Week 15: Forget Netflix and Chill, Brain Binge with TED Talks Instead!

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TED talks are a very popular and effective format for engaging with new knowledge. Themed around technology, entertainment, and design, the talks are free to watch and last for up to 18 minute, making them more easily accessible and digestible. Many of the talks come from TED’s main conference that the organization has held annually since 1984, but a few years back, they enabled people anywhere to host small independent TED events under the TEDx program (x stands for independent). As such, an explosion of TEDx talks have popped up online, creating so many new opportunities to hear fascinating ideas.  

In 2013, UnSchool founder and lead educator, Leyla Acaroglu, was selected by the TED organizers to be one of a handful of people to be invited to the TED mainstage in Los Angeles to give a talk as part of that year’s theme: ‘The Young, the Wise, and the Undiscovered’. Since then, Leyla has  given mainstage talks all over the world about systems change, sustainability, and design as a tool for creating positive change. She has now spoken at three different TED events, including the popular mainstage one Paper Beats Plastic, then in her hometown at TEDx Melbourne with Why We Need to Think Differently About Sustainability, and most recently, in Lisbon (near her Brain Spa, the CO Project Farm) where she creatively questions, How Do We Value Invisible Things?

In this week’s journal, the team at the UnSchool have put together summaries of these three talks to highlight the relationship between them and all the fascinating content that we share at the UnSchool. 

Paper Beats Plastic, TED Los Angeles 

Have you ever been at the supermarket and been given a plastic bag which you refuse, and then get offered a paper bag instead, and told it’s better for the planet because it's made of paper? In this fascinating talk, Leyla completely busts the myth of biodegradable or natural materials being “more sustainable” by nature. She explains the life cycle assessment data on how the whole-life environmental impacts mean that the paper bags (which require more raw materials) are often a larger impact than the plastic. She is not promoting plastic, however; she is using this example to illustrate that there are no simple solutions to complex problems and that it's the system that we need to understand. She then goes on to reinforce this point through examples of poorly designed refrigerators, electric tea kettles, and cell phones.

Life Cycle Thinking and Sustainable Design are two of the 12 units we teach as part of the Disruptive Design Method at the UnSchool. The ability to understand the whole of life environmental impacts of a product, service, or system and then to apply sustainable and regenerative design principles to changing the way these things exist in the world, is one of the core aspects of positive creative changemaking. 


Why We Need to Think Differently About Sustainability, TEDx Melbourne  

Supported by Einstein’s idea that “problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them,” Leyla presents a strong case for a paradigm shift on sustainability, sharing fascinating stories of what can go wrong when we try to apply simple, reductionist solutions to complex problems — which is also known as the law of unintended consequences. You’ll learn about a bounty on rat tails (!) during French-ruled Vietnam in 1902, how CFCs infiltrated our refrigerators and everyday products, why the EU’s use of biofuels resulted in a world food shortage and the deforestation crisis, the story of cane toads in Australia, and much more as she breaks down exactly how good intentions can result in far bigger problems. 

Leyla ends the talk by sharing the power of systems thinking in discovering how sustainability is actually about self-preservation of our human species when we understand the interconnectedness of our human relationships with natural systems. These key themes of systems thinking, sustainability and creative problem solving are the three pillars that we teach at the UnSchool. Together, they form the foundations of all our content and approach to creative changemaking that we share. 

How do we Value Invisible Things? TEDx, UniverSIty OF Lisbon 

Leyla continues her renowned provocations on how we can design the world and it, in turn, designs us. In this talk you can see how she illustrates the relationship between the micro and macro systems as she dives into why our current economic systems value novelty, prestige, and status over sustainability. She explores the failures of our growth-based GDP global economic system, and shows how it simultaneously devalues the beautiful invisible things that make life magic — like happiness, Earth’s natural beauty, and the freedom to pursue a fulfilling life. 

The story is told with the help of the history of pineapples (which once cost $10,000 and were rented for parties to show wealth and prestige), diamonds (which are technically valueless), chocolate cake (which apparently you can have too much of), in Leyla’s classic style of telling fascinating stories of the everyday things that we all engage with, but don’t often think about in this way. As usual, it’s a funny, fast-paced talk that will stretch your brain and encourage you to explore how we can challenge the current status quo of devaluing the most important things in life. 

The UnSchool is all about inspiring people to activate our individual agency and take action toward a more sustainable, circular, and regenerative future by understanding the complex and fascinating systems at play in the world around us. Much of the content Leyla shares through her talks is delivered with much more detail in the UnSchool digital and in-person content and workshops. Making change takes time and hard work, but it can clearly be a lot of fun and involve creative and fascinating ways of illustrating the stories we need to think differently about so that the world works better for all of us. 

If Leyla’s work and ways of approaching sustainability and creativity interests you, then you can watch hours and hours of content over at our online learning hub, UnSchool Online. We most recently added certification tracks, in which Leyla and the team spent two years dissecting everything she knows into video and written content that makes up the extensive learning systems for the three levels of certification.

Week 14: Systems Thinking 101

Systems thinking unschool of disruptive design

By Leyla Acaroglu

At the UnSchool, we have three core pillars that make up the foundation of all that we do: systems, sustainability, and design.  The systems component is the ability to see the world for its dynamic, interconnected, interdependent, and constantly changing set of relationships that make up the complex whole. I recently shared just why systems thinking is such a powerful tool for effecting change, but a concept stuck in theory does little for the greater good. Understanding that everything is interconnected and being able to apply this knowledge as a tool for effecting change are two different things, and what’s most important is the practical experience plus the applied tools to turn theories into action. To move from ideas in the brain to practice in the real world, it helps to be equipped with the distilled and applicable knowledge about which tools can be used and how to apply these in ways that achieve the desired outcome — in our case, this is always positive social and environmental change. We have developed many simple applied systems tools, such as the systems mapping approaches, and to get you started on thinking in systems, let’s dive into the foundations of systems thinking! 


How we See the World 

The status quo of how we are all taught is to think in linear and often reductionist ways. We learn to break the world down into manageable chunks and see issues in isolation of their systemic roots. This dominant way of approaching the world is a product of industrialized educational norms – in one way or another, we have learned, through our 15 to 20+ years of mainstream education, and/or through socialization, that the most effective way to solve a problem is to treat the symptoms, not the causes. 

Yet, when we look at the world through a systems lens, we see that everything is interconnected, and problems are connected to many other elements within dynamic systems. If we just treat one symptom, the flow-on effects lead to burden shifting and often unintended consequences. Not only does systems thinking oppose the mainstream reductionist view, but it also replaces it with expansionism, or the view that everything is part of a larger whole and that the connections between all elements are critical. Being able to identify relationships over obvious parts, seeking to decipher the dynamics of these relationships, and then being able to interpret the underlying models that created the relationships is the foundation of thinking in systems. 

The Iceberg Model

The Iceberg Model

Learning to Name and Define Systems

If you had to, what words would you use to define a system? Funnily enough, many important systems are easily identified by the word ‘system’ after them, such as respiratory, education, legal or mechanical systems. Systems are absolutely everywhere, of all manners, shapes, and sizes; from the intricate workings of your body (nervous, neurological, digestive, cardiovascular etc) to the infinite possibilities of space, our world is made up of interconnected and interdependent systems. We interact with many of these which helps us understand them intuitively, but so often is the case that we are unable to identify a system that is not obvious to us — like many of the indirect natural systems that keep us alive. This can explain a lot about how we have created so many of the environmental issues we face today!

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A simple way to define a system is it will: be dynamic (constantly changing), be evolving (having emergent properties), and have a boundary (a definable limit to its internal components and processes).  Systems are essentially networks made up of nodes or agents that are linked in varied and diverse ways. By using systems thinking, we identify and understand these relationships as part of the exploration of the larger systems at play. Everything is interconnected, every system is made up of many subsystems (of which even smaller systems make these up too), and then these are also all part of much larger systems. Just as we are made up of atoms with molecules and quantum particles, problems are made up of problems within problems! Every system is like a Matryoshka doll, made up of smaller and smaller parts within a larger whole. Seeing things in this way helps to create a more flexible view of the world and the way it works, and it illuminates opportunities for addressing some of its existing and evolving problem arenas. When teaching systems thinking, I like to explain this as the ability to look through a microscope at the tiny world that makes up all matter, as well as being able to shift to the telescope and see the infinite possibilities of space and the universe. In between these two opposite perspectives, you get a more three-dimensional perspective of how the world works. 

