ServDes Conference blog

Service Design Between Intimacy and Integrity

By Yoko Akama

I am seeing promising signs of public service reform and community-led change initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region.

This was made visible in the event, From Things to Services: The rise of service design and social innovation in Asia Pacific which took place in Singapore, Feb 2015. The fourteen speakers who were initiating change in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Sri Lanka and Pakistan generously shared their personal experiences of how they are actively creating spaces and places for meaningful engagement, skills sharing, capacity building and purposeful transformation. In many of their examples, public institutions like governments, universities and NGOs are key partners in these initiatives in funding, collaborating, educating and enhancing these ideas to seed, grow and prosper. It seems that the increasing global attention towards Asia-Pacific as economic, cultural and political leaders, reflected in the term ‘The Asian 21st Century’, means that these countries are realising the need to balance accelerated growth with social and environmental sustainability. For the speakers and the 150+ international attendees from academia, government and design industry, design was valued as playing an important role here.

What was most interesting for me to observe was the way in which these practices foregrounded reciprocity, humility, respect, peacefulness, self-awareness and reflection in relation to their practices of designing with people. I think these cultural and relational dimensions of design are often subsumed or lost under abstracted frameworks like ‘methods’, ‘process’, ‘strategy’, ‘design thinking’ – a common way in which we hear about design elsewhere.There was no abstract double-diamond diagram to be seen, and I found that refreshing and enlightening.

This illuminating moment was further aided by reading Thomas Kasulis (philosopher whose lifework has been studies of Japanese culture and religion) book, Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophical and cultural difference. He describes intimacy and integrity that reflect the culturally determined orientations that underlie such distinctions. In short, integrity is viewed as external relations between two independent entity,  developed as an external value, such as concepts of rights and universal principles. He suggests this framework is more dominant in Western thinking. On the other hand, intimacy starts with the basis of inherent inter-dependency, already connected. This means those in relations can’t be replaced with an objective principle as they are contextually determined. He describes how intimacy is related to East-Asian viewpoints. You could say that design, also, have these orientations and one is more dominant than the other.

The event in Singapore reminded me that perhaps we hear too much about design that assumes the character of a universal method, principles and values (integrity) – hence the popularity of the double-diamond – whereas we do not hear enough about designing that highlight or enhance the intimacy between the people involved as entities already inter-related.

Speakers who talked about reciprocity, humility and respect in their designing seemed to foreground this intimacy view of designing. As we start to see more amazing, diversity of service design projects taking place in the Asia-Pacific region, I hope we can make visible those practices that foreground intimacy