This morning, I spent two dollars on a coffee and put 834 grams of carbon into the atmosphere.

That’s 417 grams per dollar, according to us carbon intensity data (us Energy). In our resource-based economy, it should come as no surprise that this can be measured, and certainly no surprise that our spending habits have a negative impact on the environment (Jackson, 2009) (This is averaged information. In specific terms, a dollar spent on gasoline for my car would likely have greater carbon per dollar than a dollar spent repairing the soles of my shoes.). But still, it is fascinating to see this correlation. If there were time to work it out, we could probably determine a numerical relationship between dollars and averaged environmental toxicity, dollars and biodiversity loss, dollars and… but I am getting ahead of myself.

The real question is what to do about it. There are many eco-design strategies we can employ to reduce the resource intensity of each dollar, from lightweighting, to using recycled materials, sourcing from local suppliers, and designing products for longevity (Belletire, St. Pierre, & White, 2007). But these approaches alone are not enough to mitigate the problems we are facing (wbcsd, 2008). Service-oriented strategies, on the other hand, have the potential to offer greater environmental gains. For example, a company that collects discarded computers to reassemble them into low-cost electronics shifts economic value to a service instead of a resource. This creates economic activity that is divorced from resource extraction, which is one way to keep the economy healthy while slowing down resource dependence. Equally important, service-oriented strategies can support environmentally positive behaviour change in ways that designers have only begun to explore.


Figure 2. Mapping the audience experience and existing infrastructure that can support traveling long distances in an electric vehicle


The underlying premise of service-oriented strategies is that people don’t necessarily need to own a product—what they really need is the service that the product provides. Watching the movie is the desire, not necessarily owning the dvd. Getting to a doctor’s appointment is what is critical, not owning the car. These needs can be met through services (online movie streaming), or product-service systems (car-sharing).

Most of the literature on service-oriented strategies categorizes the practice as either Service Design or Product Service Systems (pss). Hugh Dubberly and Shelley Evenson define Services Design as design of activities or events that form a product through an interaction between the customer, any mediating technology, and representatives of the service organization (Evenson & Dubberly, 2007). An example of pure service design is the ideo-designed Keep The Change project, a savings plan for Bank of America™ Visa® holders where every purchase can be rounded up to the nearest dollar, and the ‘change’ is deposited into a new savings plan ( The designed product in this case is intangible. On the other hand, psss are defined as having an object or product at the center of their service. An mp3 player exemplifies this—one needs to have the product in order to access the downloadable music service. Service Design and psss bracket a spectrum of possibilities that range from the intangible to product-centric. All along this spectrum there is potential to dematerialize the physicality of purchases and, as a result, reduce the resource intensity of each dollar spent. But where this becomes exciting is in the behaviour change that a service can command—a good car-sharing program, for instance, necessitates that we acquire new habits and accept some inconveniences in the cause of sustainability. These small behaviour changes hint at the potential for service-oriented strategies to promote even more significant changes.

Ursula Tischner, author, researcher, and pss advocate points out that while psss have the potential to leapfrog to drastically reduced environmental impacts, simply designing a pss is not necessarily an automatic environmental gain (Tischner, 2008). There are enormous challenges when designing something with the complexity of a pss. Only by playing out the scenarios of all of the branches of the system and examining the consequences, can one be sure that the benefit really exists. We can understand this by taking a look at the case study of the Rest + Recharge project by Amanda Klassen.

The Rest + Recharge project is a complex service system designed to supply electricity to recharge an electric vehicle (ev) throughout a road trip. Consumers can (but don’t necessarily) own the vehicle. Charging an ev is very different from refueling with gasoline because the fastest ev charging system takes roughly 30 minutes, and the range of a typical ev is 160 km. The design challenge is then to enable a road trip where one must stop every 1.5 hours and wait there
for half an hour before starting on the next leg of the journey. The design students involved in the project (Chiu, Klassen, & Tomlinson) covered key aspects of service design processes. They detailed the total customer journey and conducted extensive ethnography as part of the design process (Fig. 1 and 2). After researching existing infrastructure, they proposed that the Rest + Recharge system could piggy-back on rest stops that are already well distributed along the Trans-Canada highway. Finally, they collaborated with a business student to propose a business plan for the system.

Figure 1. Details of the system are carefully developed to support new patterns of behaviour
Figure 1. Details of the system are carefully developed to support new patterns of behaviour


So far, so good. But to Tischner’s point, this system could either be a great benefit to the environment, or not. The environmental benefits can only be assured if there is follow-through on features of the system that may be difficult to control. Here are the factors of the Rest + Recharge proposal would that determine it’s environmental performance:

1. Reduce energy consumption: This proposal depends on the availability of low-carbon or no-carbon power sources. Because clean energy supply is limited, a system needs to do more than simply replace one source of energy with another. The greater goal is to achieve an overall reduction in energy usage.

