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Enabling solutions and sustainability

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(Ezio Manzini, 30.1.2004)
Enabling solutions and sustainability: introductory notes

(draft not yet edited in English)

1. Result-oriented networks

1.1 The emerging concept of “solution”
Our daily life is based on continuous activity to construct and maintain value production networks: networks of people, things and places which aim to achieve something that we judge to be a result: getting a meal, washing the clothes, reading a book, organising a meeting, ….. each of these result orientated networks can be defined as a solution.
In the most general sense we can give to the term, a solution is a process by which product, service and knowledge are put together to achieve a result (solve a problem or reach an objective).
In general, this daily activity is undertaken by the subject-actors themselves, putting their personal capabilities into play according to the opportunities given them by the context they find themselves in.

In practice: by identifying a result and choosing the products and services required to achieve it from among those they have a real chance of access to.

Recently, the increased transformation speed of socio-technical systems has put this traditional way of behaving into difficulty: the traditional know-how subjects have acquired no longer seems to be sufficient, adapting new products and systems, case by case, to those already in existence is not easy, the actual results to achieve become more and more complex (as for example, when we really want to take into consideration the environmental and social implications of our own choices).
So in this context under rapid transformation, it becomes necessary to conceive and bring into being products, services and systems of know-how thought up right from the beginning as “a system”; to be co-ordinated, or easily co-ordinatable, according to the result. Starting from this necessity, some producers and service providers have begun to offer solutions: advanced solutions conceived as unitary systems and, for this reason, separate from off-the-cuff solutions, widely put into action outside any real plan.

1.2 Sustainable, regenerative and enabling
Nowadays we know that a large part of the solutions we look to, and therefore the lifestyles deriving from them, are unsustainable. We also know that all this cannot continue and that we have to imagine and develop a new generation of sustainable solutions.
A sustainable solution is the process by which products, services and know-how are made into a system with the aim of facilitating the user in achieving a result coherent with sustainability criteria. To be more precise: a result which also has the effect of transforming the given system and generating a new one which is characterised by its consistency with the fundamental principles of sustainability, by a low energy and material intensity and by a high regenerative potential.
In this paper we will deal meanly with the last criterion and with its relationship with the theme that interest us here: the link between sustainability and the regenerative potential of a solution, on one side and its enabling potential, on the other side.
Where the regenerative potential of a solution refers to its capacity to integrate with its context enhancing the environmental and social resources that are locally available. It therefore expresses its capacity to modify, positively, the state of things. And to do that mobilizing individuals and communities and promoting new forms of entrepreneurial capabilities .
And where the enabling potential of a solution refers to its capacity to give users (individuals and/or communities) the tools and knowledge they need to achieve a result using their skills and abilities to the best advantage.
The reasons for this choice are described in the next paragraphs: the concept enabling solutions is introduced, some real cases of solutions with a high enabling potential are presented (in the Annex1 Cases of enabling initiatives) and their emerging characterizing aspects are discussed. Finally, these concepts are considered in the wider perspective of the transition towards sustainability.

2. Users as actors-in-a-context

2.1 Subject-actor and co-production of value
In order to talk about solutions we must first of all sketch out the protagonist of our story, i.e. the subject we are referring to. To be more specific, since we are particularly interested in the relationship between this subject and the system of artefacts we can use to create an idea of well-being, we shall refer to our subject as subject-actor: the subject seen in context adopting an action strategy to achieve a given result.
This picture of the subject-actor placed in context is what distances our proposition from the more common one, when speaking about subject and product, of subject-consumer, i.e. one where the subject is usually considered as a figure uprooted from the complexity of a specific living context, reduced to a single possible role: that of consumer.

The subject-actor model, on the other hand, offers us the possibility of considering an active subject who participates in the process of value production, in other words, in achieving a result.

