Beyond service design — craft, collectivism and being human

Sarah Prag
6 min readMar 11, 2020

Last week I was at Service Design in Government — an annual gathering of publicly minded design & digital folk from across the UK and around the world. I’ve not been for a couple of years (I’ve been busy becoming a parent and renovating a house!) so it was a great opportunity to catch up and to think about what might come next.

It was a busy three days, and there was much that was thought provoking and inspiring — even in just the sessions I could go to — so I can’t possibly do all of it justice here. I’d definitely urge you to check out the programme and any materials that are available (including via #sdingov on Twitter ). I’ll also link to a few things at the end of this post.

Meanwhile, here are a few overarching themes that stood out for me, based on what I saw and heard. Each of these deserves more space than I can give it here, so I may return to some of them in future posts. I’d also love to hear if these resonate with you — whether you were at the conference or not!

Designing the future

The scope and scale of ambition on display was really striking. The shift in focus over the last few years — from improving digital experiences, to services (beyond digital), to an awareness of systems — extended out last week to wider society and even the planet as a whole. There was a sense of longer timescales too, and a growing acknowledgement of the consequences — intended or otherwise — of the interventions we make, and the insight that drives them.

Both Cassie Robinson and Cennydd Bowles each urged us way out of any comfort zone in their Keynotes: things cannot continue as they are, change is inevitable, what role are you going to play? How can we imagine a better future? And design it?

Even beyond the Keynotes very few of the sessions I went to were simply about services — they were all looking beyond that — at how to influence people and organisations to behave differently, how to collaborate beyond organisations, how to have impact on a wider system. However this definitely wasn’t about abstract ideas — far from it, there was a real focus on practical pragmatic approaches. The desired outcomes might be ambitious, but the methods being used to deliver them were reassuringly familiar: insight led, user-centred, experimental, iterative, open. (Cassie & Cennydd both rightly challenged us to think beyond being user-centred, but for most teams, as a starting point, I think being user-centred is definitely preferable to being policy-centred, or finance-centred or org-centred!)

It was encouraging to meet so many people who were working across the boundaries that may have limited impact in the past. (I’ve so often come across teams labelled as “digital” or “user experience” or even “service design”, who recognise that the approaches they’re familiar with could solve much wider problems in their organisation or service area, only to be slapped down for straying beyond their brief.) However, I do realise this was a fairly self-selecting crowd, and I know this isn’t yet the reality for a lot of people working in the public sector.

It’s complex

Complexity came up a lot. Both in terms of the need to understand and influence complex problems and systems… but also in recognising that even getting started and “fixing the plumbing” can be difficult and complicated. There was a refreshing amount of honesty on display about this (kicked off by Carrie Bishop sharing her unsexy experience of trying to crochet together something coherent and sustainable amidst the craziness of the City & County of San Francisco!)

There was a broad consensus that helping organisations (and society) to do things differently and achieve better outcomes can be slow, hard, messy and often frustrating. It’s also nuanced and very context specific. There was very little patience for neat models or polished artifacts. There was a lot about starting small, joining the dots, finding collaborators. About listening, inclusion and empowerment. About testing, learning & sharing.

Getting crafty

This may have stood out to me because I share my life with a potter and therefore spend a lot of my time with craftspeople and at crafts events! However, there was no denying that the term “craft” was in the air. I think this again reflects the recognition that methods and models will only get you so far when you’re dealing with complexity, and with human needs. I’ve always said that service design (and before it product management) are as much an art as a science. I now think craft is a better term, because it’s where skill and technique meet experience and intuition. It’s about producing things that are both functional and beautiful. It’s about attention to detail, and quality… and it’s also something that only humans can do.

Alongside developing our craft, we were also urged to use our imaginations (very movingly, by Cassie) and to tell stories. There was definitely an appeal to creativity in its widest sense — way beyond conventional design skills.

It’s all about change

If there was one word that I heard more than any other over the three days, then that word was change. It felt as if this was really what the whole event was about — how to bring about change, within services, within systems, within society. How to inspire change, and how to help people to think and work in new ways.

This resonated through all the sessions — from the macro ( Cennydd’s powerful message about climate change ) through to the micro ( Emily Bazalgette on how to create the space for colleagues to trying something new, or Service Works supporting public servants as they learn through doing).

And there was a general recognition that this couldn’t be top down — that the best way to start to change a system (or a society) is through small experiments, collaboration, imagination & storytelling. Both Cassie and Cennydd spoke about the role of the collective as a way of connecting and amplifying individual effort. The challenges may be huge, and the systems may be complex, but, at the end of the day, it’s people — separately and together — who bring about change. I think this is why teams who feel they are stuck in the plumbing can also take hope — the small changes in how you work, and how you behave, in the language you use and the people you involve, these can make a difference.

On a personal note, I came away feeling energised and inspired — and also with a sense that I hadn’t just been to a conference, but had in some way found and joined a movement. This may sound emotional, but these are emotional times, and if there was one thing I learned last week, it’s that we’re going to need all of our creativity — and each other — if we want to change things for the better.

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Links & further reading

I’m going to keep adding to this as things become available!

Conference programme

Conference hashtag


Cassie‘s talk is here.

Adam Groves and Nerys Anthony from The Children’s Society shared how they’ve moved from service design to systems change. Here’s a previous post from Adam that covers some of the same ground

Kirsty Joan Sinclair’s tweet review of Sohila Sawhney’s session on their 7 year service design experiment at Bernados.


A lot of sessions used or referred to Liberating Structures for encouraging discussion and collaboration

Several people used versions of the Future Cone

And there were sessions on / references to Speculative Design

States of Change on “innovation craft” (not from SDinGov, but on the theme of craft!)


Several people referenced Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work

There was a lot of love for Lou Downe’s Good Services

Cassie mentioned Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope

Speculative Design came up a few times… as did probability cones. This book deals with both

Originally published at on March 11, 2020.



Sarah Prag

Helping things change since 1999. Via eBay, BBC, GDS, Doteveryone. Now Bristol based and roaming free.