Chair Design Thinking and Sustainability
Parsons The New School for Design
New York, USA
Our societies are unsustainable because we are too materials intense; we make too little use of too many things that disperse useful resources and energy sources. So to become more sustainable we must increase the service intensity of our stuff – more use, more uses, more users. This is more of a social change challenge than a technical change challenge. It is the challenge of service design, of designing stable yet flexible (commercial or non-commercial) interactions between people that allow them to get more use out of products, environments and technologies that they share. It is a challenge because the 20th century sold most nations on the idea that owning things gives people autonomy, by which was meant, autonomy from other people. This is why it is a design challenge – because services need to be designed in ways that make interacting with people more desirable again. This is also why service design is a social change project, one of advocacy and activism, actively creating new markets, even new economies, rather than merely tolerating and reforming our existing unsustainable market economies.
Service design cannot avoid that at its very heart is ‘taking on a role.’ Friends (and family) take care of you and your needs because they love you. Businesses take care of you and your needs because they can make money by doing so. Somewhere in the middle are communities on the one hand and service providers on the other. This means that no matter how well-designed a service, in the end, the quality of the service depends on the extent to which someone (the ‘front-line service provider’) can be encouraged/facilitated to care for the needs of a stranger (and on the extent to which that ‘stranger’ can be encouraged/facilitated to let themselves be cared for by a ‘service provider’). Pine and Gilmour are right that what is at issue in service economies is ‘theater vs authenticity,’ but they are wrong to distinguish these qualities from the provision of service (in order to commodify them). Which is why the Service Design bible is not ‘The Experience Economy’ but Zuboff and Maxmin’s ‘The Support Economy.’ Or to be more frank, this is why all service design is unavoidably political.
I am currently doing ‘service design’ for internal clients – my university. There is firstly a ‘branding-led’ service design project for a new environmental studies degree. As an interdisciplinary program, students need to be provided with ways of negotiating the different divisions of the university in order to access their curriculum. Wherever possible the ‘back-office’ is restructured to facilitate the student experience, but as such restructuring opportunities are rare, much of the project involves creating maps, tools and services that allow the students to more effectively navigate their way through the institution as it currently exists. Crucial to this is an overlaid place-branding that gives the students real world correlates for their journeys. An important added-value has been providing these environmental studies students with an empowered identity, one that draws on their ‘special knowledge’ of how to tactically traverse complex organizations. Another project is thinking about the service design of online learning. The similarity with the first project is that online learning is no longer about off-the-shelf one-package-does-it-all walled-gardens. It is now about a diversity of proprietary and open-source software and social networks. Consequently, students need to be given locational devices, identities and constant trouble-shooting services, whether customized, peer-to-peer or FAQ-based. I’ve come to realize that e-learning can only truly come of age through the lens of service design.
As Dolores Hayden documents in The Grand Domestic Revolution, late 19th century USA saw a proliferation of product-service system innovations. These centred on outsourcing private domestic production – food production, clothing care, child care, etc – to collectives. One of the most iconic examples comes from King C Gillette, who may have bequeathed to the 20th century the unsustainable economy of disposability, but who actually wanted to bequeath to the future aggregated and therefore more efficient domestic service industries. Hayden describes the convergence that led to these initiatives: the arrival of technological innovations that worked best at scale (steam-power), and the socio-political changes that discouraged domestic servants whilst wanting to liberate bourgeois women from isolated domestic labour, as well as a bit of utopian socialism. I would love to research more closely this ‘road not taken’ of product-service systems that nearly prevented high eco-impacting household activities from disappearing into private and therefore resistant-to-change kitchens and laundries. It is crucial that service design not think of itself as brand new and unprecedented. Historical maturity is essential if the kinds of more sustainable service systems now being proposed are not to suffer the same fate as these late 19th century innovations.
Who would you like to invite in this conversation about Service Design Research?
Lara Penin, Assistant Professor of Transdisciplinary Design, School of Design Strategies, Parsons the New School of Design
What is the question do you have about Service Design?
What organizational psychology knowledge is necessary for service design?