Three Key Systems at Play

Although the world is made up of endless large and small interconnected systems, I define three key systems that make up the fundamental relationships between humans, the things we create, and our reliance on nature. These are the social systems, which are the intangible human-created relationships and culturally governing aspects such as education, government, and legal systems;  the industrial systems, which include the physical infrastructure of roads, buildings, manufacturing systems, and products that allow us to function as a society and meet our human needs, and the natural systems that are the ecosystem services which allow for the other two systems to sustain themselves, providing all the resources for humans to survive and all the raw materials for our industrial needs.  These three major systems keep the economy churning along, the world functioning for us humans, and our society operating in order (sort of, anyway!). This is, of course, a very anthropocentric point of view, one I define in order to enable people to see the deep reliance and misalignment we have with the natural systems at play. Whenever I run a workshop and we create a map of these, people often get stuck on naming all the ecosystems, but have no problem identifying social and industrial systems that they interact and rely on. 

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The fascinating thing is that the social systems are the rules and structures that make up our societies — the things that we humans have created to manage ourselves — and thus, can be reconfigured within generations. They are the often unspoken rules that maintain societal norms, rituals, and behaviors, all of which reinforce the unsustainability that we have created for ourselves. The same applies to the industrial systems — they are the outcome of our collective desires for speed, access, convenience, connectivity, success, status, cleanliness, and all manners of human desires and needs. The manufactured world is just that: created, and intentionally designed to facilitate the ever-expanding suite of human needs. However, the biggest and most important system of all, the ecosystem, cannot be redesigned or restricted without it impacting all the rest, yet we treat all natural services as though they are infinite and degradable. But clean air, food, fresh water, minerals, and natural resources need to be respected and shared with all species for the collective success of the planet. 

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6 Key Tools for Systems Thinking

Words have power, and in systems thinking, we use some very specific words that intentionally define a different set of actions to mainstream thinking. Words like ‘synthesis,’ ‘emergence,’ ‘interconnectedness,’ and ‘feedback loops’ can be overwhelming for some people. Since they have very specific meanings in relation to systems, allow me to start off with the exploration of six* key themes.


*There are way more than six, but I picked the most important ones that you definitely need to know. To dive deeper, check out my  'Tools for Systems Thinkers’ series on Medium. 


1. Interconnectedness

Systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected. We talk about interconnectedness not in a spiritual way, but in a biological sciences way.

Essentially, everything is reliant upon something else for survival. Humans need food, air, and water to sustain our bodies, and trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. Everything needs something else, often a complex array of other things, to survive. Inanimate objects are also reliant on other things: a chair needs a tree to grow to provide its wood, and a cell phone needs electricity distribution to power it. So, when we say ‘everything is interconnected’ from a systems thinking perspective, we are defining a fundamental principle of life. From this, we can shift the way we see the world, from a linear, structured “mechanical worldview’ to a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected array of relationships and feedback loops. A systems thinker uses this mindset to untangle and work within the complexity of life on Earth.


2. Synthesis

In general, synthesis refers to the combining of two or more things to create something new. When it comes to systems thinking, the goal is synthesis, as opposed to analysis, which is the dissection of complexity into manageable components. Analysis fits into the mechanical and reductionist worldview, where the world is broken down into parts.

But all systems are dynamic and often complex; thus, we need a more holistic approach to understanding phenomena. Synthesis is about understanding the whole and the parts at the same time, along with the relationships and the connections that make up the dynamics of the whole.

Essentially, synthesis is the ability to see interconnectedness.

3. Emergence

From a systems perspective, we know that larger things emerge from smaller parts: emergence is the natural outcome of things coming together. In the most abstract sense, emergence describes the universal concept of how life emerges from individual biological elements in diverse and unique ways. Emergence is the outcome of the synergies of the parts; it is about non-linearity and self-organization and we often use the term ‘emergence’ to describe the outcome of things interacting together.

A simple example of emergence is a snowflake. It forms out of environmental factors and biological elements. When the temperature is right, freezing water particles form in beautiful fractal patterns around a single molecule of matter, such as a speck of pollution, a spore, or even dead skin cells. Conceptually, people often find emergence a bit tricky to get their head around, but when you get it, your brain starts to form emergent outcomes from the disparate and often odd things you encounter in the world.

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it will be a butterfly — R. Buckminster Fuller


4. Feedback Loops

Since everything is interconnected, there are constant feedback loops and flows between elements of a system. We can observe, understand, and intervene in feedback loops once we understand their type and dynamics.

The two main types of feedback loops are reinforcing and balancing. What can be confusing is a reinforcing feedback loop is not usually a good thing. This happens when elements in a system reinforce more of the same, such as population growth or algae growing exponentially in a pond. In reinforcing loops, an abundance of one element can continually refine itself, which often leads to it taking over.

A balancing feedback loop, however, is where elements within the system balance things out. Nature basically got this down to a tee with the predator/prey situation — but if you take out too much of one animal from an ecosystem, the next thing you know, you have a population explosion of another, which is the other type of feedback — reinforcing.


5. Causality

Understanding feedback loops is about gaining perspective of causality: how one thing results in another thing in a dynamic and constantly evolving system (all systems are dynamic and constantly changing in some way; that is the essence of life). 

Cause and effect are pretty common concepts in many professions and life in general — parents try to teach this type of critical life lesson to their young ones, and I’m sure you can remember a recent time you were at the mercy of an impact from an unintentional action. Causality as a concept in systems thinking is really about being able to decipher the way things influence each other in a system. Understanding causality leads to a deeper perspective on agency, feedback loops, connections, and relationships, which are all fundamental parts of systems mapping.

6. Systems Mapping

Systems mapping is one of the key tools of the systems thinker. There are many ways to map, from analog cluster mapping to complex digital feedback analysis. However, the fundamental principles and practices of systems mapping are universal. Identify and map the elements of ‘things’ within a system to understand how they interconnect, relate, and act in a complex system, and from here, unique insights and discoveries can be used to develop interventions, shifts, or policy decisions that will dramatically change the system in the most effective way.

Although this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to systems thinking, the key takeaway is that ultimately, approaching life from a systems perspective is about tackling big, messy, real world problems rather than isolating cause and effect down to a single point. In the latter case, “solutions” are often just band-aids that may cause unintended consequences, as opposed to real and holistic systemic solutions. Looking for the links and relationships within the bigger picture helps identify the systemic causes and lends itself to innovative, more holistic ideas and solutions, for a more sustainable future that works better for us all.

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If you are ready to dive deeper into the world of systems thinking, then you should take our Systems Thinking course online, or if you are a bit more advanced, then continue to leverage that knowledge in learning to design systems interventions in this course.

You can also explore the Circular Classroom, which is a free, multilingual educational resource accessible to anyone but designed specifically for students and teachers alike to integrate circular thinking into high school and upper secondary classrooms, all packaged up in a fun, beautiful format. It offers the opportunity to think differently about how we design products, how the economy works, how we meet our needs as humans, and how to support the development of more creative professional roles that help to design a future that is about social, economic, and environmental benefits — and of course, this all begins with a systems mindset. 

I explain in detail how to do many applied systems thinking practices in my Circular Systems Design handbook, and we run in-person programs at the UnSchool that equip people to become applied systems thinkers for enacting positive change in the world. 

Week 13: Are we exploiting empathy?

By Leyla Acaroglu

Empathy, a term that was first brought into the English language in 1908, has become somewhat of a hot topic in design and business circles of late. A key part of the process of design thinking and human-centered design, it seems that “more empathy” has become the go-to solution for a myriad of problems, becoming a key part of the mainstream conversation around improving relationships and making better products and services. From better leadership, improved bedside manner for doctors, more progressive politics, and a fix for social crises like refugee relocation and homelessness, the call for more empathy is everywhere. Some schools, like this one in Denmark, are even teaching empathy in their curriculum in hopes of creating happier, kinder adults. But with considerable ethical and social implications, empathy as a tool for engaging with humans is a bit of a complex space, one that offers up many ethical issues that need some deeper exploration of this all-too-human experience.

What is empathy, and how does it affect the human experience? 

By now, you may have already seen Dr. Brene Brown’s work on empathy, especially since she has a new Netflix talk out at the moment that also dives into shame and compassion. If you have never heard of her, then you should at least check out the short video below, which illustrates the difference between empathy and sympathy and highlights the pitfalls in getting these valuable human experiences mixed up. 

