Week 19: Anatomy of Action: Thumbs up for Food!

Food! Delicious, terrible, gross, amazing —  everyone loves it, we all need it, Instagram is filled with it, and it's the biggest impact of our daily lives, which is exactly why we chose it as the first action in our Anatomy of Action (AoA) set. Let’s take a look at the issues and opportunities that we all have with the food in our life, via the three action areas that we set out in the AoA: protein swaps, using all your food, and growing your own. Then pick and action and get started!

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If you’re at all into sustainability, then you’ve surely heard that reducing meat consumption — which we have coined as “Protein Swaps” in the AoA to have a more positive, inclusive impact —  has a tremendously positive impact on the planet’s health and the well-being of billions of animals and people. But before narrowing down on that, it’s important to point out that the staggering increase in meat production that we have all experienced in our lifetimes is a brand new phenomenon — never before in human history have we humans eaten so much meat. Experts estimate that total meat production has increased 4-5 fold since 1961, and in order to meet the demand, over 70% of the world’s farm animals are now factory farmed (including 99% of the animals in the US!). This massive uptick in meat production is accompanied by a massive uptick in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (and a huge freshwater footprint), with livestock and their byproducts accounting for at least 32,564 million tons of CO2e per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions. Which all makes sense when you discover that every year in the US alone, according to the US Meat Institute 9 billion chickens (yes that’s a B), 32.2 million cattle and calves, 241.7 million turkeys, 2.2 million sheep and lambs, and 121 million hogs are killed for meat consumption (here is a creepy real time kill clock).  

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Given the astounding snapshot of just how pervasive factory farmed meat is, there are, of course, many health and planet impacts that we are often blind to. Without going too much into the details, mass produced meat-based proteins contribute to desertification, deforestation, and nutrification (as well as the development of oceanic dead zones), all while subjecting factory-confined animals to heaps of animal cruelty issues.

It’s no surprise then that various governments around the world are encouraging citizens to adopt a more plant-based diet. For example, Canada released a new national food guide in 2019 that focused on plant-based eating, whereas the UK and the Chinese lawmakers have made statements about the benefits of reducing meat consumption. Similarly, New Zealand’s 2019 Sustainability Report also urges citizens to begin eating more plants, less meat, as did the popular EAT-Lancet Commission Report released earlier in 2019. The US, one of the worlds biggest meat consumers, is also seeing a change in consumer preferencing, with more people opting for plant-centric eating. 

Swapping meat-centric food habits for meals with different protein sources is good for your health and for the environment. In many parts of the world this is already a way of life. The best way to re-shape our global food systems is for people to swap meat to plant based options. By making the switch to a more vegetable-friendly diet and being more selective in where your meat comes from (adopt a flexitarian or reducetarian diet!), you can improve your health, lower GHG emissions and reduce biodiversity loss

#ProteinSwaps Everyday Actions

  1. Swap animal protein for more plant-based proteins 

  2. Diversify your diet and cook more at home

  3. Eat what is seasonally available 

  4. Opt for locally-produced foods; seek out local farmers and markets that offer sustainable produce

  5. Talk with your friends and family about healthy and sustainable food options to encourage them to swap their diets too 

  6. Become an everyday/weekday vegetarian, vegan, or flexitarian 

  7. Try to have a rainbow of vegetables on your plate in every meal

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Another enormous problem within our food systems that we examined through the AoA is the issue of prolific food waste — 1.3 billion tons are wasted each year, which is an incredible one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption. This isn’t just an ironic issue in the face of widespread world hunger; it also means that “huge amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain, and that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vain." And what about the end-of-life for this wasted food in landfills? Given that on average, the carbon footprint of food wastage is around 500 kg CO2 eq. per capita and per year, there are enormous environmental and fiscal opportunities in reducing food waste. In fact, it’s estimated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that the U.K. could save “USD 1.1 billion a year on landfill cost by keeping organic food waste out of landfills—this would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.4 million tonnes p.a. and could deliver up to 2 GWh worth of electricity and provide much-needed soil restoration and specialty chemicals.” For these reasons and more, the second action area focus of our AoA food exploration is all about using all your food. 

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Using all your food helps reduce food waste which, in trash heaps and landfills, leads to releases of leachates and methane (which is 30x times more potent than CO2). Food scraps and stale bread are not trash at all! They are filled with the building blocks of life-nutrients, which your body and soil can use (replacing fertilizers and chemicals). So, by getting organics out of open dumps and landfills, we can reduce emissions released into the air and give nutrients back to the soil to produce healthier and tastier plants.

#UseAllYourFood Everyday Actions

  1. Design your meals to use up the entire food product

  2. Buy only what you can finish or save — don’t waste food after all you paid for it. If you throw it away, you are tossing your money in the trash 

  3. When buying foods, avoid excessive packaging and take your own produce bags

  4. Seek out "ugly" fruit and vegetables to give them a life in your meal

  5. Manage how you store food to maximize freshness, such as using sealed containers in your fridge and pantry 

  6. Get (more) into canning, preserves, and freezing to extend food life 

  7. Make stock out of food scraps 

  8. Compost your food scraps 

  9. Share excess food to help ensure everyone has enough (there are many apps that help with this)

  10. Find out what’s available in your neighborhood and advocate for communal composting and organic waste processing solutions 

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Of course there are many food options for a healthy person and planet, but our 3rd one for the AoA supports you growing your own food and connecting to where it comes from in order to save money and to reduce transport, packaging, and food waste. While we hear a lot of conversation about plastic water bottles and plastic bags — especially when talking about plastic bans — the lesser known truth is that food’s plastic packaging accounts for nearly 50% of plastic waste (!) as waste is generated along the entire life cycle of food products, from the growing practices through to the supermarket and home wastage.

