I was searching for years for a way to be a designer without creating environmental damage. Initially I focused on reducing damage through my core business, that of designing products. But in time I realised that this was futile: firstly, there was little commercial appetite for this kind of product; and secondly it only had the potential to reduce impact rather than create positive impact. I concluded that the term ‘sustainable design’ was an illusion, a contradiction even. Also, environmental meant little without considering the people in the equation, and their behaviour, and that there was a formidable link between the two. I began to ask myself what skills I had and how I could use them in a different way. This led me to analyse what it meant to be a designer. My answer to this is that designers are people-focused problem-solvers, and many of the social and environmental problems of our time can be addressed through the creation of new services, or the re-arrangement of existing services. Designing services is therefore a way of using these skills to address a different kind of problem, and to earn a living as a designer at the same time.
For me the most interesting aspect of service design is that it truly engages with people. It is also fairly unexplored, particularly in the public sector. My work gives me contact with some powerful networks of people who are establishing various new services through social enterprises, in particular in the waste management sector. Here, the SEED strap-line – if design is good for business, then why not social business – is proving to be true. Perhaps I sell the idea of design with a deeper passion and belief than I ever did before, but in fact I find most people I come across, most of whom have never given design a second thought, really seem to latch on to the value that design might be able to bring them. Not only could it be good for their bottom line, it also seems to lighten the task, to make it more fun and less worthy (or at least this is my perception), and to create new and surprising links and visions. The hard thing about service design is not designing products. My rule of thumb is: products are justifiable as long as they are essential for the best outcome of the service.
I doubt I know anything you don’t about what is going on in services today. My own research is focused on social enterprises, which use service design as a tool. I published a paper last year for the Changing the Change conference in Turin, which uses my own forthcoming enterprise, HiRise Gardens (working title), as an example and justification of the kind of work I would like to push forward. The aim of HiRise is to establish a food-waste, composting and food-growing system on every housing estate in the UK by creating a service blueprint that any council can plug in to any housing estate.
This should include tools and instructions for how to engage residents, and how to train local people to run the service.
Also, I recently ran a masterclass for my RCA students (IDE dept), asking them to design a social enterprise. For me this was also an experiment – are other designers able to actually do what I am suggesting? The results, all of which were service-based, were staggeringly good. I will soon publish some on my website.
The SEED Foundation plan is to establish three social enterprises over the first 5 years.
I personally want to do something around the fashion and textile industry, but I think the next two enterprises will come from outside the organisation, possibly from some of the work my students started through the master class. I also see huge potential applying a strategic approach to existing services, helping them work together to create a stronger and more dynamic system. Global warming and per-capita spending are inextricably linked; from this perspective the more money is spent on services that are acting with a lower carbon consideration, the better our chances of improving our environment.
Who would you like to invite to this conversation about Service Design Research?
Flora Bowden, founding partner of SEED
Manuel Mazzotti, project manager SEED
Karl Harder, business dev. manager SEED
What is the question you have about Service Design?
Is it possible to develop a formula to enable any design-trained person to do it? Can we establish a buddying system to train them to do it? (Maybe through an apprenticeship scheme the government would pay!)
Keywords: social enterprise