the melted gondola, piece of art placed in Aspen to point towards climate change

Planet-centered design: how service design can help combat global warming

January 11, 2022

As the world is warming, discussions about how to reverse it are also heating up. World leaders recently met at the COP26 to hammer out the requirements, actions, and measures that need to be taken to tackle global warming. One thing is clear, global warming is an issue that can no longer be ignored, and requires global action. Individuals, families, communities, government, and yes, service designers must change behaviors to a more sustainable mindset.

Customers are signaling a need and desire for solutions, products, and services that are sustainable and have less of an impact on the environment. These signals are even adamant in traditional financial markets, with so-called ‘green stocks’: sustainable-driven organizations have consistently outperformed on the stock market.

If we are thinking in a truly human-centric mindset we must now also consider the needs of the planet alongside the customers, and shift to planet-centered design.

What is planet-centered design?

We are responsible for shaping services and products based on the distinct needs of humans, to ultimately give them a better experience. With the imminent threat of global warming, we must now create, adapt and improve experiences to minimise the devastating impact that global warming could have on the human race. But how can we foster planet-centered design, and what service design tools could we harness to assist in this problem?

Thought leaders from the design community are mobilized and taking action on how we can help facilitate a positive change for this truly global problem.

Taking a stand: Service Design Global Conference

This year’s Service Design Global Conference (SDGC) was held on the topic of ‘Taking a Stand’. What actions can we take to create a better tomorrow? This event brought together the service design community, in a digital setting, and focused on the topic of the environment and what we can do as service designers to help fight our biggest challenge yet.

It’s worth stating, sustainability is certainly not a new initiative within design, “Design for the real world” by Victor Papanek in 1971, and the “The Waste Makers” in 1960 by Vance Packard, both called for an urgent shift away from disposable products and waste in our world of finite resources.

A new era of service designers is working on ways that you can adapt current service design tools and techniques, to foster planet-centric thinking, and minimize design’s impact on the environment.

Shifting to a planet-centered mindset

Cat Drew showcased this brilliantly with her work at Design for planet, an initiative to stimulate and support the UK Design community for #designfortheplanet.

In a nutshell; striving to shift design activities to a planet-centric mindset. Florie Remond also proposed a new addition to consider within the classic trinity of human-centered design (viability, desirability, feasibility) - circularity. Circular design in this context considers the implications of innovation on the environment, endeavors to avoid waste & pollution, and ultimately regenerate natural ecosystems.

Many looking for a modernized method of sustainable business and even new economic theory refers to Doughnut economics’, by Prof. Kate Raworth. This concept challenges the status quo of old economics endless growth and considers not only ecological implications (ecological ceiling) but also social factors (social foundation).

The power to shift to a planet-centric mindset is in the hands of us all. Our ability to work together with collective intelligence has been one of humankind’s great success stories. You now also have the technology to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration, around the globe without leaving our sitting or standing desks - so what tools and techniques can you use to foster planet-centric thinking?

Planet persona - ‘put yourself in the planet’s shoes’

Inspired by those speaking at the SDGC (and those before them), raising awareness of this issue to the service design community, it is clear that there are practical and actionable ways to bring the planet to the centre of design. I questioned myself when listening to the SDGC:

If the customer is king/queen then the planet is the kingdom/empire?

Without a kingdom, there will be no queen. So how can you bring the planet at the centre of design alongside the customer?

You can integrate them into our modern service design toolkit. Why not create a ‘Planet Persona’?

A ‘Planet Persona’ can be used to visualize the environment’s needs and pain points in your business context, and ultimately aims to give the planet a voice within your design and innovation process. It may even be showcased and visualized throughout your existing employee/ customer journey and be used as a resource of alignment, internally and even externally, on planetary needs. Using this transparent artefact can allow for a higher level of empathy for the planet, the consequences that innovation can have on it, and foster planet-centric design.

Creating a planet persona

A traditional persona should allow us to jump in the shoes of the customer/employee. With a ‘planet persona,’ you rather want to use it for advocacy for the planet within the business environment.

Much like all personas, a planet persona can be tailored to showcase the most important information found in your research. In this case, the research might rather be guidelines from your local government or municipality on how to combat climate change. Or perhaps even your employee and customer feedback for improvements in sustainability (planet pain points).

