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Helena Polati Trippe

PhD Service Design, 2012–

I did a BA at Goldsmiths in Sociology and Cultural Studies followed by an MSc in Cities, Space and Society at the London School of Economics. Both were really interdisciplinary degrees which focused on understanding people and the context of the city, particularly the Master’s programme, and the BA explored the cultural, organisational and sociological aspects of people and our societies. 

Through my Master’s dissertation, I’d developed an interest in housing. I’m from Brazil, and I was very interested in carrying out research with social movements in São Paulo, which were essentially requesting that the city authorities and national authority come up with a kind of programmatic response to chronic housing shortages. Part of their strategy was to invade empty buildings in the centre of São Paulo, to squat those buildings and to request that they be refurbished and put back into use for the purpose of providing people with more affordable accommodation. So I went to Brazil and spoke with the leaders of those movements, and visited many of the buildings. What I realised is how essential housing is, and that without it, it is very difficult to strive for education, health and many other basic rights.

To pursue that interest in housing, I went to work for a housing association in the UK as a graduate trainee for about a year. I got involved with community regeneration, economic development projects. Then, around 2004, I worked for about a year and a half with a local council in Leyton, delivering neighbourhood management projects that were voted for by the community, such as recycling, health programmes for young mothers, and helping GPs with translation, as the vast majority of the community there don’t have English as their first language. An especially successful project was getting members from different gangs together to work on community radio, music and all sorts of things.

From there, I started working as a consultant in community regeneration, housing, master planning, doing projects for public bodies and housing associations, mainly with a housing or an urban focus. I developed an interest in working more directly with businesses and councils, trying to understand how they could improve their services and open them up to community participation. I became interested in services – improving them, making them better and more accountable. I realised that a lot of what I was doing was essentially looking at their services and making a number of recommendations about how they could improve, but I felt that what I was recommending wouldn’t necessarily be enough, that the whole system needed redesigning.

At that point, I got in touch with the Service Design programme at the Royal College of Art because I thought that I was actually doing service design, but not calling it that. I had very limited tools to do this kind of work, and to understand what it would mean to actually redesign a service from scratch.

I started the PhD and, as I am not trained as a designer, the whole studio concept was something I was unfamiliar with, but I’ve come to appreciate and embrace it as a way of learning by doing. I wanted the PhD to develop my practice. What really attracted me to the RCA – apart from the fact that there weren’t any other universities at the time in London that were offering that programme – was that I would have the opportunity to not only learn something new, but to put it into practice. I really have learnt a lot from doing that.

Another thing that really attracted me to the Service Design programme was the way they encourage you to look at a familiar problem but really think about it in a completely different way. I think that is something the public sector desperately needs, and there is a huge opportunity to do a lot of good and have a lot of impact. If we keep applying the same old thinking and the same old tools we are always going to get the same results.

Doing a PhD isn’t easy, and I completely underestimated what I was taking on, but at the same time it is incredibly exciting, particularly as I am actually working on my own projects, and some of them have become things that I have released out into the real world or have the potential to do so. It is hard work but super rewarding. I have had a lot of contact with the MA students on the Service Design programme; the start-up I co-founded – RentSquare – includes two of the first MA students to graduate from Service Design. You meet like-minded people who are interested in different things, who have completely different skills.

I think my approach has changed massively since I’ve been at the RCA. I have a new mindset about how I approach things, and that gives me confidence to be much more playful with my work and to experiment, which is so important for innovation.

"Service Design encourages you to look at a familiar problem but really think about it in a completely different way. I think that is something the public sector desperately needs, and there is a huge opportunity to do a lot of good and have a lot of impact."
Helena Polati Trippe
Helena Polati Trippe