Prospects for a sustainable local development and the possible role of design.

By Ezio Manzini,

Dis-Indaco, Politecnico di Milano, 1.2.2005

Contrary to what was thought in the past, the joint phenomena of globalisation and networking have given rise once again to the local dimension. By the expression ‘local’ something very removed is meant from what was understood in the past (i.e. the valley, the agricultural village, the small provincial town, all isolated and relatively closed within their own culture and economy). Indeed, it combines the specific features of places and their communities with the new phenomena generated and supported world-wide by globalisation and by cultural, socio-economic interconnection. Unfortunately, these phenomena are characterised today by extremely negative dominant tendencies, on the one hand, that swing between traditionalist stances, supporting local interests, and reactionary stances (all the different forms of fundamentalism hidden behind the protecting veil of traditions and identity); and, on the other hand, by inclinations towards turning what remains of traditions and landscapes into a show for tourist purposes (the tourist-related ‘supermarket type’ of localism, which is just another side of the standardising aspect of globalisation, from which there is the desire to break away).

Luckily, however, at a closer look, more interesting and promising cases can be observed. Local communities that invent unprecedented cultural activities, forms of organisation and economic models; initiatives which, as a whole, represent an interesting development scenario, which we can refer to as cosmopolitan localism (Sachs, 1998, Manzini, Vugliano, 2000, Manzini, Jegou, 2003). A scenario which emerges at the point of intersection of two complementary strategies: a balanced interaction between the local and the global dimension, on the one hand, and a sustainable enhancement of local resources, on the other hand, (intended both as physical and as socio-cultural resources).

In the following presentation these two strategies are discussed, focusing on some of their implications, particularly, highlighting the role designers could play in their implementation.

Cosmopolitan localism and networking

Cosmopolitan localism is the result of a particular condition characterised by the balance between being rooted (rooted in a place and in the community related to that place) and being open (open to global flows of ideas, information, people, things and money – Appandurai, 1990). This is quite a delicate balance as, at any time, one of the two sides can prevail over the other leading to an anti-historical closure or, on the opposite side, it can lead to a destructive openness of the local social fabric and of its peculiar features.

Based on this unstable balance, the cosmopolitan localism, which we are discussing here, generates a new sense of place and culture1: a place and local community which are no longer (almost) isolated entities, but junctions of a network, points of connection among short networks, which generate and regenerate the local social and production fabric; and long networks, which connect that place and that community with the rest of the world (De Rita, Bonomi, 1998).

Within the frame of this cosmopolitan localism, successful local handicraft products emerge, which are linked to the identity of the place of origin and to the cultural and social values that characterise handicraft. The most commonly known and quoted examples are quality wine and some niche food products, such as those promoted by Slow Food. Other examples, however, are the essential oils of the Provence region, the Murano glassware, the Casentino wool etc., all products that carry with them the spirit and history of a place and a community, to the end consumer.

However, for the success of this model, the place and the community, to which these products are related, need to be alive, thriving and of high quality. In other words, if there are products that carry with them the spirit of the place, the quality of this place (and of the community which characterises it) must also be guaranteed. Therefore, a double link needs to be established between the place, the community and the product: the quality of the place and of the community is a decisive element for a product’s success; vice versa, the success of a product, to be long-term, needs to favour the qualitative regeneration of the place and the community of origin. In a few words, the products of controlled origin require places and communities of guaranteed quality.

This is not enough, though. Within cosmopolitan localism another remarkable aspect arises which, up to now, has not yet been emphasised. If, If, on the one hand, the balanced interaction between local and global can be seen as the realisation of a vertical link, on the other hand, there are other links within this connection which are equally important and can be synthetically defined as horizontal. These links connect activities that are different among themselves but which, if adequately devised, can produce symbiotic systems (able to co-operate, strengthening one another) and scope economies (where efficiency and effectiveness are pursued, through the symbiotic integration of different activities). The most effective example, thanks to its renown, of this original economic and organisational model is farm holidays, intended as symbiosis between non-industrial agriculture and non-standardised tourism2 (Bimonte, Punzo, 1003, Simonicca, 2004). Given its success, this symbiosis tends to spread to other pairs of activities (e.g., the integration between tourism and fishing, tourism and handicraft, tourism and cultural heritage conservation etc.).

