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.

 
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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 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 8: Why Care About Deforestation?

 
deforestation unschool
 

By Leyla Acaroglu

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

The CO Project Farm olive and citrus trees

The CO Project Farm olive and citrus trees

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The magic of trees

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

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

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

the magic of tress

What Causes Deforestation? 

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

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

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

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

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The Systems Impacts of Deforestation

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

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

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


How We Can Change our Destructive Habits? 


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

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

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

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

 
unschool kuching fellowship 2019
 

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

Week 7: What happened in Cape Town?

unschool cape town fellowship

By Emma Segal

I had the pleasure of being the lead educator on the 9th UnSchool Emerging Leaders Fellowship program when we took it to the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2018. You may remember that this was right around the time that some of the city water supply was about to be shut off, due in part to lack of rain and subsequent reservoir shortages, along with a host of other issues. It was a bit of a stressful time, but at the UnSchool, we seem to have an unintended habit of running programs in extreme scenarios. For example, our Christchurch fellowship happened right after a major earthquake, and we’ve had cars stolen and venues flooded — so we are no strangers to a  rapid reorientation due to unforeseen circumstances!

 
cape town fellowship group
 

Our on-the-ground local co-producers in Cape Town consulted with their government contacts, and we were encouraged to go ahead with the fellowship, but with strict water conservation policies in place. The Cape Town program had 10 local and 7 international fellows join us, along with an inspiring array of mentors, for an incredible 7-day adventure in this fascinating and complex city in which we explored the dynamics of systems change, sustainability, and how to make a positive impact.

I’t’s been a year, so I caught up with a few of our very busy fellows last week to find out what they have been up to this past year and see how the fellowship has impacted them. I’ll share their updates along with what we got up to that week, as it was quite an adventure!

But first, check out the incredible video that highlights everything we packed into the 7 days!

We kicked off the week with local team members Thessa and Wisaal giving us a walking tour history lesson of the city as we made our way to District Six Museum, a community co-creation storytelling project about the aparthaid effects in this area. We then evoked our UnSchool tradition of discovering more about our own stories and history through mini-pecha kucha style rapid 3 min personal storytelling, after which I led our first knowledge session on sustainability (we dive in quick!), followed by a much-needed brain-refueling, delicious, plant-based dinner, served family style at a local Ethiopian restaurant.

District Six Museum

District Six Museum

Pecha Kuchas

Pecha Kuchas

Day two had us run through a teleconference session with UnSchool founder Leyla Acaroglu (calling in from our other on-going and newly launched project, CO Project), and a lively and engaging systems thinking and mapping session. These types of skills have since come in use for fellow Tim, who says that since the fellowship, “In all projects that I tackle now, I look forward to researching the problem, really getting stuck with the problem, and utilizing the systems thinking concepts to form more nuanced and, hopefully, effective solutions from the process.”

Exploring systems through UnSchool style systems mapping

Exploring systems through UnSchool style systems mapping

Sharing the results of the systems mapping session

Sharing the results of the systems mapping session

After one of our by now famous plant-based lunch feasts, we headed off to learn from Emile YX who works with youth through hip hop and dance, providing a place to grow and explore identity and career opportunities through the arts. This active session was followed by a beautiful communal dinner offered to us by Zaayan and her family in their home, where we made traditional snacks together while learning about Ramadan and Zaayan’s activism work in food gathering and the way it connects us to each other and the planet.

Emile YX

Emile YX

One of Emile YX’s group showing us his moves before we all joined in

One of Emile YX’s group showing us his moves before we all joined in

Zaayan and her father greeting us into their home

Zaayan and her father greeting us into their home

Zaayan telling us the story of the food we made together

Zaayan telling us the story of the food we made together

Neha

Neha

Story sharing has been important in fellow Neha’s work as well, as she finds that, “This past year has been life changing. Post-Unschool, I have been more involved with sharing my knowledge with individuals at school, colleges, and at peer-group level”.  Her work in India has been focused lately on hemp, while her previous project used soot as a design material (and was showcased on the UnSchool DIF sessions last year!). This project sees her working with industrial hemp to make products using sustainable agriculture and artisan empowerment. Neha describes her work, saying, “I look after the fabric department called Hemp Fabric Lab. My job here is to enable the makers and creators to adopt this sustainable material — hemp. I have been able to apply my learnings to research, marketing, product development, sales, education etc.; in short, my role is multifaceted.”

Day three was a full brain activation day with a mentor session from Naadiya Moosaje on women in engineering, alternative forms of capital, and a rapid group prototyping session to find solutions based on issues presented in daily newspapers.

Naadiya talking to the group

Naadiya talking to the group

Rapid prototyping session led by Naadiya

Rapid prototyping session led by Naadiya

Following this, we had our afternoon packed with thoughtful conversation on the water issues in Cape Town, led by Bernelle Verster, a bioprocess engineer with a focus on dry toilets and human waste systems (everybody poops!). To really dive into the subject, we had a high energy verbal fight club group debate on dry vs wet toilets, trying on different roles and perspectives to form a variety of arguments.

