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Design for a Sustainable Future — Interview with Koos Service Design


Koos Service Design is a Dutch service design agency with a global presence, that works with clients from all walks of life to solve problems through collaborative service design. In the last few years, they have developed a unique service design methodology focused the design of a sustainable future called “Sustainable Service Design.” We spoke to Joost van Leeuwen, senior service design consultant, and Michaël Vijfvinkel, service design consultant, to find out about how they integrate sustainability to their service design and business practices.

They keyed us in on these six things that have helped center sustainability in their organization:

Starting from Within

Sustainability efforts from Koos started internally. Michaël and his colleagues took it upon themselves to reduce Koos’ carbon footprint, and it was a hands-on, unsure experiment at first. “We were all thinking about how we, as Koos, could reduce our impact on the environment” Michaël says. After a few years of trial and error, they now have a strategy in place and are aiming to become Climate Neutral Certified.

Their experimental, iterative approach closely mirrors the design thinking process. Michaël explains that “in the beginning, we didn’t use any particular tools or design process. Instead, we used a design mindset. We simply tried it again and again, and made improvements over time”. As you may already know, design thinking involves defining a problem, creating a solution and testing it iteratively. Iterative improvement, rather than the pursuit of perfection, is also essential to sustainability.

Defining “Sustainability”

When we say “sustainability”,
the first thing we say is, “what does that mean?”.

ー Michaël Vijfvinkel , Service design consultant at Koos Service Design

Sustainability is a word that everyone perceives differently. It is because of this ambiguity that many people are unsure of what they should be doing to tackle it. Koos describes Sustainable Service Design as a three-pronged approach:

  1. Designing sustainable behaviour: Designing a more sustainable product or service, that fully matches the needs of your users.
  2. Designing circular*1 services: Developing sustainable business models, moving from a product-based company to a service-oriented company, or developing a sustainable way of offering your products and services.
  3. Designing resilient systems: And last but not least, creating a sustainable ecosystem by involving all stakeholders.

In order to shift to a sustainable world, “first we had to define what sustainability means”, says Michaël. Sustainability can be defined differently by different people. “So we needed a definition of what Koos meant with the term Sustainable Service Design. Here, we decided to highlight where Koos could make an impact as a service designer. By demonstrating this approach, it is much easier to communicate internally as well as in conversations with clients”.

Visualising Complex Systems

As an example of ‘designing circular services’, Michaël told us about a project with Philips, a global health technology company also known for its LaaS (Lightning as a Service): “There is a shift from product-centred to service-based business models all over the world. Philips was one of those companies that wanted to create a circular system and close the material cycle*2“. In such projects, the flow of materials and the system of services must be understood, and service design tools such as customer journey maps and service blueprints are useful. “In this project, we used a service blueprint to understand where the environmental impact was occurring. Visualising our suppliers and supply chain is an essential part of the process to come up with solutions that have a positive environmental impact”.

In addition, in projects focused on ‘designing a resilient system’, it is essential to ensure that the perceptions of the many stakeholders involved are aligned. Koos has therefore developed a new tool called the “Process Journey”.

“A Process Journey is like somewhere between a customer journey and a service blueprint. This tool is useful to visualise a multi-stakeholder process and align them”.

▲ Koos’ Process Journey

One of the projects they worked on dealt with creating a circular system for the management and reuse of materials in public spaces. Joost explains that “by adapting each stakeholder’s process, creating a single flow and visualising it, we were able to get everyone on the same page. Having everyone on the same page in this way is essential for creating a sustainable impact. This is the first step towards sustainability”.

Utilizing Service Design Tenets of Empathy and Facilitation

Designing a resilient system means solving complex problems involving a very large number of stakeholders. In solving these problems, Joost and Michaël claim that the skills of service designers come into play. “Service designers are very good at facilitating stakeholders in complex systems. The service designer has the empathy skills to listen to the stakeholders and understand their needs”, Joost says. Empathy is one of the key elements of design thinking and is usually seen as a way of understanding users when developing products and services. In this case, empathy with stakeholders is the most important.

