Week 9: Unlocking the Power of Systems Thinking

 
1.png
 

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.

CycleWhiteUN.png
 

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.  

3 main systems.jpg
 

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. 

 
5.png
 

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!

---——

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 4: Will Global Plastic Bans Work?

unschool

By Leyla Acaroglu

The lightweight and easy-to-produce nature of plastic has made it globally ubiquitous in a bazillion forms. As we are all becoming too aware, these cheap conveniences have negative impacts on the natural world and there is a growing trend in public policy actions to ban certain plastic products. Whilst there are complexities in implementing bans, there is an interesting conversation to be had on how different countries around the world are taking legislative action to discourage the use of some types of disposable plastics (like bags, cutlery, and styrofoam containers), and how impactful this is for activating change and moving toward a circular economy.

The Issue

Today, the average North American or European person consumes 100 KGs of plastic each year, and half of the world’s plastic has been produced in the last 12-15 years. The statistics on just how many disposable plastics are used and end up polluting the environment are staggering. With four trillion single-use plastic bags being used around the world each year, we are drowning in plastic waste. With a collapsing recycling industry, there is clearly a strong need for a systems change to support the functional delivery that plastic products bring us, but without all the disposable consequences.

As you can imagine, things aren't always as simple as they seem on face value. Banning bags and straws can help in some ways to curb the tsunami of plastic waste, but bans alone will not address the real underlying issue: the global normalization of disposability and expectation of convenience that has become a central aspect of our fast-paced, hyper-consumption-fueled lives. Furthermore there is the important question, of what replaces the plastic products, and what impact these alternatives have?

Just some of the bans include: European Union, Mexico City, New York, Kenya, United Kingdom, and Costa Rica to name just a few. The World Economic Forum counts 127 countries with active bag regulations in place.

Journal4b.png

15 single-use plastic issues

  1. 91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled (source)

  2. Only 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling (source)

  3. It costs retailers in the US alone $4 billion to give away “free” bags (source)

  4. 12 million barrels of oil are required each year to make plastic bags for the U.S (source)

  5. There is more micro-plastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way (source)

  6. 8 million tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year (source)

  7. As many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world's beaches (source)

  8. Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 1 million marine birds

  9. Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 100,000 marine animals each year (source)

  10. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of ocean on average (source)

  11. 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world — and that number will top half a trillion by 2021 (source)

  12. The average person eats 70,000 micro-plastics each year (source)

  13. The top three contributors of micro plastic waste in the oceans are car tires, fibres from wash cloths, and small plastic beads from body care products (source)

  14. If plastic consumption increases at its current rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills (source)

  15. Scientists have found plastic in human poop (source)

The thing that makes plastic so incredible as an ‘everything-material’ is the same reason it's a nightmare for the natural environment —  it's lightweight and indestructible. The lightweightness means that bags and bottles blow out of trash cans, and float on the ocean surface until they land on beaches. The indestructible part means that the stuff stays around for a very long time. The actual number of years it takes for plastic to break down is unknown, as all plastic in the world has only been around since the 1960’s when we started to mass produce it for everything.

The Changes

We are in the middle of not just a backlash to disposable plastics, but a significant cultural shift and transition to a circular economy that even has the Queen of England on board with the need to detox from disposable plastic.  She recently announced that Buckingham Palace will go plastic free after watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series! 18 months ago, China introduced a ban on all imported plastic waste, which has sent the global plastic recycling market into a tailspin. To get a full rundown on this, listen to this fantastic podcast on 99% invisible that explains the history of plastic straws and the public health concerns that fuelled their mass appeal in the U.S.

The mounting issues are encouraging countries and companies around the world to respond to consumer outcry about not just waste washing up on beaches, but on enforced disposable culture that we are now entrenched in. There are many reasons why we need systems change for a post disposable future and a circular economy.  

The Bans

The European Union just banned a list of 10 everyday disposable plastic products (interesting they avoided bags!?), and there are hundreds of various types of bans in place around the world, ranging from microbeads to expanded polystyrene (EPS) to single-use plastic bags, straws, cups, and utensils.

