Supplejack | Design Research

Social sustainability and service design

Posted on 1 Feb 11

I'm very interested in social sustainability because it's so material to service design. But it's not well-developed in the literature, so this blog is about an experiment. 

Services and sustainability in New Zealand

In New Zealand service organisations have a huge economic footprint - they comprise about 70% of the total by number and by GDP. Work by Andrew and Forgie (2004) shows service organisations have a smaller ecological footprint than those in primary or manufacturing sectors. They actually inherit much of their footprint from upstream. Because they add value through 'social processing' (through networks, knowledge, skills and creativity), they also pass very little of this downstream to their clients.

On balance, their sustainability challenge is to optimise their social impacts relative to their footprint (and perhaps more so than just minimising their environmental impact).

Yes, it's easy to see the environmental problems of an existing system, but it's much harder to then work out how to optimise its social impacts, even when we can glimpse a way to do it! Can you imagine a transport system that actually generates good health? 

How do services measure their 'social' value?

Services typically capture the economic value of their social processes by 'charging for time'. It follows that when designing or improving a service, we're typically working with the value of time - the service's production time relative to service delivery and consumption time. Ultimately we are also gauging production time relative to societal gains.

Sustainability approaches the social through societal gains such as intellectual capital (social capability and intellectual assets) and human capital (social equity and social cohesiveness). These are both means and ends within a service business, which means service design can be confusing. We're saying 'a sustainable service business achieves socially sustainable ends by socially sustainable means'. Seems kind of circular!

Mind that gap!

The gap between these and the mundane concerns of hours-based service business models is significant. To bridge the gap, we've got to consider at least three places where social sustainability is of high value: within the organisation (service production), within the client (service consumption) and at the moment of interface between them (service delivery). Some initial questions to bring social sustainability down to earth might therefore be:

  1. Production: How are we spending our time within the organisation? Are we efficient?
  2. Interface: How are we spending time with clients? Are we effective?
  3. Consumption: How are we helping people spend time beyond our service? Are we good for society?
  4. Outcome: Are we helping people experience improved social equity, cohesiveness and capability all the time?

You'll note there's no explicit reference to sustainability criteria in these questions. The issue, of course, is the need to define social sustainability in the specific service context. For example, to be more socially sustainable in some contexts, we will want to increase the amount of time spent, while in others, we will want to decrease it. 

The Experiment (with a confession)

I've already stuck my neck out in this blog so I might as well go the whole way.  I don't have any major examples of this social sustainability in practice - other than from observing others and through Supplejack's work with a particularly brave and open-minded client. I've used the thinking and questions above to help make it a more socially sustainable service. But more importantly, to achieve this I first had to ask these same questions about Supplejack itself.

So... the table below is based on asking questions 1 - 2 above about two of Supplejack's own projects:  a project that uses older, more conventional qualitative research methods with one using a newer, design research methods. It measures numbers of people and hours to compare them. It's an experiment in the social sustainability of an innovation.




   Formative evaluation with qualitative research Co-design with design research 
 Project  Client-defined   Stakeholder-defined
 Participants 12 = 10 clients, 1 staff, 1 researcher  71 = 33 clients, 9 staff, 28 partners, 1 researcher
People-hours in participating   78 336 
Product   1 report, 2 innovations, 1 improvement  1 project template, 4 micro-reports, 9 innovations, 5 improvements

You can see design research methods (right-hand column) use a lot more people-hours to gain the most learning for the project, with the benefit that stakeholders can also connect with others and learn for themselves in unprecedented ways. As a result design research is significantly more creative, and its output is the actual launch of new services. Its success depends on good communication, collaboration, creativity and transparency - all socially sustainable processes.

And the downsides?

Are there downsides to design research and co-design? Of course there are. Three points pro-occupy me at the present time.

  1. You might suspect the environmental footprint for the design research project is larger. Yes it is. However, per person-hour it is much smaller, mostly because of economies in travel (both carbon emissions and time). Turning this around, for a given unit of carbon emitted the social gains are far higher. The same applies for the economic footprint - the budget for the client is higher (not that much higher, though) but per dollar spent the social gains are much greater. The unanswered question for me here is this: does this open up a different and better business model?
  2. Measuring questions 3 and 4 above. It's all very well developing more 'socially sustainable means' but what about demonstrating the 'socially sustainable ends'? How do I know changes in the service means clients are spending their time 'more sustainably'? What does this actually mean? And so how do I know social sustainability in the community is actually being improved? For the meantime, I have some indicative data that's positive, but we need real data! So officially, I'm 'waiting for the data to come in'. 
  3. There's very little in the sustainability or service literature on any of this. I'm very interested in hearing about any other work that's being done. 

So... please email me with any examples of work, or ideas and suggestions, about social sustainability and service design!

Ideas to interest and irritate.

These days the pace of change is a given, and for Supplejack, the real challenge is the pace of learning.

This blog is about things we're learning. It's mostly about topics where we find little or no published information. 

So it's about the best sense we can make at the edge.  Not that we're exactly sure which edge!  

Contrary to popular views, being at the edge is not a solitary pursuit, and as it happens, here we are, you and us...

Email Stephen

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