollary of smart cities is that the ecological transition requires more than a smart & green paint job on the unsustainable ways of being and doing things.
The second, Everything to/From Home, is the scenario of the spread of connectivity and digital media (now also integrated with AI). It is a scenario driven by powerful economic actors but also by the acceptance of a growing number of users (enormously increased after that planetary social experiment that was the lock-down). It is the scenario of the individual escaping from the limits, difficulties and dangers of the physical world, to take refuge in virtual worlds perceived as attractive, manageable and safe. Its unspoken corollary is that the physical world, with its limitations, difficulties and dangers continues to exist. But, being perceived as less attractive than the virtual one, with no one to care for it, it is left to degrade. A degradation that, as we are dramatically verifying, is not only physical but also social and political.
The City of Proximity, imagines a world and a city in which humans rediscover the value of collaboration, care and ultimately, proximity.
The third scenario, the City of Proximity, imagines a world and a city in which humans rediscover the value of collaboration, care and ultimately, proximity, both physical and relational. It is a scenario whose basic ideas are not new but which has accelerated in this century with the spread of phenomena that we usually call social innovation: a varied set of initiatives characterised by the emergence of people who decide to tackle everyday issues by collaborating and caring for each other and the environment.And, with this, they rediscover the value of places and communities. This same social innovation has also led to the outlining of a new idea of city: the city of proximity, precisely. Which is also the city of care.
Needless to say, everything must be done to support this third scenario, as opposed to the other two. The City of Proximity opposes the City of Distances and zoning, proposing a rapprochement of people and functions, with the creation of dense and diverse neighbourhood systems. At the same time, it opposes the City of EverythingTo/from Home, as talking about proximity—and thus mutual care—leads to placing the physical and biological dimension of our lives and the ecosystems of proximity in which they take place, at the centre of our interests.
KOOZ Beyond the city itself, the Lab advocates for the idea of “extending cities to their bioregion, not only including the interaction between inhabitants and the built city, but also the city’s effects on the other living and non-living entities that make up the urban ecosystem”. What are the advantages and possibilities offered by this redefinition?
EM This is one of the major issues to be addressed today. Taking the transition to an ecological society seriously means a radical change on many levels. One is that of our geographical location. Until now, we have thought of it in contexts whose boundaries have mostly been defined by human events (the boundaries of neighbourhoods, cities and nations). But the ecological transition that awaits us asks us to place our activities by taking into account the functioning of the natural cycles on which we base our lives. Hence, when speaking of the city, we need to see it within the framework of its bioregion, understood as the area that contains and surrounds the city, endowed with homogeneous physical and ecological characteristics and capable of sustaining certain fundamental functions of the city itself (relating, for example, to the water cycle, the quality of the area, and food production).
When speaking of the city, we need to see it within the framework of its bioregion, understood as the area that contains and surrounds the city.
This broadened way of viewing the city's territory offers the possibility of relating to the theme of its ecological transition in the radical way that is necessary today. Doing so makes the issue of city making even more complex: the plug-in approach described above must be adopted, placing it in a clearly bioregional perspective. One example is community-supported agriculture initiatives, in which direct links are built between citizens and farmers in neighbouring areas. Another is that of groups of citizens in the same catchment area, who organise themselves to better manage the water cycle.
KOOZ In addition to city planning, the Lab encourages the notion of city making to actively engage its citizens. How do the plug-ins operate to enrich and expand the complex system of relationships in our cities? How can those same plug-ins help redefine the idea of “the citizen’s right to the city” to ensure that cities are no longer designed “for them”, but “with them” and even “by them”?
EM I might add that the ideas and practices of city making have been generated by the experiences of the past century. In particular, we have learnt that planning, understood in its most widespread sense, is not enough. In fact, it offers us a vision of the city as seen from an aeroplane. But, from that height, while we can observe many relevant things, we cannot see how people really live. This requires a change of point of view. Get down on the ground and adopt the point of view that sees the city from the inside, the point of view of the citizens in their daily experience. It does not refer to a specific scale: those who move around the city do so on a local scale, but they also do so with the systems that operate on a larger scale (e.g. transport, goods distribution, energy and water). But it does so by looking at them from where it stands. That is, from their local interfaces. In service design, one would say starting from their touch points (which are the points of contact between people located in a local context and the systems, even the more extensive ones, that constitute it).