Verbal fight club with Kausar and Johan in the centre

Verbal fight club with Kausar and Johan in the centre

Verbal fight club with Wafika and Sizwe in the centre

Verbal fight club with Wafika and Sizwe in the centre

This type of perspective shifting has continued to benefit Tim, who says that his experience during the fellowship “reframed my world view considerably. I feel I'm better at removing myself or my 'ego' from projects and facilitating/coaxing solutions to emerge from others involved in the project… I'm a lot more conscientious with including more voices in the Gippslandia newspaper that I edit.”

Day four saw us take another field trip, this time to visit Quirky30, led by Sihle Tshabalala to address the 52% youth unemployment issue through coding and tech education to meet the demand for these types of skills, while simultaneously reducing poverty-driven crime. We then dove into a collaborative ideation challenge with their students and our fellows, and had an amazing lunch together, prepared by a local community caterer (food is a big thing for us!).

Sihle Tshabalala

Sihle Tshabalala

The two groups in a lively ideation session

The two groups in a lively ideation session

We hopped back on our bus and headed into the center of the city to meet social change architect Mokena Makeka, who introduced us to the ways he has been making positive social change through his building designs. He led us on a tour to check it out in person.

Mokena shows us around the redesigned train station

Mokena shows us around the redesigned train station

Discussing the impact of architecture at the base of the Museum of Contemporary Art Afrika

Discussing the impact of architecture at the base of the Museum of Contemporary Art Afrika

The Cape Town UnSchool team (pictured from left, Andi, Vanessa, Wisaal, Vicky, myself, Camila and Thessa).

The Cape Town UnSchool team (pictured from left, Andi, Vanessa, Wisaal, Vicky, myself, Camila and Thessa).

These types of experiential and deep dive sessions are unique experiences not only for the fellows, but for team members on the fellowship as well. Previous fellow from Mumbai and co-host for Cape Town, Camila, found that, “The UnSchool has set a high standard of what is sustainability, and how it ought to be taught. Through UnSchool, I understood the importance of design as a social scripter, not knowing anything really about design before. Learning the importance of how people will interact with what you try to communicate and has also given me the vocabulary and the hard facts on personal agency.”

Volunteering or working on a Fellowship is a great way to gain community points towards certification and get a behind-the-scenes look at how we put together our unique programs. While Camila is finishing up her Masters degree this spring, she will be returning to the UnSchool for “the types of skills and professional development, which again even after my Masters, I don’t see that type of learning in any other place.”

Day five was launched by Vuyisa Quabaka and the practical aspects of building, running, and succeeding in social change entrepreneurship. His extensive knowledge helped kick off a group ideation and investability session. Often put to the side when doing social or environmental work, being able to have a financially and ethically sustainable business model is critical to being able to keep doing good work and getting positive shit done!

 
Vuyisa Quabaka:  “I work with inspired people”

Vuyisa Quabaka: “I work with inspired people”

 

Alumni Zoe is putting her skills to work as she starts two new projects. She has been appointed to help facilitate and design interventions for the UCT Futures Think Tank to explore how the way they do their work, and how it should change to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world within the South African context, as well as being involved with Open Design Afrika who has launched a number of projects with the aim of building capacity and creating systemic change and social cohesion in Africa with creativity. She highlights that she finds, “Both of these experiences are helping to fill in that feeling of 'more' I was looking for after the fellowship.”

I then led the afternoon session on life cycle thinking, and sustainable design considerations when putting new things into the world, or engaging with those that exist. This is different than life cycle analysis (LCA), and provides anyone the tools to deeply understand how things are made and handled throughout their life. Alyssa remarked at the time that, “today’s Unschool Life Cycle thinking workshop is blowing my mind right now. How many things go into manufacturing a pair of shoes for instance? We have an end of life bias where we tend to focus on the landfill, reusing and recycling in terms of sustainability. But what about how our products are made, and all the parts of the system that contribute to the last product you bought? There is no code of ethics for designers and the potential destructive impact they can have with their designs.” She continued to explore this issue through an MBA in Design Strategy over the past year, having just finished up with a thesis project focusing on reducing single use packaging in grocery stores.

image of me and the group during the LCT session courtesy of fellow Alyssa Burtt.

image of me and the group during the LCT session courtesy of fellow Alyssa Burtt.

Deep diving into some of the objects we are surrounded by.

Deep diving into some of the objects we are surrounded by.

We worked as a group on investigating some of these common objects to get a deeper understanding of the systems that surround us. Alumni Saleemah also mentioned this session when caught up, reflecting that, “The thing that really stuck with me from the Unschool Fellowship is life cycle thinking. I'm working with a global educational NPO, and I use this approach for all projects, initiatives, and operations — it's been life-changing”.