Empathy is defined as the ability to feel, see, and understand the feelings of others. But empathy has a very clear physiological and neurological side to the experience (which, by the way, is a fascinating scientific process). We connect with the feelings of others because we are social beings that benefit from empathizing with those around us. In fact, our brains have mirror neurons, whereby our minds mimic the actions and facial expressions of those people we see and interact with so that we are more connected. 

Evolution has served us well when it comes to ensuring that we connect with our fellow humans. You may be one of those people that feels like vomiting when you see someone else doing it, or perhaps tears well when you hear of a friend’s pain. These are all triggered by the vagus nerve, which supports the biophysical reaction that makes up the empathetic responses we have. The vagus nerve runs down the spinal column and connects the emotional center of your brain to all the primary organs in your body, which then interprets things you see into feelings that trigger physical reactions — like vomiting or crying, or even that pang your get in your guts when you hear of a tragedy that doesn't affect you, but you can feel the loss and grief of others. 

Empathy is a cornerstone of the mammalian experience (humans are not the only ones who show prosocial behavior connected to empathy!), as it supports social bonding and builds connections by helping to identify with another’s pain or pleasure so that we can find common spaces and provide support when needed. However, there is a rising trend in misusing this powerful human connection tool to sell more products. 

Exploiting Empathy

Google search ‘empathy map’ and you will find a simple canvas used by design and marketing teams that doesn't really involve engaging with real humans most of the time. Instead, it is used to imagine a potential customer’s emotional space in relation to your product or service. Stage one of the design thinking process is to empathize with your ‘user’ by way of basic interviews and ‘putting yourself in the shoes of others’ by observing and gaining insights into how they feel or think of whatever problem you are attempting to solve. You can read more about the process in over at IDEO or d.School.

This approach to empathy has it diluted down to the sum of its parts — not as a complex holistic experience that considers the emotional, physiological, and deeply critical interpersonal experiences which have effects on people's emotional states and worldviews. Instead, it’s being leveraged to exploit people’s needs in order to sell them more stuff — stuff they may not actually need, nor perhaps can afford, because when we feel like someone understands us and we feel connected to them, we are more likely to connect with what they are trying to get us to buy. Not all empathy building is sinister by any means; much of it is done with good intentions to understand the human experience so that better services can be designed. But there certainly is a host of ethical conundrums that are evoked when empathy is used more so for extraction than for amplification of compassion and intercommunity understanding. There are many different opinions and critiques on design thinking that are worth the read (see here, here, here and here). Touted as the future of sales, with the ability to ‘empathize’ in the design thinking way, empathy can be used to find hidden desires and manipulate these into purchases, which unfortunately plays right into the systems failure of the hyper-consumption loop that has led to so many negative impacts in the first place and continues to create unintended consequences.

Does Empathy Promote Human Connection? 

I did a project a few years ago exploring leadership and specifically looking at why there are so few female leaders in the design sectors, despite the high rate of female graduates from design programs. I use the Disruptive Design Method for all my work, and in the mining phase, I conducted 30 face-to-face, semi-structured interviews with men and women from within the design industry. I asked them all the same starter question and then allowed the 20 minute conversations to flow based on their reactions. I collected data by touch typing their responses instead of recording them so that they felt more comfortable sharing their stories. As a sociologist, I am hyper aware of the power of asking questions, since questions triggers all sorts of emotional reactions in the interviewee and can open up old wounds or trigger entirely new avenues of thought.  As such, respect and consideration need to be held by the questioner. In my case, I felt so many connections with the stories and experiences of the people in front of me that, as a researcher trying to understand the experiences of others so that I could interpret a potential place to intervene to support changes, I ended up identifying a lack of empathetic understanding as a tool for shifting the status quo on this problem arena. 

But for me, this was the critical thing: this was not just about a lack of empathy toward women —  it was a two-way street. People just didn't understand the conditions and experiences of the other gender; thus it reinforced this inability to provide equitable access to resources such as mentoring, emotional support, time off for childcare, etc. Men told me of being seen as being lazy for wanting to leave early to hang out with their kids, and women found it hard to break into a Friday evening drinking circle because it just wasn’t their type of good time. Either way, everyone was stuck a little bit in their own understanding of the world, so in the context of allowing people to flourish in the workplace, building connections between genders, different age groups, and cultural diversity was a point of intervention that I felt could be leveraged to increase leadership opportunities in creative industries. 

So, I developed this Gender Equity Tookit… however, I may have been wrong. I tested the activities with hundreds of people and found, in the moment, increased levels of understanding, empathy, and connection — but I have no idea if this will affect anyone's lives when it comes to work opportunities. I believe the ability to understand others in whatever ways we can is a powerful approach to effecting positive change, but I also worry about the risks associated with one-dimensional empathy building, which leads me to the wider questions around the limits to empathy as a tool for affecting change.

Limits to Empathy 

A decades long study by Sara Konrath on the empathy levels of young people in America has shown that since the 2000’s, empathy has started to decline by around 40%, with many people saying it is not their responsibility to help other people in trouble. For some people, being empathetic is a problem; being able to feel other people’s pain can be debilitating, as it’s exhausting and can lead to a surge in the stress hormone, cortisol, and can even result in bad decision making.

In our current media landscape, where many agents are competing to milk your emotions through the algorithmic cycle of serving your own interests (like most social media platforms now do), we see just how easy it is to be drained by the pull on our empathetic responses to others’ pain and suffering. Click on a story about a child cancer survivor, for example, and the next time you are online, you are served more heartbreaking stories of children's illnesses. This uptick in feeling empathy-induced stress has led to the coining of the terms “empathy burnout” and “compassion fatigue.”  

There are counterarguments against empathy, such as the those put forth by psychologist Paul Bloom, who argues that because empathy creates a hyper focus on one individual that we identify with, it distracts us from feeling connected to bigger issues. There was this story that emerged after the disastrous earthquake that hit Mexico City in 2017 — the story of a small girl being trapped under the rubble of a school that had collapsed. The entire country was gripped with hope and anxiety when authorities announced that Frida Sofia was rescued from the rubble, only to find out days later that the entire story was made up. The backlash to this hyper-focused collective empathy was profound, especially since this same false story line had played out in the 1985 earthquake. 

Adam Waytz provides other areas of concern regarding empathy. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he says, “Failing to recognize the limits of empathy can impair performance,” arguing that it is a zero-sum gain, where the more empathy you expel in one area, the less empathy you have left for others, and critically that in itself can erode ethics.

Ethics can be misguided by empathetic responses, especially when paired with the cognitive biases we all have that support our brains categorizing and preferencing people akin to ourselves. Empathy can absolutely be exploited — and in some cases, weaponized — in order to dehumanize others. We’ve seen this play out in the political theater of the last five or so years, for example, as right-wing populist candidates have come to rise around the world.  One of the common denominators among these politicians is their use of “othering” techniques that utilize empathy for some victims and not others. They evoke a sense of hate toward some victims (such as the parents of school shootings) and portray them as liars, thus othering them. This results in what’s been called selective empathy, which not only creates division, but it also creates a major distraction around important issues that the world so desperately needs to focus on, like climate change, poverty, clean energy — basically all of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


The Ethics of Empathy 

So is empathy a useful tool for effecting change? Yes. Is it a tool that can be misused or exploited? Yes. Can empathy create more problems than it set out to solve? Yes, yes, and yes. When used as a core part of decision making, consciously or not, empathy can lead to positive, negative, and even immoral outcomes.

So what should we do with empathy? Use it well. Like any knowledge, knowing how something works should inform us on how to ensure we use it well, with respect and integrity, which is critical in the case of empathy. This means empathy should always be served with a good helping of ethics. Considering the ethical implications of triggering an empathetic response, or extracting responses based on empathy triggers in people, should, like all other aspects of our social conduct, be used in ways that don't manipulate, exploit, or create suffering in those around us. Of course, this Utopian view of ethical empathy use is far from the reality, but the case for ditching the fake one-dimensional version of empathy used by marketing and business development people is the first step in getting over the tragic empathy milking that occurs in the name of sales and profits. And for our day-to-day interactions with other humans, perhaps we should leverage compassion instead.

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At UnSchool Online we offer a host of deep dive classes into topics like ethics and empathy, cognitive bias, and systems thinking. You can also to level up your leadership and creative change making skills.

Week 12: Meet our Alumni Loo Ly Mun, a Changmaker shaking things up in Malaysia

Meet Loo Ly Mun (Lymun), a social and environmental changemaker based in Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia. He attended our UnSchool Mumbai Fellowship in November 2017 and will now be our host for the next UnSchool program happening in November in Kuching!