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By growing your own food, even if it only replaces just some of what you would otherwise buy, you can connect better to what you eat and reduce the impacts that occur from the growing, packaging, transport, retail practices and food waste. Producing some of your own food has multiple benefits so even a small amount of home grown produce is a great way to start.

Access to land and time to garden of course varies, so if you can’t grow your own food, consider finding local farmers and support them or join a farmers cooperative. There are many benefits to small scale community agriculture — better food, more nutrients, higher air and soil quality, pollinator plants for bees and inspects, and an enhanced sense of community.

#GrowYourOwn Everyday Actions

  1. Farm, plant, and grow whatever you can, wherever you can 

  2. Start or join an urban school or kitchen garden

  3. Connect with your food: find out where your food comes from and how it is produced  

  4. Regrow vegetables like leeks, carrots, and beets in your house in a glass of water instead of discarding them 

  5. If you can’t grow food yourself, support a local sustainable farmer or shop at farmers markets 

  6. Promote, develop, and support initiatives in your building, street, or  community that increases your access to food-growing space 

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There are no simple solutions to complex problems, and the food issues we face are indeed complex. While the global environmental issues are big and sometimes overwhelming, they are the outcomes of many individual actions, and of course the decisions made by governments and industry as well. Food is certainly a vital area for progress and change which can start with us exerting our influence over the demand side of the system.

So, the choices we make as individuals, as workers, and as members of societies have the potential to reinforce undesirable actions or to create the opportunity for new, more sustainable solutions.

The actions outlined in the Anatomy of Action are the top-level actions an individual can do to help support the global shift toward shared good-life goals (check out the AoA action validation report to discover more). No matter who you are, every action you take has an impact.

By taking these more considered lifestyle choices, you can contribute to a global movement for a more sustainable future. There are many other things you can do; this list is by no means an exhaustive account of all the aspects of our lives where we need to tackle to meet the SDGs. But it’s a starter list that any individual, anywhere can take action on to help make a positive future for all of us! 

Week 18: Introducing our UNEP collaboration: The Anatomy of Action

By Leyla Acaroglu

Over the last year, the UnSchool team and I have been working on an exciting project in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to activate sustainable living and lifestyles.

The outcome is the Anatomy of Action, and this week, we are launching it into the world!

Here are the how’s and why’s of this exciting new initiative. 


When I talk about sustainability, a topic I have spoken about a lot over the last 15 years of my career, people often react in one of three ways: 1. they are really into the idea but don’t know what to do about it; 2. they are openly hostile about it, usually because they have had a bad experience with some form of environmentally-motivated actions/product etc; or, 3. they are confused by what it actually means and whether it is achievable, which makes them feel overwhelmed by it.

I try to remind people that sustainability is about the social, economic, and environmental considerations of what we do in our personal lives, the way we do business, and the government decisions that our elected representatives make on our behalf so that we can sustain the systems (such as food, air, and water) that every single living thing on Earth needs to survive and thrive. What it is not is a hippy-dippy, tree-hugging, wishy washy, anti-business concept that means you have to give up a lot and go back to the ‘dark ages,’ which is literally what some people who fall into the openly-hostile category have said to me. By being human, you need the planet, and as a result of our collective actions, the planet now needs us to alter damaging practices and replace them with more sustainable and regenerative ones. 

I will be the first to admit that we have a whole bunch of historical legacy issues to overcome when it comes to sustainability, as, in the past, actions by environmental movements and organizations have accidentally pigeon-holed the ways in which people view and care about the planet. Whilst often very good intentioned, the use of fear and shaming have been two well-executed tools in a space that often ends up being polarized between people who ‘care’ about the planet and those who ‘don’t’ — which is very strange when all people need the planet to live and thus don’t really have the option to not care about it. 

There are also many issues with the boom in greenwashing that we are still trying to shake off from industries who spend more money on marketing green credentials rather than doing them, and thus the resulting consumer cynicism from people who feel they were duped into buying crappy, often more expensive, so-called ‘green’ products. 

Now, though, we are in a more sophisticated era of understanding the ways in which we can design products and services that meet human needs but don’t destroy the systems that sustain us all. That's really what the core of sustainability as a practice is — a better understanding of systems and how we participate in them, which then leads to more informed and creative decision-making around how we all live well on this shared planet. And by shared, I mean not just with all the 7.5 billion other humans, but also the biological miracle that is the diversity of all the different species that make Earth the only known life-sustaining plant in the universe.

The current trend toward circularizing the economy is, in part, a reaction to the phenomenal waste crisis that we have designed ourselves into. The sad reality is that yes, recycling is broken, and we have global supply chains churning out stuff designed for the dump every second of every day. With many people profiting off this linear system, it does seem hard to turn the tides on such a well-oiled production-to-waste machine.


But now, many of us humans are seeing the feedback loops from this by way of mounds of ocean plastic waste and air pollution, which is one of the world’s biggest killers. In fact, cities around the world regularly peak above the WHO safe living index, and recent studies have shown the link between air pollution and all sorts of cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s disease. And then there is the climate crisis, a massive, scary, overwhelming concept that is freaking many people out. So, what in all of this mess and chaos is one individual to do about this, when we are presented with so many issues in need of solutions like the 17 in the Sustainable Development Goals? How do we overcome the inertia felt by the magnitude of the issues at hand, when we see there are just so many things that need to be addressed and we are just individuals trying to live a good life? How on Earth do we do anything that has any impact at all? 

