Design near the water’s edge

Külliki Tafel-Viia, TLÜ EXU, J. Margus Klaar, Brand Manual

Stephen Hawking called the 21st century the “century of complexity.” The past year certainly confirmed that hypothesis as normality exited stage right and negative became the new positive. There can no longer be any question that we need to be ready to adapt to change. The only question remaining, is “how?”

Future researchers have determined, that in order to effectively adapt, both individuals and organisations have to develop three key skills: preventive actions, ability to change and agility.

Preventive action is the ability to notice the weak signals of coming change, Taleb’s so called black swan. Moreover, it is important to recognise the most likely future scenario and understand the change with the biggest impact, which Michele Wucker referred to as the grey rhinoceros. Various action strategies need to be put in place as soon as possible to help you react more quickly, as the future runs down the door.

Ability to change refers to the skill of turning unexpected change to your advantage. For organisations this means leaving behind presumptions and pre-defined futures and instead accepting constant change as an opportunity for renewal and growth.

The third key skill is agility. This requires organisations to be ready to experiment and quickly change course. The latter is best served by teams that include T-shaped people, with skills and experience from a very broad spectrum disciplines.

How to support the acquisition of these skills is not obvious. What do you do, when you don’t know what to do? How to recognise change? How to handle irregular and unpredictable situations? How to constantly renew without burning out? Finding answers to these questions is what service design is good at. One particularly useful tool in the service design sandbox is the design sprint.

Recently we saw how the design sprint helped diverse, unfamiliar teams address future challenges in just a few days. We applied the design sprint within the first week module of the Service Design for Executives course (SD4X), where 25+ participants from Estonia, Latvia and the Netherlands worked on a real client brief inside a two-day window.

The brief was delivered by the Port of Tallinn, one of the busiest passenger ports in Europe. They challenged participants to find solutions, how to design a functional, democratic and organic public space within the context of the redevelopment of the harbour area, that would attract both locals and tourists alike. The re-construction of the area has barely begun and is scheduled to be completed in 10 to 20 years.

For the design sprint, participants were divided into six teams and each team worked from the point-of-view of a concrete persona type. The brief was the same for everyone: 1) define the key criteria of a welcoming harbour area of a city, 2) find solutions that make the area attractive for the user type and validate concepts with users and 3) propose solutions that could also serve as attractions during the construction period. The participants were pressed for time to find user group representatives and conduct interviews, to clarify the key traits of the personas, describe their user journeys and propose validated and tested solutions to the Port of Tallinn, that would make the area attractive to that persona.

The managers of the Port of Tallinn rated the design sprint results very highly. “Thanks to the broad life experience of the participants as well as the tools and methods of service design, a wide range of interesting and viable concepts were presented that also included very international points-of-view. Although participants were focusing on different user groups, a lot of commonalities still cropped up as needs of all people: accessibility, public transport, food, socialising spaces and activities for children, amongst others. More challenging ideas such as light shows combined with digital wishing wells, port side sauna and swimming (also in the winter!) pools, construction viewing combined with AR / VR tours of both the past, present and future were also presented” commented Piret Üts, business manager, real estate.

The course participants themselves appreciated the desing sprint experience very much. They particularly highlighted the importance of talking to users, rapid and constant testing of concepts, trusting the process even when you don’t know where it will lead you, the inherent strength of a diverse team, the pain (and satisfaction) of adapting to unknown situations as well as keeping the big picture in focus as you delve into details.

The feedback from the participants reflects exactly the reasons why the design sprint methodology works so well. It suits situations that require compact solutions through co-creation, rapid prototyping and qualitative testing with users. Just as the experience in the course showed, participants were able to deliver concrete results within two days, that the Port of Tallinn can now continue to work with. And let it be mentioned, that the paricipants had no prior information about the design sprint topic nor did they know each other beforehand.

Service design helps identify and focus on root causes, which increases the likelyhood of not being run over by the grey rhinoceros. This requires your organisation to become comfortable with future scenario planning in a constantly changing environment.

The service design course, Service Desgin for Executives (SD4X) has been created by Tallinn University, Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Maastricht University and Brand Manual.

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