By Jay Boolkin, Un-School Alumni, Melbourne 2016

In January 2016, I had the pleasure of doing the Un-School Emerging Sustainability Leaders Fellows in Melbourne alongside 15 other charismatic and inspiring individuals. The fellowship program is designed to empower emerging leaders to expand their mental toolsets, develop strong connections with likeminded people from around the globe, and activate their leadership skills. One of the things I enjoyed most about the fellowship was that it revealed how concepts and critical thinking practices, which at first seem singular and disconnected, can in fact be harnessed to effect and enact positive social change. So with this in mind, here are my top 5 favorite concepts and takeaways from the Un-School Melbourne Fellowship in Sustainability and Social Change.


Concept ONE: Systems Thinking

A set of tools, a language, or methods that look at problems as a whole instead of as separate parts.

Takeaway: Using systems thinking has encouraged me to challenge my own conventional, linear style of thinking which tends not to account for the many dynamics that contribute to social problems (and can therefore lead to unintended consequences — see below). Being introduced to systems mapping, which kind of like “visual storytelling”, has helped me identify problems, patterns and key leverage points for change. A good systems map is simple enough to be readily understandable but complex enough to account for the diverse factors that can be employed to create positive, disruptive change.


Concept TWO: Unintended Consequences

The notion that actions create consequences other than those which are explicitly intended.

Takeaway: When it comes to social change, unanticipated consequences are more or less inevitable. The world is simply too complex and unpredictable for us to know all the possible results of our actions. However, this doesn’t mean that we should give up on our attempts to reduce uncertainty. Effectively trying to foresee at least the most probable consequences of our actions, and planning accordingly, will ensure that as change agents we avoid catastrophic failures and the pitfalls that have been inhibiting social progress.



Concept THREE: Sustainability

The quality of a state or process that allows it to be maintained indefinitely.

Takeaway: Prior to the fellowship, I had (naively) thought that sustainability was purely an environmental issue — renewable energy, greenhouse gases, carbon emissions etc. I now realize that the natural environment is only one facet of sustainability, which draws on politics, economics and, philosophy and other social sciences to create better economies, businesses, governments and societies. In broadening my understanding of this powerful and compelling concept, I now realize that The Sustainability Challenge is like a balancing act between people, planet and profit. Being able to carefully weigh up the impact of decisions on sustainability is an integral characteristic of any responsible and forward-thinking changemaker.


Concept FOUR: Confirmation Bias

The tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms one’s beliefs.

Takeaway: While cognitive biases influence almost every facet of one’s life, they can have an especially detrimental effect on trying to create positive social change. Operating a social enterprise, for example, can be very complex. You’re trying to combine the innovation acumen of a business with the attitude of social service provider. As a result, any misstep could be disastrous. Cognitive biases are those mental glitches that impair our capacity to gather and access the correct information necessary to make good decisions. To allay the potential negative effects of confirmation bias, and effectively deal with them, it is vital for social changemakers to be acutely aware of that they exist and remain open to being challenged.


Concept FIVE: Tipping Points

The critical threshold at which a minor disruption can qualitatively alter the state or development of a system.

Takeaway: In hindsight, social change looks logical and foreseeable. However, experiencing the process in real-time makes it difficult to distinguish the small changes, or tipping points, that transforms the future state of the system. In attempting to drive and influence positive social change, it is helpful to be able to determine how systems, whether physical or social, demonstrate tipping point behavior. While they are often tough to predict, leveraging social tipping points is an effective way to ignite active engagement and build the critical mass necessary to provoke a significant social change.