Service Design and the transition to a Circular Economy

Koos
Joost van Leeuwen

Reading time
5 min read

Date
Mar 06, 2021

The term ‘Circular Economy’ has entered mainstream lingo five to ten years ago, depending who you ask. The wording is clear, but the action is very limited. The Circular Economy sounds daunting, expensive and difficult to execute. Going there is still abstract and it feels like something of a reality far far away. 

Meanwhile the urge is growing, the pressure on all life on the planet is increasing every year over the last decades. The only way to turn the ship around is by remodelling the way we look at the economy. Kate Raworth put it well in her book ‘The Doughnut Economy’, when she said: “The goal is to create a new economic mindset that is never set, but always evolving.” 

Choosing to move into a more resilient, Circular Economy can be a daunting task. So big that it is easy to freeze and move to something more tangible. This reflex needs to change. And we have a toolkit to do exactly that!

Here is why Service Design is the ultimate toolbox for moving to a Circular Economy:

User needs at the core

The Circular Economy aims to move away from ownership of product and aims to have user needs fulfilled by services. This is precisely the core of what Service Design does; starting with the user and learning about their needs. Based on these needs, we design services that address these directly. 

Because when you come to think about it, usually a product is a very suboptimal way to fulfil a need. When you own a bicycle, you can use it regularly but you also have to fix it every once in a while. This unforeseen maintenance takes valuable time away from doing what you actually want, popping up as a clear pain of owning a bike. Swapfiets, a leasing company for bikes, addresses the users’ needs directly by including maintenance in their subscription plan. If something breaks, they provide you with a new bike within 24 hours. In the back-end, they repair your old bike to be used again by someone else. 

This way the user’s needs are fulfilled directly, relieving all the pains that come with ownership of a bike. Meanwhile, it is in Swapfiets’ interest to make durable bikes which they can repair/reuse well in order to make the most use of the resources in the system. Starting with user needs is highly fertile ground for circular products and business models.

'Swapfiets addresses the users’ needs directly by including maintenance in their subscription plan'

All stakeholders at the table

In the process of designing a service, we always take all relevant stakeholders along for the ride. Although we have our own experience in sustainability, we make sure experts on relevant topics are involved throughout the design process. 

These experts can give their view on the insights found in research, the generation and selection of ideas, and the overall direction of a project. By welcoming them as an integral part of the design team, the results instantly become more holistic and all-encompassing. 

In a project we did for Deeply, a surf brand from Portugal, not only did we interview surfers from Spain, France and Portugal, we also involved the entire team from Deeply. This included e-commerce, marketing, product development and the CEO. In collaborative sessions, we make sure everyone gets to share their input evenly. The result is a well-balanced outlook on the strategic opportunities ahead, including a strong focus on sustainability.

Starting small

A big vision only consists of empty words when it lacks a small starting point. Service Design helps with defining the starting points for improving a service. For example, by using a customer journey, it is possible to make an informed decision of which opportunity is most interesting to start with.

Using methodologies like Design sprints and user testing, Service Design does not require huge means to get started. Small initiatives already provide steep learning curves when exploring this new strategic direction.

This is how we helped Sogrape in their quest to learn about communicating sustainability in their wine products. In just a week, we provided them with ample insight into people’s views on sharing information about sustainability while shopping.

'We helped Sogrape in their quest to learn about communicating sustainability in their wine products

Testing your assumptions

Assumptions are the mother of all f*ckups, we all know this. But if you’ve followed Koos for a little bit you also know that Assumptions also are the father of all Mockups. Service Design has the ideal toolkit to avoid huge investments and large and cumbersome projects that take months to set up and execute. 

Instead, Design sprints and fast testing methodologies help in making current assumptions explicit and testing them to see if they are true. By avoiding large investments, it unlocks the opportunity to move and learn fast before implementing a new product or service. 

Working together with Nuon/Vattenfall, we tested our assumptions about large companies’ willingness to take measures around sustainability. Based on doing research with a prototype, we found some important assumptions to be incorrect. This significantly changed the way the product was put to market several months later.

Iterative process

Finally, moving towards a Circular Economy will be a constant transition. Service Design works in iterations, continually testing new ideas and adjusting the service. Even when a service is live and on the market, if properly set up, it is easy to adjust and is resilient to changes going forward.

For several of our clients, we have had the pleasure of updating service ecosystems and customer journeys over the years. It is always amazing to see how new insights based on a previous customer journey can greatly improve the next iteration. It is this continuous evolution that sets you up for success.

A match made in heaven

Service Design and a transition to a Circular Economy are a match made in heaven. By putting user needs at the core, starting small and using a continuous, iterative process, everyone can take steps in the right direction from their own starting point. We are passionate about supporting companies and people to explore this further. If you have any questions about how this might work for you, please give us a call, we’d love to exchange thoughts!

Want to know more about a Circular Economy?

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Looking back on our first fully remote project

Preparing for the new world

Anniversary Interview – Jette

How to fulfill work-related needs?

The new balancing act between life and work

Why design can help your company in times of crisis

How do you set up a remote user test?

When your home becomes your office

Ten years of Koos (part 2)