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Lymun and his partner Nisha run Ecocentric Transitions, an organization that works at “empowering individuals through skill-building and ecological empathy, strengthening community resilience through localized initiatives and relationship-building, and guiding early adopters in industry to champion sustainability in their core strategies.” 

The exciting thing about our fellowships being hosted by our past alumni is that we get an incredible insider perspective of the city and community we are exploring. That’s why when Lymun invited us to come to Kuching, we jumped at the chance to collaborate with him. It’s part of the UnSchool philosophy to make sure that in any place we run programs, we are invited into that space and not just parachuting in, and that local fellows help produce and run the entire complex adventure that we co-design! Hosts find the amazing local mentors, seek out unique locations and design local adventures for us to explore the social and environmental change examples that ignite creative change in our participating fellows.

We embody participatory design in all that we do, and that includes designing programs and creating experiences that take into account a diversity of local contexts, places, and people. The idea of going to Borneo (Kuching is the capital of Malaysian Borneo) excited us as it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. We are also aware that it’s an environmentally sensitive area, and our program will have unintended impacts. So working with our local hosts and producers helps ensure that our mission of having as much positive impact as possible, to contribute to the community in a beneficial way, and to mitigate any of the more undesirable impacts we may have, is achieved.

Kuching is actually the capital of Sarawak (a state in Malaysia) and offers several co-working spaces, fascinating insights into the region, and the opportunity to connect with those (like Lymun and Nisha) who are doing amazing work in sustainability and education for the area.

Borneo is one of the most dense biodiverse areas in the world

Borneo is one of the most dense biodiverse areas in the world

We recently checked in with Lymun to see hear about what impact the fellowship has had on him, why he wanted to bring the program to his hometown, and how he’s using what he learned from his time with the UnSchool. 

Hi Lymun! Can you give us an introduction to yourself and why you do what you do? 

“I’m a homo sapien. Was and always will be. I was one of those little kids that grew up with dinosaur books who could name almost all of them. Living with pets most of my life and being active in a scout troop nurtured my adoration of mother nature, along with the many creatures and vegetation that brings life within it and all around us. My natural tendencies toward science subjects led me to study electrical and electronics engineering. Didn’t like it, delved into other fields of work that’s unrelated, ventured into the dense jungles of Borneo for a 10-week expedition, found new interest in people, behaviour, and team building, came back to work in the corporate world, and then fast forward about a decade later, I founded Ecocentric Transitions (ET) with my partner Nisha. 

Nisha and Lymun of Ecocentric Transitions

Nisha and Lymun of Ecocentric Transitions

Ecocentric was born out of our hearts to preserve our beloved environment after witnessing the degradation of our favourite camping spots and hiking trails that we visited over the years, littered with trash, and overbuilt with development. 

To encourage sustainable living habits among our family, friends, peers, and the general population of planet Earth who have access to modern-day facilities like the internet, we started learning and teaching various workshops that could potentially save the human race from itself —  like gardening vegetables, making compost bins, harvesting rainwater, carbon cycles, permaculture, pinhole camera making, and many other slow- life type, repurposed base weekend explorations of the world as we know it.

This was when we discovered that kids are quite impressionable. New mission: brainwash children into becoming champions for the environment, in an ethical way. Through play and a lot of encouragement. Our work now mostly focuses on service design and experiential education programming.”

What made you come to the UnSchool and how did you find out about it?

“An opportunity to meet not one but two UNEP Champions of the Earth (Leyla and Afroz Shah) and also some of the most brilliant people in this realm of expertise? Yes, please. 

I also wanted to learn more about systems design and how our brains have an important role to play in all of this sustainable stuff. Leyla’s TED talk titled Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore was an eye-opener, and it rattled my understanding of what I know about sustainability. It made me wonder what else irks my unexamined assumptions when it comes to the everyday things that we use. This then started my research into the topic of systems design and also a bit of stalking Leyla’s work, in which we finally found the UnSchool program in the vastness of cyberspace.”

What was your experience like in the Fellowship?

“My motivation to be a part of UnSchool was to validate what I knew and believed about sustainability, and spending time with my cohort was inspiring. The energy was very positive from day one, leaders in their own right — everybody shared similar values and brought a diversity of skills and insights to the discussions. This was a bonus on top of the amazing sessions led by Leyla and Dagny.

Doing the pre-work is important, as it allowed me to better digest the content. I really appreciated the observation trips across Mumbai where we traveled in a school bus (dancing included) to observe and investigate established ‘systems’, like Dhobi Ghat, where a whole township of people manage laundry at the mammoth scale for the whole city.  Observing the working environment and living quarters and then reflecting on environmental issues, economic value, and social equity against my world view was sobering and challenging. It was also very inspiring to listen to a small group of very passionate children living in the slums of Dharavi talking about creating great change for themselves, their families, and the environment around them. 

Equally impressive was participating in the world’s largest volunteer-run beach clean-up. To top it all off, we were invited into the home of the person that made it all happen, which was even more amazing. We were welcomed by dozens of people from the local beach clean-up community where all of us packed tightly in a small studio apartment. In there, they shared great stories of their efforts to fight waste pollution on their beach home, all the while prepping dinner, socializing, and then eating it all together. And of course, there was a little crazy dancing before we said our farewells. It is truly great to see a leader share their home and celebrate each success with their community. Like a big family. 

The 24-hour no-sleep Design challenge —  we won the design challenge, yay! The time pressure created urgency, pushing our diverse team to band together. This proved how important it is to define the right question; we spent 70% of the time defining the question/challenge and 30% on developing the solution. Our mentors were great filters in instigating our solutions. 

I also appreciate some of the exercises that made us look deep within ourselves and question the very nature of our being. This has reinforced my sense of purpose and drive for the things that I do.

Sharing these personal motives with some of the fellows made me feel a lot more connected to one another in a way that we all want good things to happen in this world that we share, no matter where we come from.”

What was the main take away you had from coming to the UnSchool Fellowship?

“Knowing that we are a part of a network of people that value the same things as we do and are keen to collaborate across the world reinforces our beliefs and sense of connectedness in tackling global issues of this magnitude. This makes me feel assured and inspired in the work that we do as a collective.”

How have you amplified your change in the world you do now?

“We have learned to choose our collaborators, design work based on leverage points, and affect change on a bigger scale.”

Any other thoughts you want to share?

“We, as the human species, need to rise up against the unending hunger that’s devouring the consciousness of the planet. That hunger is called, capitalism!…. ok scrap that. Maybe the next interview.

It helps to take a few steps back and re-examine our assumptions. James Lovelock who defined the Gaia Theory evaluated what it takes to sustain life and discovered that the planet is a self-regulating organism. Everything is connected, even at the subatomic level. Everyone has a role to play in creating the future that we dream of. Let love and hope be our guide to every decision we make today, no matter how big or how small. Speak with the heart. Peace.”

To learn more about Lymun’s work and follow along with Ecocentric’s updates, check out their website: Ecocentric Transitions or follow them on social: Instagram or FB.

You can also learn more about RIMBA The Card Game, which is dedicated to 30 animals from Peninsular and Borneo Malaysia and aspires to help people recognize the various animals in an attempt to raise awareness following mass rapid deforestation and flooding, on social here: Instagram or FB

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Hurry! Applications are open for our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program for just a few more days! Get yours in today to learn more about this issue and to discover the tools for making a positive impact by design.  

Week 11: Yes, Recycling is Broken

By Leyla Acaroglu 

This pains me to write, but we all have to come to terms with the harsh reality that recycling validates waste and is a placebo to the complex waste crisis we have designed ourselves into. The things you are separating and putting in your recycling bins are probably not being recycled — and there’s a good chance that they are ending up somewhere you never imagined. 

The current recycling crisis, where much of the diligently separated waste is not getting recycled, started in January 2018, when China announced that they would stop taking the world’s recycling through enacting their “National Sword” policy, which after more than 25 years of accepting two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste, suddenly banned the import of most plastics and other recyclable materials.  This move not only stunned the world, but it also suddenly ripped the band-aid off that was holding together recycling as a viable solution to the single-use product proliferation around the world.  

A year(ish) has passed since the new Chinese legislation came into effect, and their plastic imports have dropped by 99%, forcing the bulk of the global recyclables to be landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled on docks, cast out into the environment, or sent to other countries in the region. The latter is an equally unpopular move where many countries are now openly rejecting foreign trash.  Experts now estimate that as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030. 

