make change

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

 
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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. 

SYSTEMS 

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. 

 
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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.  

 
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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.  

SUSTAINABILITY 

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 

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 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!