By Josina Vink
There are more and more case studies popping up about service design projects and lots of discussion about the value it can bring to business and public services. This story sharing and documentation is long overdue. Still, in all our efforts to get a seat table, I feel like the public discussion and scholarly discourse about service design has glossed over the tensions practitioners experience when trying to make change.
As a service designer working in hospitals and community care in Canada and the United States, I felt the transformative potential of the practice. I witnessed exciting shifts in service models and saw promising changes in stakeholder perspectives. At the same time, I grew increasingly impatient with our collective ability to affect structural change within the healthcare system through the service design process. I also felt restricted by the systems I was working within when trying to make change.
To advance service design research and practice, I think we need more “real talk” about the situated struggle of the diverse actors on the frontlines of service design. Instead of shiny success stories, we need to have a dialogue about how context influences service design practitioners and how practitioners can influence context. This relationship is complicated and messy, but we need to go there if we are going to refine the craft and hone service design`s transformative potential.
At the heart of this exploration is the concept of agency – the ability of actors to act and influence the world around them. I agree with Dan Lockton who says that, “understanding how to act to change the systems we’re in is arguably the biggest meta-challenge of our age.” Agency has been touched on in the context of participatory design and information systems, but has not been adequately investigated in relation to actors involved in service design.
I have a hunch that the aesthetic, reflective practice of designing contributes to actors` agency amid complex service ecosystems, like that healthcare. But I also know from experience that the social context we are designing in enables and constrains our actions. So, if we are interested in realizing service design`s potential to transform service ecosystems, I think we need to understand how actors can overcome the paradox of embedded agency (the simultaneous tension between contextual pressures and free action).
Here`s where I think we can get some help from institutional theory. Institutional theory has a long history of exploring actors` relationships with social structures. Researchers have become increasingly interested in how actors can contribute to changing social structures, through what is being called institutional work. Institutional work involves actors creating, disrupting and maintaining social structures or “the rules of the game”. I think designing is a means of shaping social structures in service ecosystems and a form of institutional work.
However, to engage in institutional work actors require agency.
• What factors influence practitioners` ability to engage in institutional work when designing?
• How do actors overcome contextual constraints when designing to actively shape the social structures around them?
• How does the embodied process of designing aid actors in shaping social structures?
It is these questions (and likely many more) that I will endeavor to investigate through my PhD research as part of the Service Design for Innovation Network. I aim to take an honest and humble look at the messy dynamics of designing for transformation within healthcare settings. I plan to engage in real (and sometime difficult) dialogue with service design practitioners about the challenges they face, but also the role of design in helping them overcome constraints. I want to zoom out to understand service design in context, but also zoom in to fully grapple with the nuanced impact of design on actor`s actions and social structures.
Stay tuned for updates and opportunities for service design practitioners to get involved!