In fact, when given a result the subject can participate in its achievement by enacting various forms of participation. These are, in their turn, defined by the different ways he employs:

  • his personal resources whether physical, economical or cultural (what he knows, what he knows how to do and what he can – physically and economically speaking - do)

  • his time (the time he can and wants to dedicate)

  • his attention (the degree of concentration he is capable of).

The combination of these variables gives rise to various action strategies which, for simplicity’s sake, can be collocated on a passive v. active scale. Where on the one hand the subject is presented, and considered, as a subject “to serve”, while on the other hand, he is presented as a bringer of potentially valuable resources.

2.2 Contexts and life plans
So the protagonist of our story is an actor placed in a precise setting. This setting is his context, the context of his actions and therefore also of his daily search for well-being. By the term context we mean:

  • the physical space and the social set-up which constitute the background to an action, and in relation to which that action becomes possible and takes on meaning. So it is the set of restraints and opportunities that, in a given time and place, delimit the possibility for action of the subject to which the context applies.

We should underline that, between context and action (and actor), there is no deterministic bond: the context directs and conditions, but never completely determines the effective action undertaken. In short, the context is a “trampoline for action” that enables the actor to jump in various, but not all, directions.

A context can be described by listing various property typologies. The basic one which interests us here refers to the properties of the natural and artificial system in which the action takes place, in other words, the physical space and social set-up which constitute the substrata of the context itself, and also the substrata in relation to which the subject placed in it will assess his own well-being and enact strategies for maintaining or improving it.

Without going into details we can say that various typologies of assets, and various timescales, come into play in the definition of these strategies: the assets to take into consideration are both private, mainly those acquired on the market, and those of the community. Timescales refer to the rhythms at which events take place and to the existence or otherwise of an ecology of timing.

Various combinations of private assets and assets in common, of different timescales and different ways of taking action constitute the different living strategies by which the subject actor tries to approximate his idea of well-being.

2.3 Action strategies
Considering the solutions from the point of view of the subject-actor, they are the result of his/her strategy. An action strategy understood as:

  • a sequence of choices and actions by which, according to his/her capability, an actor identifies and achieves a result.

The concept of action strategy has to do with the way subjects act and, in particular, refers to how they articulate their life plan into specific objectives and into the strategies required to achieve them.

The term strategy, in this context, should be interpreted as a set of choices and moves made to a purpose and carried out in a highly unpredictable context.

In our case it indicates that the sequence of actions a life plan is articulated into occurs in a context which is never entirely predictable. Consequently the subject who acts must use his strategic ability to keep to his course, receiving feedback from the system he is operating in, constantly redefining his movements and, if necessary, reorienting his own objectives.

In short, an action strategy is the expression of the way a subject is able and knows how to determine his moves. This means, how and how far he is able and knows how to focus on a result and, in each situation, identify, acquire and use the necessary means to achieve it (this may involve associating different products and services with each other, or accessing a system of products and services conceived at the outset as a “solution”).
A subject’s action strategy, as well as his capability, depends on:

  • the combination of forms of participation which he can, and knows how to put in play (therefore mainly on the physical, economic and cultural personal resources available to him)

  • the solutions which present themselves (therefore on the set of product, services and knowledge which the subject has access to and which can enable him, if endowed with the appropriate personal resources, to achieve the desired result).

2.4 A social learning process
The transition towards sustainability will be a social learning process thanks to which human beings will gradually learn, by error and contradiction – as always happens in any learning process – how to live well consuming (much) less and regenerating the quality of the environment, i.e. of the global ecosystem and of local living contexts, in which they happen to live.
On the other side, as a prerequisite to any learning process it is essential that subjects are able to operate intelligently, sensitively and with interest.
It comes that, in the quest for sustainability, individual actors and communities must play an active, conscious role. I.e. they must bring a certain amount of their personal resources, in terms of time, attention and expertise, into play.
At present all this looks highly problematical. On the one hand the issues to be dealt with are increasingly complex and new, on the other, the actors involved are generally increasingly less expert and more pressed for time (or rather, by the impression of lack of time).
In other words, the transition towards sustainability requires attention, ability and widespread expertise: attention for the people, things and the environment we relate to, competence and skill to do so appropriately. Today we lack such diffused competence and expertise, and attention is a rarer and rarer gift.

