A constant ‘itch’ to change the way we change

Livework improves and designs services for big corporates. Now, however, the internationally active studio wants to take it one step further. ‘We believe service innovation can mean a lot for cities. This requires more edge, critical design and city networks.’

Erik Roscam Abbing (49) is finally back in the game. After two years of managing Livework in the Netherlands, he was eager to get his hands dirty again. ‘If there is one place that deserves good service design, then it is the city’, he told his co-directors. Followed by: ‘Give me some room to develop business there.’

Now Roscam Abbing is the group’s director of innovation. A relatively new, but free role within the company. About eighty people work at their three offices in São Paulo, London and Rotterdam. Roscam Abbing forms a tag team with Alexandra Coutsoucos (26). Together they are responsible for opening up new business opportunities. ‘In terms of sustainability, mobility, energy transition, inclusion, social cohesion and education we are facing super complex challenges’, he says. Many of these issues accumulate within cities’ limits. ‘To keep our cities as well as our planet livable on the long term, we need to solve these challenges fast.’

Two tracks

Their strategy consists of two main tracks. First, there is the idea of establishing an innovation practice within the company itself. This means being ‘cutting-edge’ when it comes to methodology, tools, ways of working and by demonstrating design leadership. ‘We have clients, the most awake ones, who see the world is shifting. The problem is they don’t know what to do about it’, says Coutsoucos, ‘so clients come to us for explorative research to understand what the real problem is.’ As an example she mentions a big Dutch bank with which Livework is exploring the future of housing. ‘They want to know how the mortgage market is going to change and how they can offer products and services that make sense to their customers.’

The second part of the plan is taking the lead in innovation by defining the agenda of others. This mainly concerns the execution of innovation projects, parallel to the formation of a consortium of companies willing to conduct pilots in what the two Liveworkers describe as the co-owned smart city. In this, Rotterdam will become an important testing ground.

Humanizing smart

Regarding these two objectives, it is anything but curious that the terms ‘humanizing smart’ and ‘humanizing technology’ appear more than once during this interview. ‘Almost every day we hear clients talk about technology as a goal, not as a means’, Roscam Abbing says. ‘At Livework we are convinced that human needs must be seen as the ultimate goal. Only then you’ll find a sustainable, elegant and fertile role for technology. That is why we try to interpret smart as something that makes sense for people and solves problems, but not in a tech-focused way.’

For Livework, the necessity of humanizing smart is an all but new insight. Over the past seventeen years, the company has been hired by many to improve existing and design new services. Livework’s client base includes companies such as: Adidas, Deutsche Telecom, Kone, ZilverenKruis, Pfizer, Philips and the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration. Enhancing user experience is always central to their approach, says Coutsoucos. ‘We conduct a lot of qualitative research. This means talking to people (clients, consumers, employees, frontline staff, red.) to really understand their needs in order to come up with better solutions. We use tech to empower the outcomes.’

Scaling

Both Coutsoucos and Roscam Abbing have been working at Livework for the past 2,5 years. They both got onboard after Roscam sold his company Zilver Innovation to Livework’s management. Back then, he employed about ten people and Coutsoucos was carrying out her graduation internship. ‘I was too busy managing and didn’t have time to be involved with content’, Roscam Abbing motivates. ‘I also felt I was doing valuable stuff, but was unable to scale.’

At Livework, he has the opportunity to do just that. Especially when it concerns the yet to be established consortium. It still is too early to drop names, but talks are ongoing with a building company, a lamp manufacturer, a car manufacturer and a bank. The general idea is to start a grass roots, bottom-up movement in one or several of Rotterdam’s poorer neighbourhoods. The final projects will depend on the needs of local residents.

On the other hand, Livework has plans to partner with corporates in big (infrastructural) projects concerning the smart city. In general, there’s a focus on three so-called spaces (mobility, energy and housing) and themes (circularity/sustainability, inclusion/participation and technology/smart).

As soon as one or more of their new projects gets traction, specialists will be called in from within Livework. There is also a close collaboration with Studio Wolfpack on the Rotterdam Smart for Good Agenda. Coutsoucos: ‘We are strong in processes, methodology, design thinking and networking with big corporates. They are edgy and have content knowledge, they have a very large network of startups and pioneers, and they are very good at throwing stuff on the fire.’ Laughing: ‘Together we’re going to cook a great meal out of it.’

Future of smart tech

To illustrate the future of smart technology, Roscam Abbing mentions a project Livework did earlier in the tourist-flooded Amsterdam red light district, together with partner and engineering company Royal HaskoningDHV. It concerned crowd management. ‘By gathering quantitative data, the police had quite a clear picture of how crowded the canals were and how pedestrian flows were moving’, Roscam Abbing recalls. ‘But they knew nothing about the actual atmosphere. Is it considered dangerous, are people afraid?’

Within the project, there was a clear need to understand the emotional side of ‘crowdedness’. That’s where Livework came in. The company interviewed police officers, inhabitants, tourists, hosts, entrepreneurs. ‘This gave us a lot of knowhow on the soft, qualitative side. Combined with technology, we were able to present a complete picture’, says Roscam Abbing. He is convinced that an approach like this resembles the future of smart technology. ‘It is behavioral psychology combined with human insights, while giving our clients and users the opportunity to master the technology themselves.’

Ownership

‘To date, the whole smart city agenda has been shaped way too top-down and it is too data-driven’, Roscam Abbing says. Data is also completely owned by tech juggernauts such as Google instead of by citizens. This needs to change, he argues. ‘Let’s see what happens when we create services for the people that also reflect their privacy needs.’

What kind of projects will that be? ‘We don’t always know exactly. We love projects that solve complex city problems at the intersection of the three spaces and themes mentioned earlier. But there could also be others emerging from the context we are exploring and the network that we are engaging with.’

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