SDX: Finding our Feet

By SDXer Roya Damabi

Right now, we’re smack dab in the middle of our second year as SDX — Systemic Design eXchange — a community of practice based in Edmonton, Canada that aims to be a watering hole where multiple sectors can come together, learn together, and act together. Broadly, we explore systemic design as a methodology to help address sticky challenges — what we at CoLab call messes.

At the end of our spring 2017 session, we took some time to reflect on our second year. As conveners (Alberta CoLab and Skills Society’s Action Lab), we don’t work alongside each other every day. On SDX days, we’re focused on the session at hand, and while we always debrief each session right afterwards, making dedicated time to touch base with each other on some of the broader items is an important practice for us.

Alberta CoLab and Skills Society team members Brent Wellsch, Aleeya Velji, Ben Weinlick, and Keren Perla. As per usual, Roya Damabi is behind the camera…seeing all, knowing…not much :) I can say that. I wrote this article.

The main things that have changed for us in our second year are:

  • Co-mmunication: how we work together as a convening team
  • Hijacks: the convening team has taken a step back from the spotlight
  • Yes, and: our scope has crept away from our systemic design focus
  • On reflection: we’ve changed the way we share and reflect on our learnings

Here’s a little update on how we feel things are going.


Spring session? Yup! Having a spring session (and an upcoming fall session) is something new that we are trying this year. We heard from SDXers that it’s sometimes hard to make time to come to SDX — and sometimes it was challenging for us as conveners to find time at shorter notice, too. So, this year we are trying a more scheduled approach. We came together in January this year and scoped out what we thought would be some useful topics to explore, scheduled dates, and voila! A spring session was born. We even have a poster. It’s been a useful way for folks to prioritize what sessions they want to attend, and it’s helped us as conveners give SDX the attention it needs. Sometimes, it seems best to do things as you go, but it turned out we needed a little more structure — at least on a session by session basis.

We’ve also changed the way that we work together as a team when we plan sessions. Rather than taking a team approach to everything, so far this year we’ve found a better balance. Each of the convening team takes lead responsibility for a session. It’s up to that person to ensure that the rest of the team is included, knows what’s going on, and understands how the session will unfold and what their role is on the day. So far, it’s working well and it’s one of the actions that we want to keep going. It’s been important to have good grounding as a team in order for this approach to work. This might not have worked so well for our first year, when we had more to work through relating to what we wanted to do and what we were hearing from SDXers. This year, we feel like we’re working well together and sharing the work.

Oh yes, and we have found a way, thanks to our SDX community, to provide snacks at every session. This has relieved much stress, and we thank you.


From the beginning, we always wanted to create a platform for SDXers and others to share their ideas, work, and insights. We always wanted to create a space where people feel safe to test out their ideas, processes, and prototypes, and receive useful input. This year, in great part based on feedback we have received from SDXers, we have made a concerted effort to invite in different speakers to lead SDX sessions.

Overall, it’s been wonderful. We’ve received great feedback from SDXers that they like having different people come in and learn about new toolkits and the work folks are doing. At the same time, it has broadened our community of practice from a focus on systemic design to one oriented around change making and social innovation. We’ve expanded our scope to exploring systemic design, and it hasn’t always been by design!

Yes, and…

By bringing in more guest speakers to lead sessions, we have found ourselves drifting away from our original raison d’etre of exploring systemic design as a practice. For example, so far this year we’ve looked at social labs, strategic foresight, and failure and its connection to social innovation. An explicit focus on systemic design was often missing.

SDXers (and potential SDXers) don’t always know what systemic design is or want to talk about it. And that’s ok. As conveners, we can bring that lens. SDXers want to explore social innovation, systems change…a range of things that relate in some way both systems and the people in them. Really, that’s all systemic design needs to be for this community of practice. It doesn’t have to be explicitly or theoretically systemic design. What’s important to us is that, in all that we do, we take a systemic AND a person-centred approach. So whether we talk about failure, social innovation, evaluation, or whatever it is on that day — we remember that. And when we talk about what we do, that’s how we can talk about it. SDXers are interested in exploring questions like:

  • What are some promising patterns that might be useful for my context?
  • How do I look at a mess and figure out what to do, or where to act?

We’re interested in these questions, too. And we think that systemic design has a lot to offer these questions. As conveners, it may not always be reasonable to expect our guest presenters to make this connection. It’s up to us to bring it all home and relate what we are learning about on a given day to systemic design — to remember to look at the interconnections, the relationships. To make sure that we are thinking about people, their needs and desires, and how we can enable the most meaningful use of whatever we are exploring.

It’s always useful to have a ‘WTF’ category when you’re reflecting.

On Reflection

One of the ways that we are trying to make SDX more meaningful for both SDXers and ourselves as conveners is to create space for reflection. Not running out of time at the end of SDX sessions is something that we’re still working on! We want to make sure that we take time to talk to each other and check in on our experiences. One of the new ways we are creating this space is through this blog: it’s a way for us as conveners to share what’s on our minds in a longer-form way with our community. It’s also a useful way for SDXers to share their experiences, too. In only a few months, we’ve had solid interest from SDXers in writing about their experiences here. We hope that this will continue, and that it will be a space to support our growing community — and others like it — to share their work and gain encouragement from others.

Looking Ahead

As we get ready for our fall session, we are working on making stronger connections between the topics we explore and systemic design. We are also excited about our first full-day event, where SDXers returning from RSD6 will share their learnings and insights with the SDX community in what we’re calling RSD6 in YEG. We know. We have time to come up with a better title.

Roya Damabi is Senior Systemic Designer with Alberta CoLab. She is an SDXer because “it’s by creating bubble-wrapped collision spaces that public servants and those working in other sectors will see new ways forward together.” Connect with Roya via email or Twitter.