Introduction: On Service Innovation
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Introduction: On Service Innovation

Erik Roscam Abbing
  • Erik Roscam Abbing
  • Director

Service design works. It’s a proven way of creating customer experiences, in almost any business or social context you can name.

It’s a process that’s dramatically improved people’s lives, not to mention the health of businesses and the quality of collaboration between them.

Livework believes that people deserve better services, and that design is the best way to create them. But the world is getting more complex, people’s expectations never stop climbing, and thinking outside the box is no longer enough. We need new boxes, new services, that answer today’s unmet needs, and tomorrow’s too.

This takes us a step beyond service design, into a new category of problem-solving: service innovation. If service design is improving the way checkout works at the supermarket, service innovation is redesigning the store so that checkout is no longer necessary and store staff can focus on servicing customers. It means questioning the assumptions that went into previous solutions, proposing new ones that work at a system level, and addressing the problem underlying the problem.

Thinking outside the box is no longer enough. We need new boxes, new services, that answer today’s unmet needs, and tomorrow’s too.

If this all sounds uncomfortably ill-defined, that’s because the crucial problems of the new century are just that. The purpose of service innovation is to tackle them boldly, because the comfortable, well-constrained ones have already been solved. It’s how we help the world face challenges that sometimes seem unsolvable.

Introduction: On Service Innovation
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Wicked Problems and the Modern City

When we talk about uncomfortable, ill-defined problems, we’re actually revisiting an idea that’s been around for a few decades: the concept of a ‘Wicked Problem’[1].

Prof. Kees Dorst, of the University of Technology in Sydney, has made an academic pursuit out of examining problems that defy traditional solutions. His book “Frame Innovation” lays out four key traits that make a problem “wicked”[2]:

  1. It’s open or ill-defined, with fuzzy boundaries or none at all that make it difficult to say what is and is not part of the problem;
  2. It’s complex, having many different working parts, so that changing one thing automatically changes several other things;
  3. It’s dynamic: in a constant state of flux, so that by the time you’ve worked out a solution to a part of the problem, the problem itself has shifted enough to make the solution irrelevant;
  4. It’s networked: it affects and is affected by a number of different external elements (people, organisations, resources, etc.).

Traditional problem-solving methods are poorly suited to solve problems like these. The logic-oriented, one-piece-at-a-time methodology of management, business and engineering depends on clear definitions and boundaries. The mindset of service innovation — co-creation, integrated perspectives, constant iteration and prototyping — is much better suited to tackle wicked problems.

Over many years of trying to solve wicked problems, we’ve found one environment that generates them more than any other: cities. Urban environments, with their complex regulation, constant motion, and interacting power structures, are perfect incubators for wicked problems. They’re also the proving grounds where humanity is going to succeed or fail in its biggest challenges in the 21st century, and that makes them deserving of special attention.

Wicked Problems and the Modern City
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Cities in the 21st Century

Here’s the reality of global urbanisation, according to United Nations [3] data and projections:

  • 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas today; by 2050 that proportion will rise to 68%;
  • Urbanisation, combined with overall population growth, could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050 – the equivalent of building 180 new cities the size of Tokyo;
  • Nearly 90% of this increase is expected to happen in Asian and African cities.

The mind-blowing rate of urbanisation poses many challenges, but they ultimately boil down to just one question: how do we live together in a way that brings wellbeing and prosperity to all, while leaving the planet in good condition for subsequent generations [4]? If that’s not a wicked problem, nothing is!

We believe cities and their residents deserve better innovation and more effective experimentation than city planners and developers are currently able to deliver.

These challenges deserve our attention and effort. And in all modesty, we know that our service knowledge and design experience can contribute significantly to their solutions. We believe cities and their residents deserve better innovation and more effective experimentation than city planners and developers are currently able to deliver.

Facts 21st cities

Tackling Wicked Urban Problems

The challenges of the 21st century city aren’t ill-defined because people aren’t trying, but because there’s no singular problem to define.

The moment you reach in with your spanner, whatever you’ve fixed causes something else to break or fall out of alignment.

Consider this example: If a client asks us “how can we design innovative services for transitioning to sustainable energy” we may select a more concrete entry point to the challenge such as “how do you lower the barriers for households to install solar panels on their roof?” But solving that wicked problem may entail making it easier to finance, install, use and maintain solar panels, and getting people to understand, share, and store the energy they produce. We’ve just created seven new ill-defined service innovation challenges through a single framing.

And keep in mind, sustainable energy is only one of many wicked urban problems – issues like education, housing, social equity and transportation may have even more moving parts, and higher stakes if they go wrong.

To try and get a handle on the unique wickedness of urban problems, we’ve identified a handful of themes that have recurred in our work over the past 10 years. We’ve also pinpointed specific sectors within cities where they tend to manifest, and where our innovation work has had the most impact.

Here, we’ll focus on three of each: not a complete selection by any means, but representative of the areas where the challenges are the most pressing and where our attention is welcomed most.

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Tackling Wicked Urban Problems

[1] Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. MIT Press, Design Issues: Vol. 8, No. 2. pp. 5-21
[2] Dorst, K. (2015). Frame Innovation. Mit Press Ltd
[3] www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html
[4] United Nations. (2017). The Sustainable Development Goals Report. New York