The environmental and social emergency requires planning capable of building policies and systems with a single goal: not to harm, not to make things worse. We talked about it with Stefano Maffei

When we start talking about ecological transition and environmental emergencies, and no longer about fashions and lifestyles, we need to make an evolutionary leap that is not taken for granted. It is the moment in which we pass from word to action, from politics to policy.

design plays a very important role in this transition, because it is the discipline capable of giving an evolutionary direction to the industry. How? Stefano Maffei, director of the Polifactory of the Politecnico di Milano explains it to us and the Master in Service in Design.

How is the role of design changing in the Italian industry and why is it increasingly urgent to talk about policies and systems and not about products?

In these days of international crisis it is increasingly clear that no country can think of surviving thanks to isolated economies focused on the product. Italy in particular is traditionally a large transformer with few internal resources. Reason that made us good in the manufacturing industry. But this means today not being able to count on an ordinary economy: rethinking production as a system is essential for planning the industry of the future.

What is the risk if you don't change the way you design?

The risk is to continue making beautiful products within an economy destined not to survive the transition. Systemic reasoning is needed on what it means to produce in terms of quality: human well-being, value of work, second life, reuse, rationalization of resources. Products have two, three, four lives, sometimes at the same time. It takes a strategic vision that integrates all the parts external to the goods. And there are so many.

Will it also be good for industry and the economy?

The industry becomes competitive only in the long term, if it takes into account the circularity and relationships present in a very complex system. These are typically Italian issues, which will help us to change the meaning of the concept of sale. We need to encourage those who take the economic and strategic risk to change. From my point of view it means culturally transforming skills and making accurate reasoning about what is produced.

Let's talk about imperative greens: according to Victor Papanek (and not only according to him) design has the power to give answers and to test solutions with scientific and creative tools. Does it do it enough?

Victor Papanek wrote fifty years ago. It was the sand in the engine of turbo capitalism. Today he obviously seems like a visionary who raised obvious problems, because things haven't changed much. Classical capitalism based on the production / sale paradigm still creates material and cultural contaminations. It still lacks instinct for the life cycle.

But the reality is that almost no product is now separated from services and policies. This generates a concrete consequence: you have to take care of what you put into the environment, you have to rely on a layer of services that takes care of the products. This mentality is still not very widespread: let's try to imagine how it would be different if every sofa manufacturer had to take charge of its own products at the end of their life… including polyurethane!

Is there a solution?

I would expect trade associations to invest heavily in research. We as the Polytechnic are working on projects in this sense, but I believe that the strategic capacity of the sector must really change. Moreover, these are all ways in which business can be done, creating new economies. And instead we keep saying: “we are good at making sofas”!

The ecological transition: where does it start?

It is the value hierarchies that must change and venture capital is needed: the war is showing us this. We are economically and socio-culturally interconnected and the effects of blockades and sanctions are devastating after just one month.

We must introduce anti-fragile thinking, otherwise we will exclude ourselves from intrinsically healthy and evolving systems. We need to become even smarter, even more active, even more innovative. We are good at manufacturing technologies: we use this skill. We learn to sell innovation instead of sofas.

Moving from politics to policy means moving from words to practice. We are ready? What role does design play in the construction of new policies?

Designers are changing. They are increasingly concerned with three things: products, services and policies. This is the systemic design that goes from the macro scenario to the granularity of the small detail of the product. It is like imagining Gio Ponti that instead of going to Chiavari, he goes to a landfill and tries to understand what he can do that is useful and not harmful. Do no harm: it seems to me a very fundamental imperative and a good starting point.

A concrete example of a design policy?

With Polifactory we have created Reflow, a pilot system for CPR, a company that manufactures boxes for handling food products. We have designed a different life cycle for the cassettes , which become completely reusable thanks to the company's extended care.

We have also added new features to integrate into a tracking and identification system for the mapping of the logistic cycle of fruit and vegetables, including waste, forecasting of needs, rationalization of distribution in every channel of the food distribution metabolism. Slowly we enter another dimension, less impactful and more sustainable, because everyone gains from it. Every time you lose an apple, you lose all the energy you used to grow it. If you save 50% of material, you save 50% of energy.