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Can DESIS network activities inspire Brazilian universities?

July 4 2016

By Rita Afonso and Carla Cipolla, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Brazil is a country full of creativity and power, but it also has a history of social problems, including inequality and social exclusion; economic problems, as the recent crisis; environmental problems such as deforestation and pollution of seas, rivers and bays, serious political problems, as you may now see in the press. Of course these problems are complex and it is clear that the promotion of dialogue and knowledge exchange between different sectors of society could contribute towards resolving many problems.

People in Brazil are used to innovate to solve their everyday problems, without relying on support from the state or institutions. However, activities that bring together, society, university and government in solving common problems are very rare.

The Brazilian universities are still "closed" in many ways, not being involved enough to solve societal demands, social problems and having a say in the way public policies are defined.

Our question here is whether the networks of social innovation, specifically DESIS Network and the activities of its Labs, could inspire universities and public authorities in Brazil to collaborate, also with other actors, to develop innovative solutions to the challenges described above.

DESIS Network (one of the transnational networks under study in TRANSIT project) is the acronym for “Design for social innovation and Sustainability”, and it is a network of design schools or design-oriented schools in universities. DESIS defines as its main aim to use design to trigger, enable and scale-up social innovation through design thinking and design knowledge. It works to co-create, with local, regional and global partners, socially relevant scenarios, solutions and communication programmes related to social innovation to face the great challenges of contemporary society.

Demonstration of dissatisfaction with the Brazilian government, Rio de Janeiro, May 2016. Photo: Rita Afonso

Founded in 2014, the international network includes48 schools (November, 2014), and finds in the design schools a major driver for the development of the theory and practice on design for social innovation:  “In fact, design schools (and, more in general, all the design-oriented universities) can orient their didactic and research activities towards social innovation. That is, they can become design laboratories where new visions are generated, new tools are defined and tested and where new projects are started and supported”.  In terms of change, it is stated:  “If a worldwide movement towards sustainability calls for the best possible use of all existing resources, design schools, with all their potential in terms of students’ enthusiasm and faculty experience, should be considered a very promising social resource: a potentially powerful promoter of sustainable change” (DESIS Website).

The DESIS Network’s higher ambition is to generate an Open Design Programme able to give different projects visibility, to facilitate their alignments, collaborations and synergies. It means to produce knowledge through the contribution of different partners (open processes) and that can be used by all stakeholders (open results) (DESIS Website).   This “programme should be something of a novelty in the way it is conceived and conducted: it could develop a P2P approach, including schools, agencies and research centres from all over the world. It could be both open and collaborative, capable of self-regulation and self management; in total freedom” (Manzini, 2008). 

An exemplary case of DESIS network, particularly interesting for our question here, was the development of the thematic cluster called Public & Collaborative which may provide possible inspiration for new collaborations between universities and public authorities and governments (particularly at a local level, in the local municipalities, or at a regional scale).

The Public and Collaborative thematic cluster was an initiative promoted by a group of DESIS Labs based in universities which aimed to investigate the intersection of design, social innovation and public policy.

It was an initiative (concluded in 2013) which brought together government agencies, not-for-profit or charitable-sector organizations, and the Desis network of research labs to explore how emerging social networks influence public services and innovation policies, and vice versa - how public services and innovation policies can trigger and empower social networks based specifically on citizens participation and related social innovations initiatives. The Desis labs explored what design can do to make this promising initiatives more effective and fruitful ( It results in a series of initiatives at local level, in the DESIS Labs, which have been collated and described in a publication:    

The activities of the Public and Collaborative thematic cluster were based on three open questions:

Open Question #1: How do public agencies change when people are not considered a problem but instead part of the solution?

Open Question #2: Social innovation can trigger public sector innovations. Is the opposite possible too?

Open Question #3: Should we create experimental spaces where conceiving and prototyping new solutions would be easier?

This last question was particularly explored, and the DESIS Labs representatives involved suggested that “to embrace the “Public and Collaborative” approach—i.e., to promote co-created and co-produced solutions —public agencies could (directly or indirectly) create “testing environments,” or spaces where these new proposals can be tested”.    

The spaces of exchange and production of knowledge among the population and universities in Brazil are still being created and, more rarely, the spaces involving citizens, universities and government. Universities in Brazil still produce knowledge for scholars, with no major involvement by the general public. Similarly, there are few experiences of collective construction between the government and universities and, even rarer, between the government and citizens.

In theory, universities in Brazil are strongly encouraged to promote this kind of space for dialogue, through activities defined as “outreach activities”, which, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), can be summarized as follows:

(Outreach activities are defined as) an educational, cultural, scientific and political interdisciplinary process that promotes transformative interaction between universities and other sectors of society (UFRJ, 2015).

Outreach activities are mandatory for all students of undergraduate courses at UFRJ, and undergraduate courses must allocate a minimum of ten percent of the total course load in their curricula to develop outreach activities (UFRJ, 2013).

The transformation of the university’s outreach activities in an effective tool for change towards social justice and deepening democracy goes hand in hand with addressing the challenges (…) observed in the Brazilian reality, identifying opportunities to be leveraged through public policies. But the effectiveness of these actions, in turn, depends heavily on the public University in general and in its outreach activities (FORPROEX, 2012).

Outreach activities, although being a potentially transformative activity for students, lecturers and communities, offering an exchange of knowledge, discussion and empowerment, continue to demonstrate a descrepancy as not all universities in Brazil are implementing them, and not even all the UFRJ courses have outreach projects included in their curricula.

Outreach activities have the potential to promote a fruitful exchange system between university and other actors in society, groups and communities, including government, guiding the university's knowledge production in a continuous process of mutual learning, which certainly could enrich all stakeholders. University production would be more related to the Brazilian societal demands. For the government, the main gain would be to build greater participative interaction within society (which is well-known, is not what happens today in the country); and for society, the increased participation would consolidate its intrinsic role as the main stakeholder in national decisions.

What would happen if universities could engage in a dialogue with government and society in a broader sense? Social and political problems in Brazil are historical and weaken the nation. Perhaps, the experiments promoted by DESIS Network Labs, involving society, government and university, could inspire Brazilian universities to improve their transformative role in our society.  

Literature Cited:

Manzini, E. (2008). New design knowledge. Introduction to the Conference Changing the Change. In: Cipolla, C. Peruccio, P.P. (2008). Changing  the Change. Proceedings. 

Allemandi Conference Press. Available:    Accessed: 15/11/2014

UFRJ (2015). Resolução 01/2015 -  Regulamento da Extensão Universitária na UFRJ. Available:  Accessed: 2016/25/06

UFRJ (2013). Resolução CEG No 02/2013: Regulamenta o registro e a inclusão das atividades de extensão nos currículos dos cursos de graduação da UFRJ. Available:  Accessed: 2016/25/06

FORPROEX  Fórum de Pró-Reitores de Extensão das Universidades Públicas Brasileiras (2012). Política Nacional de Extensão Universitária.

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