Future Design for Biodiversity in Southwark

Jiaming Liu
13 min readMay 17, 2021


Southwark council have cooperated with the University of The Arts London to provide future design by using service design in 2030 to achieve carbon neutral by 2050. I worked with other three classmates who loves nature. We found the project direction, built our future story and gained feedback from different people. During the two months, I have a new understanding of the role of service designer and some design methods as well as tools. Now, I will use this article to share this exciting process and my understanding.

Stage 1: Find the Direction

What I experienced

At the beginning of the project, we read a lot of local reports and also talked with the council’s staff. Then, we understood that manmade climate change has already had an impact on the world, and there is a lot of evidence that our earth will continue to heat up. Actually, the Southwark region has received the threat of extreme weather and greater flood risk. Carbon emissions exacerbate climate change, so Southwark Council decided to implement the strategy of achieving carbon neutrality in 2030, and focused on five key areas: buildings, construction and regeneration; transport and travel; consumption; energy; biodiversity, trees and green spaces. The first four areas are mainly to solve the problem of carbon output. Biodiversity can help us absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and help us enhance our ability to cope with climate change, which plays an important role in the strategy(Southwark council, 2020).

In the existing reports, we know that the council’s measures mainly focus on greening streets, increasing green corridors and increasing the number of trees. So we have two main questions about these measures:

  1. When it comes to solving the problem of biodiversity, most people just want to plant more trees and have more green spaces. But other plants, animals and microbes also belong to its scope according to the definition of biodiversity. So, the current measures are limited. Are there any other solutions?
  2. If we want to make human and non-human survive better in the city, increasing the number of trees and green spaces will not be a suitable method. Because these methods are more likely to make human comfortable, and we do not understand the needs of non-human.

With these questions, we used horizon scanning to start a comprehensive and systematic understanding of biodiversity around the world as well as the UK. This helped us gain some meaningful and interesting insights.

horizon scanning

We began to think that non-human has no chance to say their needs and can’t take actions to meet needs like human beings. Therefore, we mainly have depended on human interests to make decisions. Can we change the traditional way of designing, analysing the needs of non-human and amplify their voice? At the same time, if the non-human is personified and given more power instead of being regarded as human property(Dillen, n.d.), people are more likely to get along with them on an equal footing and have a harmonious life. And then, this can achieve the goal of protecting and improving the local biodiversity. So we put forward ‘what if animals and people had equal rights.

What I learnt

speculative design

At the beginning of the project, I tried to think about how to help the government implement the measures they provided in the future? But our teachers encouraged us to look at these policies and measures critically and raise our doubts. When we really put forward the problem that changed the original view of the Southwark council and gained affirmation, I learned that the solutions from the authoritative organization are not absolutely reasonable and correct. Designers should keep speculative thinking to find problems as well as new possibilities. This can help us better define the specific design direction. Most of the time, customers don’t really know what they want, so we should not blindly listen to the requirements from customers.

In the past, I thought that it would be a good design to provide innovative and practical solutions in the final output stage. But this course made me understand that in the early stage of design, keeping questioning can help designers break through the existing constraints and constantly carry out challenging thinking, which can dig out more interesting problems and see more possibilities. This can help us produce the work which is more likely to arouse more people’s thinking and debate(Dunne and Raby, 2013). This kind of work is also a good design.

horizon scanning

This is an excellent research pattern to gather information about trends and developments that could influence the future (The Futures Toolkit, 2017). Compared with my previous research method, this is more systematic and comprehensive. It views the topic not only from different regional areas of the world, country and region, but also from different social factors of social, technical, legal, economic, political and environmental. This can help me look at a topic more comprehensively and rationally and establish a better cognition of the topic. At the same time, this provides good evidence support for the next stage. I will also keep on using this method to study different topics in the future.

future design

‘The future is being chosen, not predicted, it might represent a quite unconventional view of what might happen’ (Dunne and Raby, 2013). Before taking part in the course, I thought that designing the future was to make full use of imagination to describe the future. However, now I have realized that a meaningful future idea should base on development and potential trends in the real world. It is difficult to achieve the design plans that are divorced from the practical significance, and also this kind of work possibly offer wrong guidance. In fact, whether it’s future design or other types of design, I think it must be supported by facts. After all, design is different from art. In the art world, we can imagine freely. But in order to achieve a certain goal in the real world, we have to provide reasonable paths and tools to achieve the goal according to the actual resources.

Stage 2: Build Future Story

What I experienced

We used workshops to brainstorm with our classmates and friends to think about what rights non-human will have in the future and how to realize these rights. Finally, we chose three concept directions.

initial three concepts

After communicating with some friends and other project groups, we rethought these three directions.