We have learnt that planning, understood in its most widespread sense, is not enough.
Given this premise, I can now answer your question.If we look at the city from the inside, adopting the point of view of those who live it, we can get a more concrete idea of how things are and how they could be. But not only that. Since the citizens' point of view is also their point of action (the one from which they can, if they wish, affect the reality around them), combining this point of view with the design approach we have called plug-in gives us the possibility of developing effective co-design. More importantly, it allows us to give rise to processes of co-production of results. That is, to stimulate and support citizens' involvement not only in deciding what their neighbourhood system should look like, but also how it could be generated and managed over time.
Plug-ins are by no means just ephemeral architectures: all human interventions are ultimately plug-ins. When confronted with a complex system, we can certainly stimulate it, but not control it.
KOOZ Embracing the fact that, in the increasingly uncertain world which we live in today, change is perhaps the only constant, the Lab explores and advocates for the agency of temporal architecture and design. What opportunities can arise when challenging the Western thought that equates permanence with value and meaning, as first epitomised by the second element of the Vitruvian triad, firmitas? How do the plug-ins, as ephemeral architectures, explore and challenge the city as an open-ended project in continuous transformation?
EM Two premises are necessary.
The first is that ephemeral architectures are certainly examples of plug-ins, but plug-ins are by no means just ephemeral architectures: all human interventions are ultimately plug-ins. This expression reveals one realisation: our cognitive and design capacities have limits. Therefore, when confronted with a complex system, we can certainly stimulate it, but not control it. Acquiring this awareness is important. It gives us hope that it will lead us to curb our delusions of power and operate more modestly and wisely.
The forms that characterise a city seen as a fluid entity are the result of the ability to maintain over time the interweaving of relations that made it possible. In short: the ability to care for it.
The second premise is that cities are, and always have been, “open-ended projects in continuous transformation”.Within this framework, the interventions that call themselves ephemeral architecture are those that operate by recognising more explicitly than others this fluid and open-ended nature of the city.
As Michel Serres wrote some time ago, the world can be decoded as solid or as fluid. In Western culture, for many centuries, the view of a solid world has prevailed. For many reasons that it would take a long time to present here, but which can be traced back to the accelerating pace of change, I believe that the fluid world view is appropriate today. And that it is in this fluid world that we must see, and learn to generate, forms. Both the ephemeral ones and those we want to last. Indeed, even the fluid world has forms that can last: a laminar motion or a vortex are the forms of the fluid world. Their duration does not lie in the matter itself, as in the solid world, but in the duration of the boundary conditions that make them possible: if these conditions change, so do the fluid forms. For example, and departing from the fluid-dynamic metaphor, an urban community in a solid way (as the pre-modern one was interpreted) was considered something enduring in itself, almost as if its durability were a natural property. Today, however, it is evident that this is no longer the case: a community must be built with projects and exist as long as there are projects in which its members can recognise themselves. Extending the idea to the whole city: the forms that characterise a city seen as a fluid entity are the result of the ability to maintain over time the interweaving of relations that made it possible. In short: the ability to care for it.
Ezio Manzini has been working in the field of design for sustainability for over three decades. Most recently, his interests have focused on social innovation, considered as a major driver of sustainable changes. In this perspective he started DESIS: an international network of schools of design, active in the field of design for social innovation and sustainability. Presently, he is President of DESIS Network and Honorary Professor at the Politecnico di Milano. He has been guest professor in several design schools world-wide, as (in the past decade): Elisava-Design School and Engineering (Barcelona), Tongji University (Shanghai), Jiangnan University (Wuxi), University of the Arts (London), CPUT (Cape town), Parsons -The new School for Design (NYC). In addition to his continuous involvement in the design for sustainability arena, he has explored and promoted design potentialities in different fields, such as: Design of Materials, in the 80s; Strategic Design, in the 90s (starting a Master in Strategic Design); Service Design, in the last ten years (starting the specific courses in Service Design). Most recent books: Design, When Everybody Designs. An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation, MIT Press 2015; Politics of the Everyday. Bloomsbury 2019; Livable Proximity, Egea, 2022; Plug-ins: Design for City Making in Barcelona (with Albert Fuster and Roger Paez), Elisava and Actar Publishers 2023.