Bicycles and Plants: Designing for Conviviality and Meaningful Social Relations through Collaborative Services

Yiying Wu (2017)

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In our modern times, people’s daily needs and affairs are largely arranged by goods and services provided through institutional and market mechanisms. There is little space left for people’s capabilities of doing things by themselves. This thesis looks at alternative services bypassing institutional and monetary mechanisms: the type of services where people work with and for each other. It investigates how service design can provide opportunities for people to contribute to and with each other as capable individuals and develop meaningful social relations. Two service cases are investigated. One is an existing service of a self-repair bicycle workshop run by a subcultural community. The other is a series of design interventions called ‘Plant Hotel’ where people help water other’s plants as a form of collaborative care.

The study of the first case of a self-repair bicycle workshop looks at services as capability building. The workshop supports and strengthens people’s capabilities in bicycle repair and building. By ethnographically studying the mundane and situated practices, experiences, and materials in the workshop, the study investigates how this kind of service is actually organized and experienced. The findings show that instead of helping make visitors’ repair work faster and easier, the community insists on leaving adequate space for people to struggle and negotiate the repair process. Through this finding, differences between the self-repair service where people act as capable agents and commercial ones where people are as served customers are revealed. With this, the study calls awareness to re-examining some taken-for-granted design assumptions, such as the construction of users and the use, and articulated values, especially in the tradition of user-centred design.

The second case of the design interventions of Plant Hotel explores a service as new social relation creation. The series includes five Plant Hotels addressing five types of social relation. By involving people in watering other’s plants in the specific context, it discusses what meaningful social relations can be generated from collaborative care for plants. Instead of aiming to provide direct answers, the interventions create opportunities to support and provoke people to look for and negotiate with the meaningfulness. Through the interventions, the thesis proposes a discursive and provocative role of service design that goes beyond the solution-orientated tradition. The new role indicates that the new social relations to be designed do not suggest solutions or preferred models. Rather, they become enquiries into articulating issues of social distinctions and boundaries, and reflecting and challenging existing social relations.

All in all, this doctoral work proposes service design as an agent of capability building and a relational agent of creating new social relations and challenging social boundaries. It demonstrates the ways in which daily services are designed to support individuals’ long-term learning and capability building rather than the easy and fast completion of tasks, and also to open up new spheres for meaningful social relations outside institutionally and economically structured boundaries.

The book at Aalto University shop: shop.aalto.fi/p/997-bicycles-and-plants.