Recycling is a lovely idea when it works; in fact it's a fundamental part of the circular economy, after, of course, sharing services, remanufacturing and repair. But like any system that displaces the responsibility somewhere out of sight, the externalities come back around to bite us all in the ass eventually. Ocean plastic waste is just one of the massive unintended consequences of relying on a quick fix, which then, in turn, reinforces the problem you are trying to solve. Systems thinking 101: the easy way out often leads back in, and there are often no quick fixes to complex problems. Recycling as a solution has reinforced the problem, and now we are dealing with a ‘frankenproblem’. 

There has been an unfair reliance on consumers to be the responsible parties in dealing with the rise of disposable items. This is after producers and retailers have decided, without consultation, to wrap everything in plastic or replace reusables with disposables, normalizing the use of single use items by claiming them to be more hygienic and convenient than their reusable counterparts. 

There are many coinciding aspects with how this further exacerbates the issue. For example, take the issue of contamination (one of the motivators for China to stop accepting the world’s trash): many everyday items that can’t be recycled are mixed in with recyclables. Or soiled materials, like a coffee cups or food packaging, get in with clean items and then make a mess of the rest. Then there is “wishcycling,” when people who are so conditioned to “do the right thing” that they toss whatever they wish could be recycled into the recycling bin, hoping that the trash fairy will ensure that it gets recaptured and magically turned into something useful again (another spoiler: they don’t).  Furthermore, there is no universal recycling system, nor are there practices to teach an ever increasingly globalized world how to manage the complexity of this diverse practice. Nearly every state and country has different rules about how to recycle. In some places it's rinse and separate, in others it's pop it all together (no need to rinse), and in others there are very detailed separation techniques for all the different types of plastics (identified by the small number at the base of the plastic item). So we have well-intentioned citizens getting lumped with the responsibility of deciphering what they should and should not do, whilst producers make add more complex materials to the system. Of course there are just the lazy people too, who throw whatever wherever, further increasing the contamination rates, and this just makes the cost of recycling higher and results in more recyclables ending up being dumped in landfill. 

Good intentioned and well-trained recyclers the world over are up in arms over the news reports that their hard work to get things into the right waste streams is amounting to nothing. And countries around the world are sending contaminated loads of recycling back to their parent countries — often wealthy, consuming nations like England, Canada, Australia, United States, Germany, and the rest of Europe. What we have actually created is a system of dumping a waste legacy on developing economies, as few rich countries have localized recycling facilities to coup with the amount of trash generated. 

Consumer waste and recycling is a broken system that can’t be solved by just better recycling alone. Don't get me wrong — recycling, remanufacturing, and repair all have their place in the transition to a circular and regenerative economy, but the reliance on a cure-all magic system that takes your old clamshell salad box and turns it into something just as valuable and useful is very far away from the reality of the current status quo. The undeniable issue is that we have created a disposable culture, and no amount of recycling will fix it. We need to remedy this illness at the root cause: producer-enforced disposability and the rapid increase of a throwaway culture being normal

The systems failure: enforced disposability & a normalized throwaway culture

Single-use throwaway stuff permeates our day-to-day lives; it's hard to avoid a coffee cup here, a plastic bag there, some wooden chopsticks at lunch, or that boxed take-out Thai food for dinner. While it’s most prevalent in the food industry — bottles, cups, lids, straws, grocery bags, produce bags, cutlery, produce wrap, and even those single-serve little sauce sachets — recently, design for disposability has moved into the medical, transport, and government sectors just as much. Over the last 60 years since the invention of cheap plastics, and even more so in the last 15 years, since the rise in the cult of busy, we have literally designed ourselves into a disposable society. 

I have written about this before in this article on Systems Failures: Planned Obsolescence and Enforced Disposability:  “Many of the goods and services we all rely on are created with the specific intent to lose value over time so that the consumer is stuck in an enforced consumption cycle, which increases value for the producer, but not for the customer nor the planet. And the cost of dealing with all of this reduced value stuff is placed back on the customer and local governments in the form of funding local waste management services.”

That’s right, the decision by a producer or even your local cafe to swap to disposables is then costing you money in either general waste (ie landfill fees) or recycling — both of which are costly aspects for local government to manage, so much so that many are ditching recycling all together! The cost of running these cumbersome recycling systems is also one of the reasons so much plastic waste is escaping into nature via the rivers and oceans of Southeast Asia, as the rapid transition to disposable plastics has not been met by an increase in municipal waste management services. 

Recently I illustrated the extent of how we don’t see the costs of invisible things in a TEDx talk in Lisbon. 


Around the world, daily options for obtaining basic needs such as food and water have dramatically changed over the last two decades, from a reusable user experiences to a crappy plastic or paper single-use disposable option. For many, it feels cheap because it is, and it feeds into the speedy convenience-fueled lifestyles that currently dominates societies. But the long-term costs are much greater than the immediate cost cutting and time-saving perceived benefits. I know there are many hygiene benefits and that the bendy plastic straw help many people in hospitals or who are disabled, I get that a disposable diaper is so much easier than washing them, but the extent of disposable single-use products is fundamentally unsustainable. And the really insidious issue here is that we are all paying for this! We pay for the cost of a disposable lifestyle embedded in the cost of these services and products, pay for it again through local taxes, and then we pay for it collectively in the loss of natural environments like beaches and waterways. We pay for it when 90% of table salt ends up filled with microplastics, and we will continue to pay for it as long as we continue to believe that there are no consequences to our disposable addictions. 

As  awareness about environmental issues associated with waste has risen, so too has the quick fix of “make it recyclable” as a solution to disposability. This has validated the production of single-use product streams. It has given way to the myth of ‘good’ (paper) and ‘bad’ (plastic) materials, which is so problematic as all materials have impacts, but it also has distracted us from the real issue all whilst more and more products and services have shifted to disposable from reusable. 

What frustrates me to no end is that so many agents in the system just deflect responsibility to other parts. The plastic manufacturers say that the brand owners don’t want to change, and the brand owners blame the customers who then blame their governments who then blame the retails or the companies, and the cycle of blame continues. The reality is that plastic is a fantastic material for durable products, like reusable packaging systems that can be easily sterilized and reused. For example, I was on a flight recently where the food was provided in a thick plastic reusable bento box that had a salad and a snack in it, no plastic packaging, simple box wrap (although they did have disposable utensils…) but it was designed to be washed and reused over and over again. Of course washing has its own impacts too, but there is always a break-even point that can be factored into the systems design. The design solutions are actually really simple and the infrastructure interventions often financially viable, but the will to make change by societies’ institutions is significantly lacking. Where are all the pioneers who will help flip the script on our disposable world?

In the meantime, the burden of change comes down to you and me and our communities to refuse unless it's reusable — to reject the system that has been thrust upon us by ditching disposables and demanding better products and services. Of course, this is difficult for many people, but each and every action you can take does send price signals through the economy. I recently heard of a large supermarket retailer trialing package-free dispensers because they saw a shift in the market, which is dictated by economic actions of people everyday. Simply put — we need a reusable revolution to get us out of the recycling mess.

The story of Recycling is the Story of Intentional Misdirection

Magicians use misdirection to direct their audience to see what they want them to see so that they can trick you into believing what they have done is really magic. This is very similar to the tactic used to get our society to a place where recycling symbolizes the height of environmentalism. Our living grandparents will laugh at the idea of waste; they will tell us that they most likely never even had a trash bin. What was life like before disposable plastic? It was a lot more washing up, by the ‘save and reuse’ practices that, just a few generations ago, were the norm quickly got designed out of the modern world with the advent of cheap disposable materials.  

The big shift towards normalized disposability was initiated in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated in the US, with this famous Keep America Beautiful ad: it features an Italian-American actor poised as a Native American who sheds a single tear as an oblivious passerby chucks a bag of trash out of his car window, into the street. Playing on people’s emotions, the ad then drills a message that we still have internalized today: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” It took two sentences to shift the blame and guilt on disposable items away from the producers of the new disposable economy and onto the citizens they had thrust it upon. 

This ad and many others to come were funded by Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a front for a lobby group made up of representatives from the major beverage companies. The very strategic goal was to turn the attention away from the rising concern for the environment in a post-Vietnam era, as soda and milk bottles were swapped out from reusable ones (which cost the companies money in collecting and washing) to the disposable alternatives. The slight of hand trick was to make out as though the problem was not the calculated shift to normalizing disposability, but the acts of the individuals, who prior to this, were not used to non-biodegradable materials filling their daily lives. 

