Not more products, please.
Live|work have been at The Big Rethink – an Economist / Design Council conference discussing the future of business. The goal of the conference was to look at new models for business post credit crunch with design proposed as an enabler of innovation. A great event with many stimulating cases and theories.
On the evidence of the conference, design is clearly a way for organizations – from the monoliths like the NHS and Microsoft to start-ups like PACT (purveyors of designer eco-pants) to create more effective products – we saw more than enough seats, lights, cars, kettles, software, games consoles, hospital beds, mobile phones, TVs etc that are undoubtedly better than that which went before. Design, as Roberto Verganti showed, is great for competitive advantage.
But how is this a new model?
However, with the exception of Riversimple the mobility service / hydrogen car, there was no evidence of design as transformative for business models or as a useful approach to the larger challenges that were so succinctly conveyed by the Economist team such as Climate change, Ageing populations or the challenge of Emerging markets.
We heard a lot about how the world is changing:
• That we can no longer work in the old command and control structures,
• That it is essential to create knowledge economies,
• And that the world moves too fast to find opportunities and we must create opportunities,
There was sound advice:
• That we must work with users and consumers to understand their needs,
• That we can use a Judo analogy and see opportunity in problems,
• And that we should re-invent the meaning of what we do to differentiate,
We heard a lot less about actual business models – the advice, from Sir George Cox, was that we must advance with “Wit and Balls”, a new version of the survival of the fittest mantra but not a model.
We saw little about how business is changing. Products sold in markets seemed to be the model for most of the case studies – they may be great products, green products or category redefining products but they are still things made, shipped and consumed in the way that, as we heard from Steve Evans of Cranfield, is unsustainable and clearly does not answer the big challenges. As Hugo Spowers (Riversimple) said ‘less unsustainable is still unsustainable.”
This is of limited value after a two-day conference – to hear that I need to be clever and brave – great. But how? And how is design a part of that? The best answer we got was from Richard Seymour the only person to really talk about design on the stage, who described the designer as an ‘Empath’ someone who can see how life really is for people, take their pains and frustrations and aim to remove them.
A hint of how
Hugh Spowers (Riversimple), argued that only through a ‘sale of service’ (the car will be charged for by the mile with fuel included) could a car manufacturer build incentives into the business to reduce its environmental impact with zero as a goal. His model is to make higher margins from a more expensive car by providing it as a service to users for longer than the first five-year span that traditional manufacturers are interested in. Whilst doing this he aims to create a radically more resource efficient form of mobility. Riversimple has a whole systems design approach and is employing Service Thinking as a way to rethink business. He is also being an Empath, but this time for the planet as well as people. And taking responsibility for any ‘pain’ caused by his actions.
So if the conference didn’t get to how to really address The Big Rethink – as in really address how business models must change how could we approach rethinking business to address the challenges posed? And how does Design fit in?
Service Thinking and the role of Design
Design thinking flips the focus from production to use. Richard Seymour said ‘start at the tail’ and showed how we create waste or pain for people in their everyday lives as they fiddle with things that are difficult to use. This is design in action but applied to products – the call of the conference was to apply design to systems and society.
I would like to test live|work’s Service Thinking in this context. Our Hypothesis is that thinking service is a ‘meta’ new business model within which many business models can appear, and that these new models are more able to address the challenges that we got together to discuss. Service Thinking is an emerging understanding of post-industrial industry. What do we do when the production line, described as the most significant invention of the industrial revolution, is depleting natural resources at an unsustainable rate. Service Thinking draws on natural cyclical activities such as the way that water cycles through clouds, rain, rivers, organisms and the sea (and then back into clouds).
Service Thinking aims to scale up the empathy from individuals, who we can make products for, to societies who need new services to help them sustain their health and to our natural environment. We can learn from Richard Seymour the value of a bottom up approach that uses deep ethnography and design thinking to see the pain and the waste. But we need to apply this ‘empathy’ at a larger scale – to see the waste and pain in a society that is wasting lives or an industry that is wasting our natural world.
This is the value of design – to take the insights that arise from empathy and work out how to remove the waste or the pain and make things better. This requires that we look harder but also wider, not just at individual experiences but the experiences of groups, towns, people and the wider natural world.
Service Thinking looks at people, but it also looks at networks (groups of people and things) and thinks about sustainability (where resources come from and are going to). Steve Evans showed with an example of a skip with a hole in the end (to separate waste using gravity and time) that once we think about waste we start designing responses that reduce that waste. We need to change our focus and then let design create the solutions.