The expansive growth of technology, rapid changes in the world, and resulting social outcomes are becoming the domain of designers. These problems and their solutions are exceedingly complex; deriving the optimal solution is extremely difficult. According to Ezio Manzini, any attempt to solve these problems requires a shift from a product to a service economy, a systemic approach that serves a social economy and obliges social innovation to uncover the optimal solution. These design solutions must aggregate different stakeholders, actors, resources, materials, and users to identify a problematic situation and develop an actionable solution, and require reasoning and judgment in deciding how to proceed.
Manzini maintains we can’t design complexity or even neatly predict it. Creating an optimal solution for a wicked problem, even as an informed designer, is nearly impossible. How can designers meet these demands?
In this paper, I propose that we can design conditions for systems that improve the world and impact human behaviour in a positive way. I argue that we can do this by using systems framing in three acts: moving from problem-solving to problem-seeking, from sketching to modelling and abstracting relationships, and from prototyping solutions to understanding how potential solutions will perturb the system.
To do so, I propose using a framework called product service ecology, which allows designers to look at a situation holistically, understanding a system and its part-whole relationships. The framework allows designers to access knowledge from other disciplines in creating a solution, either from domain experts, literature search, or other research methods. It allows designers to understand the role of people within the system, whether they are consumers, clients, or other stakeholders. The framework allows a solution to unfold first as a set of descriptive statements that are used to guide the solution generation process. Potential solutions are then tested through prototypes to understand how they perturb the system. To create these prototypes, designers leverage existing methods from product, service, and interaction design that they are already familiar with.
Using this approach, the designer or design team can weigh the benefits and costs of a design intervention on a situation that has been deemed problematic, assess the potential effects on other parts of the system, and feel confident that the proposed solution is the “ultimate particular”—the optimal one for a particular problematic situation. The final solution takes the form of a meta-design, a plan for rectifying a problematic situation. It creates the resources for a solution to unfold within the system and a means for understanding the benefits and potential drawbacks of what will be designed.
When using the product service ecology as an approach, there are two critical constructs that influence how it is used. The first is the construct of serving. Sometimes, we approach problems with the notion that we are going to help someone or fix something. Helping incurs debt and implies that we are above the person we are helping and that we have more importance or dominance. Fixing implies that something is broken and needs to be repaired. Serving eliminates the perceived hierarchy of the aforementioned constructs.
The second is that the designer is internal to the system under scrutiny, not an outsider who has little understanding of what an improved future state might be. In this view, the system includes the interaction of all who are affected by it and plays a role in the co-construction of new artefacts, environments, services, and sub-systems into the existing system and in creating and communicating a preferred future state.
Additionally, when the designer is internal to the system, empathic and ethical imperatives exist for the designer to make the best possible judgments to resolve the problematic situation. Designers and design teams can ensure the ethical and purposeful quality of their designs by asking questions such as what is (the current situation); what ought to be (the ethical imperative for the situation); what might be (a set of all possible properties of the system to meet this imperative); and what will be (the set of properties that will be found in the final design of the solution that is deemed best for the situation). These statements can be used to achieve consensus from all of the stakeholders surrounding a system throughout the design process, ensuring the co-creation of value in developing and implementing a solution.
In the next section, the product service ecology is briefly introduced. It is first used in a descriptive way to understand the system under study; next, it is used in a generative way to understand how to design a new and improved future state. A case study is presented to exemplify how the system can be used.