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Service Design (MA)

Aditi Soni

Hello! I am a researcher and service designer from India.

Prior to joining the Service Design Programme at Royal College of Art, I had the opportunity to work as a design researcher for multiple healthcare and wellbeing initiatives. My work spanned across conducting research for redefining wellbeing for kids, to working with a pharmaceutical company on patient-centred support for chronic conditions like acidity and diabetes in India.

I believe in using my practice as a tool to engage in solving today’s ‘wicked problems’ and creating a world with lesser disparities and more inclusivity and my education at the RCA has helped me hone the same aspiration. Throughout my experience here, I have had the chance to deep dive into aspects of public sector innovation across various projects and partners like the Camden Council and UNDP. Not only has this expanded my horizon of what design can do to change the world, it has also helped me understand the importance of methods like people’s participation, co-creation, feedback practices and more. 

Currently, I'm freelancing with the United Nations Development Programme of Europe and Central Asia on projects across topics like data-driven hackathon platforms, redefining systemic innovation in cities and projects around learning new ways of organisational thinking - which is also the project I share here, for the RCA 2021 Final Show.

Being really passionate about redefining mainstream education, I have also recently co-founded an initiative with two of my friends, called the Youth Think Tank (, looking at empowering young minds to become changemakers for a brighter future.

Lastly, I feel extremely honoured and privileged to be considered an RCA Scholar and wish to use this experience to generate positive impact for a hopeful and happy world.

We come to this planet as the same species. On the very basic level, we function also the same way. We have the same set of organs and the same emotions are introduced to all of us. But along the years, through objects and experiences, we create disparities. This fact has always pinched me and to diminish these disparities, one has to be a proponent of change and that is what I aspire to be. 

Inspiration for my final project:

As I moved forward in my journey as a design thinker, I kept wondering what it was like to look at the world from a bird’s-eye view and envisioned a complex map of interconnected systems, chaos, problems and opportunities. I am using my final project to investigate this space and understand at the scope of service design in large systems, making it an amalgamation of multiple perspectives, geographies and people. 

Along with Richard Larsen (RCA Service Design), I am looking at the scope of shaping the structure of innovation for future ready cities through UNDP's City Experiment Fund. This is a fairly new initiative that seeks to make sense of and address complex issues playing out in cities - including impacts of migration, climate change, and inequality - by working in the intersection of innovative methods and technologies. Our purpose is to shape and optimise the process of the programme in order to provide more agency to the change makers for implementing innovation and embracing experimentation practices in their respective geographies. As a result, we have looked at learning infrastructures in organisations like UNDP, people’s mindsets towards ambiguity, learning concepts like systems thinking and applying the same in different projects.

Barriers to adapting systems thinking methodologies in UNDP working practices.
Finding our sweet spot for innovation.
Finding our sweet spot for innovation.

1 - Using new initiative to build capabilities : UNDP supports and drives development in complex systems across the world. And now they’re rethinking the way they innovate and implement change. That means building capability from the bottom by leading their Country Offices through new systems thinking and non-traditional innovation methods that they can take forward into their practice. And when UNDP tries to change something as fundamental as the way they innovate, it’s the people doing the work on the ground — building relationships, making things happen — that have to change how they think and plan for the future. Therefore, we worked with this organisation’s initiative called the City Experiment Fund to start small and help them build an efficient learning infrastructure for systems thinking capabilities.

2 - Embedding learning practices within new initiatives : Looking at CEF’s goal is to build capability in its participants so it can be transferred and used in the wider organisation. But people enter the programme with different perspectives and mindsets, which can cause challenges in how they interact with it. So the transfer of capability can’t happen without paying attention to how people are learning and while these challenges remain, an effective learning experience is unlikely. Making it difficult to carry anything forward. It's this space in the middle where the opportunity lies. The space where the knowledge being taught is received, processed and experienced as learning.

Learning Pods for the people in the system to engage in shared learning and build a community of practice.
Features that enable trust and habit formation for active learning.
Features that enable trust and habit formation for active learning.

1 - Understanding our service vision : CEF strives to teach new methods, but there is less focus on reliable ways for people to learn what is taught. Experts deliver expertise, but once imparted it can disappear quite quickly. Participants worry about being dependent on the programme as a central hub for guidance. So some questions are: How can we keep knowledge in the system and decentralise its access amongst immediate stakeholders? Can we better retain learning experiences by keeping them in the system, rather than letting them disappear?

2 - How does it help in active learning? For that, here’s what we propose - Learning Pods - a platform for country offices to use themselves as resources to connect and share their experiences around non-traditional innovation, allowing them to support each other and grow together in their journey of learning. So, people from country offices, can use the platform to communicate with peers around systems thinking. Or to use collective resources to grow their knowledge and exposure. Or to participate in a live community of practice via organised events.

Example of a tool to understand participant mindsets around traditional and experimental thinking..
Example of a tool to navigate through predictable barriers in systems thinking processes.

Learning intervention examples : As part of a roadmap to reach this vision we’ve devised interventions to be implemented in the CEF process: A set of tools to be used by the programme manager to help participants to prepare to learn, and record and reflect on what they learn. The first example is of a tool to understand the mindset an individual is entering with. It’s a simple mapping exercise to help the PM get a picture of what to expect from people and to help individuals understand their own approach to CEF.

The second example is a reflective tool to help COs navigate through some predictable barriers in the process. In conversations with the COs, we identified challenges they face in working around systems thinking, and this helps them reflect on difficulties and how to navigate them.

We support all such tools recommendation on learning atmospheres and facilitation guides for shared learning as well. A lot of our tool development has happened from resources provided by Nesta, States of Change and OECD.

Provocations to begin your journey of working in systems thinking.

From everyone we spoke to and all the insight we gained throughout this project, there are 3 things that stood out the most when considering designing for systemic capabilities: You can have a plan going in but it rarely turns out how you wanted. So how do you design for improvisation, rather than implementation? How to allow each programme (e.g. CEF) to make the process their own and use a structure that allows them to continuously improve? How do you respect the knowledge in the room, rather than using people as empty vessels to fill with your new systems thinking knowledge? Even though what we’ve introduced is small scale for now, the intention is for the effects to add up over time to create the right conditions for that bigger vision of capability building within UNDP, for them to thrive while thinking out of the box.

Feedback from UNDP Programme Managers and Country Offices

The impact of effective learning is in its successful application. But more importantly it’s in the reduced need for support, and the ability to adjust learning to context. An individual or team that has learned effectively has agency in their own work and are able to mobilise resources on their own. In the context of innovation in international development the impact of these interventions are to build autonomy and agency into the participants of learning programmes like CEF, so they can attract funding for their work and accelerate their impact. Ultimately increasing capability for effective change across the UNDP, and any organisation in which effective learning infrastructure is implemented.

A big thank you to our project tutor Marta Ferreira de Sá, for many months of insightful and practical advice. And to Justyna Krol, Bas Leurs, and all those at the UNDP who informed our thinking along the way. Also to external experts Luke Roberts and Noel Hatch for sharing their valuable time and thoughts with us.