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 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

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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 5: Alumni Laura Francois Tackles Sustainability Through Incredibly Creative Interventions

Image courtesy of Laura Francois

Image courtesy of Laura Francois

During the past 4+ years that the UnSchool of Disruptive Design has been helping people make positive social and environmental change, and on the journey we’ve met some seriously incredible humans that are dedicating their lives and careers to creative problem solving for a better future.

We’re excited to share some of their stories here in our Journal to show you how they’re applying the Disruptive Design Method and all the different kinds of positive impacts they’re creating.

Today, we’re showcasing Laura Francois, a Canadian community engager, storyteller and impact strategist focused on the social impact space in Canada, India, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Singapore.

Her UnSchool Story

We first met Laura when she attended an advanced training in Circular Systems Design at UnSchool Online. She had been working intensively with textile artisans from low socio-economic backgrounds, exploring methods of economic opportunity and environmental sustainability by connecting them with the wider fashion industry. Then she decided to get more focused and level up her change-making and so she signed up for our Online Advanced Circular Design Training program in January 2018.

“THE UnSchool continually reminds me to question what I think I know. So much of my work is about awareness building, and starting conversations around sustainability with industries and sectors that all speak a very different language from one another. My experience with THE UnSchool built the groundwork for me to experiment with these conversations, thinking about speedy growth and vitality as a false sense of change. Slow, steady and always questioning wins the race”

Laura was already doing inspiring things, having been highly focused on the sustainability in the fashion industry for many years leading the Fashion Revolution movement in Malaysia and Singapore. But Laura felt a disconnect between the general views of sustainability and what the individuals working along the fashion supply chain were witnessing and experiencing.

Frustrated with the status quo of conversations around sustainability, Laura was looking to break the cycle of greenwashing and gain perspective on the industry she was navigating.  She decided to join UnSchool program to gain a new perspective on the same old problem, and she explains how she walked away from the training with new habits and ideas that she continues to exercise every day. Laura told us, “Regardless of the type of project, learning to take on the more detailed, systemic, and multidimensional perspectives of how things work (or don’t work!) inspired me to keep creativity and design at the forefront of my social and environmental impact projects”.

Creative Projects and Interventions

Laura experienced a turning point in her work when she discovered an abandoned garment factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that had recently gone bankrupt. She stumbled upon hundreds of thousands of tons of textiles still in the factory that had no plan for their end of life. Listen to her share this story and more in our 2018 DIF showcase. This experience inspired her to begin her project Clothing the Loop, a collaboration with Von Wong, who is an internationally renowned photographer that is “notorious for documenting his intrepid adventures” — and who wears the same clothes every single day!

Laura Francois waterfall

In a series of three art installations, the team created three giant structures that honor the natural resources most greatly affected by fashion: the air, the water, and the trees. There in the abandoned factory, they created three installations: a tornado, a waterfall, and a tree, using basic household materials and the clothes that they’d found. Their goal was to give life to 2,500 kilos of textiles — which is the amount of clothing that the average person wears in a lifetime — while showing the world the impact of our everyday fashion choices. Though the installations were eventually taken down, the project inspired Laura to work with the new building owners to infuse the history of the factory within the space and to make a statement about textile waste by building functional co-working spaces out of the leftover fabric.

Following the same idea as Clothing the Loop, Laura and Von collaborated again to create “The Tallest Closet in the World,” a 9 meter tall immersive installation at the Mall of Arabia in Cairo, Egypt, that showcased 3,000 garments as a visual representation of how much clothing each one of us, on average, uses in our lifetime. The clothing donations also support refugees in Cairo.

“In 2009, the Tak Fak garment factory in Cambodia closed due to bankruptcy leaving hundreds without compensation. According to local reports, some 130 Cambodian garment factories closed that year, leaving more than 30,000 workers jobless and an additional 30,000 temporarily out of work. That wasn't all. The Tak Fak factory closed leaving thousands of bags of unfinished clothing behind it's doors. For almost a decade, the clothing just sat there. That is, until October 2017 when we walked in for the first time.”

Laura Francois

Tackling Plastic Waste

Laura has recently expanded her work to include awareness about the global impact of plastic waste. Plastikphobia is a brand new exhibit by Von Wong and Joshua Goh that Laura co-produced. The goal of this project was to answer one question: What percent of single-use plastic cups do we Take-Out vs. Eat-In?

The incredible art exhibition was open to the public at the Sustainable Singapore Gallery at the Marina Barrage from the 7th of March to the 18th of April, 2019.

“Plastikophobia is an immersive art installation made from 18,000 plastic cups collected from local food centers across Singapore to raise awareness for single-use plastic pollution.”

So many of the UnSchool Alumni do incredible things and we love to share their ideas and interventions to help inspier others to do more creative change-making work. If you are passionate about making change then come to an UnSchool program or sign up for one of our online classes.

Laura Francois

We are so proud of the work that Laura is doing and happy that we could support her at the UnSchool! You can follow her work at www.laurafrancois.com or @laurafrancois_ on Instagram.

WEEK 1: One Person Can't Save the World, but Everyone Can Change It

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By Leyla Acaroglu

Our lives are made up of actions that come about as a result of choices that we often make based on the available information we have on hand.

So when someone sees a tsunami of problems presented to them day in day out by the mainstream and now social media, it's easy to assume that these issues are disconnected to us, that poverty or environmental problems are the outcome of poor policy decisions, or even someone else's bad choices.