It’s valuable to interject here a comparison of a recycling system that holds manufacturers accountable, rather than consumers. Such a system can be found in Germany, who is considered to have one of the best recycling systems in the world, in which it recycles nearly 70% of its waste. Many trace this success back to a package ordinance that was passed in 1991, in which it “required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. This included transportation packaging, secondary packaging (i.e., the box around soda cans) and the primary packaging (i.e., the soda can).” Then, in 1996, the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act was established, and it “applies to anyone that produces, markets or consumes goods and dictates that they are responsible for the materials’ reuse, recycling or environmentally sound disposal. This act particularly targeted producers and encouraged them to focus on one of three waste management strategies: waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.” 

The contrast in policy and in recycling success rates here further solidifies that manufacturers should be held accountable for packaging and that the solution is sustainable, circular design

Redesigning systems: what happens now?

Now that China is no longer accepting the world’s recycling waste, we need to have more efficient localized recycling systems in places that help to close the loop and bring about the transition to the circular economy. The challenge is how can you help make that happen?  Additionally, closed loop service provision systems like the recently launched Loop, will help dramatically eliminate single use packaging at least. 

We are always finding ways to help people make positive change at the UnSchool and overcoming the inertia that often seeps in when problems of this magnitude are presented. So, here are some really good first steps you can start with. Individual lifestyle swaps: get some small wins under your belt to motivate you and influence others around you, by refusing single-use, taking your own, asking for reusables, or refusing to buy something. This has positive ripple effects, as the more people who see a new practice, the more normal it becomes in society at large. It might seem futile, but bigger systemic impacts come through the regular consumption choices we make everyday. Look also at what you can do it your professional life by letting your workplace know you want to help them swap from disposables to reusables.  Enough people doing this in the world at large will redesign the normalization habits of hyper-disposability so that it goes out with the trash. 

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If you want to get started on designing for a circular future, you can download our FREE Post Disposable Activation Kit, a set of free tools that we designed to help you activate your leadership and make lifestyle shifts for a post disposable future, read my book on circular systems design, listen to this great podcast from the 99% Invisible, or come to an in-person program at the UnSchool to activate your agency and learn the skills of creative changemaking.

Week 10: Alumni Profile Bao Yen: an airline host with a mission to end plastic waste

 

Bao Yen is a Hong Kong-based flight attendant who is on a mission to help make the aviation industry more sustainable.

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We first met Bao when she attended our Regenerative Systems Design workshop with Leyla Acaroglu and Laura Storm last Summer on the CO Project Farm. She inspired many people with her story of working to end plastic waste in the airline industry and shared more of her passion for this through her UnSchool Alumni Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) session.

Boa at the CO Project Farm Program in 2018

Boa at the CO Project Farm Program in 2018

Bao’s change-making story begins with a whale — you probably can guess where this is going, given the condition of our oceans and plastic pollution. One day while she was on a break from flying, a coworker showed her a picture of a dead whale found in Norway that had 30 plastic bags in its stomach. This powerful image stuck with her, and after going back to her hotel room and searching for stories about how this came to be, it catalyzed a huge transformation within Bao. The impacts of single-use plastic and the catastrophic outcomes of all the disposable stuff that the airline industry perpetuated on each flight suddenly struck her as being a significant area of change, one that she had some power and agency over influencing. In that moment, the heart of Bao’s mission started: to make positive environmental change through her sphere of influence  — the airline industry.

What is amazing is that just recently, the Australian airline Qantas did the world's first zero waste flight, and many airlines have started to ban plastic straws and drink stirrers. There are small changes in a massive issue, but one that is coming back out because people are demanding changes. There is so much power in one person standing up and asking for something different, and that is what is so inspiring about Bao’s story.

Bao started out by questioning how she interacted with customers and how this impacted their use of single-use plastics. By offering or not offering the plastic stirrer, she found that many people didn't want it (although it is usually just given without asking). She watched to see how her colleagues recycled and was shocked to discover that many were not. So, all of this initial reflective observation research resulted in her initiating a program within her airline to raise awareness around the importance of the cabin crew pre-sorting materials for recycling. She explains that even those items in the recycling bin often end up in landfills because they are contaminated with other non-recyclable waste.

Since beginning this initiative to raise awareness and train the cabin crews on proper recycling practices, the airline has seen steady improvements in recycling and other sustainability matters.

Bao also had advice for everyday travelers who can take actions to reduce their waste impacts while flying. Just remember the 4 R’s:

Reduce: Bring your own reusables on the flight so that you don’t use any single-use plastic.

Reuse: Use the same pieces of plastic throughout the duration of the flight.

Recycle: Ensure that your plastic is clean and placed in the proper recycling bin.

Reach out: Talk to the airline directly. Use your consumer power to demand action on single-use plastic.


The project Bao has helped to activate

The project Bao has helped to activate

We recently checked in with Bao to see how things are going and hear more about how she’s using what she learned from her time with the UnSchool. Read our short Q&A below!

How do you describe yourself?

“I used to think I was quite insignificant. I didn’t know my life purpose and I was very unhappy with my job. The dead whale led me to an unbelievably beautiful journey full of opportunities and endless possibilities. It gave me a strong purpose to live and resolve the challenges. I now live by the motto that I AM the change I want to see in the world. Every challenge brings an opportunity. If we have a positive growth mindset and align ourselves with mother nature, we will thrive with the environment and live a truly fulfilled life.”


What made you come to the UnSchool?

“I firstly heard about Dr. Leyla Acaroglu through an entrepreneurial friend. He founded a reusable coffee cup brand called Pokito, and his mission is to save billions of paper cups. He told me he was inspired by Dr. Leyla’s Ted Talk, Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore.  I watched that talk and it completely changed how I looked at sustainability. I then followed her page and got further inspired by her Co Project Farm, so I decided to do a workshop and creative retreat there. Turns out it was one of the most amazing and mind-nurturing trips I ever had!

 Tell us more about your initiative and how it is going?

“I started with raising awareness on our internal digital platform. When I saw something that needed to be changed, I would write an article and tag people who are in charge of that area. For example, our laundry company used to cover the washed uniforms with plastic bags. After I posted a discussion and had my colleagues’ involvement, the company removed the practice and millions of plastic bags will be saved.

Another example is that on rainy days, we used to provide one-off plastic bags for wet umbrellas in the office buildings. After I raised the concern and worked with relevant parties, the headquarter now has a reusable umbrella drying facility. Not long ago we stopped giving single used plastic bags, cutleries, and containers in our canteen. There is a big cultural and awareness shift in my airline since I started three years ago. Our voice is very powerful, and I encourage everyone to raise their voice in a respectful and helpful manner in their platforms.”

How did the UnSchool help you start/evolve it?

“Systems mapping and thinking* are so helpful in approaching the environmental challenges. They enable me to see the bigger picture, find the pain point, and come up with an effective solution. I also learnt from the workshop that waste is essentially a design problem and thus, we can resolve the challenge by changing the design. I used that principle to approach the in-flight waste challenge, and it has been so helpful. Staying on the Co Farm and being with inspirational people, close to nature and animals, learning that everything is interconnected really opened up my mind and heart. I loved the creative retreat so much!”

*To discover more about systems thinking, check out this course at UnSchool Online. or read any of Leyla’s articles on the topic here  

How can people engage with, support, or follow your work?

“If you have creative solutions or sources for resolving the aviation waste challenge, you can reach me via my email. Also, please write to the airlines you fly with and tell them how much you want them to run sustainably. Constructive feedback and useful solutions offered by passengers are always welcomed!”


Thank you, Bao, for activating your agency and being a positive contributor to creative problem solving in the sky!



 

Week 9: Unlocking the Power of Systems Thinking

 
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By Leyla Acaroglu

I have long been a fan of showing how problem solving desperately needs systems thinking. If you are familiar with my work, you may have already seen the series I wrote on Systems Thinking, but let me share the personal experience in how I came to uncover the power of thinking in systems,  the insights that I gleaned from seeing the world through a series of interconnected systems at play, and some reflections on how this has helped me make more positive change through my creative work. 

I first encountered systems thinking as a practice around 8 years ago just as I started my PhD, and it completely blew my mind. I was going a bit mad at the time, as researching a PhD tends to result in some strange deep dives into all sorts of tangential aspects of your professional practice. At that time, I was exploring many of the adjacent fields to my actual area of study — sustainable design. This could otherwise be called procrastination, but I like to call it productive distraction. Days would start with looking into some more sustainable material processes and then I would end up looking into fractals, Newtonian physics, reductionisum, Lakoff’s work on metaphors... and then somehow in one of these Internet binges, I ended up in the world of systems and the fascinating transition from the mechanical worldview (thanks in part to Newton) through to the evolution of biology as a field of science which helped to form the foundations of understanding the interconnected systems that make life possible, which in turn helped to form the field of systems dynamics.

