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

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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!

THANK YOU, TO EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU!

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 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 6: The rise of sustainable living

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By Leyla Acaroglu

Earlier this year, I was invited to attend the Fourth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. Politicians, innovators, and activists gathered to discuss the future of global sustainable production and consumption, looking at what the next stages are for creating systems of sustainability and circularity and how to unlock the consumption paradox.  

Despite the meeting not obtaining the desired resolutions to help bring about the significant global restructuring needed for a healthy and sustainable planet, the uplifting thing was that finally, after many years, the discussions centered on the roles of design and consumption for how to achieve global social and environmental sustainability. I, like everyone else, have my moments of disillusion, where the hope gets drained out of you by the fatigue of complaints, problems, and inaction. So allow me to focus on the flip side to that: the changes I see rising from the slightly nerdy world of sustainable production and consumption.

Not too long ago, terms like “zero waste” were boring policy directives thrown around by government departments with long-term strategies like “zero waste by 2020”. But in the last few years, ‘going zero waste’ and sustainable living in general have taken on an entirely cooler persona as a lifestyle trend of young, hip Instagrammers and savvy YouTubers are all helping to make this a movement and trend that now anyone can get involved in.

Yes, there are like any movements critiques of the gender politics and the validity of the claims of those who are promoting this lifestyle trend. Years ago, there was a claim that there was a growing trend called LOHAS: Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, and that people would actually start to make economic decisions based on the issues that matter to them. So for me, the Zero Wasters are the living incarnation of this marketing prophecy. And even more so, it demonstrates that the actions of a small group of people can have big impacts on the economy.

A ZERO WASTE LIFESTYLE

A zero waste lifestyler is someone who actively reduces their waste consumption by designing their life to combat acquiring things that are wasteful or will end up as trash, especially avoiding all disposable and non-recyclable products and packaging. Someone embracing a zero waste life usually plans meals in advance to avoid convenience packaging, and ensures they always have a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, straw, and bags on hand to actively refuse disposable items. This names just a few and varied everyday actions these lifestylers take to avoid contributing to the global waste pandemic.

These types of actions aren’t really new; they were well-practiced as normal before the lifestyle of hyper-convenience encouraged runaway disposability, beginning in the 1960s. So, the challenge hasn’t been finding alternatives as much as it has been rebelling against the current status quo.

Many of the heroes of the zero waste lifestyle movement share incredible stories of only making one small jar of actual ‘trash’ a year, often shared on social media through active lifestyle design and adopting simple everyday changes. Composting organic waste from their homes, proactively purchasing reusable products, or even making essentials like toothpaste at home are all part of their day-to-day practices.

While there are aspirational leaders in the movement who are very much tied to the brand of zero waste, the key takeaway is that a person who actively seeks to reduce consumption impacts through conscious micro-actions across several different areas of their lives is a positive thing that should be encouraged. Not just because it helps bring about a new normal around reusability in society, but because it helps change the economy. When many micro-actions are being replicated, it has impacts on the goods and services that end up being made available to all of us.

This can all be seen in the rise of products and services to meet the needs of the zero waste community. Putting aside the questionable environmental credentials from a life cycle perspective of many of the products, and just looking at the shifts in the economy, we can see change — positive change toward a new type of normal, whereby people are activating their agency to help solve the global waste crises.

There are now dedicated zero waste stores in many major cities around the globe (not just in obvious hipster strongholds like New York!). Modern plant-based restaurants, and even entire shopping centers that have sprung up to accommodate this growing trend of plastic-free, package-free, and zero waste consumers who are interested in sustainable consumption options.

As a result of many different interventions, companies have also started to embrace the global trend toward sustainability. We are seeing leaders emerge in the circular economy in some sectors, such as apparel, consumer goods, and furniture. The Loop circular delivery service was just launched this year, and the biggest IPO in two decades was Beyond Meat. Ikea recently announced that they would be 100% circular by 2030, and Lego is working on a plastic-free brick. These examples show a growing demand and substantial shift towards the normalization of products and services that go beyond recycling and start to move us into position where further positive disruptions can occur.

I know, there is still a shit ton of work to do to solve the complex social and environmental problems that occur as a result of the global supply chain marketed to quickly meet every immediate desire of the human needs. Walk down the aisles in any supermarket around the world, and it's obvious that the vast majority of product providers are yet to catch on to this massive cultural shift underway, where consumers are conscious of their impacts and want to avoid investing in wasteful plastic-laden unsustainable products and services. But, the shifts we are seeing are encouraging and should be highlighted.