Below you can find an example of a ‘planet persona’ created using Smaply (Open read-only persona)

Planet persona; created with Smaply

Elements to consider for your Planet persona:

  • Implications - what are the global and local costs of not acting on climate change and meeting our sustainability targets.
  • Initiatives - what global strategies can you refer to, to reduce climate change,  such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals. If your company has an internal sustainability policy or goals this can be a great place to add a hyperlink to the document.
  • Pain points - common pain points such as waste and Co2 emissions can trigger innovation of how to reduce on a local level. (These could be tailored more specifically to your business context)
  • Actions - what action can you take as individuals and businesses (i.e. renewable energy, self-powered transport, turning off standby mode on electronic devices)

Showcase the planet alongside the customer / employee

Like many new service design projects with the hope to scale, it’s good to start small. To show the value of such a project, especially with a ‘Planet-centric ‘approach, it could also be a good idea to work on a project that is visible and relatable across the whole organization - such as improving the employee experience with a planet centric mindset. Another benefit here is that sustainable-led organizations are known for improved employee attraction, engagement, and retention, a win for the planet and employee experience.

Example: Journey map with employee and planet

In this example, you can see a typical onboarding journey for a new employee at an organization, including the phases ‘getting started’ (job offer & relocation), as well as their ‘first day’. What is unique here is that the journey map not only displays the new employee (blue icon), but also a second planet persona (green icon). You can still map out the employee experience in detail, as on a typical employee experience map, but you can now also consider each step’s emotional journey in the eyes of the planet, by overlaying the employee emotional journey and the planets emotional journey (i.e. negative emotional journey = an adverse impact on the planet.)

Example journey map (Extend journey map)

Onboarding from planet perspective; journey map created with Smaply

Specific journey lanes that could be used in a Journey map with a planet Persona:

  • Planet pain points (text lane): some more details on why our planet personas needs are not met
  • Planet opportunities (text lane): ideas to innovate the planet experience for this step
  • Co2 emissions (arc lane): visualize from low to high the Co2 impact of each step

From the planet and onboarding journey map, you can notice a few interesting areas.

  • Planetary opportunities can also benefit our employees/customers. For example, adding more plant-based dietary options at the canteen could please both the planet and our eco-conscious colleagues and staff.
  • Digital meetings are not guilt-free. Even steps that are using only digital forms of communication, such as video calls, can still add to carbon emissions due to the energy consumption of running data centers. ‘This is Doing’ has a new course on ‘Earth Experience Design’ focusing on the impact of digital behavior on the earth.
  • Moments that can be highly satisfying for a new employee, could have the most adverse impact on the planet. For example, receiving new equipment when starting a new job can be a high moment of satisfaction for the employee, but used or refurbished equipment might be just as effective and have less of an environmental impact

Example: FairPhone -  a product designed with planet first

Fairphone is a sustainable-led company designing its product and customer experience with sustainability at its core. Not only sourcing the materials to make the phones ethically, but importantly they have supported a movement of ‘the right to repair’ within the notoriously consumable Smartphone industry. Designing their smartphones to be easily repaired by all customers, providing how-to videos, parts for easy replacement in case of breakages, and even modular components that can be upgraded. Quite notably, this is also being picked up by some of the largest smartphone manufacturers, Apple, almost famously making their phones difficult to repair by customers, has recently announced it will empower customers to repair their iPhones by providing components and their self-service repair program in the near future.

the process of assembling a fairphone
Fairphone Modularity taken from their website

Summary

By creating a persona to represent the needs of the planet (planet persona), you are able to overlay both the planet’s experience and the human (customer/employee) experience on one journey map. Doing so can create a new planet perspective to consider across all existing journey mapping activities or even new distinct planet/environment journey maps.

Let’s not innovate on the human experience alone but put the planet in the spotlight too.

If you are driving innovations to improve the customer/employee experience you should consider the implications on the environment as well. Designing with the planet at the forefront can ultimately help combat global working and have a positive impact on the employee, customer, and even shareholder satisfaction.

Looking for some more inspiration, assistance, or guidelines to design for the planet?

Feeling inspired?
Share this article with your network!