stlth513a--40627_m guest article by Irene Ng

My research lies in the understanding and design of complex service systems, which come in many forms. An outcome-based contract for Rolls Royce engines to the Ministry of Defense, complex service and logistics contracts to deliver a bank of flying hours for the Tornado or Typhoon jets, community services provided by a city council, knowledge-based collaborative networks of health partners such as hospitals and universities, economic models and operating systems of cruise ships; these are some of the complex service systems I have had the privilege to work with over 15 years of being an academic and 10 years as a practitioner previous to that.

These service systems share many commonalities that also contribute to their complexity. They involve business models (of firms in the system), behaviours (of people within the system), economic models (who does what, who gets what in the system) and technology/engineering (whether it’s a product, platform or software). Together, they are entities within a system that, in one way or another, provide a service i.e. A competency into the system (I subscribe to the S-D logic definition of service) so that the system functions viably.

Of late, I have been advising on another complex service system that brings me back to my economics roots; markets. Before discussing this further, I just want to qualify the type of academic that I am. My academic life comprises two parts; one that reflects the phenomenon and the other that shapes the phenomenon.

stlth513a--40641_mIn REFLECTING a phenomenon, my research is much like a business school professor. I collect and analyse data to describe, create insights and write papers for publication in journals. In this sense, I am a social scientist, a business research academic in a technology/engineering school.

But the second part of my work is not usual for a business academic.

In SHAPING a phenomenon, my research is in inventing, designing and/or innovating a live system. This is where my work takes on the science and engineering approach. I use the knowledge base across disciplines to shape service ecosystems such as markets and other social systems, the result of which sits within a future space. In this space, I have a portfolio of more than £8m in grant funding, and in this sense, I behave more like a science and engineering professor, with my own team of researchers.

We (my team and I) research into, and design service ecosystems. In particular, hybrid socio-cyber-physical service ecosystems (also called smart service systems), which could be MARKETS, SMART CITIES, URBAN TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS or systems relating to Internet-of-Things such as SMART HOMES or Communities.

080And it’s actually quite hard. For example, we have a project running on the design of a market for personal data ( We write a shed load of papers on the back of the project and design the market as well. These are challenging tasks and I love it because as an academic, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do; to both reflect and learn from the present and the past as well as shape the future, which means making a difference.

However, unlike many academics who do this through teaching future entrepreneurs, inventors and managers, I do it through direct interventions, usually in live environments which often makes it quite experimental, and may not work!

I am often asked about where I acquire my knowledge. Upon reflecting on my history both in academia and practice, I’ve come up with the following list of what I’ve learnt and why I need it :

  • Incentives and mechanism design from Industrial Economics, to understand how to align parties so that the market can self-regulate and reinforce itself to spiral upwards.
  • Pricing and revenue models from Industrial Economics, to understand the customer, the role of money and risks in purchase and transactions
  • Psychology and behaviours from Consumer Psychology in Marketing, to understand why people adopt a product/service and why they behave the way they do in the context of creating value-in-use.
  • Behaviours from sociology and social identity theories, to understand what motivates people to behave the way they do, the mundane crises they face and how they live daily lives.
  • Online interaction from HCI (Human-Computer Interactions), to understand why, how and when people go online and use digital tools, and how technology mediates behaviours or become entangled within the social practices. Combining HCI/consumer behaviour/marketing/economics, I needed to understand when and how users buy online and the context of the need that motivated the purchase.
  • Information, data and structures from Information systems, data science and analytics, to understand how individuals process information and how data generation is relevant to social systems.
  • Meaning and value creation from Axiology and Heideggerian philosophy of being and time, agency and practice theory, to understand how and why human beings enact meaningful practices to create value with things they buy and use and what motivates purchase.
  • Systems from Beer’s viable systems theory, to know what makes a system viable and understand how social systems (such as markets) evolve, create order, disorder and entropy. To understand the whole as well as the parts, in terms of how they interact within the whole, to form the whole.
  • Product and service design, to know how a product/service’s design of modularity and function fits user practices and motivations and the way consumers create value with it, and to understand how products could be redesigned into socio-cyber-physical offerings to support the system.

Over the course of 15 years, I have published in most of these areas listed, mainly because I have great collaborators and I actively seek out their knowledge to help with the challenge, of shaping and designing of the ecosystem. I also have a great team of researchers ( specializing in decision theory, ontology engineering, consumer culture theories, modularity & architectural innovation, information systems, economics, supply chain, monetization of digital services, consumer experience and loyalty.

I sometimes feel I am on a lifelong journey of learning, creativity and play, but I do enjoy both puzzling over a challenge as well as writing about it. And I believe service systems knowledge is the transdisciplinary domain area that sits at the heart of the future. May there be more researchers joining the fold!

Prof Irene Ng 12AIrene is Professor of Marketing and Service Systems and Director of  International Institute of Product and Service Innovation at the WMG of the University of Warwick

After 10 years in practice where she was an entrepreneur and practitioner, Irene Ng went on to do her PhD at the NUS Business School, completing in 2005. She began her academic life in 2002 at the University of Nottingham campus in Malaysia before moving to the University of Exeter Business School in the UK in 2003 as a Lecturer in Marketing, becoming a full professor in 2009. Irene was a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Manufacturing (engineering department) for 3 years (as part of her AIM service fellowship), and in 2011, she took on the Professor of Marketing & Service Systems post at WMG, University of Warwick (a multi-disciplinary technology/engineering department) and also became the director of the International Institute for Product & Service Systems. Irene’s profile is at: