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Oh hai,

Happy Service Design Day! There are lots of great (free!) events you can join today, here's a few we've come across: Speaking of the roundtable, systems thinking is an emerging trend in the service design community at the moment. As our amazing guest writer, Karin Lycke, pointed out on LinkedIn, there's lot's of signals of this trend:
  • The Design Council just released The Systemic Design Framework to help designers working on major complex challenges. It places people and planet at the heart of design.
  • Systems Thinking and Service Design is the theme of the most recent Touchpoint Journal, with a collection of 21 articles on the topic.
  • In a recent episode of Service Design ShowArash Golnam talks about Systemic Design as a way to dissolve problems.
  • In the new Swedish book on Service Design; Tjänstedesign – Principer och Praktiker, the authors Stefan Holmlid and Katarina Wetter-Edman writes about three parallel perspectives within Service Design, one being Design in Service systems where the Service System serves as the design material for value creation in context.
So what does it all mean? And how can you start applying systems thinking in your work? Karin is Founder and Service Design Lead at The Service Design Studio in Göteborg, Sweden, and I'm super excited that she is sharing her perceptive on these questions with us, we're in for a treat! Let's get to it. 

Q. Why should service designers care about systems thinking?

When asking Service Design students why they have chosen Service Design, the answers you usually get back are: 

  • ”I want a meaningful job that adds value to the world.”
  • ”I want to design solutions that solve customer problems.” 
  • ”I want to come up with great services that make people’s everyday lives better.” 

But even equipped with ethical guidelines and the best intentions a lot of design of services put into the world have had unintentional causes. When we create solutions that address one dimensional needs to limited parts of the system it adversely affects other parts. Often, these new problems that emerge are much worse than the initial ones. Therefore many independent initiatives fail and actually throw fuel on the fires they seek to extinguish.

solving one part of the system effect other parts and not being aware new problems can emerge much worse than the initial ones
Solving one part of the system affects other parts, and not being aware of this means new problems can emerge much worse than the initial ones. Illustration: Tash Willcocks
In 2019 Mike Monteiro wrote a book called Ruined by Design where he states the world is working exactly as we designed it, and that it’s not working very well. He calls on every designer to reflect on what they bring into the world. He argues that design is a craft with responsibility and that the responsibility is to help create a better world for all. Scholars and activists like Joy Buolamwini and Sasha Contanza-Chock with the Algorithmic Justice League are drawing attention to the ways in which the underpinning logic of many services through AI (artificial intelligence) perpetuate bias and harm.
Scooters Blocking Wheelchair Access to Sidewalks, 2021
As an example of unintended systemic consequences, electric scooters were the sustainable product-service solution to solve city transportation. A few years in we can see the consequences in the system such as an increase in battery waste, limiting access for others, severe injuries and an overall carbon footprint 3,5 times more than an electric car.

The Reality: Complex Problems are Not Solved with a Service

Many times when brought in as a Service Designer we are there to solve one thing in the system. This lies in the common perception of what Service Design can accomplish, design of services, which means design is seen as a phase in a limited part of the process with the focus on developing and delivering a design of a market offering. With this outlook, Service Design can indeed solve problems but yet on a micro level. 

The image shows a matrix of zoom level on one axis and stakeholder complexity on the other. Zoom level goes from one action, to one process, to one experience, and stakeholder complexity goes from one channel, to multi channel, to whole organization, to multi organizational. Touchpoint design (single channel) is highlighted, as are service design (multi channel) and system design (one experience and multi organizational).
The enlarged applications of Service Design. Credit: Erik Widmark Co-founder and Service Designer at Expedition Mondial, 2016

As with biological forms of life, academic disciplines evolve in response to environmental changes and interactions with others. Those that adapt to their present environment flourish and become stronger; those that do not wither and disappear. Around the turn of the millennium we could see an expansion of the scope of design from orchestrating services, interactions and experiences, and to transforming systems. 

The table shows the enlarged applications of Service Design. At the end of the spectrum, design can be extremely complex. It can involve many actors and stakeholders, often with varying or and often conflicting interests or objectives. To broaden the view on Service Design’s ability to design in service systems and solve problems on a global level, the practice needs an update of tools and methods, visualizations and language. Systems thinking provides a lens for us to understand and observe complex systems.