Concept 1:

we wanted to popularize the idea that non-human has the same power as a human, and spread this knowledge by educating local students.

Concept 1 problems:

If non-human has the same rights as human beings, people may not be able to eat vegetables, fruits and meat in the future. It’s like if we kill another person, we will get the death penalty. So what rights can non-human have? There is a relatively controversial difference in rights between species (Bennett Jones, 2015). Obviously, it’s not easy to discuss and gain satisfactory results, so it’s hard to make sure that the concept will be implemented well over in the next ten years.

If the main user group is students, they will not have the most significant impact on the local biodiversity when they have awareness in terms of their population size and their own capabilities.

If we only enhance the public awareness of protecting non-human, it will be challenging to ensure that people will change behaviours voluntarily. During one lecture about policy design, guest Ramia shared that in order to promote the implementation of the goals, the government has usually used mandatory methods, like taxation, and educational ways to implement them. So if we want to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality by 2030, we should not just focus on raising public awareness.

Concept 2:

when some organizations make decisions, we wanted people to consider the non-human interests by using some toolkits to amplify non-human voices.

Concept 2 problems:

Without supervision, it is not easy for people to put aside their own incremental interests to seriously think about non-human.

It is not enough for decision-makers to consider non-human interests; people also need professional knowledge and theoretical support to offer reasonable measures.

Concept 3:

We wanted to have a platform for the human to speak for non-human and help non-human gain more power in the future.

Concept 3 problems:

We found that this type of organizations already exists, so how can we make a future design instead of what we already have? How to create new behaviors? How to create new connections between different stakeholders?

Therefore, we summarized five key points in order to iterate out the next concept:

1.Focus on a specific and appropriate right for non-human species;

2.Find a new main user group that can have most significant impact on the local ecology;

3.Provide professional knowledge and skills support;

4.Increase public awareness and also promote the change of their behavior;

5.Create new behavior and new relationships.

And then build a new future scenario:

What if the humans of Southwark co-existed rather than dominated non-humans?

What if the humans of Southwark had a shared responsibility to increase biodiversity in the borough?

future vision

In order to realize this scenario, we decided to build a platform, which will follow the government’s policies in time and organize stakeholders in different fields to provide suggestions. And this can help residents know the local biodiversity situation as well as non-human protection guidelines, and encourage them to be volunteers to organize and participate in non-human protection activities. During the activities’ process, locals will harvest related professional knowledge and skills.

What I learnt

democracy & justice

In the past, when I was doing design, I almost considered how to solve the needs of users in a better way. But the introduction of democratic design and policy design in this course gave me more thinking. I start to reflect on whether my projects have considered social justice, intergenerational justice and international justice, and whether the program has a positive impact on the global, future generations and social equality (what is social justice, 2021). This makes me look at my project from a long-term development perspective. As a designer who is a member of the earth, I think that I have the responsibility to think and make positive changes for all species and the world.

Although this helps us to expand my views from the dimension of time and stakeholders, it also brings challenges. When we set our vision for the next 20 years, how can we make a suitable long-term design plan now? With the rapid development of science and technology or special accidents like Covid, the current technology, methods and relationship may no longer be applicable in the next five years. When we need to consider more stakeholders, like the vulnerable groups, non-human, future generations in the project, how can we better balance their interests and produce appropriate solutions? In the future, I think I will continue to consider justice and also explore how to answer these questions.

Stage 3: Gain Feedback from Different Stakeholders

What I experienced

We tested our new concept by using a physical prototype with our key stakeholders, such as John Evelyn community garden, local residents, Southwark Council expert in biodiversity, living streets, the park of London, Southwark community.

test with different stakeholders

During the process, we received recognition and also were aware of some problems, which can make us think about how to optimize it later.

  1. New residents can receive the welcome package of the platform to understand the local biodiversity status and be attracted to participate in some activities. However, at the initial stage of the establishment of the platform, how can the existing residents know this information? If every existing family can receive welcome packages, the utilization rate and effectiveness of resources, including materials as well as labor may be low. Can it be realized through other ways, such as community roadshows, publicity in public places, social media publicity etc?
  2. The local council’s resources are not very rich, so how to ensure that the platform has enough funds and resources to operate? How about giving local business the opportunity of publicity and marketing in the activities and attracting them to invest in the platform? How about selling attractive souvenirs made by volunteers?
  3. Although young people who have already worked are willing to participate, they will not choose to take part in the platform because of the lack of time and energy. So how about making the participation process more flexible and interesting? How about focusing on students and retired people who have more spare time instead of all residents?
  4. The materials of the welcome package need to be seriously considered because of sustainability. According to the test, if we inform the same information electronically, people will have less enthusiasm for participation. So how about using recycled paper materials? How about using the paper as for other functions after watching it?
  5. Introducing local biodiversity status and activities to attract people to join the platform voluntarily maybe will be useful in the initial stage, but it will be less useful in a long term. So how about providing some spiritual or material rewards for positive feedback in the process to make volunteer be willing to join in it for a long time?
video: final concept

