Service Design Days 2021: Transdisciplinarity

Portret Matilde
Written by
Matilde Cantinho
Digital Content Producer
Sep 27, 2021 . 8 mins read
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A week ago, the Koos crew returned from one of the best’ throwback’ experiences ever. After almost two years of social distancing and networking abstinence, it felt like a dream come true to be back in sunny Barcelona sharing perspectives in real life at the Service Design Days conference. It is live, there are real people, and you can no longer have a secret peek at your second screen or sit with a tie but no pants. And guess what? Everyone was stoked about getting back to not-so-awkward sessions, where you can feel the crowd’s energy and simply have a natural flow of interaction!

Last year after the challenging fully digital edition, we speculated how the disruptive Covid-era would trigger positive transformation. So, as you can imagine, the expectations were high! As one of the most emblematic and provoking speakers of the conference, Anna Kirah, said it loud and clear: We need tensions to be challenged!


For three intensely insightful days, we dived into the best of what Service Design has to offer but also discussed what other perspectives are out there. And indeed, we needed time to digest all the learnings and new insights collected during the packed schedule of case study talks, masterclasses and a lot (!) of networking. So after processing this rollercoaster of events, we are finally ready to share the knowledge of changemakers from all over the world.

The opposite of order is not chaos, but complexity.

— Binit Vasa SPACE10

Breaking out or breaking in? It is all about perspective.

This year’s conference theme – ‘New perspectives – breaking out of the design bubble’ – predicted new exciting visions. But little did we know how mind-blowing it would be, leading us to reflect critically about our practice. Between new perspectives on processes, such as the six-step approach by Frog, on team dynamics and support system with Stefanus Sunarja from N26, and stakeholder management, it became clear that Service Design is constantly transforming. Not only as a discipline but also in its mentality. As such, design professionals need to keep up and look beyond methods, templates, canvasses, and tools.

The opening talks by Anna Kirah and Erik Abbing set the right tone for the rest of the weekend. For if some could find them too radical or uncomfortable, they were, in fact, inspirational and produced a motivational attitude in most of the attendees. As we joined the different talks and workshops, it became clear that working transdisciplinary was the general motto of the conference.

For example, during the ‘Sensemaking with visual thinking’ session, many different concepts arose when we were asked to visually represent “breaking out of the design bubble”. Indeed, it was interesting to see how participants’ drawings travelled the spectrum between the literal and metaphorical sense. It was surprising, for example, to see some drawings representing bubbles being popped from the inside out as well as from the outside in! This brought the realisation that maybe, as designers, we need to not only break out of our bubble by leaving dogmas behind and rethinking our role and ways of working as changemakers. But it is equally important to allow that bubble to be enriched by fresh perspectives through transdisciplinary collaboration.

This was precisely the central argument conveyed from the beginning and which resonated through the whole event. In our day-to-day, as we got used to operating in terms of cross-disciplinarity, we tended to forget its embedded meaning – that if we are simply crossing along disciplines, there is still one field that holds the dominant position. Could it be that we, so attached to the role of design thinkers, have lost the humility to work in a horizontal collaboration setup?

F*ck Design Thinking.

— Anna Kirah Halogen

F*ck the ego

The shift advocated by Kirah needs to start with us individuals and design professionals. The idea that the designer is the ‘hero’ coming to save the day tricks us into assigning ourselves as the problem owner. Indeed, we are in a position of responsibility to take a stand, be bold and help lead the way as a facilitator. But for that to happen, our egos, biases, and own assumptions need to be left behind when entering a project. This also means embracing collaboration with other disciplines, like anthropology, as the key to successfully addressing wicked problems.

We think of ourselves as innovative and groundbreaking, but the field’s language and tools are so mainstream that they end up blinding us. Of course, it is not easy to break free from the working habits we were taught and have been practising over the years, but design is also about being adaptable and dealing with uncertainty.

Shouldn’t the next step be that we, designers, deconstruct those habits to be able to collaborate with people that are not familiar with them? This way, we would also be better prepared to deal with complexity. As problems are always part of a complex interconnected system, solutions should be thought of in a way that contemplates its future-proof implications.

In the masterclass ‘Shaping the future’ by Manyone, we learned how to set a collective intention, together with your client and stakeholders, to help unravel wicked problems. Even though that collaboration is always crucial, bringing stakeholders to the conversation may not be enough. Why? Because even when our concepts are great, many of them end up not being implemented as we intended them to be. This frequently happens due to both the complexity of organisations and of external factors that end up not being considered. Allowing different perspectives and disciplines to sit at the table can make a difference and bring the necessary adaptability to make better solutions thrive.

A good example of how a love story between different fields is not only possible but fruitful is one of Koos’ projects, the OLX^2 team, a collaboration between OLX and Koos. Service designers and data-driven specialists work side-by-side to bring innovation to a big corporation by combining the best in both approaches!

Design with people, for the planet (especially for whales!)

Run on positive impact

It is not only about the human world. The truth is that our current situation points precisely in the opposite direction – Human-centricity has failed. The more diversified the experiences and perspectives are, the more comprehensive the solutions to tackle the complex problems of today and tomorrow. In this sense, we urgently need to involve non-human actors, in addition to a diverse set of people, since they are our biggest allies in the climate change battle.

Have you ever considered whales as the solution to global warming? Neither have we. But it actually started making sense, as Erik told this inspiring story: The current whale population is only at 25% of its regular rate. But if it were at its fullest, their bodies would store so much CO2 and, consequently, produce so much Oxygen by fertilising plankton that they could be the answer to the climate crisis! So, why don’t we design everything for whales? Even better, we should be inviting whales as stakeholders to all our projects and design for and alongside whales.

The shift from designing for people only into a more systemic perspective and a more creative way of doing it alongside people and other living entities is happening for the planet’s sake. Creating radical ideas like Erik’s can be the most effective way to challenge the status quo and produce the right transformation to contribute to a better future. A universal truth to this challenge does not exist, but the trick is to keep exploring, talking to people, throw out your assumptions, and search for the most information possible.

'Designing for a better world' workshop by Chris, Emma and Hidde from Koos

As we realised that Koos is not alone in the run for Positive Impact making, since everyone seems to be eager to act upon it, we can also recognise that no one knows precisely how. And that is ok; design teaches us about trial and error, patience and the importance of incremental achievements. As such, it should also be about not having to reinvent the wheel because we don’t need brand new solutions every time, and we can inspire each other. And this is what successfully happened during the ‘Designing for a better world – the Positive Impact Framework” masterclass, dedicated to introducing Koos’ progress in making positive impact more tangible and actionable. We were able to inspire colleagues to reflect on the potential they hold for positive change, and it was visible that they were excited to start taking the first steps, adapting our framework to their context!

What’s next?

The Service Design Days 2021 conference was the crucial point of reconnection and refocusing of energy that the community needed to go beyond design and test its boundaries. The challenge now is to be persistent and passionate about searching for frugal, circular and upstream innovation that allows us to have as much impact with as little as possible to regenerate nature and shape the future.

Our speaker Hidde with one of our 'Shine bright like a double-diamond' tattoo.
Portret Matilde
Written by
Matilde Cantinho
Digital Content Producer
Sep 27, 2021 . 8 mins read
Share this article