In conclusion, we have seen that all examples mentioned above are characterised by the connection between local and global relationships and between various specialised networks (related to specific activities, functions and interests). In practice, this complex networking system, which is the necessary condition for any example of cosmopolitan localism, can be the result of different actions, occurred at different times thanks to the combination of particular starting conditions and of equally particular personal abilities. However, if the purpose is to spread this approach, with the view of a sustainable local development, it is necessary to effectively and consciously design such networking system in terms of a cultural, economic and operational platform (which we will call local tier) able to promote the vertical and horizontal interactions mentioned above. Clearly, for this platform’s design different social players can play and will play their role. Among them designers are also involved. I will go back to this subject later on.

Discovery and development of local resources

Let’s move on to consider the second strategic element of local development, i.e. the aspect linked to the issue of resources. In order to do that, we have to start from some remarks aimed at better understanding their nature3.

Each territorial resource (Magnaghi, 2000, Medesign, 2003) is a complex entity based on two fundamental components: endowment, corresponding to one or more territorial values (Dematteis, 1995); and capability of resident communities, that is, the ability to recognise potential resources, to transform them into actual resources, and to develop them with the prospect of their sustainability. The combination of endowment and capabilities allows for the rise of different types of resources: physical, historical, infrastructural resources (the availability of water or of fertile soils, the natural and built landscape, the communication infrastructure, etc…), production resources (agricultural, craft and industrial activities,…), and social resources (the existence of strong local communities, the presence of traditions, the spread of skills and know-how, the proposal of significant cultural events, etc…).
This way of presenting things leads us to highlight the human and project-based component involved in the concept of resource: a resource is not a gift of nature, nor is it a legacy from preceding generations. A resource is the result of a deliberate activity which operates on an existing system, interpreting it and transforming it in relation to a purpose.

Within this conceptual framework, it may be added that, in order to exist and to last through time, a resource needs to be discovered, enhanced and adequately developed. It is, indeed, necessary to focus on a pre-existing territorial value to see how, in a certain social, technological and economic context, this can take the shape of a potential resource; it is necessary to find the way and the means to transform such potential resource into an actual resource; finally, in order to avoid that this enhanced resource deteriorates or is exhausted, it is necessary to use it within the limits of its regeneration possibilities. In other words, a resource needs to be developed in the sense that it has to be managed so as to produce new value without exhausting the starting capital, that is, without deteriorating the territorial value on which it is based and from which it gets nourishment. It goes without saying, that sustainability of development is, exactly, the result of this: the ability to combine the enhancement of a resource to the need of safeguarding it from overexploitation.

Learning processes and project-based approach

Discovering, enhancing and developing resources are human activities which have accompanied the entire history of our species. Traditionally, it has consisted in social learning processes, which have taken place over time, without employing specific and conscious project-based interventions. In other words, human beings have gradually discovered resources (that is they have discovered the possible use of existing territorial values) and, by trial and error, they have learnt to use them without necessarily learning to develop them.
In the past, in the slow unfolding of history, this has then been possible, as already mentioned, through progressive adjustment processes alternated by casual events (inventions, introduction of new solutions imported by other populations).

Over the last century, the pace of change (combined with the spread of networking and with the new challenges brought about by the issue of sustainability) has interrupted this traditional way of proceeding, requiring to move from a largely implicit social learning process to an explicit one4. The latter being a social learning process which is increasingly taking the form of a project-based activity. This is an articulated and complex process, involving different players, which aims at identifying a development objective together with the necessary steps to reach it.

