Eli Spencer and Don Norman

Paper published in Fast Company, January 2019:

How could Pizza save the world? If you recognize that it the result of a platform for a particular form of food, one that has empowered people all over the world to make pizza that fits their own needs, cultures, and tastes. Purists claim "this is not pizza," and others say -- "this is not your pizza, it is our pizza." This is the strength of the platform. It supports small, local people all over the world with their unique desires as well as that of large corporations. It is a model for societal platforms that can empower people all over the world and that can indeed change the world. That's why we wrote this article about the power of Pizza: Pizza Power, People Power, Platform Power. The Power of P. (With credit to our friends in India who taught us about Societal Platforms)

Pizza as a platform, serving all tastes. (Neapolitan Pizza does not use tomato paste.)

On a recent Hawaiian vacation, Don stayed at a truly luxurious resort. It wasn't his style. He couldn't help but notice the contrast with the poorer sections of the island where locals lived and tourists rarely ventured. Is this the planet’s future? Two distinct cultures, one of isolated wealth and excess, the other of poverty? When we discussed this question, Don couldn't help but mention he’d also found amazing pizza on the island.

The disparity between rich and poor, between tourist and local was disappointing, but not surprising. But as we pondered how we might address these issues, we recognized pizza provided a possible direction.

Pizza? How is that relevant? Two ways. First, pizza can be thought of as an open-source platform. An Italian creation, it is now found all over the world, in all incarnations, tailored to local tastes and cultures, yet all recognizable as pizza. Second, it bridges the gap we were pondering, for pizza can be made by local artisans serving local customers, as well as by large, international corporations that serve mass markets. In other words, “Pizza as a Platform” provides a powerful metaphor to describe how we hope to address some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Thinking about pizza as a platform gives some interesting insights into how we might thrive in the future. The pizza platform is a truly open system that enables millions of independent creators as well as large producers. It provides an excellent model for addressing the world’s pressing problems. Far fetched? Not really. The proper platforms can provide a powerful infrastructure for social necessities such as clean energy, healthcare, and government.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes pizza such an effective platform. Pizza allows for a diverse array of possible creations. The basic platform dictates what is common: a square or disc of dough, transformed by a hot oven and some appropriate toppings. In Napoli, just the basic underlying dough, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, and some basil. For the rest of the world, almost any conceivable embellishment, from pineapple to ham, duck to turkey, fish to onions and mushrooms. The pizza platform allows customization for whatever you, your family, or your community wants. The platform creates a thriving pizza economy, producers, vendors, pizza makers, customers, experts, and reviewers. Occasionally pizza-lovers or inventors will make great advances, like pizza ovens, or stones, or new kinds of pizza altogether. Or pre-made pizza, perhaps a complete pizza already made, but then frozen, to be cooked at home, or just premade pizza dough, so the toppings come from the cook. Today the global annual pizza economy is over $100 billion.

How can the way pizza has spread across the world, driven by local interests and needs, show us how everyday citizens can participate in innovation with global impact? The answer may lie in a new form of platform, societal platforms, civic- and community-driven toolkits that empower people and cultures. Societal platforms can support complex challenges such as energy, climate change, healthcare, and sustainably feeding communities. It enables multiple people to each make small enhancements. Lots of small, incremental enhancement made by many people, in time can lead to major changes, both incremental and radical, empowering many.

Platforms are enablers. They let people who don’t know each other or speak the same language, to trust, use, and co-develop the systems that power much of the world. In India, digital ecosystems built on a cashless economy and trusted identification are tackling everything from free education to open innovation. Sanjay Purohit (see describes these societal platforms as “open, technology-enabled ecosystems that provide ‘co-creation’ spaces [virtual or real] where innovators can design, develop and build a wide array of solutions.” They can be both tools and technologies--internet, software, open source modules of parts such as batteries, solar panels, computers, and motors, supported by 3D printers -- that make innovation or customization easier. They can be the policies and cultural movements that empower citizens to solve problems locally. Societal platforms enable more people to make more meaningful contributions toward a better future.

Think about some other platforms that have helped transform the world. Linux is a software platform that resides inside automobiles, smartphones, home appliances, and commercial devices. Linux makes all of these things possible because it is an open resource, developed by a community of more than 10,000 innovators who continually enhance and improve it. Kickstarter is another example of a platform, not open source, but open to anyone to use and thereby a democratizing force for innovation. Almost half a million campaigns have been launched on Kickstarter, with 15 million people helping to fund them, for a total of over $4 billion. For all we know, the next Kickstarter-like campaign could lead to a breakthrough in clean energy or better health. Platforms provide power to everyday people.

We need more societal platforms. They can engage, organize, and amplify human potential. They can come in many shapes and sizes and be recombined and used in unforeseen ways. They can be used for both small and large enterprises. They can encompass civic, academic, commercial, technological, and faith-based ecosystems. You can never have too many open societal platforms. Just as you can never have too much pizza.


Eli Spencer is a Professor of Medicine who builds things for global health and directs the Center for Health at the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego. Don Norman is the Director of the Design Lab and the author of the Design of Everyday Things, among many others. Both like pizza and are worried about the state of the planet. Special thanks to Sanjay Purohit for his work on societal platforms and our long conversations. And to Susannah Fox for inspiring our vision of people power.