Every issue holds its own solution, and that’s the case here. We each make up the world by the actions we take; the planet is in the state it's in not because we exist, but because we do the things we do each day. Sure, many choices are taken out of our hands and all industries and governments have a lot to answer for when it comes to obtaining a sustainable and positive future. But for each of us, we hold in our own two hands the opportunities to change the economy, as it is made up of all our individual actions accumulated as an economic outcome.

If you have ever worked for a company that sells goods or services, you will know that the trends in consumer behavior are the things that dictate the next steps for the company. So, let’s say you work for a large supermarket chain, and suddenly, people start avoiding overly-packaged products. When you look into why, you discover it's because of the concerns about ocean plastic waste and that there is a trend toward package-free products. So then, you make a case to your boss to have package-free options that meets the rising trend in consumer preferences. That is how the market works — actions breed reactions in the market — so if we want to be a part of designing a future that works better than today, then we need to redesign our lives to mimic the kind of future we want to live in. 

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The complexity of sustainability is in the fact that we don’t really have all the answers yet. There is much work to do on the technical solutions to meeting our needs in more regenerative and planet-positive ways, like how do we mass-produce carbon-free energy and provide power for transport devices as large as airplanes? But, the very fact that we discovered how to fly was a miracle not too long ago, so the future will result is these issues being addressed, once we have a more widespread acceptance of the base reality that all humans need the planet and that our actions have negative impacts on it that, in turn, negatively impact us all. There is absolutely no escaping this, no matter how much power or wealth you may have. 

But, there are many things we can do, and I want to make it really clear that we each have agency and some kind of control over the future we create, even if it doesn’t seem like it at times. We make up the economy through our actions, and in turn, the economic system dictates what we value and how we live our lives. So, we are in a dynamic relationship that often feels as though the way things are is the way things have and will always be. But 10 years ago, smartphones were a brand new thing, and 20 years ago, we all had to plug our desktop computers into a phone line to access this new thing called the Internet. As such, in 10 or 20 years, the future will be very different from today, and I, for one, will be working to ensure that the kind of future we end up in is more equitable, sustainable, and regenerative than today. 

This is my very long introduction to a project we have been working on with the United Nations Environment Program’s economic division. For the last year, we have been exploring what types of actions individuals can take that will actually have an impact, if replicated and normalized, as part of people's everyday lifestyle actions. The outcome is the Anatomy of Action, an initiative we will launch this week at UNESCO in Paris. We wanted to not only design something that supports lifestyle changes for sustainable living, but also base it on a deeper understanding of what is working, along with why and how to amplify it so that we get new types of behavioral normals that encourage positive shifts within the economy. 

In 2016, I was awarded Champion of the Earth by the UNEP for my work with the UnSchool and my creative products that bring a science-based, innovative approach to sustainability. So it was fitting that we would find a way to collaborate on the complex and fascinating topic of sustainable lifestyles and how to activate more of them. 

For this collaboration, my team and I started by shining a light on all the bright spots of organically-growing cultural movements that exist outside of the traditional sustainability or environmental movements — things like zero waste, minimalism, guerilla gardening, ride sharing, etc. We identified over 80 movements, categorized them into which everyday lifestyle areas they were addressing, and then dissected the actions that these movements were identifying and taking. Next, we searched for the last five years of peer-reviewed academic papers and studies to see which of these hundreds of identified actions have positive impacts if amplified out among more people.

This helped us refine the list of actions down into a more detailed action heat map, and from that, we developed the five themes that make up the Anatomy of Action: food, stuff, movement, money, and fun. Experts within the UN system then reviewed the long lists of validated actions and confirmed the high-level ones that we could share as significant actions that anyone can take to have a positive impact in their daily lives.

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The resulting 15 sub-actions are all positively framed; for example, we are not asking everyone to go vegan (which is shown will have significantly positive impacts) but instead to ‘protein swap’, which everyone can do a few meals a week. We chose this intentional language because we know that globally, food options are very different, and health conceptions as well as cultural conventions are also very diverse. For me, a protein swap is achievable, and if we get more people doing this, it will encourage meat producers to move away from intensive factory farming and instead, produce high quality, ethical, grass-fed meat, which will result in a better place with many environmental impacts. 

The action set presented in the Anatomy of Action shows everyday lifestyle swaps that fit easily into daily lifestyle choices. I drew heavily on behavioral and cognitive sciences to gain an insight into how to frame these actions as opportunities rather than losses, as the reality with sustainability is that it is a massive opportunity! For example, the benefits in swapping your car drive for human-powered transport are massive. Not only do you get exercise, but also the less cars we have in urban environments, the better air quality we get. Additionally, there is a lot of research as to when people disrupt their daily habits and rituals — usually when there are already in an altered life state, such as going on vacation, having a baby, or moving houses. This struck me as fascinating, as we often fall into rutted ways of doing things, and as the old adage goes, “A change is as good as a holiday,” because change often brings positive results for us. 

