Base Text 2

Ezio Manzini
  1. Both theory and empirical evidences indicate that the existence of communities-in-place is the precondition for every possible resilient society (where the expression “community in place” stands for a network of people who collaborate being connected with their physical context).
  2. In the highly connected societies (at least the most modernized part of them), both communities and places are progressively melting in loose networks of individualized, delocalized people. The result is a growing social desertification, (intended as the dramatic reduction of the quantity and diversity of social forms) with a parallel increase in social fragility (intended as the reduction in the ability for a society to face unforeseen events).
  3. Facing this trend, a contra-trend has emerged: driven by different motivations, a growing number of people leave mainstream ways of thinking and doing and choose to adopt new ones. That is, to re-build collaborative relationships among them and with their context. Doing so, they produce a new kind of community in place, the nature of which must be better understood.

Annex 1

Ezio Manzini

Discussions on sustainability and resilience (and on the social innovation required to achieve them) frequently refer to the term “community”. Even though everybody knows that the communities of today (i.e. communities in a highly connected world) are quite different from those of the past, there are not so many shared ideas of what we really mean when we use this term.

The following notes outline some characteristics of contemporary communities utilizing a social network analysis approach. They present the author’s personal point of view, based on the discussions and the experiences had until now in the framework of the Culture of Resilience Project.

As for every social form, communities can be seen as networks with the involved people as “nodes” and their interactions as “ties”. In this case, a description of the morphology of these nodes and ties may help us better understand the unprecedented nature of communities in today's highly connected world. In other words, we must make a clear distinction between contemporary communities and both pre-modern traditional communities and the twentieth century, ideology-based, intentional communities.


Multiple, variable, non-exclusive social ties

(The possibility to choose)

Contemporary communities are meshes of social ties that individuals can activate in different ways, choosing where, how, when and for how long to allocate their personal resources (in terms of time, attention, skills, relational availability). This description indicates two main characteristics. Firstly, unlike the pre-modern traditional communities, which were not chosen by their own members, the contemporary ones exist by choice. Secondly, unlike the twentieth century intentional communities, which were based on strong ideologies calling for exclusive affiliation and promising a strong identity, the contemporary ones are multiple, non-exclusive and demand no special level of commitment. In other words, those who participate in this kind of community are not looking for a ready-made solution or identity. On the contrary, they are looking to build their own solution and identity by making their own personal choices among different proposed options.


Social networks / places

(Fluid, open, intentional relationships)

Social networks can be more or less embedded in the place where their members live and act. Presently, the main trend is (still) towards reduced embedment (creating networks of increasingly displaced individuals). At the same time, several signals are pointing in the opposite direction. The search for improved resilience in socio-technical systems on one side, and in the quality of human interactions on the other, highlight the importance of positive relationships between people, their communities and the places where they live. Of course, in a highly connected world these relationships are quite different from the ones of the past: they are becoming fluid (they change in time) and open (they cannot be precisely confined in one place).

Nevertheless, because people still live and act in the physical world, these relationships cannot be neglected. Or better, they must be improved and nurtured.

Here on, the term community will be used in the sense of community-in-place, meaning the whole mesh of social networks that interweave within a place, characterizing and in turn being characterized by it.


Conversations, services, collaborations

(A space of possibilities)

Contemporary communities are not to be seen as structured organizations, but as spaces of possibilities: networks of people and places offering opportunities for expressing ideas, solving problems, opening directions towards new perspectives. It follows that, from the point of view of potential members, contemporary communities are qualified by the density and variety of meaningful interactions they offer. In operative terms, these meaningful interactions take different forms, for instance: conversations (interactions for the sake of exchanging ideas), services (result-oriented interactions in which someone does something for someone else) and collaborations (result-oriented interactions in which different actors participate in the definition of a common goal and collaborate to achieve it).

Each of them can be evaluated, from the community members’ point of view, in terms of collaborative attitude and relational intensity, meaning the request for time, attention, skills and long-term commitment, for the first (the collaborative attitude), and trust, empathy and friendliness, for the second (the relational intensity).


Encounters and social commons

(A virtuous circle)

Contemporary community cellular units are person-to-person interactions: they are the human encounters in which two or more people freely decide to do something together. Whatever the shared results may be, in the process of their realization, these encounters generate a very important side-product: they produce relational values between the actors involved (such as: trust, empathy and friendliness). These values, sedimenting in time inside the community, generate social commons (cumulated trust and ability to collaborate, take decisions and solve problems). Therefore, a virtuous circle appears: person-to-person encounters generate relational values that, in turn, produce social commons. This creates a favorable environment for new person-to-person encounters, which enable an amplified circle to start again.


Community building

(A multiple and open-ended design process)

Given that a community is a space of possibilities (and not an organization), it cannot be designed and realized as a single entity. On the contrary, it must be built piece-by-piece, proposing motivations for encounters and creating conditions to make them possible and permit them to evolve towards new social forms. It follows that, for contemporary communities, the expression “community building” must be taken literally: communities are to be built starting from their molecular elements. That is, from the different kinds of encounters between people and between people and places that are, by all means, their building blocks. Therefore, community building implies working at two levels: offering encounter possibilities oriented towards different goals and accessible with different kinds of commitment, and creating enabling structures to produce an environment where these encounters may exist, last in time and be easily replicated.


