Ezio Manzini


Finding a Model for a Resilient Society

Ezio Manzini

'Social desertification ['] creates a very fragile system ['] Resilience needs a community in place, but we cannot go backwards and return to communities that were in place before' [we] must create an ecosystem that generates the condition to make something happen'

Presently written on my business card is: 'Chair Professor of Design for Social Innovation at University of the Arts London' and maybe in the following discussion you will come to understand more about what this title might mean. I am the person who proposed the two-year, university-wide project called Cultures of Resilience (2014), which is about resilience, or better, which kind of culture should be developed that would be most capable of promoting a resilient society. I am not presenting my work here, but instead I am presenting some ideas that come from my work. I would like to start with these pictures (found in the image slideshow above), which show a very important fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti from the 14th century called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. The fresco exists in a series of three panels showing six different scenes and can be found in Siena, Italy, on the wall of the Palazzo Pubblico. The images included here are the scenes that represent good government and are an allegory for how a system should be managed in order to function well. You can see that there are several different spatial areas where differing activities are taking place: in the second and third scene, firstly you can see public space that people can enjoy, in this case, to dance; nearby there is somebody working representing craftsmanship; after this you can see commerce represented by somebody doing business; further on you have a person going hunting; and then you have this very complex, multi-functional agricultural system taking place. So the result is that people are very much rooted in place, with everyone carrying out different tasks nearby to one another. This for me is very Italian, but it is not only Italian, perhaps it is more of a European understanding of what a community and a place are. This is a model for what a possible resilient society can look like – multiplicity, variety, different things functioning together. The problem is that this is the past and today we cannot reproduce the same thing. So in a way, I am starting with this because when we talk about 'communities' and 'place', my mind goes to an image of something like this. But the community and places of today cannot be similar to this one. Maybe they can have a memory of course, history is very important, but there are reasons why it cannot be reproduced.


On the other side, the tendency, or the main trend today is a bit like the movie The Truman Show, where the main protagonist is based in a fake city that is totally empty of real interaction. It a kind of social desertification, the drivers for which are hyper-individualisation and hyper-functionalisation, in which the difference between functions are separated out and pulled apart, rather than being integrated and diversely represented. Of course we can recognise this is as a result of marketisation and in the end, it can be seen as a consequence of a neoliberal attitude. Social desertification is not only something that I reject on the basis of a cultural motivation, or in other words, because I do not like it, but because it has become very unjust. Furthermore, it creates a very fragile system and in this way, the problem of reducing the richness of society is not just something that many of us think we personally do not appreciate, but it is also something that on a very practical level is dangerous.


Resilience needs a community in place, but we cannot go backwards and return to communities that were in place before. We have to imagine a new type of social form. Some people conceive of 'community' and 'place' as solid or static, in other words, something that exists and that has always existed. We have to imagine how to generate communities and places in fluid terms, so that we can adjust, transform and renew in relation to our current surroundings, so that we can generate social forms in a fluid context. Normally, when I imagine how you make a form, I picture taking a piece of wood and building it; it is a solid form. However, when you want to create a fluid form, imagine a whirlpool, you have to create a context that generates such a whirlpool. In other words, you cannot go straight in and directly design fluid forms, but you must create an ecosystem that generates the condition to make something happen. And I think something is happening.


When we think about now in Europe, there could be millions, if not hundreds of millions of people on the move who are displaced, immigrants and asylum seekers. These people are the representation of our more general condition. These are people on the move, who do not have a sense of place or an idea of where to create community. In my view we are currently all losing an interaction with 'place', we are all displaced. Therefore, dealing with the pressing issue of immigration is important not only because it is a dramatic situation that we must practically engage with, but we must also culturally engage to acknowledge our present social condition in a fluid world. These displaced people are simply a 'new stream' in a context, our society, which is already very fluid. Europe is often depicted as a calm society without major social disturbance and that they are the ones that come from the outside to disturb us. In my view, the reality is very obvious in a city like London, it is clear that it is not a place that is solid or homogeneous, it is already flowing through with a lot of different streams. These immigrants are simply a new stream that is essential for resilience as these new streams enrich and produce complexity, in a political sense, within our society. This means that we have to learn something, which is, 'what does it mean to live together with strangers'? Traditionally when we talk about people living together, we might imagine that they know each other. And maybe in the past you would have had communities that would have known each other for generations. Instead it is productive to create fluid systems, cosmopolitan localisms, where strangers are living together and yet are all also linked to a shared 'place'.



Professor Ezio Manzini held the role of University of the Arts London Chair of Design for Social Innovation between 2013-2016. Manzini supports the theory that art and design communities can bring an original blend of creativity and reflection to the quest for more resilient societies.