Part of the Anatomy of Action asset set, Illustrations by Emma Segal. See all assets here

In designing and making the Anatomy of Action, I wanted to create a memorable, but simple memetic tool that reminds us all of the choices we make everyday. Nearly everyone has hands and we see them in front of us everyday, doing the things that make up our lives, so this reference is easy to remember when taking actions. But the critical thing is taking action! So to launch the initiative, we are challenging everyone to pick one of the actions, swap to it, and then share your habit disruptions on social media, tagging three friends to challenge them to get started too. Then repeat! For example, I personally moved banks for the UnSchool and started to move over other banks for my personal life because part of the research showed that divestment from banks and energy providers that are relying on the old carbon-producing industries could be done pretty easily. It takes time, for sure, but the outcome is investing in the kind of companies I want to see more of and divesting from the ones that need to change. 

Keep in mind that, due to the need to reach a diverse range of humans around the globe who live among different circumstances, the final action set is simply a chunk of things you can start doing now, but there are MANY things you can do and that need to be done. The next stage in our progress toward a sustainable future is discovering the things that we have impact on, both in negative and positive ways, and then designing these so that they are more effective and efficient. That's exactly what we're doing with sustainability — we are researching and working to figure out where the impacts are and what we can each do to address these, in our lives, in our businesses, and through the actions we take everyday that have an impact on the economy. 

We need many approaches to communicating, engaging, and activating a sustainable, circular, regenerative future. The Anatomy of Action is just one, but I hope it inspires you to reconsider some of the daily lifestyle choices you make, as well as how we each impact the economy and how, in turn, it impacts us, because the future is made up of our actions today. In doing so, we can all, over time, work to change the narrative of sustainability and design a future that works better than today.

Week 17: Five More Years! Five More Years!

By Leyla Acaroglu

5 years ago I started a school for adults to activate systems change and sustainability through design and creative problem solving. here is the 5 year birthday story, and what I hope happens next.  

leyla unschool is 5 today

It was around five and a half years ago that I sat bolt upright in bed from a flash of an idea that had just woken me up. I grabbed a pen and scribbled on an old receipt: “UN-SCHOOL OF DISRUPTIVE DESIGN”. By the time I had gotten out of the shower and dressed, I had the full concept formulated in my head. I spent the next few weeks obsessively sketching out a pitch deck in InDesign, and the following weeks shopping it around for seed funding to places like Autodesk. 

At the time, in late 2014, I was in the final stages of my PhD and the entire experience of doing it had somewhat scarred me on the reductive nature of adult education. This was combined with several years of experience in the ‘real world’ through running my first creative agency (Eco Innovators) and developing all sorts of design education tools and projects for advancing sustainability.

These experiences had taught me so much about just how broken the way we educate is, and I was also feeling pretty isolated in my personal goals of wanting to contribute to having a positive impact on the world around me. I had assumed that I was not the only one feeling this was, and perhaps that there were others out there who also wanted to activate creative ways of getting shit done in a positive way — so I set the intent to design something new that could have a global impact. That something turned into this, the UnSchool, and on September 5th we turn 5 years old.

I never did receive any seed funding, but I did channel all my energy, creativity and personal funds into building this crazy little intervention anyway. Today we celebrate many things —  mainly that we have made it here to this milestone and made some creative change along the way, and plan on making much more positively distribute change! 

Why start a school for adults? 

For several years I had been teaching sustainability at all different age levels, going into primary schools and running programs at Universities as well. The one thing that was blindingly obvious to me was that many people were confused or overwhelmed by sustainability, and these feelings created a lot of inertia and resistance —  mainly from the adults. The kids totally got it. 

A few years before I started the UnSchool, I had been doing a project back home in Melbourne, where I had been invited into primary schools to teach an introduction to sustainability and life cycle thinking. I had developed interactive games for six year olds to learn about life cycle thinking by printing images of the life cycle stages of fun things like chocolate chip cookies, and stuck them to little cards so that they could work together to map the life of a product. The kids got the concept really quickly and would make insightful comments like, “The factory uses energy, which releases gasses into the sky that makes the weather change,” — all unprompted, I might add. I think it was the third or fourth school in a row when as I was leaving the class, the teacher stopped me and said, “This is so interesting! I had no idea about any of this stuff.” Another one had just told me she was so grateful I had come because she was so swamped that she just didn't have the time to do the research to be able to teach the content that was now required in the curriculum. 

These experiences and many others I had been designing and running for young people became the inspiration for the creation of teacher support tools that were interactive and easy to use, like the Design Play Cards and The Secret Life of Things animations.

For years after this work, the teacher’s words still echoed in my head, and I kept thinking, If these people are teaching the young people, then who is teaching the teachers and the rest of the adults? After all, they are the ones with the power to make the changes that we need in order to bring about a sustainable and positive future. So, the idea of a school for adults, focused on experiential and immersive education that blew minds and supported rapid transformative change was born. The moment I finished the first draft of my thesis, I left Australia for the United States to start this crazy idea — which wasn’t really fully formed until that day I sat bolt upright in my bed (actually just an air mattress in a Brooklyn sublet). 

A quick side note: the Secret Life of Things project won a Melbourne Design Award, helped change the high school curriculum in Australia to include life cycle thinking and sustainability, and ended up in the Leonardo Di Vinci Museum in Milan and the National Gallery of Victoria. I had such a small budget that I did all the voiceovers (yes they are terrible!) and I even enlisted my little brother for this one the final in the series!