3. Enabling people to solve their problems

3.1 Dis-abling trends

For many years, the prevailing tendency in developing technical systems has been towards the use of innovation to relieve the user of any effort or responsibility for his actions. In the name of a mistaken idea of comfort and efficiency, the only quality encouraged was that of reduced personal effort and, in short, “disinvolvement” and ignorance with regard to the way things function and how to look after them. But also with regard to the everyday life events and how to solve the problems that they may generate.

This lost of individual capacities in “solving daily problems” is one of the major issues we have to face today: it generates increasing demands for services and throw-away products that are, as a whole, socially, economically and environmentally unsustainable.
Let take, as examples, the issues of the lost of capacities in preparing food and in maintaining home, clothes and domestic appliances: the combination of demographic changes, households structures, and users’ increasing disinvolvement and lack of care fuel the throwaway world we live in today. And open, even at the short term, big social and economical problems (as, for instance: the elderly people increasing demands that, especially in Europe or in Japan, nobody knows how to face within the main-stream, “modern” ideas on services and healthcare).
At present, to change these dis-abling trends appears to be very problematic (even if, as we will see in a next paragraph, and in the Annex 1, some interesting contradictory signals are appearing). In fact: on the one hand the issues to be dealt with are increasingly complex and new. And, on the other hand, the actors involved are generally increasingly less expert and more pressed for time (or rather, by the impression of lack of time).
Facing this kind of problems, what has to be done is, first of all, to place the issues of comfort, efficiency and care on an effective discussion table . And, moving from here, to increase people’s capacity to deal with questions related to them and provide them with the means to do so in the best possible way.
In this problematic framework, as designer and as products and services providers, the issue becomes to conceive and develop a new generation of products, services and systems, the enabling solutions, that integrate their specific “intelligence” with the resources of individuals and communities, so offering new opportunity for action.

3.2 Enabling solutions

The concept of enabling solution refers to operative tools, able to help the user focus on a result and achieve it in a sustainable way. In carrying out this role they must bring a special type of intelligence into play: an intelligence that enables them to stimulate, develop and regenerate the ability and competence of those who use it.

Obviously the more expert and motivated the user and the simpler the results to be achieved, the simpler the necessary instruments may be. On the other hand, the less expert the user, the more the system must be able to make up for his/hers lack of skill by supplying what he/she doesn’t know or can’t do. In addition, the less the user is motivated, the more the system must be not only friendly but also attractive as a kind of stimulating experience.
The concept of enabling solution therefore indicates the possibility of seeing technology as a system that increases and strengthens individual and collective opportunity. Operationally it is a system that makes a given result accessible by actively involving the user in bringing it about.

3.3 Practicability

If we observe the dynamics of the technological and socio-cultural innovation in progress, we can see contradictory but interesting phenomena linked to the spread of new technological opportunities and to cultural and behavioural changes which, although still only minor, indicate important, interesting development possibilities.

