After a fueling up with breakfast (Kathleen made waffles!) and coffee, we kicked off Day 2 with what felt like a collective birthday party – everyone shared treats and gifts from their homes and shared a bit about where they’re coming from.

Piryam sharing hand-carved labyrinths with the group

We then dove straight into a session on what sustainability *actually* is. Leyla broke down green framing, why the doomsday perspective of sustainability and fear framing are problematic, life cycle assessments, end of life bias, and more. Here are a few key notes:

  • Sustainability is not about hugging trees. (Here’s a case for reframing it.)

  • People tend to have an emotional reaction to sustainability instead of a rational one but we are in a “dynamic interconnected reliant relationship with nature” so it’s really something we ought to think rationally about. Eating breathing and drinking water are not optional choices, they are life support systems for us – not protecting them is irrational.

  • Sustainability is about understanding how to make the best decisions with the resources we have to sustain life support systems on this planet. This, is a matter of intragenerational and intergenerational equity as, to quote the Brundtland Commission, sustainable development is really “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

  • We live in a finite planet with finite resources. Your ecological footprint reflects how many planets we’d need to not use more resources than we have, if everyone on earth were to live your lifestyle. Thinking about yours helps you connect your lifestyle to the impact of all the individual decisions you make in terms of consumption. (You can calculate yours here: http://ecologicalfootprint.com/ )

  • We humans tend to have an end of life bias, because that’s the part we see. Waste is framed as bad and stupid – we are taught not to litter and are encouraged to recycle. While we shouldn’t litter and should recycle (or aim to be zero waste!), often waste and end of life is not where the biggest impact is.

  • “Simple and painless” actions often don’t lead to the positive spillover (of people doing more and more, better and bigger actions) that organizations and government’s hope for. On the contrary, these simple and painless behaviour changes may allow for people to check their “did my part” box and excuse them from taking other more meaningful actions – they could even lead to a rebound effect (think about someone recycling to “do their part” but then consuming more plastic bottles because they think it’s okay because they recycle).
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When our sustainability session came to a close we dove into a session on Systems Thinking, exploring how it overcomes the human reductionism that comes out of linear thinking (the Newtonian view of the world). To quote Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  

Leyla stressed the importance of developing a 3-dimensional perspective– of being able to look down through the microscope at the micro level, up through the telescope and out through a periscope to get the lay of the land. Systems thinking stresses seeing the parts and the whole (whereas reductionism sees the world in parts) and embraces the fact that everything (EVERYTHING) is interconnected. If we fail to see the connections and come up with narrow solutions we risk a whole lot of unintended consequences. As Peter Senge has said, “Today’s problems are often yesterday’s solutions.”

systems mapping - unschool berlin

With all of that in mind, we did an activity where everyone had to list all the systems they could think of. While it was fairly easy to think of social and industrial systems, people struggled to identify ecosystems after the first few. This remade the point that Leyla rose in the morning – that we tend to be disconnected from how reliant we are on natural systems.

Fellows chose different social systems and worked to map them intuitively. After mapping elements of their chosen system that they could think of and then began drawing connections between them. Considering the connections, they were able to draw some key insights about the system they were mapping. Reflecting on the exercise, we discussed how almost every node could be connected, how many connections have cause and effect relationships, and how reinforcing feedback loops have snowball effects within their systems.

Fellows mapping systems (in this case: transportation).

With our heads recalibrated to see the invisible systems all around us, we headed out for another surprise field trip. After a pause en route to briefly discuss Checkpoint Charlie (as we passed it), we ended up at MIITO’s design studio. Partners Nils Chudy and Jasmina Grase welcomed us with tea and then dove into a talk on their journey from design students to designers. Their journey (and coincidentally, seeing Leyla's TED Talk!) led them to their current project: MIITO Precise, an award-winning energy-efficient (and really beautiful) electric kettle that heat liquids directly in the vessel through induction.