The Pain and Joy of Starting Something New

The process of starting anything new is a combination of sheer panic, adrenaline, and massive amounts of courage. When I went to register the name The ‘UnSchool of Disruptive Design’ in New York City, the lawyer called to tell me that it was rejected by some authority unless I could get an official letter from the United Nations saying that we could use ‘Un’ in front of school, in case people thought it was a brand impeachment on the United Nations! Five years ago, I was not in a position to just call up the UN and get that kind of thing. So instead, I registered a company called Disrupt Design and a couple weeks later, threw a party in a gallery on 5th Avenue that I had managed to convince someone to lend me.

We invited anyone I had heard of from the design and social innovation community in New York (of which none I knew), and 150 people showed up (I even hired some buskers from the subway who later become friends). It was really a fantastic way to launch this project into the world. I had concepts up all over the wall and a giant interactive find-a-word poster for all the types of things the UnSchool and Disrupt Design stood for. But of course, I had no idea how I was going to do all the aspirational things I wanted to accomplish from the UnSchool, like challenge the reductive education system, support systems change within the design community, or normalize sustainability in a new generation of creatives.

All I knew was that I wanted to make change and help others to make change too. 

Then mini program that we launched with in NYC in Sept 2014 (and the old website we had!)

Then mini program that we launched with in NYC in Sept 2014 (and the old website we had!)

I really was playing out the ‘fake it until you make it’ mantra of startups, accidentally as it was, but nonetheless, I had started this thing and had absolutely no idea how to make it work. Did I mention that since I had not obtained any start up funding, I only had a tiny bit of money that I had taken from my first company? The lack of funds was a pain, but also a great influence, as I had to be very creative and agile.

A couple years in,  the lack of funds coupled with my strong equity access ideals meant that I really did need to find a way to sustain the UnSchool. So, I started to look again for investments via the startup channels I had in NYC, and I quickly discovered just how perverse the startup world can be. I had been approached by a couple of people who had seen my TED talk and were interested in what I was doing. After a few months of making pitch decks and being rejected for being too idealistic, or even worse, getting hit on, I decided the startup world was just another way of exploiting people and turning good ideas into things to extract all the value for individual gains. So I then decided that I would prefer to make change rather than money from the UnSchool — and if that meant making money elsewhere from giving talks and doing creative projects and then reinvesting it back into an equitable and integrity-based project, then so be it. It also inspired us to diversify the way UnSchool earned money, from just in-person programs to building the UnSchool online

Early on the, we ran all sorts of provicational events to activate and explore the communities desire for positive change. This was for our Park Demolition Tea Party.

Early on the, we ran all sorts of provicational events to activate and explore the communities desire for positive change. This was for our Park Demolition Tea Party.

From day one, the most important thing that I needed was a space to host workshops and events, so I traded my time to set my school up in the Center for Social Innovation (CSI) in NYC. For the next six months, I spent two days a week as the “Innovator in Residence,” and the rest of the week I ran lunchtime classes on all sorts of topics I wanted to include in the Disruptive Design curriculum. I solicited feedback from the beautiful humans who showed up for them, and threw a bunch of random events and fun experiences to engage people with this concept of experiential, non-traditional educational and collaborative learning (not to mention sustainability, systems thinking, and design for creative interventions that make positive impacts). 

To name just a few things we did in those first couple years: secret dinner parties in construction sites, drink and design nights in tech company offices, verbal fight clubs in dive bars, and park demolition tea parties... in parks that were about to be demolished. Sometimes lots of people came, and other times not so many, but each time I learned what people were interested in and found inspiration for the next thing. It was certainly very stressful, as there was never really any money after we bought the beer in a keg that could be returned to the local brewery (and transported it on the subway!), as well as purchased 100 reusable vintage glasses that I lugged around NYC to stick to my no-disposables rule. But without all of this early community exploration and building, prototyping, and discovering, I would never have created the beautiful thing that is the UnSchool of today. In the end, hundreds of people came to these early community engagement events, and we now share these tools that were refined during those times with our alumni who run similar experiential programs with their communities of changemakers. 

Six months into building the UnSchool, I advertised our first Emerging Leaders Fellowship program to happen in NYC at CSI, where I was still the Innovator in Residence. I built the concept for this 7-day, adventure-based learning experience and popped it up online with very little explanation about what would actually going to happen, other than to call for all the creative rebels who wanted to activate their career in making change. Over 80 people applied from around the world! So many incredible people applied for that first program that I went from wanting 10 people to accepting 16, and that first Fellowship was magical.

Columbia University heard about it, came and interviewed me, and made a video as part of a research project on alternative education. Those 16 courageous people came to help build this thing, and every program since then, hundreds of people have come and helped build it even more, bringing their passion and curiosity and above all, their commitment to learning how to design a future that works better than today. The UnSchool is the sum of its parts —  the people — which makes it a beautiful complex whole of creative humans willing to activate themselves to contribute to a more positive and sustainable future. This is the shot of optimism that I get every time I run a program or meet an alumni. Despite how messed up the world appears to be, it’s also filled to the brim with humans wanting to help change the status quo and get to a more positive future. 

After that first successful fellowship in NYC, we went to Mexico City, then Melbourne, São Paulo, and then next was Berlin. During these first few Fellowships, I called on friends and previous creative colleagues to help produce these highly complicated programs. Then Christchurch, the sixth program, was produced by one of our alumni (at 7.5 months pregnant as well!), and from then on, so was San Francisco and Mumbai. Next, Cape Town, which was our ninth program, was run entirely without me! I cried when I watched the video of this magical thing being made by others.

