The hidden power of Design Thinking for a Circular Economy

Koos
Joost van Leeuwen

Reading time
6 min read

Date
Nov 27, 2021

Hint: It’s not the type of Service Design you’d think.

When thinking about examples of successful circular propositions, we often think of startups and small businesses that have set up a new value proposition and are getting a lot of (well deserved) attention. This is awesome and a strong contribution to the general acceptance and attainability of the circular economy. Unfortunately, at this point, they lack the scale to really make the difference necessary to turn the ‘linear’ global ship around.

These startups are on one end of the spectrum. On the other end, we find large corporations and institutions with a proven way of working. To change these organisations to a circular economic model is a slow process that requires a more elaborate process to change towards a new economy. This is, however, where big change has to be made if we want to succeed in attaining a circular economy. 

The task of turning a business around inspires wariness and uncertainty in anyone who might have to pick up the task. Where to start? How to get everyone involved and engaged in tackling this problem? How do we find the time and who can help us streamline this process? We know we need to change, but we feel like Lego bricks in a house; potentially flexible, but stuck in a bigger construction. A construction that consists of large stakeholder fields, vague intentions and unclear needs from everyone involved. 

So how can we break through this, and what would this look like in practice? How can we rearrange the Lego bricks without breaking down the house?

5 steps to a succesful project

The key to a successful project is in making sure every stakeholder feels heard and involved. This requires five steps to take care of:

  • Map out all stakeholders
    Yes, all of them. Direct and indirect ones, and the ones who are influencing them. You don’t have to go full CIA wall, but you’ll probably get close. Find out which other parties motivate the direct stakeholders, go at least three layers deep (who influences the indirect stakeholders?). You might find some surprises that are interesting to keep in mind.
  • Select the critical partners and find their decision makers
    There are those partners in a project that can make or break the quality of the outcome. They are the critical partners and need to be involved in the project. Their needs and expectations need to be taken into account. While you’re at it, find out who are decision makers on each partner’s side.
  • Involve critical partners from the start of the project.
    Having everyone on board at the start ensures buy-in and commitment later in the process. This does not require tonnes of time from these partners, as long as they are invested in the project and open to involvement and updates throughout the process.
  • Listen to each stakeholder
    Take significant time to listen to each stakeholder. In interviews or focus groups, uncover their needs and expectations. After having empathised with all parties involved, map all these needs from various stakeholders in a model (e.g. a journey or VPC).
  • Present the insights to everyone
    Once the data is in, present the findings to all stakeholders at the same time. This provides transparency and clarity in each stakeholders’ needs during the design, development or implementation process. The overview then is the perfect basis for spotting opportunities and finding solutions for them.

Outward vs. Inward Service Design

You guessed it, design thinking holds answers to many of the questions mentioned above.

So, design thinking is this flashy methodology that brings products and services that people actually like using. I can hear you thinking: that’s all great and clearly has a place in bringing new value propositions to market, but how is it any use in rearranging all the Lego bricks in the large construction we created together (i.e. our current way of doing business)?

This is where it gets very interesting. Because, indeed, our methodology can lead to services that people love to use. But all tools and methodologies we employ to the outside world to find needs, motivations, pains and gains with customers and users, can also be applied looking inward. Wait… inward? Yes, inside the project team. If a team of project-stakeholders becomes large and diverse, the exact same approach can be used to facilitate transparency and alignment among these groups. 

If ‘Outward’ Service Design focuses on the customer to find needs and motivations, Inward Service Design does the exact same thing on the inside: uncovering and mapping these needs within the team. This overview of needs and motivations then forms the basis for how the internal process of working together takes shape. 

It all revolves around the root principle of design thinking: empathy. Listening to and learning from the people who we want our product or service to fit with. This includes the end user, but also those who need to be aligned to design, develop and produce the service. To focus our design thinking mindset inward instead of outward, means to facilitate transparency and solution-thinking among stakeholders. By ensuring stakeholders understand each other, large systemic changes become possible.

This is a process that requires time and effort just like a project for customer-facing results would. In treating it as such and reserving resources for this aspect, all involved parties are heard and their views are included. Otherwise, tense subjects can be tackled openly and transparently. Stakeholders know to find each other directly and solve problems before they occur. Needless to say, during the further execution and roll-out of the project, this pays dividends in costs saved in meetings, political games and personal grudges. 

As probably clear by now, it all starts with empathy and transparency. Together they are instrumental to creating a shared goal and common understanding of how to get there.

Lego bricks

These steps are a glimpse into a possible process employing Inward Service Design. But as Service Design goes, this is just one way of going about it. Over the years to come, we are going to see this methodology pop up both with customer-facing ‘Outward’ challenges, and with ‘Inward’ facing challenges. 

Using service design to align stakeholders can facilitate a gentle repositioning of – previously fixed – Lego bricks. If you are interested in turning houses into circular cathedrals, please get in touch!

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