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


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

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

Boa at the CO Project Farm Program in 2018

Boa at the CO Project Farm Program in 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The project Bao has helped to activate

The project Bao has helped to activate

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

How do you describe yourself?

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

What made you come to the UnSchool?

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

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

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

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

How did the UnSchool help you start/evolve it?

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

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

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

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

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


Week 9: Unlocking the Power of Systems Thinking


By Leyla Acaroglu

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

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

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


Everything is interconnected

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

To say my brain fell in love is an understatement. 

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

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

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

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

3 main systems.jpg

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

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

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

unschool systems mapping

Why Systems Thinking is So Powerful?

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership and Systems Thinking 

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

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

Future Thinking

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  4. Easy solutions can lead to negative impacts elsewhere

  5. The easy way out often leads back in 

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


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

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

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


Week 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


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.


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!