What Service Designers can Learn from Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is an approach to view issues holistically. It is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system. Examples of systems you might be familiar with include ecosystems, cars and human bodies as well as organisations.

In a system all parts are interconnected and the system does contain more actors than humans, all perspectives needs to be considered.
In a system all parts are interconnected and the system does contain more actors than humans, all perspectives needs to be considered. Illustration: Tash Willcocks

“Service design is great for understanding the as-is state, but Systems Thinking is better for understanding what’s really going on.”
- Mike Laurie, Design Lead, Innovation at Lloyds Banking Group

If you want to avoid bad ripple effects of your design, stop bad reputation of designers and instead grow your impact, here are three things to get started:

1. Designing parts but be responsible for the whole 

We can solve problems at various stages and that is fine, as long as it’s not adding problems at others. Even if you are designing touchpoints, strengthen your skills in systems awareness. A better understanding of what bigger system your design is part of helps avoid unintended consequences and look beyond the quick wins. You are responsible even after implementation. 

Concrete actions:

  • Zoom out from the customer journey and understand how your design fits into the broader context
  • Make sure you have the tools to identify the bigger system. Causal Loop Diagramming and Stock and Flow maps are two model generation techniques that can be used in creating dynamic and multi-faceted models. You need to learn the techniques to be able to generate your own models or a service system. Take a look at The System Innovation Network’s goldmine of gathered tools

2. Finding solutions to human needs is not enough 

You won’t understand a system from only one view point. Humans should be part of the equation, but not at the expense of everything else. Learn how to visualize multiple actors in the system to uncover meaningful relationships and dynamics beyond human needs. Look not to find a solution to a problem that benefits a single actor but to change the system to dissolve it in favor of a healthier system.

Concrete actions:

  • Don’t discard human-centered design altogether but start to move away from the narrow approach and add perspectives for a balanced view.
  • Update your visualisations, explanation models and language. Livework Studios have an updated version of Tim Brown’s classic Innovation model here (you need to be a SDN member to read it). IKEA calls their development process People & Planet Positive and the creative problem solvers at Planethon Planet Centric business development.
The innovation model shows the intersections of a viability spectrum from direct financial, indirect financial, and long term triple bottom line, a desireability spectrum from individual, relational and collective, and a feasibility spectrum from production cell, organization, to consortium
The steps in the evolution of Tim Brown’s model, innovation director Erik Roscam Abbing and senior service designer Sanne Perlgröm, Livework, 2021

3. You are not the designer! You are a designer! 

We all want to be the one coming up with that idea. However harsh it might be, for successful design to happen you need to stop seeing stakeholders as external sources of input but as the concept generators. Master the facilitation skills and frameworks to find ’common ground’ and guide the participants to take ownership of the ideas. 

Concrete actions:

  • Reflect on your role as a Service Designer and let go of the idea of you as the idea creator 
  • Get a hang of the concepts of mental models and worldviews. There are many places offering learning experiences in Systems Thinking. These three courses are specifically targeting designers to add knowledge in Systems Thinking: 
Same same but a bit different, in the end systems thinking and service design are more alike than different.
Same same but a bit different, in the end systems thinking and service design are more alike than different. Illustration: Tash Willcocks

At the end it’s all about mindset

Service Design, Systems Thinking. Tomato Tomato. It’s about the starting point, what role we decide to play, who we involve and where we think it ends but the practice in between those points are the same. However what we can master equals what we are able to accomplish. 

Systems thinking requires first being self-aware of one’s own ways of thinking. Awareness of one's own way of seeing the world and the process through which we reason is a prerequisite to becoming an effective designer and intentionally shaping the systems, the culture and the world around us for the better.

List of Systems Thinking Resources

Inspirational reading 




Till next time!

I'm feeling really inspired to dig into systems thinking more and explore some of the resources Karin shared. Gratitude to Karin for sharing your knowledge, and to Tash for the gorgeous illustrations! 

Watch this space because in late June, Ask a Service Designer is planning our first live event, where we'll be digging into service design career stories with a special guest. I'll keep you posted!

Sending you all sunshine and good vibes, 
Linn 🌻
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