This year in November it will be our 10th Fellowship in Kuching, Borneo, and it's our first non-major city Fellowship program, hosted by alumni from our Mumbai program. I could write a million words on the appreciation I have for all these humans that come to help make magic happen because they care about sustainability, equality, and a future that works better for all of us. But instead, I recommend that you watch a couple of the fellowship videos to get a sense of just how chaotic and wonderful they are. For me, they are pure chaos and joy with massive amounts of human-made magic. 

From Fellowships to an Online Learning Lab, a Brain Spa, and More

Five years later, here we are. Hundreds of people have come to in-person programs all over the world and are out there doing cool shit (in fact, every year we partner with the Ellen MacArthur DIF festival to showcase just a few of the creative changemaking activities of our alumni). We have won awards, created incredible partnerships with the UNEP and others, and designed curriculums around our content for Finland, and now Thailand as well.

We have almost 10,000 people taking courses in our online learning lab and recently started the Brain Spa in Portugal. I am immensely proud of this crazy idea that turned into people from all over the world connecting and supporting change. The fascinating irony is that after doing all this work and building this thing that I couldn’t officially name, I ended up being named as a Champion of the Earth by UN Environment in 2016 for my work in advancing science and innovation for sustainability. And as life seems to offer you many moments of irony, now, as a result of this affiliation, many people DO get us confused with the UN! But we are excited by our collaboration between the UnSchool and UNEP to activate sustainable living, and proudly share any affiliation as we launch the creative intervention we designed called the Anatomy of Action — so you know, full circle! 

But that doesn’t mean that we’ve not had our share of challenges and made our share of mistakes. I have cried at least 5,000 tears of frustration and joy at getting this thing up off the ground, with no external financial support whilst obsessively trying to maintain the integrity of the idea and diversity of people who had access to it. One of the biggest challenges is finding the resources to ensure we can offer the content to a diverse array of people, so that it’s not just those with financial means that can get further educated in these fundamental thinking tools for the future.

One of the models from the start has been to ensure that every program has scholarships and equity access, which we fund ourselves. Nowadays, many people get supported by their companies to come to our programs, so that enables us to redistribute some of these earnings into covering scholarships for others who don’t have financial support. I have almost gone bankrupt a couple times, but ensuring that the UnSchool is available to many different types of people is at its core. We have given away somewhere around $200,000 in scholarships to emerging leaders who would otherwise not be able to afford to attend a program like ours because equity is just part of our DNA. Along the way, some forward-thinking companies have helped out, supporting particular fellows from emerging economies, or sponsoring us with coffee or wine for programs (we are a school for adults after all!), but mostly we just eat into any potential profits, which means we are basically a very undesirable investment proposition!  

But this project is not about making money; it’s about making change. I am really committed to supporting as many people as I can with our tiny-but-mighty team in uncovering the tools needed for making positive change. We offer value exchange internships, and anyone can apply for an equity scholarship for our online programs too. Obviously there are only so many programs we can run face-to-face, and even though I had initial resistance to online education, for the last two years, we explored, prototyped, and developed an interactive blended learning model that enables people to activate their leadership for change by equipping them with the tools they need to do so. 

Another exciting development: we now have a certification system so that anyone who engages with our content can choose to validate their changemaking work and perhaps even go on to teach our method themselves!

The development process for our certification system was tough and long, as I wanted to ensure that it was not just someone sitting in their room watching videos, but instead that we had a mechanism for motivating local community action. This all resulted in our community activation points system that builds in many aspects of motivated community participation by encouraging people to do different things to gain the needed points for their certification level. 

Our first approach was more of a pick-your-own adventure style system that didn’t quite work, as busy people need motivation, and many of the early adopters asked for more structure to support them moving through to a level they knew would validate them. So, I went back to some of the things that I had used to motivate me through my PhD and drew on the tactics I had developed to get me to the end goal (which was a challenge to say the least). Tools like a reflection and process journal, along with gamified tasks that I had set myself to apply new knowledge — these all helped inspire the version 2.0 of our certification system that we launched a few months ago, and now have many people tracking through!

The Practitioner, UnMasters, and Educator tracks are the outcome of these past five years and then some, teaching people how to activate themselves to make change. The format is designed to guide people through the complex content month by month, offering pauses and fast tracks. We are just about to certify our first few educators who then will be able to teach our content and run their own programs wherever they are in the world. The UnMasters is designed for career changemakers and entrepreneurs, and the Practitioner for people wanting to validate their skill set for creative change and positively disruptive design. 

Future Thinking: Do I have to have a 5-Year Plan?

So what about the future? I am not into making five-year plans usually, but for the UnSchool, I do have one. In five years, when we turn 10 years old, I would love for the UnSchool to be obsolete. I hope that we have created a momentum and supported enough leadership and experiential learning provocations that others are taking the pedagogical approaches and ideas and seeding them in new and exciting ways. This is why the current certification model is so important, as I hope that with enough supported emerging leaders, we can create a continuum of change that evolves and expands exponentially until we have addressed many of our pressing problems in entirely new and unique ways.

On a personal level, I want to have disrupted the way we educate enough to ensure that the future of knowledge transfer is experiential and transformative, not reductive and linear, as it is so often the case today. I want to see that we design curriculums that are dynamic and hands-on, so that we equip people of all ages with the tools they need to agentize themselves in a world that needs creative changemakers as much as it needs bankers and engineers. I would love for a 15 year old to answer the question, “What do you want to do for your career?” with, “Be a creative changemaker and help design a future that works better than today,” and for that 15 year old to have that opportunity available to them, no matter where they are in the world. 