I then realized just how mechanistic my own thinking was, and in turn how this dominate worldview, that the world operates like a well-oiled machine, was supporting many of the reductive and damaging practices that sustainability was trying to resolve. So doing something about that became a new priority, and still is to this day.

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Everything is interconnected

I remember spending one particular weekend locked in my apartment, watching every single documentary I could find about fractals, self-similarity, and the science of interconnectedness and basically nerding out on the relationships between everything. I found this beautiful introduction by Kauffman, and it was like a Disney movie in my mind where all the pieces of a puzzle magically came together in a Gestalt-esque moment of interconnectedness. I had been existentially  grappling with how to rationalize the randomness of so many of the problems/issues that I was wanting to be apart of changing, and then it all just slotted into a place as I started to see that everything as part of interconnected, interdependent systems, and that we are all affected by, and in turn, influencing them. 

To say my brain fell in love is an understatement. 

Hungry for more, I went on a knowledge scavenger hunt finding Russell Ackoff’s videos on YouTube (I consider him the best speaker on systems thinking. Ever.) and reading Peter Senge, Donella Meadows, and anyone else who had written on the topic in the last 25 years (quick side note, biologist von Bertalanffy, is credited as coming up with general systems theory, however did not uncover his work much later on).

All this cemented the realization that everything was interconnected and that in order to leverage creativity while working in sustainability — actually, in order to do just about anything — one needs to know how to see, identify, and think in systems. It also made me acutely aware of the diversity of explanations and approaches to systems thinking. Some are super obtuse and hard to penetrate, leaning more towards the engineering side of things, whereas other theorists are more lenient on their readers, prioritizing clarity rather than complexity (even though complexity is a critical part of systems thinking!). Take Meadows, for example — a fantastic systems thinker, but the entire first chapter of her book focuses on bathtubs as an analogy for systems dynamics. It might just be me, but it really did take some time for my brain to get what she was saying! And now? Well I can’t get in a tub without thinking about stocks and flows!

So started my love affair with this practice and my desire to figure out how to bring it into the design world. I developed a class for the university I was teaching at called ‘Systems Thinking for Designers’, and my students and I looked at how systems thinking could positively impact the design process.

Then, through my PhD, I began exploring nodal transfers as a theory of change and overlaying this new holistic worldview with my training as a sociologist. Years earlier, I had started to work in the extrapolated version of life cycle assessment, life cycle thinking, so adding the systems element to the understanding of how things impact each other in the linear supply chain was really empowering. Suddenly, the everyday impacts of how material flows were intersecting with the cultural layers of social interactions, the power plays, and the systems dynamics all become more accessible as the transition to focusing on relationships and non-obvious elements in a system become more prominent for me. I really could see how the multi-layers of social, industrial, and ecological activities intersect, impact, and, ultimately, change one another.  

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Fast forward a few years, I had finished my PhD (thank gosh) and founded the UnSchool of Disruptive Design in NYC. I now had the big challenge of distilling all these years of research,  into engaging, shareable, and practical tools that would support others in picking up the systems mindset. I started to develop all sorts of systems mapping activities for workshops and refined the ones we now share — cluster mapping and the adapted interconnected circles maps. I advanced my life cycle thinking activities, as well as added X-maps into the mix,  and now we have a suite of tools at UnSchool Online that thousands of people around the world use to help them learn to love a problem, see the relationships before trying to solve said problem, and identify the areas where they can intervene within their agency and resources.

For me though, the most powerful thing is the moment when your brain just starts to see systems rather than the obvious things that we are trained to see. Sounds cheesy but it is really a superpower that anyone can access with a bit of training and overcoming the reductive mindsets that we were all taught in our linear education systems.

In order to overcome the global issues we are challenged with,  we need to change the linear, reductionist, status quo abiding thinking that reinforces breaking the world down into manageable chunks that can be controlled, where issues are attempted to be dealt with in isolation. What we need is to shift from a linear and reductionist dominant mindset to dynamic circular systems thinking

unschool systems mapping

Why Systems Thinking is So Powerful?

Right now, there is no shortage of big complex messy social, political, and environmental problems that need to be addressed, from climate change to the rise in racism, homelessness, child exploitation, global politics and climate change. Taking a systems approach allows for a dynamic and intimate understanding of the elements and agents at play within the problem arena, enabling anyone to identify opportunities for intervention.

These tools are critical to overcoming the reductive mindset we were all taught in school — a mindset that teaches us to break the world down into individual and manageable parts, rather than see the complex, interconnected whole. But here’s the thing: problems never exist in isolation, they are always surrounded by other problems. The more you can comprehend the granulation and context of a problem, the greater your chances are of finding a truly effective solution that is within your capacity to enact. Problems are just unaddressed opportunities waiting for a creative mind/s to tackle them. 

The good news is that undoing linear and rigid thinking is pretty easy because, thankfully, humans naturally have a curious and intuitive understanding of complex, dynamic, and interconnected systems that make up the world around us. So, it’s really not that hard to rewire the thinking codes from linear to expanded, from 1-dimensional to 3-dimensional thinking. It’s one of the reasons I developed the Disruptive Design Method, which is a three-part approach to learning to love problems and dive under the obvious to explore the dynamics of an issue before attempting to build a solution to address it. 

The three stages of the DDM are Mining, Landscaping and Building

The three stages of the DDM are Mining, Landscaping and Building

Leadership and Systems Thinking 

Without a doubt, the best leaders and problem solvers are systems thinkers, as they are naturally seeking out how parts fit within a complex whole and looking for the interconnectedness of issues and elements within a system. Understanding that the health of a system is defined by its diversity means that we avoid designing homogeneous systems, and instead we see flourishing complex robust systems. Furthermore, leaders who possess a systems mindset are more flexible and divergent in their solutionizing around issues that they face; they embrace curiosity and ask questions before trying to provide answers. As a result, outcomes are less likely to lead to unintended consequences or transference the issue to somewhere else in the system (shifting the burden). When solutions are systemic in nature they address the root cause instead of the obvious symptoms of a problem set. Critically, they know that the smallest part of the system has the power to make the most change, the challenge is finding that sweet intervention spot. 

In short, systems thinking helps unlock creativity and provide a fertile breeding ground for completely flipping your mind upside down and inside out, in the best possible way. Embracing this systems approach will help you evolve problems into effective, sustainable solutions and empower your agency to affect positive change.  

Future Thinking

I truly believe that thinking in systems  is the one core skill needed for being a leader in this next century. There is a strong  relationship between the reductive linear economy that is causing so much of the ecological and social exploitation and the reductive thinking that currently dominate our companies and governments. I see the failures of GDP and the non-inclusion of environmental services in our economic system. I can see how recycling validates waste, and that laying blame outside of our jurisdictions helps us all avoid making change. 

 
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No matter how big the problem, the complex problem-loving mindset that systems thinking has given me is like a secret weapon of hope and possibility against all the negativity and merchants of doom that increasingly dominate the media landscape. When there is no blame, there is so much space for exploration, curiosity, and creativity. Personally, I think one of our biggest challenges of our time is the collective hope deficit, and embracing systems thinking helps to overcome that.  

The tools included in the Disruptive Design Method help me rise above the despair (right after I have had a good cathartic complaint session first), but the possibility for change is just as real as the catastrophic predictions, because everything is interconnected, the future is undefined, and the possibilities for creative change are endless —  if you just know how to see, value, and work within the systems that sustain us all. 

My hope for the future is that we, as societies, start to embrace more complex understanding of the world we have the pleasure of living in, that we see systems instead of silos, and adopt changes to education universally that teach the tools for the future, not the past and that we find ways of being a regenerative force on this beautiful magical planet we all share.

I’ll leave you with 6 insights that I have gleaned from embracing a systems mindset that hopefully will pique your curiosity and help you to fall in love with systems thinking like I did: 

  1. Everything is interconnected. There is no blame because everything is connected to everything else

  2. Today’s problems are often a result of yesterday’s solutions

  3. You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that caused it

  4. Easy solutions can lead to negative impacts elsewhere

  5. The easy way out often leads back in 

  6. Systems are dynamic and constantly changing, and therefore we can all change them too!

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Where to get started? I have written a short 11 Key Principles of Systems Thinking. You can also take our Systems Thinking course online and then continue to leverage that knowledge in learning to design systems interventions in this course.

