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Carlo Arnaldo Vezzoli

LeNS, Learning Networks on Sustainability

01 May 2016 — 6 minutes read

I’m Carlo Vezzoli. For over 20 years I have been involved in design for the environmental and social sustainability of products, systems of products and services, and scenarios. I conduct basic and applied research and teach. I have been teaching on a continuous basis at the Politecnico di Milano since 1996 and am currently a professor at the School of Design where I teach courses on Design for Environmental Sustainability and System Design for Sustainability. At the Department of Design, I head the System Design and Innovation for Sustainability research group and the LeNSItaly_ research laboratory.

Since the end of the 1990s I have coordinated various European research projects and consulting services with businesses on a continuous basis.

A particularly important activity on an international level was the coordination of a project funded between 2007 and 2010 under the European Commission’s Asia-Link programme, which led to the creation of an international network of European and Asian universities, called LeNS, the Learning Network on Sustainability, to spread the teaching of Design for Sustainability. As a result of and in the wake of the project’s success, I also coordinated a new research project, this time bi-regional with Africa, entitled LeNSes, the Learning Network on Sustainable energy system, funded by the European Commission’s Edulink II programme for the three years from 2013 to 2016. Finally, and following on directly from the two aforementioned research projects, for the 2015-2018 period I currently coordinate a new project for the global dissemination of design for sustainability; it is called LeNSin, the international Learning Network of networks on Sustainability and involves 36 partner universities from Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, India and China as well as England, Finland, Holland and Italy in Europe; the latter project is funded under the European Commission’s new Erasmus+ programme.

I have published over 100 papers, including several books in Italian, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. My latest book is entitled Product-Service System Design for Sustainability, written in English for Greenleaf, which is currently being translated into Chinese, Thai and Portuguese.

I have been invited as keynote speaker to and given talks at conferences and have taught courses in several European countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, England, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Hungary), in Brazil, Mexico, the USA, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, Kenya, India, China, Thailand and Japan.

The evolution of design for sustainability

Design for sustainability has evolved over time. Initially we spoke about how to design products with a low environmental impact. Over time, we came to understand that it also means designing systems of services and products with a low environmental impact which foster social equity and cohesion at the same time. What’s more – twenty years ago, when I began, this theme held little appeal. Now it is effectively acknowledged in all of the corridors of power, by public opinion, in governmental institutions and in universities too. Design for sustainability is an issue that has entered the development agenda of every country at every level.

Designers can do a lot to promote a sustainable society

The problem today is that we don’t have the right perception of the seriousness of what is happening. Perhaps not everyone knows that if we don’t do anything, by the year 2100 as a result of global warming the average sea level will have risen by around a metre. Another figure? In Italy the number of people who die prematurely as a result of particulates pollution and other pollutants is 85,000; in Europe the number is almost 500,000. These are wartime numbers.

And from the socio-ethical perspective? There are 800 million undernourished people in the world: more than the entire population of Europe. I’ll stop here, but it’s clear that we’re close to the collapse of the system in which we live, which we call Earth.

We’re designers, we aren’t the only ones that need to do something, but as designers we can do a lot. And do designers do a lot? Actually, if I look around (and I’ve been lucky enough to visit several schools in Italy and around the world), they do very little! There are some really good researchers, professors and designers, but in general the world of design is still more part of the problem than part of the solution. And yet it has incredible potential, as to be able to change a situation you need to redesign it. We aren’t the only ones (although, let’s admit it, we’re a bit egocentric!), but we absolutely must have a role within this scenario.

University network projects, an important response to the demand for change

I used to teach my students, advise businesses and try to publish everything I could in order to share the knowledge I had acquired in my research and to learn from others. I realised that it wasn’t enough and that it was important to act within the institution where I worked itself, that is, the university. I realised that we could promote projects to create university networks in order to build a community of professors, researchers, students and future designers to give greater impetus to this great demand for change. the first result was the creation of a network in Italy in 1999 which then spread around the world with a series of European projects.

The LeNS project

We launched an initial European project funded under a bi-regional grant with Asia in 2007. It was called LeNS (Learning Network on Sustainability); three European universities and four Asian universities (one in China, two in India and one in Thailand) were involved. The idea was to produce knowledge according to an open, copyleft logic: everything we produced, such as knowledge and tools for design for sustainability, was made available to anyone who asked for it, and could be downloaded via a platform created on an ad hoc basis, with the chance to reuse it and readapt it. From the material which we uploaded to this platform, several courses as well as new university networks. In 2009 LeNS Africa was born, followed by LeNS South America, LeNS Central America, LeNS Oceania, LeNS India, LeNS China and a LeNS which takes in German-speaking universities in Europe. The same platform that we used to share resources could be downloaded, for example, by the professor working in Curitiba, in Brazil, who in turn could upload it to his server and use it for his national network. And indeed, so it went, spreading remarkably fast.

These research projects lent us credibility, leading to another two projects funded by the European Community: LeNSes (the Learning Network for Sustainable energy systems), a bi-regional project with Africa which is still ongoing, and recently LeNSin (international), in which we have succeeded in bringing together all of these networks, which involve over seventy universities dotted around all of the continents. We will build several web platforms in the various sites around the world. Then there will be a super-platform which will enable users to navigate within them (and once again it will be possible for other teachers and other networks wishing to be built to download the same platform by joining the LeNs network of networks). We will also build a series of laboratories with instrumentation and software for design and for environmental and social impact assessment. They will be laboratories conceived also as centres for communication, using videoconferencing, between the various centres of the network.

A new generation of designers

As I see it, just the fact that we’ve managed, as Politecnico di Milano (we’re the coordinators), to involve so many universities at the international level in the same vision, means that we’re already halfway there: we’ve built a community of researchers who will build the new generation of designers, who will be better equipped to help build a sustainable society. In three years we will finish the project with a decentralised conference, which will take place at the same time in the different countries. In Milan, for example, we’ll enter the Brazil room and listen to the Brazilian presentations, and so on. Thus, as well as reducing the environmental impact as we won’t need to move so many people, although spread out around the world we will feel connected to a single conference, a single event, with a shared vision of how to make sustainability a reality.