Extreme and Opposite Direction --- An observation of grassroots social innovation towards sustainable and harmonious society in China

A. Eco Design and Design Education
Extreme and Opposite Direction
--- An observation of grassroots social innovation towards sustainable and harmonious society in China
Miaosen GONG , Francesca VALSECCHI , Joon Sang BAEK , Tinauli MUSSTANSER , Chakrapipat ASSAWABOONYALERT
This paper reports a phenomenological research of Chinese grassroots social innovations and a pilot investigation on the nature of them and how to promote them in the context of China. Based on results from the research project Creative Communities for Sustainable Lifestyle(CCSL), three cases are analyzed as emerging sustainable lifestyle. Furthermore, paper offers several discussions in services ideas and contents, rebound of industrialization and design role in promotion.
Keyword: harmonious society, sustainable lifestyle, grassroots social innovation, creative communities, Design

“Things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme.” (Laozi, B.C. 500)
This is a simple dialectic idea of Laozi, a great ancient ideologist 2500 years ago. However, the philosophy still holds today and it has been widely indicated in the recent history of China.
No doubts, the modern production and consumption, as an expression of industrial society, which have been developed in the last two centuries is still the mainstream of change today, and it has been reaching the limit of resource on the earth (Extreme). Therefore, it has to be recognized to change the change, changing the direction of the development of society and human being towards sustainability as a rebound from the extreme (Opposite direction).
In this transition China is supposed to make a big contribution to the world. It’s not only because we could always discover some helpful thoughts and inspirations from Chinese ancient or traditional ideology and philosophy that are disappearing from everyday life, but also in the last 30 years China has transited from an impoverished country into a world factory, which helps in providing China the opportunity to steer its direction.
Fortunately, China is being in action! A new movement has been launched by the central government of China---Harmonious Society, which came into picture after the big decision of the shift from economic development to sustainable development. For example, on 31st December 2007, a new regulation was announced by the central government,  “It will be forbidden to produce and consume the super-flimsy plastic shopping bags after June, 2008”. Then something interesting happened recently: the traditional bamboo shopping baskets came back to the urban life even before this June. It means people are very open to sustainable lifestyle. Besides the top-down policies, the bottom-up social innovations are emerging and promoted in China. Many diffused social enterprises (Creative Communities) and sustainable lifestyles have been observed such as Car Sharing, PinKe, Group Purchase, Community Supporting Agriculture and etc. Those promising cases implicate the initiatives and anticipation of sustainable lifestyles from general people in everyday life spontaneously.
1 Introduction
Social Innovation, defined as “innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organizations whose primary purposes are social.”(The Young Foundation 2006, 11), has been widely discussed in the field of civil society and is becoming a new wave of human evolution since our environmental and social problems are growing all over the world much larger and faster than what other innovations in technologies and businesses can deal with. Given that, social innovation could be a strong driver towards sustainable society.
Cases of social innovation towards sustainability have been observed in Europe (EMUDE 2006) and worldwide (CCSL 2007). Known as Creative Communities and Diffused Social Enterprises, they are bottom-up emerging initiatives that illustrate the real possibility of reorienting the evolution of present society in the direction of a sustainable knowledge and network society (Manzini, Jegou 2003). Therefore, promotion of this kind of social innovation could be a viable strategy for sustainable development, and in this transition strategic design approaches are supposed to play important roles as a social learning process (EMUDE 2006).
Then three questions are put forward: 1) Can we find those creative communities in China? 2) How to promote the initiatives of promising cases in local context? 3) What kind of roles could design take in that?
CCSL Chinese programme
Creative communities for sustainable lifestyle a project that has been promoted by the Task Force on Sustainable Lifestyles, within the United Nations 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production. The CCSL Project is coordinated by DIS-Indaco Politecnico di Milano in Italy and by Strategic Design Scenarios (SDS), in Belgium, with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) as global partner and with some specific local partners in Brazil, India and China. In particular, for the Chinese programme, the main CCSL local partner is the Institute for Civil Society, at the Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. Other possible partners have been found among some Chinese NGOs. And, finally, collaboration has been established with two design schools (the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and the Hong Kong Polytechnic).
