By Jennifer Leonard
Last weekend in Pittsburgh, at the second annual student-run service design conference called Emergence, I had the great pleasure of meeting people who make it their mission to help others help themselves.
A panoply of speakers, non-designers and designers alike, presented work on the value of seizing the tangible and intangible “service touch points” – with customers, clients, vendors, and the like. We heard representative voices from corporate quarters, creative studios, computer labs, and even classrooms. We heard points of view on “disruptive trends in design” (brilliantly relayed by Allan Chochinov, Core 77’s Editor-in-Chief/Partner), cutting-edge data visualization (through IBM’s “Many Eyes”), and the sort of design work that sets out to leverage services that provide social and ecological sustainability (from Chris Downs, live|work’s Managing Partner).
I sat on a lively panel with Chris (and Daniela Sangiorgi of Lancaster University), which was loads of fun, thanks chiefly to London-based Oliver King, co-founder and director of Engine, who facilitated the session and asked us one and all, “Can service design save the world?” He set us in motion with a series of slides (that we read in silence), and then had the playful idea of folding the audience members into the conversation by asking them to play “pass the parcel” (read: hot potato) with the microphone. When one of his rapid-fire zingers coincided with whomever was holding the mic, that someone had to chime in. Typical conference hierarchy broke down quickly; all input was welcome. And by the end of it we collectively created an itemized action list that included bullet-points to keep service designers on the right track. Things like “listen more,” “think long-term,” “question what good means,” “never assume you know,” and “be voraciously curious.”
I also spoke solo, earlier that day, about the importance of holistic thinking and the various species of service. I shared my hypothesis that service can mean a lot of different things – as needs, expectations and contexts vary – and that service depends on the conscious activation and expression of positive human traits, like responsibility, accountability, vulnerability, and our ability to be good to ourselves. Then I shared a homespun service truism – that it’s about give and take; that service is ultimately a reciprocal relationship. It depends on our capacity to put our trust in others (that they’ll support us along our service journeys) and be open and willing to be surprised by them (when they choose to go beyond the call of duty). (From a service provider’s perspective, I guess that means… be trustworthy… and be open and willing to give and give some more.)
This all, happily, comes back to our unavoidable condition of interconnectivity and our willingness to both give and receive, beyond ourselves.
Giving, especially, is transformational. I closed with a quote from Bill Clinton’s new book Giving, which is about how each of us can change the world. He says, “We all have the capacity to do great things…My hope is that the people and stories in this book will lift spirits, touch hearts, and demonstrate that citizen activism and service can be a powerful agent of change in the world.”
I hope so, too.