And say in five years the UnSchool is still needed and we have not achieved these ambitious disruptive goals? Then I hope that the people who come to help build it each time will be more activated to continue to build it even more, be organized and inspired enough to take the ideas and spread them even further and deeper so that we can work toward solving some of the complex issues afflicting this beautiful planet that we all share. 

What are the big challenges that we face in activating this change over the next five years? I see a bit of a battle in managing the digitalization of content, knowledge, and all the competition for attention that is going on as we move ever closer to a digitally-addicted age. I am not a Luddite; I love technology and all the life enjoyment that it brings.  But there are a lot of trade-offs that we must contend with, and one such issue is the manipulation of digital social spaces by larger powers for the misdirection of people into more narrow pathways of thinking and doing. All of the platforms for social sharing seem to have converged along the same pathway of attention-seeking behaviors, and this is something I have grappled with ever since communicating ideas became about competing for attention in ever-more ludicrous ways in a saturated market. 

So, our big question now is,  “What does ethical and equitable communication look like?” And how do we do it when two giant companies, Google and Facebook, own most of the digital communication space and require you to ‘pay to play’, funnelling you evermore into a myopic view of the world and the ways in which you can get access to ‘your’ people? This is a big challenge for us and many more integrity-based organizations, as the system is designed to extract more of your time as a viewer and more of your capital as a producer. Understanding our digital carbon footprint and working toward sustainable and equitable digital policy is our new goal. We, like many others, just don’t understand the impact of our actions every time we upload an image to Instagram or release a new video.  So we are working on that, and hope to have some way of sharing the learnings from this soon so that we can have more ethical intentions with our digital actions. 

To start this transition, we developed a more long-form communication exchange through our weekly journal articles (which you are reading now!), in which we cover topics relevant to our community and highlighting the incredible inspiring activities of our alumni. 

If the UnSchool has taught me anything, it is that everything worth doing requires work, and that the work you do teaches you how to do things better, or at least helps refine the way we each operate our life on this beautiful shared spaceship Earth. As I have mentioned in many interviews, one of the main reasons I ditched design school to become a sustainability-focused sociologist was because I had learned that everything was interconnected and that would mean I would have negative impacts without knowing it, which to me, seemed ridiculous. I know not all we do can be managed or controlled, and sometimes good intentions lead to not great outcomes. But we can throw our energy and creativity at the problems that persist in the world we live in, helping to etch away at them bit by bit so that we get to a place in the future, however far away that is, that is better, more equitable, sustainable, regenerative, and positive — otherwise, what’s the point? 

What I have learned

Reflection is key to what we teach, so here is me giving myself a challenge to come up with the top five things I have learned from making the UnSchool:

  1. Starting things is hard work, but everything worth doing requires work 

  2. Money does not always equal change; it helps, but change is valueless

  3. It’s possible to get a lot of shit done in a small amount of time and still be energized by it, especially when you have good people to work with  

  4. Burnout is a real. It creeps up on you, and when it happens it hurts to have lost all the passion for what you do. But the solution is to rest and regenerate, and then get right back to it

  5. There is no such thing as wasted time, just paths you go down that may not end up where you intended. But, the place you land will have some value to offer in getting you to where you want to be 

AND a big thank you to all these INCREDIBLE humans!

The UnSchool is the outcome of the people who come to it and over the years we have had hundreds of amazing and inspiring people join us on our adventures into systems change, sustainability and social impact. Here are the cohorts from our 9 emerging leaders fellowship programs!


2015 New York Fellowship

2015 New York Fellowship

2015 Mexico City Fellowship

2015 Mexico City Fellowship

2016, Melbourne Fellowship

2016, Melbourne Fellowship

2016 São Paulo Fellowship

2016 São Paulo Fellowship

2016 Berlin Fellowship

2016 Berlin Fellowship

2017 Christchurch Fellowship

2017 Christchurch Fellowship

2017 San Francisco Fellowship

2017 San Francisco Fellowship

2017 Mumbai Fellowship

2017 Mumbai Fellowship

2018 Cape Town Fellowship

2018 Cape Town Fellowship

Week 16: The Three Pillars of UnSchool’s Philosophy: Systems, Sustainability and Design

unschool pedagogy

If you’ve been keeping up with our work at The UnSchool, then you already know that we are all about activating systems change for a sustainable future by design. We work with people of all professional and personal backgrounds to support the rapid transition to being an activated creative changemaker. 

Our approach is deeply rooted in a philosophy of systems, sustainability, and design, forming three knowledge pillars that hold up all that we do. All of our programs, projects, and practices have systems thinking, sustainability sciences, and creative design solutions at the heart. These three pillars wraps up into the Disruptive Design Method, which is a scaffolding that enables people to think and do differently when it comes to understanding and working to help solve complex problems. In fact, we LOVE problems and embrace chaos and complexity at the UnSchool, helping others do the same!

In this week’s journal, we are exploring in more detail our three pillars of Systems, Sustainability, and Design. 


The world is made up of complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems, starting with the most important life-sustaining systems of all, the ecological system, Planet Earth, which is made up of the billions of individual yet interconnected parts that form the magical whole that we are all a part of. Earth's natural systems provide every single living thing with the resources needed to exist, and thus, it is in our fundamental needs to create things that meet our needs within the opportunities and limitations of Earth. 