3.3.1 Technological opportunities. Information and communication technology, the new networks and the user friendly expert systems they are able to generate, have a very promising potential in terms of enabling solution development. They make complex systems accessible and manageable, and sophisticated apparatus usable to many, which could otherwise only have been used by a few experts. Instruments for medical diagnosis are going in this direction, enabling people to become more aware and self-sufficient as far as their health and well being is concerned. In a similar way, systems can be seen as enabling platforms when they make it possible to know and monitor the functioning of complex apparatus, and which allow them to be used in a more expert manner. Here we could include anything from the maintenance of a camera to the optimisation of energy consumption by a heating system. By its very nature the Internet is also potentially a great enabling platform. It gives access to the information and expertise necessary to deal with (almost) any activity, from the most eccentric, such as the art of candle making, to the more mundane and everyday, like trying to find a lift through the car-pooling system. Information and communication technology together open totally new opportunities. However, all this cannot be taken for granted, correctly speaking it is a potentiality. In other words, the concrete application of information and communication technology can give rise to extraordinary enabling platforms or to useless gimcracks. It depends how they are planned and utilised.
3.3.2 Cultural and behavioural changes. In the framework of the contemporary society, new kinds of behaviours and new ways of living are continuously emerging. Some of them are even more un-sustainable than the previous ones, but some others appear as interesting moves toward more sustainable ways of living and potentially as the emerging demand for sustainable solutions. These cases may be defined as promising cases. i.e. examples of demands that are appearing in some market niches and in some forms of communities of users. New kind of demands that are expressed by people that, in different ways and for different motivations, have (sharply) re-oriented their behaviours and express (radically) new demands of product and services. The observation of these promising cases shows a variety of examples that, to simplify the picture, may be clustered in two major categories: new behaviours and new ways of living.

New behaviours: to adopt new ways of solving specific problems. I.e. to share or to pool some devices (cars, washing machines, etc.); to choose organic sustainable food and products delivered in the framework of a fair trade system; to adopt sustainable behaviours in relation to energy consumption, to practice forms of sustainable tourism, etc.

New ways of living: to adopt new ways of solving wide sets of integrated problems. I.e. to enter in a co-housing initiative, to participate to a local exchange trade system (LETS); to promote sustainable local development; etc.). Even if, at the moment these new demands are the expression of some social minorities, and confronted with the main-stream ways of thinking and behaving they tend to disappear, they are crucial for promoting and orienting the transition towards sustainability.

4. Enabling solutions

4.1 Common traits and recurrent ideas

In the Annex 1 some real cases of enabling solutions are presented. Here, looking at them as a whole, we will underline some interesting common traits. The common traits we refer to are the following:

  • Multiple aims. Each proposal has more than one aim. None of them are mono-functional and none are considered only from a functional point of view (there is always a cultural and emotional perspective). This ability to conceive heterogeneous aims is a sign of the spread of a new, emerging – conscious or unconscious – “culture of complexity”.

  • Local-global link. Every proposal is in some way “local”, but at the same time “global”, and so, open to communication flows. Every proposal is also rooted in a definite context, but none are nostalgic for the traditional idea of place, i.e. the closed village of the past. This attitude alludes to the possibility, and ability, to overcome the contradiction between global and local and develop a “new sense of place”.

  • Individual-community link. The proposed solutions allude – more or less explicitly – to the figure of a user who is looking for a balance between two opposing tendencies: towards individualisation, which all the solutions seem to refer to, and the need for community, linked to group identity, which everybody somehow seems to express a need for.

  • Ecology of time. In general, the proposed solutions move at different speeds. None of them seems to reject speed and rhythms of contemporary metropolises ideologically, but many of them propose different rhythms and promote “slow islands” within the accelerated flows of the city.

4.2 The sprit of our times

These traits, common to such different situations and cultures, seem to form a sort of emerging “spirit of our times”: ideas hovering in the air which touch everyone who seeks to understand our times and move there constructively. A spirit that generates the capacity, unheard of in the west, to live with contradictions; to accept, for example, that the contrasts between local and global, between the search for individuality and the need for sociality, or between the excitement of speed and the charm of slowness, are irresolvable.

As we said, all this may be the sign of an emerging, new, worldwide culture. A culture that either consciously or unconsciously accepts the challenge of complexity, both by ancient tradition as in the East, or by recent discovery as in Europe. This spirit of the times may still not be the culture of sustainability we are looking for, but nevertheless, given its capacity to accept complexity while maintaining a design approach, it could represent fertile terrain for growth. In the light of the design proposals under consideration, we can see recurrent ideas emerging alongside the common traits described above. From the perspective of sustainability these would appear to be promising prospects: viewpoints from which we can try to see what everyday life, with its production, service and consumption system, will be like in the transition towards sustainability.

