Design Research and Strategy, Graduate Student at Carnegie Mellon University

Writing

Catching Clouds

Glimpses and Daydreams from Ezio Manzini’s Design, When Everybody Designs

HIGH IN THE PERUVIAN ANDES, just outside Lima, is Villa Lourdes. It’s early morning and a blanketing fog precedes the rising sun. It’s a strange sensation, feeling the presence of so much water in an area that rarely receives measurable rainfall. The rest of the scene is familiar: the migration of a country’s rural population toward its urban centers, seeking the opportunities it promises. Along with the informal settlements that sprawl high up into the mountains.

We’re here to meet Abel Cruz, founder of Peruanos Sin Agua, to document the ways his organization and the community are addressing their water challenges. Villa Lourdes represents a fraction of the more than ten million people disconnected from Lima’s water infrastructure. Each day, aguateros drive the steep cliffs to sell water that fills the cisterns. In the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, a week’s worth of water costs three soles (one dollar). Here, the costs soar to twenty (six dollars). Unreliability of the service further exacerbates the problem.

Our group hikes to the ridge, toward the thickest of the fog. We meet Maria Teresa Avalos Cucho, standing next to a wooden structure for a huge polypropylene mesh. This is one of thirty atrapanieblas—literally “catching the mist”— installed on the ridge, condensing and capturing up to four hundred liters of water each morning when the fog rolls in.

We’re here on behalf of a corporate foundation, and together we’re driven to amplify the impact this invention could have for the underserved settlers of Lima’s periphery. The site of our work is a site intimately familiar to Ezio Manzini, Honorary Professor at Politecnico di Milano and founder of the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Network.

His book, Design, When Everybody Designs is the culmination of over a decade of work on projects like these, and is driven by our contemporary urgency: As we come to terms with the limits of our planet, we must begin a transition toward more sustainable ways of living, and we must start with the local and everyday.

Our client seeks impact through the logic of manufacturing—that the diffusion of this technological breakthrough can solve water access problems everywhere. While that may create some value, does it invigorate the social fabric of Villa Lourdes?

A place, as Manzini describes, is “a space endowed with sense”— it’s meaningful to someone. Access to water is as much about the means of storage and distribution as it is about the reason people are here in the first place. If our goal is meeting their water needs, perhaps we should install more atrapanieblas. But what if the goal is sovereignty? The project quickly enters the realm of social innovation. This, Manzini says, is possible “when people, expertise, and material assets come into contact in a new way that is able to create new meaning and unprecedented opportunities.”

For Maria Teresa the atrapanieblas have become a way to grow and sell a small lot of produce to the community. Her microenterprise is a social practice that, if sustained, could inform the development of new technology and services, from which new sustainable social practices could emerge.

The process of scaling this project suddenly becomes more complex than the original engineering challenge. Who owns the nets? Who sets the distribution policies? Who repairs the system? How is a culture of both equity and water stewardship cultivated and sustained?

If we are to begin this undertaking, Design, When Everybody Designs is a useful set of maps.

Maps situate. The chapter Making Things Visible and Tangible reinforces the importance of the work we’re doing here by documenting the project. Creativity at the economic fringe is sometimes the weak signal of alternative possibilities and futures. Creating stories and reconstructing local identities, as Manzini explains, has a tendency to amplify these weak signals—we’re already making design decisions by choosing what (and what not) to highlight.

At this point, we had fulfilled the work we were contracted to do. But we can use Manzini’s book to imagine what could have been. For a moment, we put our heads back in the clouds and consider our possible role in “activating, sustaining, and orienting processes of social change toward sustainability.”

Maps help show who or what else might be nearby. The likelihood of creating new social practices of sustainable lifestyles “depends largely on the encounters between people who collaborate to create value.” Manzini’s map of Design Modes puts us in the quadrant of communication agency. It not only shows us our neighbors, but hints that although current practices exist at the extremes (well-defined) the space is beginning to converge and blur—we should eagerly anticipate the emerging culture of designer place maker or design activist.

As our list of stakeholders grows, Participant Involvement maps help us understand not the extremes, but the huge range of possibility for involvement. It’s within this map we start defining the role of co-workers, and co-producers, and co-managers, and the potential for a diverse set of engagements from an even more diverse group of actors. Interaction Quality maps help us understand our relationships with this sprawling group of participants, from the informal to the formal and the weak to strong social ties.

Maps can suggest a way to get there. The final section of the book outlines several critical ways social innovation can emerge and scale from these collaborative encounters. Making Things Replicable and Connective—detailing the way small projects like these could scale out and up—could have become a transformative piece of our client’s portfolio strategy.

As we leave, a friend of Maria Teresa points out the aloe her family has been growing. She mentions that these plants have been collecting the water that condenses on its leaves forever. It’s a small act of noticing—but one that builds a stronger connection between the natural and artificial worlds here. The social nature of these systems increases the “ability to absorb them and understand how they can be used or adapted for purposes that the technical inventors never dreamed of.”

Matt Prindible