Why service design is the next big thing in cultural innovation

[this article first appeared this week on the Guardian Cultural Professionals network to coincide with the launch of Festival Design DNA]

Here at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab, we explore how to best use new thinking and new tools to make the experience of the twelve major Edinburgh festivals even better – for audiences, performers and the festivals organisations themselves. As part of this ongoing work, this week saw the launch of Festivals Design DNA, a project which began life as a simple question: what happens if we approached innovation through the eyes of a designer, and in particular a service designer?

Working together with Glasgow-based service design agency Snook, we have created a set of practical tools to help cultural organisations use the principles and approaches of service design to improve the experiences they produce – supporting the innovation process all the way from ideation to delivery.

But before I tell you why I think service design is the next big thing in the cultural sector, let’s just back up a wee bit and do the definition thing. Service design is famously difficult to define and like most important things is something that is neither new nor totally unfamiliar. But just as product design is a discipline where formal design methodologies and approaches are used to make your hoover, smartphone and car the best it can be for your needs and your lifestyle, service design does the same for experiences.

And since all we as a sector do is produce experiences, becoming more literate in service design can only be a good thing. But if you’re still unconvinced here are my four top reasons why service design is so important right now.

1. What people want isn’t always what organisations want

There is often an assumption running through arts management that what organisations want is the same thing as what people want. If service design is about anything, it is putting people at the very centre of the design process and making experiences deliver what people actually want and need rather than what we think they want and need. There is a lot of rhetoric around being people-centred organisations and service design gives us the actual pathways to realising that, but we have to be ready to work with the fact that our modus operandi which is based on our needs may need some revision.

2. We cannot afford to limit innovation just to technology

Obviously the rate of change in technology has had and continues to have a huge impact on the innovation agenda for us as practitioners, as organisations and as a sector as a whole. But we are missing a trick if we conflate innovation and technology. Not only are there many more ways to improve and innovate than getting some new digital thingy, but because the novelty of digital innovation practice can be inaccessible to many of us, we as cultural professionals can feel shut out of the innovation agenda. The only true prerequisite for someone getting involved in innovation practice – however big or small – is surely just the interest and motivation to do so and not any technological intelligence. Service design provides us with a route through innovation whatever our background.

3. We should be customising the wheel, not reinventing it

When we take the wider view we can see so many parts of society, government and enterprise struggling with the same problems that we are – thriving in challenging times, growing participation and creating a distinctive offer in the market. Here at festivalslab, we are particularly interested in the major themes there are in social innovation and public services, since we feel that, at an abstract level, cultural provision is a public service, and given the similarities between cultural infrastructure and that in the public and third sectors, innovation approaches working there have a good chance of working here in the cultural sector. There is currently great momentum behind service design as an approach to public service innovation and so why don’t we take advantage of all the work done in these parallel sectors and contexts and learn how to apply them powerfully to our own contexts, rather than waste time building something from the beginning.

4. We need a more established culture of prototyping

In 2011, events like Culture Hack Scotland and Culture Hack Day in London gave us remarkable evidence of the power of rapid prototyping as a catalyst in culture innovation. Prototyping is also totally central to the service design approach and provides an analogue route for those who might not know their way around an API or indeed what those three letters even are. In a sector where financial resources are relatively low, effective prototyping fills the innovation gap, reducing the risk of innovation practice and solving the problem of the innovation funding calls, which ask for detailed project proposals but often do not provide the guidance or tools needed to come up with the good idea that makes a great proposal. While the Culture Hack family of events is one way of doing that in the digital domain, service design is another set of processes that allows us to do that more generally.

Some of the ideas of service design are of course already used and applied across the cultural sector, but in an ad hoc and unsupported way. While a relatively small offering, our Festival Design DNA is the first systematic application of service design to the cultural sector and together with our service design partner Snook, we’re passionate that service design and the arts is a furrow worth ploughing and especially relevant to our times. Like our work on open data last year here at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab, the themes of our work are as much campaigns as they are projects and so we look forward to the successes, failures and conversations that follow.

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Why service design is the next big thing in cultural innovation”

  1. Festival Tickets December 18, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    I agree 100% about customising the wheel instead of reinventing it. Too many people seem to think everything needs to be ‘reinvented’ in order to take credit for it. Don’t they know that nothing on earth is new?

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