What I learnt

research through design & prototype

Compared with traditional design research, research through design is a very flexible and efficient research method. The research process becomes the design process and design activities contribute to the generation of knowledge (Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1993). During the process, research and design are carried out simultaneously to iterate a better solution, which can help designers achieve the best design effect within a limited project time.

In the past, when research materials and analysis are not sufficient, I would not start to think about the part related to design because of pursuing perfection. But now I think that doing research is endless, because a topic always has deeper and broader knowledge to acquire. So I can start to design when I get a certain amount of information and have some key conclusions by doing research. When I present my design concepts by making a prototype or doing an experiment or other methods, I can gain feedback in a short time and then improve my solutions quickly. Actually, it is also a process of doing research, because I can gain new knowledge to help me make more accurate conclusions.

During this project, I think that we did not have a good performance in the part of research through design. In the beginning, we just exchanged ideas with others orally without specific object, so people understood based on our description combined with their individual experience and gave more subjective suggestions. Sometimes, it is not easy for us to explain well by using English, and people were more likely to misunderstand our meanings. So, we possibly did not gain suitable suggestions. At the same time, we just have one round of prototype testing due to time and energy, so there are still many imperfections. Therefore, I will try my best to give physical models to test and have good time management in future design projects, and strive for more iterations to achieve a better design result.

the role of service designer

In the past, I thought that the role of service designer is an interdisciplinary problem solver who can help different stakeholders find their problems as well as needs in diverse fields, and use systematic methods as well as tools to produce a design scheme to meet the needs of different stakeholders. During this process, we also are the communicator to talk with different people to gain enough knowledge and also to display professional as well as even complicated design scheme in an easy to understand way.

But after doing this project, I have a new understanding of the role of service design.

We can be a critical thinker! Through continuous questioning and asking questions, we can discover new problems and even redefine problems, and this help us constantly improve our understanding of the topic and our solutions. At the same time, we are more likely to create a work that can promote debate and also can attract people’s attention in other areas to explore more. Actually, I think it is beneficial to the whole cultural process of humankind.

We can be a reformer! We not only can produce work on the concrete operational level, but also can have an impact on the abstract strategic level as well as Vision & decision level (Thorpe, 2017). This means that we can not only produce a systematic solution and also put forward breakthrough policy suggestions which possibly can have an impact on the organization development in the future.

We can be a good leader! During the course, we absorbed some theoretical knowledge from democratic design and policy design to make our scheme more suitable for the use of the government. At the same time, this knowledge make us consider the impact of our scheme on future generations, non-human and the whole world, so that we are less likely to create short-sighted solutions. This can make our service design have more influential power. We used research through design to help us produce better solutions within a limited timetable. We used the speculative design to redefine our problems and bring a new perspective to solve them instead of just following the original policy and measures. I think that a service designer should be a good learner, because we can explore and combine different methods and theories in other disciplines to produce better works.

Now I firmly believe that service design will bring more positive influence to the world in the future, and I will continue to explore and practice in the future to get more meaningful and interesting design works.


Bennett-Jones, O., 2015. Should animals have the same rights as humans?. [online] BBC. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-32854504>; [Accessed 19 April 2021].

CFI. 2021. What is Social Justice?. [online] Available at: <https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/other/social-justice/>; [Accessed 17 May 2021].

Dillen, A., n.d. [online] Nonhuman Rights Projects. Available at: <https://www.nonhumanrights.org/>; [Accessed 13 April 2021].

Dunne, A. and Raby, F., 2013. Speculative everything: Design, fiction and social dreaming. The MIT Press.

Southwark council, 2020. Tackling the Climate Emergency TogetherSouthwark’s strategy to become Carbon Neutral by 2030. London: Southwark council, pp.2–4.

2017. The Futures Toolkit. 1st ed. government office for science, p.27.

Thorpe, Adam and Prendiville, Alison and Salinas, Lara and Rhodes, Sarah (2017) Anatomy of local government/design education collaboration. The Design Journal for All Aspects of Design, 20:sup. S4734-S4734. ISSN 1756–3062(online)-1460–6925(print)

1993. Royal College of Art Research Papers. London.