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Did you know that 165 million cups of tea are consumed every day and 65% of tea drinkers admit to overfilling their kettles? The cumulative outcome of extra energy required in 1 day could light all of England’s street lights for 6 months! This was something that we had discussed in our systems thinking session, so it was exciting to meet two designers who are actively working on addressing this.

Jasmina said that the “Biggest challenge as a designer is to change human habits.” They knew that with MIITO their approach would have to be more than just sustainable. They sought out to create a new type of kettle that would be a conversation starter, not only energy efficient but also cool, beautiful, fun to use, and rewarding on a personal level. (Which we’d say they totally pulled off – the MIITO kettle is super sleek.) 

 

As they shared their process, they also gave our fellows some advice:

  • Learning = motivation. See the whole experience as an adventure. Make life your school and give yourself assignments to DO things and learn from them as you go.

  • “Fake it till you make it – test your revolution.” 

  • “Time is luxury – innovation takes time that we don’t have.”

  • “Astronaut thinking – take it one problem at a time.” When you’re dealing with what seems like an impossible situation or an overwhelming amount of obstacles – tackle them one at a time and it will become doable.

With MIITO's redesign of the tea kettle as inspiration, fellows were asked to rethink other machines. Groups were formed and each one chose their challenge blindly (from some very mysterious bags).

Pick Your Challenge, UnSchool Berlin, MIITO

Groups were asked to consider what flaws their product have, who the primary users are, if it was a necessary item, how it could be less wasteful and if it could be replaced. After some work-time, teams dynamically pitched their redesigns of a speaker system, a blow dryer, a fan, and an iron.  

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From MIITO, we split into two groups and embarked on walking tour adventures throughout the city, which invited our fellows to see the city through different perspectives.

One of the walking tours was led by Klaus and Louis, from Querstadtein, a German organization which aims to break down the stereotypes about homelessness by telling the individual stories of those living on the street while creating a dialogue between the homeless and the housed people that share communities. Klaus, who lived on the streets of Berlin from 2001 to 2009, shared his personal story, the circumstances that forced him to live on the streets, his day to day experience of getting by, and how he was able to get off the streets and rebuild his life . After struggling with alcohol addiction and losing his job, Klaus found himself sleeping in a park in central Berlin. This became his life for 8 years and, now that he’s on the other side of it, he gives tours like these to help lift the invisibility veil and bust through people’s assumptions.

Klaus walked us through his old neighborhood and helped us understand his daily routine, how he got by collecting glass bottles and the social services that he interacted with. He also shared touching stories about people in the neighborhood who got to know him and gave him the support and encouragement that helped him move into a shelter and then become sober again. Our tour with Klaus helped us understand the people and systems that too often get overlooked, while experiencing Berlin from a unique perspective.

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Our other tour started off in front of the restaurant, Shaam, where we met our guide Firas. Firas is from Aleppo, Syria, and he explained that Shaam was the first Syrian restaurant to open in Berlin. Its name means “beauty spot” and it was opened by refugees.  He started the walk off by challenging the group to think of one Syrian celebrity... turns out none of us knew that Paula Abdul and Steve jobs were Syrian!

Firas then shared his story of becoming a refugee just over a year ago– an incredible personalized account of the challenges posed by having to flee a home country that you love (he was happy as an English teacher in Aleppo) and to figure out how to survival. He shared how tried to cross the ocean between Turkey and the Greek islands three times. On one attempt, the boat split in half and he almost lost his life–he survived but lost his friend on the way over.

Though it was raining as we walked, he brought great warmth. His story is not only one of incredible resilience, but also one that any human might do in order to survive the horror of a war-torn hometown. Listening to his experience led us to think about the things we as humans do just to exist and what we’d do to survive.

The two tours came together in the end and we went off to find a warm and cozy place for a reflective conversation and some yummy vegetarian Indian food. Fellows sat in small groups with people from both walking groups and synthesized their experiences with each other.

And...that was a wrap for day 2!