With supports of local partners in China, more than fifty promising cases of creative communicates were collected and 18 of them were selected for case studies to address the state of art of collaborative services. 8 interviews with experts, social workers, Professors were organized to discuss the general context of social innovation. Then a seminar was organized to discuss those cases and their implications with participants from civil society organizations, social enterprises and academic institutes.
2 Case studies
The promising cases of grass roots social innovation towards sustainable lifestyle were widely collected in different channels including: 1) Desk research on internet particularly by WebWiki on social innovation like Global link network, Discover social innovation and China innovation and so on; 2) The local partner collected some cases through network of civil society organizations in China. 3) Cases collection Competition, a competition was organized in universities in Guangzhou to collect the emerging cases toward sustainable lifestyle by students experiences.
All the cases stories were organized in a model format including Title and basic information, scenario picture, service idea, function addressed, summary of the initiative, main actors, reason of being interesting and researchers information. The following are synthesized description of several typical cases that we find in China.
Agri-Fond Association
A self-organized network between community and small traditional Agriculture producers
It’s a community support agriculture action and system to connect consumers who have need of high quality food and countryside experience with small agri-producers who keep the traditional species and planting way.
On one hand, it makes urban peoples in this community accessible to have food with high quality and special tastes by a reasonable price. And they also could have fantastic experiences of countryside life if they like; on the other hand, with these stable consumers, the individual farmers could have some income and keep their traditional agriculture, which has a long term meaning for protection of species diversity.
Today, people in cities have more interest in rural life and traditional and high quality food (slow food) especially with the industrialization of agriculture and pollution of environment. But there is no information platform for that and no credit system at the beginning.
Ainonghui found some farmers who prefer do traditional agriculture (rice, vegetable and poultry) with traditional/local seeds and by natural method and agree on the bargain of products and service. They tried to organize the natural agriculture recourses and keep the quality of products and process. On the other hand, they make more urban people who have interest in it involved in the network to booking and buy the products and service. They also open a showroom/ store to be as a connection between suppliers and consumers.
Carpooling for going to work
Several residents whose homes and companies could be organized in one routine share a car of one of them for going to work.
A good transportation solution is provided for those people who haven’t their own car, which does in crease the life quality much in practise. Those owners of car in groups share much economic pressure with others. The transportation pressure in rush time decreases.  Social connections between residents increase.
Urban transportation is a big social problem in cities today: too slowly by auto bus, too crowded by metro, too expensive by taxi, too exhausted to own a car. There is a big potential need of new solutions more comfortable, economic, convenient, fast and accessible, which is car pool could contribute. Once more residents have their own cars, car pool is becoming popular rapidly. With different communication channel, residents look for others who homes and companies could be organized in one routine and go to work together with a car.
“1kg More” voluntary project
Travellers bring 1kg of old books, stationery or old garments and give these resources to local schools and children in poor areas along their journey.
 “1kg More” runs behind the idea of travellers bringing 1kg of old books, stationery or old garments in addition to their package to donate them to schools and children along their journey. Nowadays, this project has spread over about 150 middle or primary schools in Sichuan, Guang xi, Guizhou, Shanxi, Henan provinces etc. The number of people directly taking part in this community construction, has achieved 500. They organized a nation covered voluntary team with highly effective performance to maintain the operation of this virtual community. There are about 4500 people joining this community as a volunteer. And more than 1 million people have been affected both directly and indirectly. In this project, more than 10 thousands pieces of stationery and over 3 thousand books have been donated. This project makes some material resources reused by three simple steps which are “passing” “communicating” and “sharing”. Furthermore, this project especially emphasis on the equal communication between participators and kids which will leave a great influence on the children’s soul.
At the very beginning, this project aims to build up a platform for school information collection and material operation. Then, the idea of “1kg more” is changed into a “face to face communication”. Through this kind of communication, tourists spread the knowledge, broaden the kids’ view. This project helps children to build up confidence and imagination, and get happiness as well as friendship. Nowadays, “1kg more” has been promoted as a commonweal notion. Besides, platform and different activities make this commonweal prevalent as a pleasure in personal life. Therefore, operation of this project can last for a long time.

