Making the Case for Service Design in the Climate Sector

Aran Baker
Jan 17, 2019 · 4 min read

Service design and human-centered design have been underutilized in the climate sector. Climate change impacts are complex and far-reaching in scope and geography, and often exacerbate and multiply existing pain points in our communities. Designers are uniquely suited to tackling the complexity before us, but our role has not yet been explored or defined. From bringing people together in new ways, to finding a way into the complexity, untangling and exposing some of the intersections, places from which we can act. With this understanding, we are calling on civically-minded design practitioners, climate planners, and researchers to join us in making the case for service design in the climate sector.

This is our opportunity — we are at a point where we need to design entirely new systems for living, systems that are human-centered and place equity at the foundation. Empathy, human connection, and building relationships are the heart of human-centered design. That is where every design journey toward co-creating a solution begins. More than ever, given this time in which fear is being used to spur destructive action, human-centered design is needed to illuminate a new and collective way forward. The climate challenge before us is also going to require sectors working together in creative ways, forming new business and governance models. Our role as designers will also be to help co-create these new configurations.

The story to today

In September of last year, people from all over the world convened in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. They spoke of innovation, taking just and equitable action, and creating transformative solutions — all buzzwords we are hearing more and more. Yet service and human-centered designers were starkly absent from these conversations. Their absence was not for lack of interest to address climate change; rather, it is because the nexus of design and climate has not yet been explored in a comprehensive and critical way.

In recognition of this gap and to cultivate a space for dialogue, the Service Design Network San Francisco (SDNSF) chapter hosted a panel in late October featuring Alexandria McBride, the Chief Resilience Officer from the City of Oakland, and ourselves — Aran Baker, founder of Cohere Design Lab, and Emily Wright, climate change and sustainability consultant at Cascadia Consulting Group. The panel generated thoughtful discussion and topics ripe for further exploration, as well as momentum around this intersection.

Building off the panel, we formed a working group under SDNSF to focus on exploring the role of service design in the climate sector. Forty-five professionals in public, private, and non-profit sectors working in design, climate, and other related industries came to the first working group meeting. During our time together, we built relationships, established a shared understanding of our goals, and generated ideas for how we might best harness our collective knowledge, varied expertise, and energy to achieve them.

Our road map

Over the next 8 months, we — as designers, planners, community organizers, entrepreneurs, and other civically-minded individuals — will work together on research and design projects. We’ll also be discussing and establishing best practices, sharing design approaches and methodology, etc. Our goal is to demonstrate how service design can and must play an integral role in building climate resilience. Each team will have their own goals and approaches, but they will all share a common purpose: making the case for design in the climate sector. These teams will also generate case studies and articles for our Medium publication to share our process and insights along the way, so please stay tuned. All of our efforts will culminate in presentations at the Service Design Network global conference in October with the intention of broadly disseminating our case for the service design-climate nexus and connecting with other designers.

– Aran Baker and Emily Wright
Co-founders of SDN SF Climate Working Group

SDN Service Design and Climate Working Group

The digital gathering place for SDN Climate Working Group…