Written by Josina Vink & Vanessa Rodrigues
After a whirlwind time in Toronto at the Relating Systems Thinking and Design 5 Symposium, we were left grappling with the question: what is the relationship between service design and systemic design?
Over the last 25 years, service design has grown from its infancy into a maturing field and an accepted profession. Initially, within service design conversations, there was a focus on “services” as things to be designed, but increasingly there is acknowledgement that service is not something that we can control, but rather something we can create the conditions for. Many don´t see service design as working exclusively on services anymore, but also encompassing things like designing for policy and community. Within service design research, there is also increasing acknowledgement of the systemic nature of service and lots of talk about relationships and ecosystems.
Systemic design has started to gain momentum more recently (although it has earlier roots in systems and design literature). Systemic design acknowledges that as design deals with increasingly complex problems, a more relational and systemic approach is necessary. The community of researchers and practitioners interested in systemic design has grown significantly in the last five years – in large part facilitated by the annual RSD Symposium. Some of the leaders in the systemic design movement, contend that systemic design is not another sub-discipline of design, but rather an approach that should be integrated across design disciplines. Many cases discussed within the systemic design community involve services in different contexts.
While there is increasing convergence between service design and systemic design, each adds value in their own way. Below are a few of our reflections on some of the benefits and shortfalls of each:
- Service design emphasizes the importance of value co-creation as a desired outcome, although how the community is defining value perhaps needs further development. Systemic design is less clear about the desired outcomes of this approach – perhaps it is more contextually determined.
- While service design discussions tend to focus on (and arguably overemphasize) methods and tools, systemic design continues to acknowledge the importance of mindsets and competencies in dealing with complexity (although methods like gigamapping are gaining interest).
- Service design rhetoric underscores the importance of a user-centered approach and the benefits of user and provider involvement. Systemic design tends to suggest the engagement of a wider pool of diverse stakeholders and emphasizes the need to work through conflicting interests. Understanding relationships within the network is an integral part of systemic design.
- As systemic design draws from general research on systems theory and cybernetics, some contributions seem to talk about systems machines and can ignore the unique nature of human systems – which perhaps remains slightly more in focus in service design.
- Service design on the other hand does not do nearly enough to acknowledge the influence and importance of context on the process of designing, which is more evident in systemic design discussions.
- Systemic design, at its core, acknowledges the wickedness of many complex problems and the tensions of designing in these spaces. However, as an outsider to the process, understanding key insights can be a challenge. Service design projects, on the other hand, often paint an over-simplified process, but sometimes do better at communicating value to outsiders.
- Furthermore, sometimes it feels as though the designerly ways of doing and knowing get lost amid the analytical nature of systems thinking in systemic design, but this designerly core is something the service design community could afford to spend more time nurturing as well.
Upon reflection, we see service design and systemic design as lenses and approaches that can and should be integrated when designing in complex social systems. Of course there is value in articulating the distinct nature of each, but for practitioners interested in designing in complex social systems, we see great benefits in integration.