Will Companies Save Us?

The 2030 Agenda of the European Union sets out 17 goals for sustainable development to be achieved by 2030[1] to ensure to all human beings a fair life and defeat the great threats that affect the world.
Reading the 17 goals it seems unthinkable that we can end poverty and hunger, defeat diseases, and guarantee everyone freedom of thought and action. Looking around, you realize there is really a lot to do. It is true that in many parts of the world it has developed movements, ideas, projects that propose solutions, often at a local scale, aimed at improving the life conditions of communities. Although these projects do not significantly shift the dangerous drift that our planet is pursuing (climate change, wealth inequality, etc.), the energy they activate is capable of generating thoughts and actions that can nurture and contaminate what they encounter. It is a propulsive energy, started from small things, that transforms the mentality of people, stakeholders, decision makers and, most importantly, of business.
As a matter of fact, companies have a great deal of responsibility in this scenario because with their policies they can manage resources, often neglecting their heavy impacts in terms of sustainability.
However, things are changing within the business system, and one of the most interesting changes is that companies are including Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR means that a company can be defined as socially responsible when it is not limited to target its economical profits, but it takes care of the context within which it operates. This principle, evolved into the shared value theory, allows to shift from a culture of profit to a culture of positive relationships (improving the company mood and its relationships with the local communities, encouraging users to have a positive perception of the company and its activities, paying attention to the production process, boosting the company’s reputation, increasing the company authority by promoting local actions, bing part of a wide-ranging project to improve the world we live in).
Basically, without neglecting the economical assets, many business enterprises are organizing to meet those environmental and social sustainability requirements that the civil society is calling loudly.
According to Porter and Kramer[2], the concept of shared value redefines the boundaries of “capitalism“, since it will be the companies that promote and support new consumption, in line with a more sustainable economy for the most disadvantaged populations.

The design culture is certainly aligned with such social emancipation goals. It has been demonstrated not only by those who historically worked to make people’s lives simpler, more functional, and more economical (democratic design), but also by brands such as Ikea, H&M, Illy, Leroy Merlin, and many others, that have employed CSR practices to make sustainability a core asset of their activity. However, speaking of “democratic” design seems reductive if compared to the many forms of participatory and co-design processes in which design is now taking part in. In such processes, design fulfils the difficult role of mediator, problem solver, holder of dialogic skills that put into communication realities that strive to find common grounds for discussion. The designer becomes storylistener and storyteller, assuming the role of sense-maker (https://archive.org/details/ThePearlDiver_DESIS). This reasoning is particularly relevant speaking of (social) enterprises, where there are means and culture for promoting actions aimed at improving the world, albeit such actions are often subject of miscommunication. When design meets business and enterprises it can use its cultural and technical tools to develop strategies and artifacts that can disseminate those good practices that are still often silent and unknown to the most. A logic that can perhaps be embodied in a process that democratizes design, as an act that can craft, develop and enhance innovation processes that represent a platform for the good practices of the future. If the future increasingly entails business enterprises characterized by virtuous processes in the economic, social and environmental spheres, it will become crucial to enhance their contents and messages, employing the various forms of communication at our disposal to raise awareness and engage people in sustainable behaviours. If that happens, it will only bring benefits and social development, and thus democracy.

[1] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org
[2] Kramer, M. R., & Porter, M. (2011). Creating Shared Value. Harvard Business Review, 89(1/2),


Marisa Galbiati

School of Design, Politecnico di Milano

Milano, Italy

Fields of Action
It refers to all the design initiatives that are particularly responsive to the goals of democracy. It may deal with the provision of basic human rights (such as access to food, shelter, health care, and education) and, more in general, with the transition towards a more resilient, fair and sustainable society.