From a young age we are taught cause and effect; we intuitively know that every choice has ramifications. If you turn on a tap to get water, it only flows because there is an entire system that has been set up to enable it to do so. This is made painfully obvious when, for whatever reason, the water doesn't flow. Say you forget to pay your water bill, or a pipe bursts due to traffic work somewhere down the street, and suddenly you are confronted with a system impact that is an immediate loss of something that you are used to being always available to you. There are actions you can take to remedy this situation, like calling the water company or paying your bill if you have the means to do so. But, when it comes to bigger issues outside of your immediate control, the actions an individual can take to remedy the situation are less obvious and often far from the mind's ability to contribute constructively — so it chooses to avoid the issue instead.

We live on a planet that is intrinsically interconnected; we breathe in the byproduct of photosynthesis, which in turn oxygenates our blood and allows us to breathe out carbon to contribute to the cycle continuing. Each one of us, no matter how big or small our sphere of influence is, has an impact on the world around us. Everything we use, say, do — it all has the potential to unintentionally cause a negative impact or intentionally have a positive one, and that is why being equipped with the tools for making systems change is so fundamental in overcoming the reductive avoidance that so many people opt into.

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Know it or not, our lives are marked by change — changes that we can’t avoid.

For example, age: each birthday, the age we define ourselves by goes up by one.

  • Hair: it grows, goes gray, is lost, and in some cases, grows in very odd places.

  • Weather: it gets colder, hotter, and even more so nowadays, it's getting weirder.

  • Life aspirations: if you followed the dreams of your five year old self, you may be a miniature dragon doctor now.  

  • Opinions: every other day they should change.

  • Days: like seven times a week they change.

  • Lovers: insert your time frame here _____, but what we love changes over time as we grow and evolve as humans.

Change is the one constant in life (thanks Heraclitus for this great quote). We are all changing constantly, and the world we interact day in day out, changes us.

It’s less often that you are saving things. Like maybe you saved a baby from a burning building in your dreams (or in real life if you are a firefighter perhaps?), or you may have recently saved a breakable item from smashing on the floor. You may even be one of those people who is good at saving money. But changing is way more common than saving, so let's get this straight. YOU, yes you, you change the world every single day that you are alive, and in turn, the world changes you. You are in an interdependent relationship with a bunch of systems and hidden processes that you may not have any idea about, and together, we are going to uncover what they are, how they work, and why you can help change them by activating your creative capacity and leadership so that you can contribute to helping the world works better for all of us.

The saying “change is hard” is often used as an excuse for not taking action or deflecting responsibility to other parts of the system. But everything worth doing requires work, and if the systems changes needed were easy, then they would have been done already. Easy solutions to complex problems often lead right back into the problem —  that's one of the basic tenets of a systems mindset, and one of the core things we teach at the UnSchool.

You can't make change unless you know what needs to be changed. Just like you don't know what you don't know until you discover that you don't know it!

I started the UnSchool to help people like you. It’s all about providing tools to help redesign the world through creative systems change. I know that it's not possible for any one person to suddenly save the entire world, and nor should be the responsibility for anyone to do so, but it is certainly the case that every single person can change it. In fact, the world does not need ‘saving’ — it is us humans that need a salvation, given the hyper-consumption fueled constant-growth mindset that has permeated modern societies at the expense of the systems that sustain us and the values that maintain our species’ success!

The power to make change lies in our personal ability to see our own agency and opportunity for for creative leadership and to then make intentional choices about how we will activate the influence we organically have on the world around us, while working on enhancing this to a point where we can actively make more positive systems change.  

One of the reasons I started the UnSchool almost five years ago, was to connect and encourage a global community of rebellious creatives willing to activate their agency for sustainable and regenerative future. It’s for all the people who are deeply passionate about contributing to changing the way we humans treat and interact with the world, so that we offer back more then we take.

All the tools and resources that I create are intended to support people agentizing themselves to be positively disruptive change-makers, rather than passive observers, participants, or even complainers of the status quo.

Developing healthy critical thinking, reflexivity, a systems mindset, and a problem-loving attitude are all fundamentals to increasing your capacity to take action and to contribute to needed systems change. To be able to see the relationships between things that occur provides the foundations for moving from blame to understanding, which in turn supports the development of a problem-loving mindset.

Over the last 15 years of working in sustainability and cultural change, I have met way too many people who say that they are trying to solve problems when, in fact, they are reinforcing them by not choosing to understand the relationships and hidden aspects that make them exist to begin with. This reductive linear thinking plagues decision making and is one of the fundamental reasons that problem solving needs systems thinking.

I made a choice to dedicate my career to figuring out how to contribute to effective positive change and how to overcome the reductive mindset that disempowers and disables, while being a problem lover, systems explorer, and supporter of regenerative and sustainable change. To further support changemakers developing their own learning journeys and discoveries. That’s why I am so proud and excited to share the new certification systems (UnSchool style) that we have developed. The three advanced learning UnSchool systems are self-directed learning journeys into activating positive change, as a Practitioner, UnMasters or Educator.

Of course you don't need to come to the UnSchool to make change! But if you want the support and want to become more agentized around creative leadership, systems, sustainability, and design, then we have short or long-form classes for you to help change and not save the beautiful planet we all share!