The afternoon was capped off with another teleconference with Leyla on cognitive biases and an overview of the Disruptive Design Method. Neha has found the week to resonate with her professionally, noting that, “After UnSchool, the Disruptive Design Method have become ingrained in my design processes. I feel my method and approach of problem solving irrespective of the magnitude of the problem has changed towards a more holistic approach.” After the week’s download, a much- needed quiet writing and reflection time gave us all a moment to synthesize and digest our experiences thus far. Before everyone left for the day, briefs for the challenge were handed out, and everyone got excited to get started with their groups the next day.

getting ready for the next day

Day six was full of excitement as the teams arrived to dig into their positive future-framed challenge. They each ran through the Disruptive Design Method to identify and mine the issues they were working on in their teams, fueled by the tools they’d learned through the week and a steady stream of snacks and brain-friendly food.

The UnSchool team of Thessa, Wisaal, Vanessa, Andy, and I circulated through each of the teams to provide feedback, additional perspectives, idea prodding, local context from our Cape Town producers for those not from South Africa, and a late night sundae bar for extra energy. This real world application practice came in handy for Zoe later in the year when, “After the fellowship, I spent many months trying to work out how I could apply what I learnt to my big corporate world. I was optimistic about the change I could make and saw an opportunity to focus on sustainability as my angle (leveraging off the companies’ interest in design).”

Perris works late with her team to navigate the complexities

Perris works late with her team to navigate the complexities

Teams system mapping their way to new ideas

Teams system mapping their way to new ideas

The day wrapped up late, and everyone arrived early the next day for early morning practice presentations in front of the team including Leyla dialing in from the farm, curious to see what everyone had come up with. The afternoon saw each of the teams have time to present their ideas, with a community feedback session and group voting for the top choice based on viability, change potential, and community. Tim pointed out that this type of group collab “really stoked a passion for collaborating in cross-cultural and multidisciplinary groups too, something that is key to our thr34d5.org strategic design studio”.

One of the teams presenting during the 24hr Challenge

One of the teams presenting during the 24hr Challenge

All the fellows are now part of a wider UnSchool alumni community that offers the opportunity to connect with each other, a key benefit to all the Fellowships. Tim says that it was a “mega bonus that I got to meet Zoe, and she's a legend. We now get to shoot the breeze on lots of cool initiatives that we are exposed to, and she inspires the shit outta me.” Last month, Zoe was asked to go back to her old high school to serve as their Designer in Residence. Over two days, she taught eight grade 9-11 classes an intro to systems thinking (with a shout out to the UnSchool!). She shared that the aim was to show them “a bit of the world of design beyond what they're learning — architecture, graphic/ fashion/ product design, etc.” and she mentioned she got Tim “to co-facilitate with me which was really fun, and I'm glad we've remained such good friends since the fellowship!

Neha also has felt the momentum of the wider community, sharing, “Change makers from different walks of life have really inspired me in multiple ways. I feel nothing is impossible. I can make a difference in my own way and that one should not be restricted by an idea but should explore methods to expand the application.

Tiahnah and the group write down their reflections on each day before we close with a group reflection session and celebratory drinks and food

Tiahnah and the group write down their reflections on each day before we close with a group reflection session and celebratory drinks and food

Kausar and Saleemah celebrating the wrap up of the fellowship with South Africa’s national flower, the impressive Protea

Kausar and Saleemah celebrating the wrap up of the fellowship with South Africa’s national flower, the impressive Protea

Alyssa also reflected on her decision to come to Cape Town on her Instagram at the time, saying “It’s been such an epic week! Our 24 hr design challenge was fun and mind bending as we tried out the systems mapping and Disruptive Design skills to find a solution of our own design to a systemic problem we identify…. I’m so glad I signed up and traveled so far for this experience. It’s really been mind altering and eye opening, and the incredibly smart and diverse group of people I met have touched me deeply. It may be the end of our week together, but this is just the beginning!”

The fellowship week ended with a birthday celebration and group reflection on the experience. If you would like to read more (yes there is even MORE!) about this fellowship or any of our past 9 editions, then check out each day in detail on the blog!

 
High fives for positive change at the UnSchool!

High fives for positive change at the UnSchool!

 

Join our next fellowship!

Do you want to join our always growing and active community of social and environmental creative change-makers? We have just announced our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program, happening November 17th-23rd in Kuching, Malaysia! If you want to be one of the 20 people selected to join us on a 7-day intensive adventure into all things sustainability and systems change, then get your application in today! Applications open now until July 12 > 

Week 5: Alumni Laura Francois Tackles Sustainability Through Incredibly Creative Interventions

Image courtesy of Laura Francois

Image courtesy of Laura Francois

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

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

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

Her UnSchool Story

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

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

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

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

Creative Projects and Interventions

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

Laura Francois waterfall

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

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

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

Laura Francois

Tackling Plastic Waste

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

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

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

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

Laura Francois

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

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

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By Leyla Acaroglu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Opinions: every other day they should change.

  • Days: like seven times a week they change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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