Today, this process seems to give rise also to the need for design. That is the need for particular skills and competences that designers could provide. This statement needs to be grounded. Indeed, traditionally, designers have been recognised as project professionals who operate for and with the manufacturing industry, conceiving and developing standardised and non-localised products (whose characteristics are almost unrelated to the place in which they are produced and by which they are employed). This has been the case for a long time.

If things were still the same there would be no reason to talk about a possible and significant role of designers in local development. However, things have changed. Today, what manufacturers, or at least most advanced manufacturing companies, produce are systems of products, services and communication5 (Norman, Ramirez, 1995; Mont, 2002; Manzini, Vezzoli, 2002; Manzini, Collina, Evans, 2004). In this new context designers are asked to conceive and develop these product-systems. This means, applying their skills and competencies to systems that, for their nature, are the result of the interaction of a multiplicity of partners (not just industrial partners), and which are developed and implemented through structured localisation strategies. It is, therefore, from these experiences that those skills and abilities also emerge which make of this new design a discipline potentially useful for the local development we are dealing with here.

Local development and design

Design, therefore, enters the local development arena. In so doing, it introduces new and interesting opportunities. At the same time, though, it also introduces a big risk, that is, reinforcing a distorted and, today unfortunately, widespread view, according to which places and territories are considered as commodities; entities that are reduced to something that can be produced, sold and consumed exactly as a commodity. This view and the practical implications that this entails are the most serious risk that the issue of local development is challenged with. The objective of this paper is not to present an in-depth discussion of this topic6. It is clear, however, that the introduction of design in the arena of local development could also reinforce this dangerous trend. Indeed, the simplest and most immediate concept which tends to emerge can be summed up as follows: if designers, who traditionally deal with products, now deal with places and the territory, this means that places and the territory today need to be treated in the same way as products. In effect, this is, unfortunately, what is happening. And it is also what many designers contribute to make happen. But maybe things might also go in another direction. And maybe designers could also work together to reverse this negative trend.

Therefore, let’s try and bet on the possibility that the involvement of design in the local development process introduces a set of skills and competencies that are potentially useful for its actual trend towards sustainability (Cipolla, 2004, Villari, 2004). As with any bet, there is no certainty of winning. However, in my opinion, it has good prospects for success. And this is mainly because design (in the sense of the extended community of designers) is founded on an independent culture which is able to play a critical and constructive role. If this cultural root is preserved and regenerated, an interesting and rewarding transfer might possibly take place between what designers have learnt from their experiences in the most advanced manufacturing companies, and what is required in the local development processes which have been discussed in this paper7.

In detail, what designers could do, in line with what has been said, is promoting convergence among players around a shared vision (landscape design); developing this shared vision in various practicable initiatives (strategic design) and designing the derived services interfacing (service design); promoting and developing an effective communication within the process (communication design). Last, but not least, designers should update the concept and meaning of being a designer today, accepting the fact of having to deal with different other players who, despite not being «professionals of design» are, nonetheless, designers in their own right. In sum, accepting that local development will undoubtedly be the result of a collective process in which, if capable, they may take on an active and proactive role.


1. It should be added that cosmopolitan localism generates and is generated by a new idea of well-being. This well-being is based upon the awareness of the way and the extent to which some local qualities can contribute to the possibility of feeling good; moreover the awareness of how and the extent to which, for example, the sense of security resulting from a still active social fabric, the healthiness of the places, the beauty of the landscape etc. can contribute to well-being (Censis 2003). This awareness regarding the positive role of quality of context in the definition of well-being is what, first and foremost, distinguishes localism, on which we are focusing here, from the traditional local «village culture» (which, normally, did not attach any value to these characteristics of physical and social context). This awareness, combined with the delocalising potential of information and communication technologies, leads to the spread of new forms of local-global activities which strongly concur to the definition of cosmopolitan localism: why be a broker, a musician or a potter in an inhabitable place, when one can do the same in Tuscany without losing one’s necessary international contacts?