4.3 The potentiality of the bottom-up initiatives

In the light of these examples it seems evident that the unsustainability of everyday life in present day societies is the result of complex social processes and of political and economic choices made in the past but consolidated now, or made now but in faraway circles, not easily touchable by individual daily actions. All this would lead us to think that anything that can be done in the form and scale which mainly interests us here, i.e. on an everyday scale, starting from “the bottom”, has little margin for freedom and little chance of being incisive, given the problems we are facing.

This impression is both true and false. It is true in as much that individual behaviour and purchase options cannot in themselves modify the structure of the our physical and social environment. It is false because the transformation of complex systems like those in question, put the existing system under tension and and, by exercising a sort of diffuse pressure from inside and on a “micro” scale, they prepare the conditions for a “macro” change to be possible and even probable. It is this that individual citizens and their communities can do, and are fortunately already doing.
Looking carefully at the on-going social dynamics, we realise that something is happening. This “something happening” emerges from a combination of research studies, projects and concrete activities which indicate promising, practicable pathways: promising because, consistent with certain guidelines for sustainability, they indicate ways of breaking with dominant ideas and consolidated habits. Practicable pathways because they are supported by social dynamics and technological trends which are already in progress and, if steered in the right direction, may facilitate their realisation.
In this framework, we may assume that these boom-up initiatives may generate the conditions favrable for some major changes: the limits created by previous choice can be forced. What exists already can be re-invented with a view to new uses, and the technology and current organisational skills can open new opportunities. And all this can generate the cultural and operational conditions for totally new - maybe so far unimagined – solutions and sustainable forms of life.


Social innovations: changes in the way individuals or communities act to get a result (i.e. to solve a problem or to generate new opportunities). These innovations are driven by behaviours changes (more than by technology or market) and they emerge from bottom-up processes (more than from top-down ones). If the way to get a result is totally new (or if it is the same result to be totally new), we may refer to it as a radical social innovation.
Enabling initiatives: cases of social innovations in which individuals or communities are enabled to achieve a result using at best their skills and abilities. If these initiatives have a good probability to spread and to be developed using an “industrial approach” (i.e. in a more efficient, effective and replicable way) they may be considered as promising initiatives.
Enabling solutions: systems of products, services and organizational tools that enable individuals or communities to achieve a result using at best their skills and abilities. If these products, services and organizational tools are specifically designed to increase the enabling potential, the production efficiency and the reproducibility in other contexts of the resulting systems, these systems may be defined as advanced enabling solutions.
Enabling sustainable solution: solutions that facilitate the users in achieving results coherent with sustainability criteria. I.e. characterised by its consistency with the fundamental principles of sustainability, by a low energy and material intensity and by a high regenerative potential.
Regenerative potential: the solution capacity to integrate with its context enhancing the environmental and social resources that are locally available. It therefore expresses its capacity to modify, positively, the state of things. And to do that mobilizing individuals and communities and promoting new forms of entrepreneurial capabilities .
Enabling potential: it indicates the implementation of the users’ possibilities to do something that he/she consider relevant. That is, the implementation of one or more of these users’, and/or community of users’, characteristics:
1. Individuals and/or communities empowerment

1.1 cultural capabilities (skills and knowledge)

1.2 physical capabilities (material prostheses)

1.3 psychological drivers (cultural or ethical interests)

1.4 economical drivers (saving money or being paid)
2. Context conditions improvement

2.1 accessibility (reducing physical or psychological barriers)

2.2 time to do it (making more efficient the proposed activity, or liberating time in other activities)

2.3 space where to do it (reducing the needed space, or liberating other spaces, or creating new spaces)

3. Systemic issues development

3.1 organizational opportunity (to support the activity organization)

3.2 network building (to support the connection between different actors)

3.3 community building (to support the building of new forms of communities)

3.4 critical mass generation (to involve the necessary number of participants)

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