A new Service Design framework


Federica Piazzi, Giacomo Montefalcone, Julia Dos Santos Rangel, Dumitru Samson, Orçun Umut Kumova


Transition Design, Service Design, Wicked Problems, Sustainable Futures, Acupuncture Approach, Transitions

This critical summary intends to explore the design field in order to identify the most complete framework for Service Design to direct its efforts towards a sustainable future. A very promising area of design research is Transition Design, whose very broad scope and targeted interventions could help Service Design reach a new awareness and develop more comprehensive and cohesive projects.

In order to talk about Transition Design, we need to start by introducing the concept of transition. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a transition is “a process or period of changing from one state (…) to another.” We can identify many of these shifts throughout the history of mankind. These transitions are macroscopic, multi-actor and long-term processes (Grin, Rotmans, Schot, 2010) that have revolutionized our lifestyles and habits, but that are negatively affecting the planet. The question is whether or not it is possible to intentionally direct these transitions towards more sustainable futures. This is exactly the aim of Transition Design.

Transition Design is “a relatively new area of design research, study and practice that is aimed at systems-level change and societal transitions towards more sustainable futures” (Irwin, 2018). Due to its systemic perspective, when Transition Design addresses an issue it inevitably ends up uncovering a series of other interconnected problems, facing what Rittel and Webber named “wicked problems”. They are “problems that cannot be definitively described and have no apparent solutions” (Rittel and Webber, 1973). In order to deal with their complexity, Transition Design adopts an approach that is based on the understanding of their characteristics, pinpointed by the two scholars. First of all, the problems cannot be defined individually, as they are interconnected with other problems and involve multiple stakeholders. Moreover, the solution to each problem has an impact on the whole system, and each individual issue is multi-causal and multi-scalar.

Therefore, Transition Design’s approach is based on two necessary steps. Firstly, the framing of the issue, which means reaching a deep understanding of the wicked problem. This enables the designer to know where to intervene. The framework is in fact based on strategically-placed interventions that tackle a specific issue and cause a reaction on the whole system, catalyzing a transition (Tonkinwise, 2015). Secondly, the definition of a goal, a long-term objective shared by all stakeholders. In order to achieve coherence between all of the interventions, Transition Design applies a method that is articulated into three phases (Irwin, 2018): (i) reframing present and future, the phase in which designers try to understand the bigger picture and define the long-term goal of the transition; (ii) designing interventions, namely developing and implementing the projects that represent the steps towards the shared vision; (iii) waiting and observing, the verification phase in which designers evaluate how the system responds to the interventions.

An interesting metaphor that helps to fully understand Transition Design’s approach is the acupuncture metaphor, that has been used to describe this kind of approach in the context of Transition Design (Irwin, 2018) and in urbanism (Lerner, 2003; Fabricius, 2011). Acupuncturists look for points of intervention that have the greatest potential to provoke a reaction within the system and re-balance it. This implies a deep understanding of the body as a whole. Likewise, Transition Design carefully studies the exact location where its needles, the interventions, have to be placed. This holistic view can help Service Design expand its vision to act with more awareness of the system which houses the service.

The implementation of Transition Design elements in Service Design can help to enhance the value perceived at a systemic level. As a matter of fact, the service generated would no longer be part a one-off intervention, but rather part of an ecology of interventions aimed at achieving a transition of the system itself towards a more sustainable future shared by all of the actors involved in the system itself.

In terms of process, the introduction of the core principles of Transition Design could lead to an expansion of the typical Service Design process, the Double Diamond. The result is what we have decided to call Quadruple Diamond. As the name suggests, it proposes the addition of two new shapes, positioned respectively at the beginning and at the end of the Double Diamond.

The Quadruple Diamond

The starting point is the problem that marks the beginning of the first Diamond, that includes two phases. The first step consists of analysing the system and framing all of the problems that are part of it, identifying their relations. Secondly, the designer has to define on which systemic scale the interventions should be made in order to be able to define the long-term vision of the transition. This first shape is followed by the four Ds of the Double Diamond: Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. These four phases constitute the guidelines for the realization of each design intervention. The last two newly added steps of this hybrid Service Design process make up the fourth Diamond. They are observation and coherence assessment, essential to evaluate if the system reacts to the interventions in a way that is aligned to the starting purpose. The assessment of the design operations carried out until this point will determine if adjustments are needed or if the project is completed.

Considering the current situation, Service Design has the responsibility and the potential to help the world transition towards more sustainable futures. With our research, we wanted to explore different frameworks in order to find possible ways of broadening the scope of Service Design. The Transition Design approach is very valuable as it aims at designing strategically-thought interventions that are part of a comprehensive plan, shared by all of the stakeholders of the system. Our proposal is the Quadruple Diamond, a design process that incorporates these Transition Design principles to make Service Design’s vision wider. We think that this new process can help service designers observe systems in a more holistic way in order to design targeted interventions that are able to catalyze transitions towards more sustainable futures.

Photo by Murillo de Paula on Unsplash

Case study

Copenhagen Smart City 2025

Copenhagen Smart City 2025 is a development plan designed by Copenhagen Solutions Lab, the innovation hub for smart development of the city. This plan includes a series of mid and long-term interventions that contribute to the reaching of the final common goal for the city to become smart in 2025. Copenhagen wants to grant the community of citizens a higher level of well-being by being climate proof, going no waste and living in a CO2 neutral urban environment. Furthermore, the city aims to become “the world’s best city for cyclists”, while also offering a better everyday life and more natural sports within a green city.

Within this plan for a healthier city and lifestyle, tailored services are being implemented. Going deeper into this goal-oriented organizational structure, it is possible to define a series of individual projects in the fields of comfort, security, convenience and city life. Each of these intervention areas gave birth to specific product-service systems that contribute to achieving the main goal in a long-term process of gradual implementation.

The interventions range from very simple, for example new urban furniture for bikers, to rather complex services such as an intelligent biking system with totems that display real-time road data for cyclists. Another example is the Green Lines system, a network of cycle paths that give priority to bikers in cars traffic, making the bicycle the most convenient means of transport in all Copenhagen. The infrastructure of the city is changing, as new cycle tracks and new parkings are being built. Each intervention, small or big, contributes to making Copenhagen “the world’s best city for cyclists”.

This case study clearly shows the two elements of the new approach that we propose: the definition of a common goal for the whole system, the city, and the implementation of a series of interconnected interventions that take into consideration the broader picture. Copenhagen’s plan showcases how this kind of approach can have an impact on the whole system by creating and delivering value for all of the stakeholders involved. This is a great example of how the application of Transition Design principles can improve the quality and coherence of a service development.


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field notes — PSSD student at polimi & tongji + ASP