We live within a set of complex social systems that subtly govern human society, from education to government and everything in between. Social systems are emergent outcomes of our collective desires for success as a species. Social systems breed the human-created industrial systems that work tirelessly to manufacture the needs of our desires, and yet so many of us are oblivious to how they work and what impacts they have. It's often at the point of these systems intersecting with nature, where we mine resources to obtain the raw materials required to make all the products we use, that we see many of our environmental and social problems evolve. The industrial system brings all the wonderful tools of modernity at the expense of the natural systems that we all need.  

unschool pedagogy

Understanding and working within the multi-level perspectives that systems thinking enables is fundamental not only for making change, but also for being an active participant in the world and the design of a future we all want to live in.  We use systems mapping and life cycle mapping to explore these connections, and one of the key tools we use for this is the three systems at play map (see above). This particular map helps people identify the types of systems that we humans have designed, as well as how they connect to the industrial systems we have created to meet our social needs. Mapping connections here demonstrates the reliance and destruction of the ecological systems that sustain the rest of the systems. 

Within the Disruptive Design Methodology knowledge set, there are several systems-based classes: Systems Thinking; Language, Influence, and Effect; and Systems Interventions.  


The ability to sustain life on Earth requires us to work within both the systems that nature evolved as well as the human-formed systems of society and industry. We all rely on natural systems for survival, which means that the imperative to enact sustainability is within all of us. No one can opt out of breathing, consuming nutrient-dense food, or drinking H20, so we are all implicated in figuring out how humanity can be a regenerative force on this shared planet, rather than continuing to extract and exploit the natural systems that sustain us. 


The fundamental quest of our time is to figure out how to transform our global economy and society from a linear one based on value loss and waste creation to a circular economy built on regeneration, sustainability, and value-gaining systems. The knowledge and power we have acquired through the industrial and technical revolutions have formed the tension between nature and our human needs, but now we can transition to meeting our needs within the boundaries and systems of nature, if of course, we have the tools to understand, participate, and contribute back more than we take. That is the essence of the sustainability concept, doing more with less, and understanding how the planet works so that we can participate within its means and evolve from an extraction-based society to a regenerative one. 

At the UnSchool, we embed sustainability into everything that we do, from  post-disposable considerations in all our programs and our food philosophy through to our new farm-based rural regeneration campus. We don’t get everything right, but we are on a constant journey of figuring out how to do things in a more sustainable way; for example, we are currently exploring our digital footprint and developing a zero waste digital communication strategy as we recently discovered just how much of an impact each video watched and email sent has on our carbon emissions. 

Learn more about sustainable practices in our Sustainability and Sustainable Design & Production courses. 


Design is a powerful silent social scripture that surrounds us at all times; it influences our lives from the moment we are born until the day we die. Everything, absolutely everything that we encounter in our day-to-day interactions with the world is by design, and thus can be re-designed to meet our needs in more elegant, sustainable, and sophisticated ways. That’s why we have the Disruptive Design Method as a tool to support anyone being able to contribute to designing a future that works better than today!

To form usable goods and provide services, design takes all the materials and resources it needs from nature. Therefore, every action we take has an impact on the natural world, so designing better products, services, and systems is one of the critical tools for bringing about a circular, sustainable, and regenerative future. 


Our current global condition of designing for disposability, overexploiting and undervaluing the raw materials and formed goods created in this industrial system perpetuates the unsustainability of our species, but through circular systems design, we can turn the tides on this trend. From this foundational perspective of design, we can approach the needs and reconfigure value to work within the natural systems that are required to sustain life on Earth, designing goods and services that not only meet human needs and desires in beautiful ways, but also add value back to the system that gives us all life, and support environmental regeneration. 

The Three Pillars, Combined

The combination of these three pillars make up the foundational tools for thinking and doing differently, for understanding complexity, and for developing the propositions for a better future by design. With systems, sustainability, and design at our core, we design systems of learning and positive impact that maximize social, economic, and environmental sustainability through the understanding of the complex interconnected systems at play in the world around us. This enables us to design experiences that maximize positive change. 


We translate these into all sorts of different things, reconfiguring our content and unique tools into learning systems like the Circular Classroom, our Fellowship Programs, and even our Living Learning Lab in Portugal. The beauty of having integrity-based models like this is that they hold regardless of the difficulties that you face, and for us at the UnSchool, our goal is to activate and equip people with the tools they need to agentize themselves to make more positive change in the world. 

Agency is the outcome of learning applicable tools that you can activate in your world, and the one thing we need more of is people willing to take action to solve the complex problems we all face. If you are keen to make change, you don’t need to come to the UnSchool to do so, all you need to do is get started! But if you want to get the tools to make change, understand how to design positive interventions an be a force for good, then we have you covered at the UnSchool!

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

TED mainstage Leyla.jpg

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

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

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

Paper Beats Plastic, TED Los Angeles 

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

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

Why We Need to Think Differently About Sustainability, TEDx Melbourne  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 14: Systems Thinking 101

Systems thinking unschool of disruptive design

By Leyla Acaroglu

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

How we See the World 

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

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

The Iceberg Model

The Iceberg Model

Learning to Name and Define Systems

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

Copy of Untitled (1).png

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. 


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. 


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.


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.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nisha and Lymun of Ecocentric Transitions

Nisha and Lymun of Ecocentric Transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your experience like in the Fellowship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any other thoughts you want to share?

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

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

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

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


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