Mitigating our impact on the planet through services | by Sidney Debaque | Feb, 2024


The circular economy, as illustrated by the butterfly diagram from the Ellen McArthur Foundation is a system which promotes circular loops of material usage throughout our Society and Economy to reduce the amount of material we extract and waste. The goal is to retain as much value for as long as possible from the resources we have. To do that, two key cycles have been identified, one technical and one biological, as explained on the foundation’s page:

The technical cycle (on the right) is about keeping products, components and materials in circulation in our Economy. It relies on practices such as sharing, reusing, refurbishing and recycling.

The biological cycle (on the left) is about reducing renewable resources wastes, such as food. to restore nutrients in the biosphere while rebuilding natural capital, also known as regeneration. It does so by creating cascades and synergies between different industries using by-products from a process as a key ingredient for another one for instance, composting food waste helps to create fertiliser and can be used as bioenergy.

The concept of a circular economy offers strong principles to use as a basis for reducing our impact: sharing, maintaining, reusing, recycling, cascading, and regenerating. These principles frame the opportunities to implement the concept of circular economy into tangible solutions through services: By designing the right services, and most importantly by designing them right.

Designing the right services

Services are the threads the Economy we live in relies on. If the Economy is linear, it’s because the services it’s woven from are themselves linear. To change towards a circular Economy, we need the right services in place. This means to design services to support circular lifestyles and life cycles.

A. Enabling circular lifestyles by supporting the relevant behaviours to get a job done

The way we travel, eat, dress, shop, commute, etc. have an impact on the planet. For people to embrace circular economy principles, we need the right services to support them. For instance, without a proper carpooling service in place, it becomes hard, if not impossible, to foster such a practice at scale.

Designing the right services to support lifestyles anchored within a circular economy means to design services that “get the job done” by supporting behaviours and usages that embody circular principles. It’s not about designing a single one-size-fits-all solution; it’s about understanding the different jobs to be done, the different resulting behaviours, and design support them by adopting circular design principles to design solutions.

For instance, people can carpool, rent a car ad-hoc, or simply use public transportations. All of these services are about people sharing a vehicle. Yet they do not all get the same job done. They therefore are designed to support the different behaviours from the different jobs people need to get done. Yet all support a lifestyle anchored into circular principles.

This is a user-journey approach. It’s about designing the right services to support circular lifestyles at scale, by supporting circular behaviours, to support people to get the job they want to get done throughout their journey. Supporting journeys that embody circular principles will support circular behaviours, from the way we go shopping, to the way we shop, to the way we bring back groceries, cook, etc. which in turn will at scale support circular lifestyles, from the way we travel, eat, dress, shop, commute, etc.

However, using service design for a circular economy isn’t just about supporting circular behaviours and lifestyles. We also need to design the right services to ensure we’re closing the loop of products, materials and resources’ life cycles.

B. Supporting sustainable product management throughout their life cycle

28% of the waste ending up in landfills could be composted. This waste causes major methane releases, one of the most potent greenhouse gases in the short term. While not everyone has the space, time or desire to have their own compost at home, this waste could have been diverted or composted with the right services to support each step of the process.

Previously we talked about developing the right services to support people through their journey to get a job done in ways that reduce the usage we make of resources and material. Here, it’s about focusing on the product’s, material’s, resource’s journey: its life cycle.

Coming back to why so much compostable waste ends up in landfills, adopting a service design lens is about identifying the reasons in the end to end waste management process. And there are many possibilities, likely to happen simultaneously: people not sorting waste at home, local waste management not having a process for compostable waste, a compostable waste management process existing but being overflowed or inefficient, or compostable waste being diverted to landfill to reduce costs, to name just a few reasons.

This end-to-end understanding is crucial to frame the problem to solve causes, not just symptoms. Most importantly, it’s about ocherstrating solutions, so each steps throughout the product life cycle are coherent with the expected outcomes, while delivering on a step’s specific requirements. The goal is to close the loop by looking at a problem holistically to design a coherent and relevant approach throughout the product life cycle.