2. Farm holidays demonstrate, indeed, the possibility of developing a symbiosis between local activities, which are weak in themselves but are characterised by high territorial qualities such as hill agriculture, and a non-standardised tourism, where the tourist is willing to establish a profound relationship with the places and the communities he/she visits and comes across.

3. Each territory has its heritage made up of territorial values which resulting from its natural and social history (Magnaghi, 2000). These values are linked to the physical environment (eco-systems which have been changed in the course of history by man’s intervention), to the built environment (historical legacy, infrastructures, production system and its products and services network) and to the anthropic environment (the social fabric and its forms of organisation, the shared beliefs, the production-related know-how, etc.)
At the same time, these territorial values are not yet resources. That is to say, they are not yet entities that are able to promote development strategies. In order for this to happen they need to be recognised as such. This means that resident communities need to develop an attitude according to which a certain territorial value is seen as a resource that can be used for a certain purpose.
Hence it appears that each territory is characterised by a specific heritage consisting in territorial values and by an equally specific capital of resources. The former (heritage) exists irrespective of its recognition as a whole set of resources and, therefore, irrespective of their use. Whilst the latter, which we will refer to as territorial capital (Medesign, 2003), represents, on the contrary, the result of the way in which and the extent to which, up to that moment, resident communities have recognised the potential resources present in the territorial heritage and have been able to transform them into actual resources.

4.Today the communities who reside on a territory often consciously face the need to redefine the territorial capital available to them, generate new resources or adjust some of the existing resources to the new context. And not only that. The increase in networking connections, on the one hand, and the rise of issues involving the sustainability of social and technical systems, on the other hand, give rise to the need for a profound change of the idea of development and, as a consequence, of which resources to use and how to use them.

5.Industrial production, at least in its highest performances, does no longer match the simplified view of companies producing tangible products for indefinite and non-localised consumers. Today, in fact, industrial production tends to be defined as the creation of complex and interactive systems which emerge from the interrelation of a multiplicity of various and differently motivated players (Norman, Ramirez, 1995; Mont, 2002; Manzini, Vezzoli, 2002). In particular, in relation to the subject treated here, industrial production involves systems where globalisation processes go hand in hand with as many and as equally necessary localisation processes. This refers both to activities involving the final user and his contextualisation, and to those which are strictly project-based and production-related.
Design has followed this transformation, changing its profile and redefining the object and procedures of its activities. In so doing, it has initiated significant experiences concerning new ways of conceiving production and consumption activities and it has promoted the development of a series of tools that meet the new needs. These tools and especially these gathered experiences are what design, intended as industrial design of an advanced industrialisation (Manzini, Collina, Evans, 2004), can bring to local development today.

6. In any case, places and territory are not products. They are not products and services systems either. The places and the territory remain complex entities of which are part also the people that inhabit them. And even if at times their exchange value seems clear, they cannot be reduced to a commodity: every place and every territory, even the most backward ones, are also common goods. Something which cannot be produced by someone and sold to someone else. Considering places as goods to produce, communicate and sell, implies trivialising enormously the very concept of place and territory. This is a loss that transforms them, in the best case scenario, in theme parks and, in the worst case scenario, in disposable consumer goods (in the sense that a possible interest aroused at first, immediately disappears immediately transforming them into waste – it is the case of abandoned industrial areas or of declining tourist resorts).
If, on the other hand, places and the territory are not products, they are, nonetheless, entities which are increasingly influenced by them. Therefore, a project-based approach designing the relationship between product, service and communication systems together with other territorial variables is fundamental. It is exactly for this reason that, as pointed out above, also design comes into play.

7. These experiences and these tools do not obviously replace the ones other designing disciplines (architecture, urban planning and territorial planning) can offer. They can, however, complement them in order to better understand, promote and communicate the complex system of interactions that local development requires.