2. Traveling less: Given the pace and rhythm of the experience that this team has designed, travel could become a kinder, gentler, and slower journey. This offers subtle encouragement to enjoy traveling a shorter distance. The overall carbon output, however, can remain the same or even increase if people assume that because an activity is less damaging, they can do it faster or more often (rebound effect) (unep, 2001).

3. Buying local: Dollars spent locally are less prone to hidden carbon costs (Jackson, 2009). In this proposal, commercial opportunities at rest stops are intended to expose visitors to local experiences and products. This only works if the product being sold is Chilliwack corn rather than Starbucks™coffee. Ensuring that local retailers dominate each stop would probably involve long-term local government controls, demanding initial buy-in from all stakeholders.

4. Experiencing nature: A walk to see a waterfall is probably one of the less resourceintensive ways to spend time, feed the soul, and perhaps engender greater commitment to the environment. The system sets the conditions to encourage this to happen, but cannot force it.

The ideals listed in the above points will sound intuitive and obvious to many. It is easy to agree with reducing energy consumption, nourishing local economies and cultural diversity, and re-establishing personal connections with nature. The challenge is to develop the system so that even the least motivated citizen finds it relatively convenient to make the behaviour changes that lead to these environmental benefits—and that is where the hard work of service design is.

Fortunately, the students who worked on this project were supported by an enlightened sponsor: Powertech Labs, a leading clean energy consulting and testing company. Strategist Mari Nurminen understands the challenges in realizing more environmentally sustainable services. She and her colleagues at Powertech also recognize that the changes brought by these services are only the beginning of the substantial changes we need to make to the way that we live. The projects developed in the fall of 2010 envision ways to support a shift from gasoline to ev travel, but the paradigm shift that will allow us and other species to thrive on this planet must go much further than that. “Radical changes are needed in the way we produce, consume and socially interact” (Ceschin, Vezzoli, & Zhuang, 2010).

We can no longer ignore the fact that our energy and resource consumption must be ratcheted back more significantly than we find comfortable. Economist Tim Jackson frames it as the need to reduce carbon intensity from 417 grams per dollar to 6 grams per dollar (Jackson, 2009). Designer Ezio Manzini simply states that we must reduce our consumption by 90% (Manzini, 2006). Both see a service based economy as our best route through this unimaginable degree of change. As John Thackara says, the first question is “what might life in a sustainable world be like?” followed by “how can design help us get there?” (Thackara, 2010) Service design strategies offer some important methods for designers to help all of us get there, and to help us get there more enjoyably.


1. Examples of this in Vancouver are Free Geek for computers ( , and Our Community Bikes
for bicycles ( bikes).d0a819d3-7c8d-4a58-868a-67fcab5cd299


  • 1. U S Energy Information Administration. (2009). Energy consumption, expenditures, and emissions indicators. Retrieved 2011, from US Energy Web site: html
  • 2. Jackson, T. (2007). Prosperity without growth: economics for a finite planet. UK: Earthscan.
  • 3. White, P., St. Pierre, L., & Belletire, S. (2007). Okala ecological design. USA: IDSA.
  • 4. World Business Council for Sustainable Development. (2008). Sustainable consumption facts and trends: from a business perspective. SA, Switzerland: Atar Roto Presse. Retrieved from: www.
  • 5. Evenson, S. (2007). Designing service systems. Retrieved from
  • 6. IDEO. (2006). Keep the change account service for Bank of America™: a service innovation to attract and retain bank members. Retrieved 2011, from IDEO work library.
  • 7. Tischner, U. (2008, July 15) Eco design: product service systems. Video posted to
  • 8. Service Design Network. Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved 2011, from
  • 9. United Nations Environment Programme. (2001). The role of product service systems: in a sustainable society. Retrieved 2011, from UNEP Devision of Technology, Industry and Economics Web site: pdf
  • 10. Ceschin, F., Vezzdi, C., & Zhang, J. (2010). Sustainability in design: now! Proceedings of the LeNS Conference on challenges
    and opportunities in design research. Retrieved from, www.
  • 11. Manzini, E . (2006). Sustainability everyday project. Design for Sustainability. Retrieved 2011, from http://sustainable-everyday. net/manzini/?p=12
  • 12. Thackara, J. (2010). The pretending phase is over. Video posted to d0a819d3-7c8d-4a58-868a-67fcab5cd299Figure 1. Details of the system are carefully developed to support new patterns of behaviour
    Figure 2. Mapping the audience experience and existing infrastructure that can support traveling long distances in an electric vehicle

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