There are many different ways countries are legislating disposable plastics. Some have a total ban, which basically says if you are caught with these items you are in deep doo doo. Kenya, for example, has the highest with a $38,000 fine if you are caught with a plastic bag (which incidentally has created a fascinating black market for bags).

Taxation is also used to disincentivize product use; often referred to as a “bag tax”, countries like Australia, Sweden, the UK, and many more are using this approach. This is a bit of an easy way out - in a user-pays system, many people with the means will continue to pay the small inconvenience tax (often around 5 or 10 cents), whilst people who are less economically mobile will be burdened with the cost. Then there are also partial bans where certain regions within a country have imposed bans.For example, in the US there is not a total ban of plastic bags, but there are cities that have total bans (like San Francisco). This also applies, in some countries, to plastic bans in religious, historic, or natural sites, as in the states of Goa and Gujarat in India.

Do Bans Work?

Banning plastic cuts off the problem at the source, so at face value, and according to statistics, these bans present an effective and sustainable solution. For example, some widely shared figures tout that Ireland’s bag tax that was imposed in 2002 has led to a 85% reduction in plastic bag litter there. And, according to reports from San Jose, California, their 2011 ban has led to plastic litter reduction of “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.”

While these numbers seem promising, things start to get a little more complex when you examine them through a systems mindset. Bans can misdirect the perception of what the problem is; in the case of bags, it vilifies plastic, but many of the alternatives put in place do not fit into a circular economy and are equally as problematic from a whole systems perspective. Paper bags are not as strong, so they are often double bagged. When you look at all the processes that go into making them (such as growing trees, cutting them, bleaching and processing them, and then manufacturing the bag), you start to see that there are ecological impacts at other parts of the system.

Additionally, we’re beginning to see plastic sales increase in other areas as an unintended consequence of bag bans; in California, for example, plastic garbage bag sales increased 120%! This is due to consumers needing bags for things they previously reused their plastic grocery bags for, like collecting household waste and picking up pet waste.

The issue with all of these products being banned is the disposability of them. Paper straws or wooden chopsticks may conjure up more eco-friendly sentiments, but they still cause significant issues when they are designed for single-use outcomes. Banning one product breeds a market for a new one, and then the question is in whether the new one will end up being better than the last disposable item. That is the sustainability question that needs to be answered from the start as we move toward circular design solutions that fit into a circular economy.

Even with items that are designed to be reused, like cotton tote bags, we have to be mindful of the life cycle impacts here too. The Danish Government recently published a LCA of grocery bags, in which they found that you’d have to use an organic cotton tote bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag in order for it to be better for the environment due to cotton manufacturing impacts like water use, damage to ecosystems, air pollution, and more.

Bans are also interesting to consider from a behavioral perspective. On one hand, they create a new type of normal for people and allow society to shift perspectives on certain things — like the fact that hyper-disposable products are not good for any of us. Bans also force innovation, as people will have to find new ways of meeting their needs. But on the other hand, when something becomes harder to get, it makes it more valuable, which leads to a rise in workarounds to getting the thing that is no longer readily available. What is even more interesting is the physiology of bans — people get really irate when they have something taken away from them. In both Singapore and Australia, for instance, there was a big controversy when the supermarkets tried to ban bags, and a small percentage of very vocal people claimed this was a violation of their rights.

Dissecting the issues with plastic bans here at a high level reinforces the need to examine problems and proposed interventions through a systems lens and a life-cycle perspective in order to avoid creating more problems. While the destruction imposed by plastic makes us all want to jump to a quick-fix-solution, we need to suspend the need to solve and reframe the conversation by emphasizing the real issue of disposability.  

Only time will tell if bans help ensure the disruptive shifts we need to get to a better future, but in the meantime, we can all examine how we contribute to disposability in our lives and implement micro-actions to support a sustainable future. As for bags, the best answer for now is simply to reuse the bags you have, no matter what type, over and over and over again. For some ideas on getting started with a post disposable lifestyle that fits into the future circular economy, download our free Post Disposable Activation Kit at UnSchool Online. or take our class on sustainability that covers life cycle thinking.

 

Want more content like this? Sign up to our Journal mailing list to get juicy brain food like this in your inbox every Monday.

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

Journal1a.png

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.

AndBreathe.png

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!