▲ Stakeholder session at Koos.

“Service designers do not have to be extremely skilled in one area, but rather have a minimum level of knowledge in a wide range of areas, which allows them to create a common language with stakeholders and tackle problems. By not coming in as an expert in one area, we are able to facilitate a holistic view of the stakeholders and the situation”.

Instilling a sustainability perspective in your business

Although the Netherlands is a world leader in the circular economy, Dutch businesses often focus on the economic aspects and cannot give high priority to environmental and social sustainability. In this context, Koos aims to integrate environmental and social sustainability into every project, instead of only for clients who want to design sustainable services and systems from the outset. “We always ask ourselves, ‘How can Koos incorporate a sustainability perspective? It’s important to give clients the opportunity to think about sustainability, little by little”.

▲ One opportunity to mention sustainable ideas in during an idea session.

Here are a few ways service designers can integrate sustainability into a project:

  • In everyday conversation: when talking casually with clients, try to speak briefly about sustainability issues and see if it piques their interest.
  • In your proposal: try to incorporate sustainability aspects into your proposal, even if they were not part of the original requirements (making sure, of course that you cover all requirements first).
  • During ideation: mention sustainable ideas and use sustainability examples when facilitating ideation sessions.

The idea is that it is important to start by identifying opportunities within a project and sowing the seeds little by little. In fact, it is from these small initiatives that clients sometimes choose to focus on sustainability.

It needs to be a profitable sustainable business model. The solution has to be 1. sustainable, 2. profitable and 3. require little effort.

ー Michaël Vijfvinkel , Service design consultant at Koos Service Design

Michaël adds: “Sustainable solutions must be profitable. After all, a business is only as good as the profits it makes, so if there is no economic benefit, it will be useless. In the design process, we always measure the impact we can create, and we also think about how we can monetise it”. Joost recalls a project where he designed a circular service concept that closed the material loop for a Dutch food and beverage company. “Throughout the process, we identified all the needs of our internal stakeholders and customers alike. We used quantitative data to identify the different needs people have for sustainability. We grouped people according to their aspirations and showed the scale at which they existed, to demonstrate the potential for business.

Start Small

The urgency of addressing environmental issues is clear, but how to do it is the question that needs to be asked. Joost says it’s important to “hypothesize, do a sprint, listen to customers and test your ideas”, and by showing that there are real needs and business potential, we can gradually change the world system. “It may seem like a risk now, but in the near future it will no longer be a risk. This is the direction in which the world is heading. The key is to start small and move towards this trend”.

The urge is clear. But “how” is the problem.
Start small. Service Design can help that.

ー Joost van Leeuwen, Senior service design consultant at Koos Service Design

Key Takeaways

We can’t thank the team at Koos Service Design enough for sharing their insights. Here are a few of the key points that stuck with us:

  • Define terminology and create a common understanding: The term sustainability can be ambiguous. Start by clarifying what sustainability means to your stakeholders so you can understand their intentions.
  • Start small and work with what you have: Even if the primary goal of a project is not related to sustainability, you can start small and incorporate a sustainability perspective.
  • Service design accelerates sustainability: The empathy and facilitation skills of service designers can help to decipher complex systems and create solutions.

We hope you enjoyed hearing from Michaël and Joost as much as we did! As service designers, we look forward to keeping sustainability centered in our practice.


  1. Circular Economy
    A circular economy is a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.
  2. In the Circular Economy, resources are used, but not used up. By applying suitable strategies to products, components and materials during use and after the end of a lifecycle, resources are kept in the system, also called a cycle or a loop.

    Reference:Ellen McArthur Foundation

Tomoe Ishida

Service Designer

In college, Tomoe majored in service marketing management research, and has a great passion for cultural differences and humanities-related fields. Currently working as a workshop instructor and sustainability associate at Neuromagic, she interested in topics such as user research, storytelling, and social design for sustainable development goals!