User journeys and product life cycles are starting points to support behaviours and processes anchored within circular principles. Designing the right services is about fostering a circular economy through the lifestyles and life cycles that make up our Economy. While products can be recyclable, repairable, designed to transport 5 people at a time, we need the services to actually recycle them, repair them, and make best use of their potential. To design the right services is only one opportunity to tap into service design to reduce our impact. For the second opportunity, we need to zoom in, and design the services right, too.

Designing the services right

Adopting a systemic point of view, such as the Economy, services are part of a whole, designed to support lifestyles and behaviours, life cycles and processes within systems such as waste management or transportation. However, as we zoom in, services become themselves a whole, with their own behaviours and processes, requirements and impacts.

Let’s take planes, one more time, as an example. Forbes reported a practice called mileage runs. The idea is that the way loyalty schemes are designed, based on points, and the fact that they’re perishable, pushes people to fly for no reason other than gaining points that grant them privileges whenever they fly.

Similarly, as I covered in a post on the impact of e-commerce, the way e-commerce services are designed, allowing for express delivery for instance, create situations for delivery trucks to run almost empty, solely for the purpose of delivering something the same day.

Such service design decisions distort the functions services fulfil, creating unsustainable behaviours or processes, to the expenses of the planet and the people who operate services. This comes from the fact that projects are framed around business requirements, which itself distorts the design questions we try to answer: while we should be asking “what do people need to get a job done” we’re starting from a business need and are asking “what do people need to use [my product / service]”. This is something I covered in the past, in the way we frame design research, and in the way we frame innovation at large.

Designing the services right, means to understand the implications of the decisions we take at the scale of a service, from its impact on the back-end processes, to its impact on the front-end behaviours, and taking decisions in consequence. This means to design for services embracing circular principles themselves both at the behavioural and process levels, and to ask ourselves different questions before making design decisions.

For instance, at a process level, do we need to use plastic bags for grocery deliveries? Or can it be handed in a crate? If we have to use plastic bags, can we find ways to reuse them by collecting them upon the next delivery?

Similarly, we need to ask questions regarding tackling unsustainable behaviours, such as how do we prevent bracketing from happening when people shop online? Shall we design for convenience and allow 24/7 delivery options, or compromise and meet halfway, where a service isn’t fully convenient for the users, but doesn’t stress back-end processes either?

Ultimately, behaviours and processes are closely tied. A decision to accommodate behavioural requirements will have an impact on the operational side, and vice-versa. It’s a conversation. Designing the service right, is ensuring that at the scale of the service, we’re considering this interdependence and take informed decisions that do not result in negatively impacting the planet or people, while delivering realistic benefits to the operator.

Supporting circular behaviours and processes

For an Economy to be circular, it sure needs the products to be designed in the relevant way, but most importantly, it needs the right services, designed in the right way.

Technology alone can’t be the answer. We need to change the way we use products, materials and resources and that comes through circular services, supporting ciruclar behaviours and processes, to support circular lifestyles and life cycles.

By looking at user journeys and product life cycles, as well as encompassing front-end behaviours and back-end processes, service design offers a holistic view to transition from a linear Economy towards a circular one. It’s only by designing with a holistic lens that we can actually tackle the root cause of the planetary crisis: the usages we make of products, material and resources. As service designers, our role is to facilitate the conversation between lifestyle and life cycle, behaviours and processes, in a way that we find a compromise between the impact of one’s requirements onto the other, and deliver value for all stakeholders, not just the ones in the meetings.

This however, needs to accommodate for the third, and key factor in this system: the economic model and business models our Society and businesses operate with. Indeed, if our services are linear, it’s because our economic model and business models are linear in the first place. Both lifestyles and life cycles answer to business requirements.

Here we’ve defined the opportunities to tap into service design to reduce our impact on the planet. Designing and implementing circular services while considering requirements stemming from the economic and business models we live in is another conversation: one about the service design strategies. Something I’ll be addressing in the future.


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