3 Discussions
Same ideas but different contents
It could be found that most of the service ideas indicated by European cases are also addressed by Chinese cases, such as communities support agriculture, carpooling (PINCHE), purchasing group, co-house, mutual elderly services, mutual neighbourhood, time bank, rediscover of bicycle transportation and so on. They are emerging out actively in the urban.
However, those cases with same ideas have different contents from European experiences. For example, carpooling today is very popular in China but in general it is collaboration between an owner of car and others who haven’t cars, instead of between car owners, so the motivation, structure of system, the relationship between actors are quite different from European cases. While they are also collaborative services since the car owners don’t only provide services for others and all of them have to be collaborative to generate the common solutions by themselves. Taking group purchasing that has been diffused in China as another example, with the same ideas, the contents and expressions have been largely enriched in Chinese practices. Firstly, it is very popular particularly in the young group and in universities; Secondly, the purchased products and services are widely various from food, fashion to cars and houses; Thirdly, the scale of participants of activities are much larger than European cases. In sum, the service ideas often have local stories and expressions in the contexts of China.
Rebound of industrialization
As we known, Chinese social infrastructure has been changing so much during social transformation. Before industrialization, it was based on the families and production units. Since “reform and opening”(80’s), the original infrastructure was released step by step. The working and living were departed and new residential communities were mainly reorganized by the means of financial conditions: which kind of houses they are able to buy. Consequently, there are no connects between people who buy houses in the same places, local communities. The social fabric based on families and production\working were weakened much and they have no ideas to rebuild the new social fabric in neighbourhood.
"... Today people talk much about the inhospitality of people and society. The warm neighbourhood of the past is like a memory left in our mind. With the change of economy and society, also because of the large and fast movement of population, my generation and the younger generation feel that people are not used to take care of each other as before..."
It indicates a contradiction that they would like to trust each other but they haven’t security when they offer trust. It’s necessary to rebuild the trust in the new service system and it could be rebuilt in different ways: Involvements of enterprises or social enterprises, as credits guarantee, are helpful approaches to rebuild the trust, such as carpooling; Closed Identity certification could also increase the trust effectively, such as flea market in university where they use the BBS as a platform which is open only to the students and staff in their university and they need to register with students identities. In some self-organized group purchasing, they have credit system where participants could increase the credits with their performances of participation; Top-down intervention also works in some cases like elderly association and community services.  In a word, since credit system of entire society couldn’t be rebuilt in a short time, it has to rebuild the trust case by case to promote the creative communities in China.
Moreover, our study also reports an opportunity as our interviewees addressed: most of people now still have vivid memories of traditional neighbourhood and communities and they have strong need to recover the social fabric and relational quality in new condition after losing them for some time, no doubts, which is very different and complex. But it is still a good moment to have leapfrog from a traditional social infrastructure to a new sustainable one before the memories are totally lost in the next generations. 
Design for sustainable and harmonious society
What could design and design research contribute when “things will develop in the opposite direction” in the approaches of top-down and bottom-up? Laozi provides a big universal vision for the future. However, more indicated visions, proposals and tools have to be investigated and developed to realize the sustainable society.
Certainly, we are still facing paradox realities: On one hand, we understand that design and designers are supposed to provide more contributions for sustainable development; on the other hand, we still get excited on continuous development of market oriented tools and designs. Design is recognized to be an important program and profession to impact the development of society in positive way with social responsibility. However, designers in China are facing a difficult employment situation as design departments are often subordinate to others. Though the innovations and creativities (it’s the nature of design) as a top down policy are promoted all over China, the value of design (budget of design project) during the last 10 years has still been on the decrease. China has a long history and culture in “Making Goods” and philosophy of “Usage”, but the design education system was mainly imported from western countries where modern design had been born out of industrialization. For one thing, “Harmonious Society” and sustainable society has been a big vision of society in China; for another, Design seems part of problem more than part of solution for this vision.
4 Conclusions
As indicated in the cases, the creative communities and their sustainable initiatives can be found in China as European although they have different stories adapted in local context. And those grassroots social innovations could be anticipation of Chinese sustainable lifestyle. With the rapid industrialization, the traditional social infrastructure has been collapsed quickly in urban, based on this condition, the new ideas of well-being are generated as a rebound effect.
In a word, China is a paradox focus between traditional philosophy, rapid industrialization and the ideal of harmonious society. Reality is complex and it is a part of reason why we need research work. Fortunately, Design is complex as well and that’s why design is expected to face the reality in advance.
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Miaosen GONG, Francesca VALSECCHI, Joon Sang BAEK, Tinauli MUSSTANSER, Chakrapipat ASSAWABOONYALERT
Politecnico di Milano, Dis-Indaco,
Via Durando 38/A, 20158 Italy
( Miaosen.gong@gmail.com, f.valsecchi@gmail.com, joonsbaek@gmail.com, musstanser@gmail.com, chakrapipat@hotmail.com)

论文报告了一个对基层社会创新的现象学研究并探讨它们的内在体系,以及区域背景下如果推广的问题。基于联合国环境署资助研究项目CCSL中国子项目的研究结果,论文集中分析了其中的3个创造性社区案例, 进而分别从服务模式和内容,对工业化的反弹效应和设计在其中的作用等方面探讨基层社会创新的现象和它们的推广。

About the Author:
Miaosen Gong is a PhD candidate of program “Industrial Design and Multi-media Communication” and studies in the unit of research Dis-Indaco (Design and Innovation for Sustainability). His research topics focus on Strategic Design for Grass roots Social Innovation, especially on the potential application of MCT in the collaborative services in the context of China. He had a Master Degree in Strategic design in MDS7 of Poli.design. Before that, he was a lecturer and researcher in School of Design (SYTU) with a bachelor and a master degree in industrial design. He also was involved into Wuxi National Industrial Design Park and Wuxi International Industrial Design Expo& Week as an international coordinator and consultant.
Miaosen Gong
PhD Candidate, DIS-INDACO, Politecnico di Milano
Via Durando 38/A, 20158 Milano
tel:+39 02 2399 5967
cellphone:+39 3339425646
fax: +39 02 2399 7274


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