Resilient community building

(Connecting and valorizing diversities)

Building a resilient community means increasing diversity, redundancy and ability to learn from experience. This can be done supporting collaboration between different people, valorizing these diversities and creating conditions for an inclusive social cohesion. This means:

  • proposing themes, programs and projects of interest to socially and culturally different people.
  • proposing activities that can be performed with different levels of commitment, meaning with different collaborative attitudes and relational intensity.
  • realizing systems enabling the existence and development of a multiplicity of non-planned, auto-produced activities.
  • realizing artifacts capable of aggregating groups of people and positively influence their behaviours.
  • realizing digital and physical spaces where non-planned encounters could easily happen, creating more friendly, open and fertile environments.

Weaving People and Places

Ezio Manzini

Weaving People and Places is a public seminar to be held on 1 July 2016, at Central Saint Martins, in which the main results of the UAL Culture of Resilience Project (CoR)11. Cultures of Resilience (CoR) is a University of the Arts London (UAL) project the goal of which is to build a ‘multiple vision’ on the role of culture in creating resilient systems, creating this vision with a set of narratives, values, ideas and projects. It gathers together staff and students from across the University and is coordinated by Ezio Manzini, Chair Professor at the UAL, and President of DESIS Network, and Jeremy Till, Head of Central Saint Martins. will be presented and discussed with a selected group of invited interlocutors. In order to prepare for it, this working document has been prepared to be discussed at an internal seminar to be held on 10 May, also at Central Saint Martins.

A Society of Displaced Individuals

Contemporary societies are fragile. This observation becomes particularly clear when a catastrophic event happens. However, its tragic truth can also be recognized in everyday life events such as the increased migrant flow in Europe today. In cases like this too, a lack of societal resilience appears in breakdowns at every level: from the micro-scale of human encounters, to the macro-level of society as a whole.

What makes contemporary societies so fragile? There are several causes. One of them is the weakness, if not total absence, of communities-in-place: networks of people who are capable of recovering from unforeseen setbacks, can adapt to change, and learn from experience, or in other words, networks of people capable of behaving as resilient systems. Given that, the question could be: why does it happen? Why are communities-in-place disappearing in contemporary societies?

To cut a long story short, we can say that it happens because traditional communities (the tradition-based communities on which societies of the past were built) have progressively disappeared and the twentieth century intentional communities (the communities driven by strong ideologies and sense of belonging) are becoming weaker and weaker. In their place, loose, flexible, temporary social networks are spreading. The most evident effect of this transformation is that, while digital connections in virtual space are increasing exponentially, personal encounters in physical spaces are dramatically decreasing in both number and quality. The result is a society of displaced individuals: a fragile society with fewer and fewer communities-in-place.

Counter-Trend: Rediscovery of Collaboration

Looking more carefully into the complex and contradictory existence of contemporary societies we can see that, against the mainstream trend towards social desertification, something new is happening and is taking the shape of a growing counter-trend: groups of people are creating unprecedented social forms, based on the re-discovery of collaboration and of the quality of places. At the same time, more and more social networks are moving from the digital sphere to a hybrid physical-digital environment, re-discovering the value of proximity, localization and direct human encounters. These social innovation cases are very diverse, but they share an important common characteristic: they have no nostalgia for the old tradition-based communities of the past and are also a far cry from the intentional communities of the twentieth century. In other words, they take unprecedented social forms.

It follows that, although we still refer to them as communities, if we look at them more carefully we have to recognize that we really don’t know exactly what this term means in this context: what is a community? What is its relationship with a place? And, most importantly, what could be done to make the environment of these new communities, (that is their economic, institutional, technical and cultural ecosystems), more favorable so that they can thrive and spread?

The fact is that, as for everything that is radically new, practice is ahead of the conceptual model we use to (try to) read it. Therefore, we must now make a consistent effort to fill the gap and build a body of knowledge that is capable of understanding the nature, the potentiality, and the possible evolution over time, of these new communities. (See Annex 1. Communities, in a highly connected world)

Art and Design

There are different ways to study these emerging, brand-new communities-in-place. Different approaches and tools can be used from different backgrounds. Here, our approach will be from art and design and from the positive loop between action and reflection (that is, between iterating projects and learning from them) that characterizes its way of thinking and doing.

Our starting assumption is that, willing or not, art and design plays an important role in shaping the social context in which it operates. Thus, whether for good or for bad, art and design initiatives always have social effects. Given that, we can observe that some of these initiatives have a peculiar positive capacity to connect people and places and, in so doing, to create new forms of communities-in-place.

Of course, the way this may happen can be quite different in different projects and in different contexts. Nevertheless, it can be recognized that, for many of them, the focus is on the micro-scale of human encounters: those personal interactions that are the building blocks of any possible society. Sometimes this community-building role is explicitly researched. Sometimes it is the precious side effect of projects aiming at different results. In any case, this art and design role in weaving people and places together seems to be increasing, becoming a meaningful part of the wider, on-going wave of social innovation.

Moving from here a new set of questions appear: what kinds of human encounters are created by art and design projects? How can we describe the social forms that they contribute to build? What are their relationships with the contexts where they take place? Can some patterns be recognized between the different kinds of art and design actions and the resulting human encounters and social forms?

The internal seminar of 10 May and the public seminar of 1 July, aim at discussing these questions.

The first event takes the projects on which CoR participants are working to identify and discusses relevant community-related themes emerging from them.

In the second event, these same themes will enable the outlining of a conceptual frame to describe contemporary communities-in-place and will provide guidance on how art and design can contribute to their existence and potential to last and to spread.

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Cultures of Resilience (CoR) is a University of the Arts London (UAL) project the goal of which is to build a ‘multiple vision’ on the role of culture in creating resilient systems, creating this vision with a set of narratives, values, ideas and projects. It gathers together staff and students from across the University and is coordinated by Ezio Manzini, Chair Professor at the UAL, and President of DESIS Network, and Jeremy Till, Head of Central Saint Martins.