You can also explore the Circular Classroom, which is a free, multilingual educational resource accessible to anyone but designed specifically for students and teachers alike to integrate circular thinking into high school and upper secondary classrooms, all packaged up in a fun, beautiful format. It offers the opportunity to think differently about how we design products, how the economy works, how we meet our needs as humans, and how to support the development of more creative professional roles that help to design a future that is about social, economic, and environmental benefits — and of course, this all begins with a systems mindset. 

Apply to join our 7-day adventure into systems thinking, sustainability and design as tools for activating positive change with our fellowship program happening this November in Kuching, Malaysia. 

 
 

Week 8: Why Care About Deforestation?

 
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By Leyla Acaroglu

There is this painful, old-school mental image of a ‘treehugger’ — an almost derogatory term used to describe someone who cares about the environment so much that they just hug trees. I usually make jokes when I do talks about how I love the planet but I don’t hug trees, as they have spiders and could ruin my clothes. But silly jokes of my spider fears aside, my perspective on trees has changed a lot over the last couple of years, as I took on an abandoned olive farm, which is now the CO Project and started to regenerate it. The farm has some 150 established trees (and a couple hundred new babies we have planted), all of which I am now a custodian of. As a result, my appreciation of and fascination with trees has grown immensely. I still have not hugged a tree per se, but I certainly do talk to them!

The CO Project Farm olive and citrus trees

The CO Project Farm olive and citrus trees

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The magic of trees

Firstly let me tell you how trees really are magical. Some of my several hundred year old olive trees have no insides, just a bark shell, and yet they burst into life every spring and drop a bounty of olives every year, despite looking as though they have no heart. Each autumn, when the weather cools, they become homes to all sorts of moss and animals and morph into these grandparent-like figures for all the life that needs shelter. The same goes with the fruit trees — they drop their leaves every year at the end of summer and appear to go to sleep. But, I have noticed that they are actually using all their energy to make tiny baby apples, apricots, or plums, and then, come summer, they burst with delicious delights that nourish and sustain our bodies. 

Trees and humans have a very intrinsic relationship. We obviously eat their fruits, use their wood, and rely on them to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and purify our air. To top it all off, they regulate the climate, keep soils from eroding, provide habitat to other animals, and if all that is not enough, they also apparently ‘talk’ to each other via secret underground networks!  

So, when we decided to host out 10th Emerging Leaders UnSchool Fellowship program this upcoming November in Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia — a very rainforested area of the world — I wanted to discover more about how deforestation is affecting systems. You may have already heard of the issues with palm oil and the clear-felling that occurs to feed the world’s insatiable appetite for cheap oils (that end up in cookies, soaps, and many industrial processes), so in this week’s journal article, I wanted to explore the impact that deforestation has on all of us and find out more in preparation for our Fellowship.  

the magic of tress

What Causes Deforestation? 

Globally, we have cut down 3 trillion trees since industrialization, and it is assumed there are 3 trillion still standing.  Since humans started using forest products, over 46% of trees have been cut down, adding to the climate crisis since, as we pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we also cut down the things that absorb and convert it

Farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling combined account for more than half of the world’s deforestation. The main drivers, however, for the destruction of the hyper-diverse Malaysain rainforest (home to the delightful orangutans) is paper pulp logging and palm oil, the latter being a cash crop that creates one of the cheapest forms of lubricants on the global market. There is also a significant amount of illegal logging for hardwoods that then end up making their way into furniture and outdoor decking. There are some international policies to attempt to curb this trend, but poverty  and economic needs often drive people to find ways of still exploiting the forests. 

The immediate impacts of this, such as biodiversity loss and wildfires which often affect monocultures rather than natural ecosystems, are increasing in intensity and further increase the loss of trees. Around the world we have seen many intense and deadly forest fires such as in California where over 100 million trees were lost in the 2018 fires.  These kinds of extreme fires will only increase with the threat of climate change. Sadly, there are claims that fires are lit intentionally and even articles about firefighters starting fires so that they could get paid to put them out!

Overgrazing of native animals can also cause tree loss, but nature seems to have some smart resistance, such as the case of Acacias in Africa that developed a toxin in their leaves to kill off the over populated Antelope. Incidentally, the reduction in shepherds’ animals munching through the undergrowth has been attributed to the severity of the fires. However, the grazing of farm animals, such as goats (who I can confirm will eat anything, as we have 4 on the farm and if they had it their way, they would eat every leaf they could get their teeth on!) is part of some fire prevention strategies.

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The Systems Impacts of Deforestation

Trees are a keystone species in our shared planetary ecosystem, so cutting them down and destroying their systems is a detrimental blow to any ecosystem — specifically, us.  From climate impacts to desertification, soil erosion, fewer crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases, and loss of home lands for indigenous people, there is a whole slew of systemic impacts related to deforestation.

Not only is deforestation directly impacting us humans, but the destruction of natural habitats for plants and animals is another systemic effect that must be addressed. 80 percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and right now scientists say we are going through the sixth great extinction on Earth, mainly due to the activities of humans (like deforestation) and overconsumption. Consider what happens to the soil when the trees are cut down. Tree canopies are a little bit like the hair on your head, which protects your skin from the sun and helps to keep you cool. Without dense tree coverage, the soil is exposed to the more sun which changes the types of things that can grow. If you have ever been in a forest, you would know that the temperature is completely different; we seek shade under trees when having picnics because they do a brilliant job of protecting what's underneath them. The loss of these tree canopies has been detrimental, with, in the last 40 years, roughly 40-50% of species going extinct and the greatest losses being in Asia and Australia (where I’m from). Biodiversity is what makes Earth, Earth. Without diversity, we have weak systems that are susceptible to disease — which then breeds a new onslaught of system impacts.

Something else happens with the loss of these tree canopies, too — all of the carbon dioxide that the trees were storing as they grew is released back into the atmosphere when the trees are burned. And this is no minor source of climate problems — the current deforestation rate is outpacing the sum of all the world’s cars and trucks on the road to add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than automobiles do. Additionally, it’s striking to  consider how beneficial trees are to carbon mitigation. One estimate states that tropical tree cover can provide 23% of the climate mitigation needed to reach the Paris Climate Goals by 2030. But with the current profitability connected to the consumption habits of us 7.6 billion humans here on Earth, it’s going to take a true systemic effort to preserve our forests as long-term investments into sustainability versus the current short-term profits connected to extracting forest-related resources for goods. 


How We Can Change our Destructive Habits? 


Yes, it is complicated. The drivers of clear felling, forest fires, and land clearing are many, from paper production, through to grain production for the livestock industry (many drivers for the clearing of Brazilian rainforest), wood products, the need for cash crops, or even the increase in the world’s desire for coffee and chocolate. These are all directly linked to consumption, which offers some scope for individual choice preferencing, so needless to say, the issues are multilayered.

Forests cover 30% of the world's surface (in contrast oceans cover 71%), so there is much scope for reversing the destructive nature of deforestation. India and China, two of the world's most populated countries, have made huge efforts to reforest, a solution that can have many benefits, like purifying drinking water, reducing carbon in the atmosphere, cleaning the air from pollutants, and providing economic opportunities for current and future generations. 

On a personal level, you can protect the trees you have some sort of custodianship over. Buy land and allow it to rewild — take inspiration from the famed children’s book author Beatrix Potter, who purchased 14 farms and more than 4,000 acres of land in England. This kind of foresight can help to protect vulnerable land from development and support your own kind of carbon sink. If you can’t buy land (it's surprising how cheap abandoned farmland can be!), you can certainly help by planting trees in your community or supporting organizations like this one that are replanting forests impacted by deforestation.

Of course, making informed choices when it comes to consumption is an important everyday micro-action that you can begin taking immediately. Opt for plant-based proteins instead of meat (meat production is a big driver of deforestation), go paperless as much as possible, skip products that contain palm oil (unless you have concrete proof it’s been sustainably sourced), advocate for the rights of indigenous people, burn firewood responsibly, and continue staying connected to a community of like-minded changemakers who give a shit about protecting the world’s resources so that we have a future that works better for us all! If you really want to level up, learn more about this issue and get connected to people making change, then join me this November in Malaysia at our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program.

 
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Applications are now open for our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program. Get yours in today to learn more about this issue and to discover the tools for making a positive impact by design. Applications due by July 12. Apply here >