THE REAL ISSUE IS DISPOSABILITY: THE ROOT OF ALL WASTE

Waste is the dark side of consumption, and despite two solid decades of zero waste policies, and many different approaches from cleaner production to eco-design and sustainable consumption, and now the circular economy, we are still seeing a global increase in waste generation. And not just in plastics clogging the oceans, but in high-tech trash, textile, and food waste.

The issues with waste is that no matter how much recycling or waste management is put in place, more waste is generated than can be dealt with. Many emerging economies have limited or minimal waste management systems, and many big Western countries have absconded their responsibility to manage their own waste efficiently, just exporting it to an emerging economy. Like the case of the Canadian trash that the Philippians refused to take on, or as evidenced by the collapse of the recycling industry after China refused to take the world’s plastic trash any longer.

There continues to be a significant trend in converting reusable products to disposable ones, combined with the painful reality of planned obsolescence in high-value goods, so many aspects of our daily lives are now marked by single or low-value use products. Thus, going zero waste is one defiant act that anyone can do to take a stand against this. The reality is that what we spend our money on impacts the economy. Just like investing in renewable energy increases the value of that industry, the same is said for every product or service. We get more of what we invest in.

And let’s not forget that all of this comes down to design. The World Bank estimates that at the current rate of increase, we will see 70% increase in waste generation by 2050. This is all by design. Waste, whether it be in trash or recycling, is a design flaw, so even with the rise of waste rejection, we have a significant trend to contend with. Products are designed to break, and systems are designed to increase disposability as they cut costs and respond to customer concerns of health and safety. A significant part of the entire waste/pollution/unsustainability problem is that we have designed a system that incentivizes waste, and that is why we need to design for a post disposable future.

Design is also an incredibly powerful part of the solution. We can design for a future that meets our needs in sustainable and regenerative ways, and it's no wonder that the waste backlash is coming at a time when people are more able to design their own lives and share these behavioral and cultural shifts online to audiences of others willing to buck the status quo. This new generation of active consumers, be it zero wasters or minimalists, they are exerting their personal interests on the economy. This is helping to challenge the dominant culture of hyper-consumption and instead showing ways of living a more intentional and purposeful life.

MAKE CHANGES EVEN THOUGH IT TAKES TIME AND EVEN IF YOU FAIL

I have spent years researching ways of effecting change, and the one thing I know to be true is that change is constant, but it also takes time. Many people are not willing to even try something new because they think that it won’t serve them well, but when they do actually enact a habit disruption and discover that there was not a negative outcome, they often then adopt the new change and share it with others. Change is socially contagious, in both directions on the positive/negative scale.

Change is often hard to see whilst you are in the middle of it, and it is even harder when it’s a resistance to the status quo. The global changes toward a sustainable, regenerative, and circular economy require multiple different actors shifting their behaviors and patterns in diverse ways. In the case of zero waste living, it's all about agency and having ownership of your own impact. More so, it is contagious, as the power of social influence kicks in and people see the positive outcomes that making these types of changes can have.

When enough people validate the new actions, it’s a free pathway to the new outcome! To be sure, there are many challenges ahead of us when it comes to sustainability, and major corporations are still far behind in the trend of adopting the significance of the changes needed to adapt to a circular economy. But the progress is real and transformative. The question is not if, but when will we see the tipping point of change where we, as a collective species, start to design goods and services to be a positive influence on the planet?

It's never too late to start swapping unsustainable daily decisions to more considered ones, and in fact, there are five simple actions we can all can start anytime.

Five everyday actions to start RIGHT now

  1. Swap out some meat for plant-based proteins

  2. Ditch everyday disposables such as cups, plates, bags, and take-out containers

  3. Invest in the things you want to see in the world by buying repairable and long-lasting stuff (and make sure to repair it when it needs to be fixed!)

  4. Opt for low-carbon mobility options like biking, mass transit, or ride-sharing

  5. Move money from high-impact industries to renewables through swapping energy providers, banks, and investment portfolios

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

Image courtesy of Laura Francois

Image courtesy of Laura Francois

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

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

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

Her UnSchool Story

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

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

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

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

Creative Projects and Interventions

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

Laura Francois waterfall

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

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

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

Laura Francois

Tackling Plastic Waste

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

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

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

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

Laura Francois

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

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

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By Leyla Acaroglu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Opinions: every other day they should change.

  • Days: like seven times a week they change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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