SDX: Reflections on our First Year

SDX stands for Systemic Design eXchange. We are an Edmonton-based community of practice that convenes people from across sectors and disciplines to learn and explore systemic design, together.

As part of our ongoing efforts to improve, assess, and build SDX we, as conveners, took some time to reflect on the community of practice’s first year and what it means for the future.

We’d love to hear your thoughts — please leave us a comment below.


Thoughts from Brent…

Brent Wellsch, Systemic Designer, Alberta CoLab

In fall 2015, CoLab received approval to co-convene a new Community of Practice. At the time, the design and intent for this community was unknown. For the three years prior, CoLab stewarded and grew a Systemic Design Community of Practice for Government of Alberta employees. From this experience, we learned a lot of lessons in terms of how to rally a community around systemic design, its methods, its methodology, and associated mindset.

What we did know was that we had interest in engaging a broader community of practitioners — beyond government. We wanted to expand our ability to catalyze the use of systems and design-based practices. We wanted to communicate the field of possibilities in combining systems and design methods to think about and navigate complex issues. And, at a deeper level, we wanted to co-convene a diverse audience to discover learnings about systemic design by applying it in different environments and contexts.

Of course, all of this was the theory, but how to execute? Early on, we had an ah-ha moment: what better way to model what we were trying to achieve than by joining forces with another innovation lab? This way, we could demonstrate partnership in learning and capacity building across sectors. For months we had been engaging “Action-Lab Ben” in general conversations, exchanging stories about running an innovation lab in our specific contexts. The potential to co-convene this community of practice provided a tangible collaboration opportunity. This partnership was really the key driver for setting the stage for what would soon become the Systemic Design eXchange — SDX.

Ben & Brent share the hopes for the CoP at SDX1 in December 2015

Through my personal reflections, I consider year one quite a success. We did not have a firm road map: we followed a design-thinking mindset, convening sessions, gathering feedback, and iterating our approach moving forward. In doing so, we have solidified a “sense” of community, hit a groove in terms of generally navigating a fine balance between exploring theory and practice, and have harvested many areas of interest from the community for further exploration.

All of this I consider the end of the beginning. Just like systemic design itself, SDX is a young and evolving experiment. By applying our lessons learned to date, coupled with our organic approach for stewarding the community, I am excited to see where we can all take this community in 2017 and beyond!


Thoughts from Roya…

Roya Damabi, Systemic Designer, Alberta CoLab

For a budding community only a year old, I think SDX has been a really valuable way for people engaged with systemic design, lab approaches to social change, and social innovation broadly to meet, learn, and grow together. In my little experience so far doing this type of work, having a place to meet others who are trying to use similar tool sets, talk about challenges I’m facing, and learn from others.

As conveners wanting to organize the most meaningful sessions we could for people, we have wrestled with some tensions and how to balance them:

  • Diversity rocks! So how can we create experiences that all our participants will find valuable?
  • We want to be inclusive! So how do we not repeat ourselves to get new folks up to speed?
  • We want to make a difference! So how do we do that when attendance is fluid and, oh yeah, we’re diverse?
  • We’re theory nerds! But we can’t stop there!
  • We’re practical! But we need to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing!
  • Tools are important, but they aren’t everything! So how can we design sessions that go beyond tool kits?

I think we have worked through these questions and come up with some ways to address them, at least for now. We have developed materials people can check out that explain who we are, focused on learning and letting SDXers develop other initiatives organically (which they have), designed sessions with a bit of theory that are really interactive and practical, and used tools as a means to an end rather than the end in themselves (we’ve become better at this one over time).

Having an evaluation to get feedback after each SDX session has helped us to work through these questions (so, SDXers, do those evaluations!). If we aren’t sure, we ask for input. And, SDXers help guide our planning. We want to design sessions that are useful for SDXers, but also for ourselves as conveners. In our second year, we want to find ways to ensure that our learning as the convening team factors as much into the design as participants’.

Both CoLab and Action Lab have strengths and challenges. For CoLab, it’s challenging for us to work with people outside the public service. Our partnership with Action Lab helps us broaden our network, and showcase to public servants social innovation in community, in action. It’s also a great opportunity for us to learn from each other — each lab does this work a bit differently. Action Lab has our method collection on its wall, and we now regularly use a closing reflection at CoLab that Ben does in the Action Lab.

There are things we have to work through that any team does: who is doing what? Didn’t you say you were going to do that? Why am I writing yet another narrative?! No one will give us a budget to buy muffins! What we have that maybe not all teams do is an understanding of the importance of getting together to reflect on our experiences, that really helps. So far, we’ve been good at making time for this.

Another great thing about SDX that it’s demonstrated to me in its first year is its plain old utility. Need to bring together a group of people to get some input on a design or complex challenge? SDX! Have a social innovation speaker coming to town and need an audience? SDX! New to town and are looking to make some connections in the social innovation or human-centred design fields? SDX! SDX fills this gap — we’re a fantastic starting point, in-road, and navigator to fantastic work going on in our city that’s often hidden if you don’t know where to look.

The Australian Centre for Social Innovation took over SDX4.

My hopes for SDX are that we continue to build a sense of community, maintain momentum in our relationship as a convening team, and design sessions that keep people coming — new-to-us and early SDX adopters. It would also be great to continue to bring in new people, new speakers/hijackers, and inspire other SDX-esque communities to pop up in other cities. Field trip!


Thoughts from Ben…

Ben Weinlick, Action Lab

Collisions of Diverse Sectors Makes for Deep Learning.

I’ve been part of and helped steward quite a few communities of practice over the years, but this is by far the most interesting — interesting because of the high number of creative collisions between leaders from diverse sectors who share, learn, experiment, and try to get better at approaches to tackling complex social challenges. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all made new friends through SDX and many SDXers have expanded the craft building to collaborating on real world, complex challenges. SDXers are currently working on Design By Doing with End Poverty Edmonton, BarnRaise and the Edmonton Shift Lab to name a few. When you see learning happening in a community of practice and then people organically coming together from that community to apply what they learned to real world challenges…to me, that’s big value and success.

Not being afraid to go into uncharted territory…

A few times this past year, some SDXers came forward with a proposition to come to an SDX event and try a particular systems thinking or design tool that they and the community had never worked with before. These ventures into uncharted territory with the SDX community modeled principles of how, when navigating complexity, we all have to embrace uncertainty and be open to the unexpected. The SDX sessions where we were all experimenting together were some of most rich in learning for me. For example, in one of those experiments, an SDXer brought a design tool called ‘Seeds Weeds and Stones’ that we all tried for the first time, together. Since that session, many SDXers have used the tool in a variety of contexts and labs for ideation and sense-making. A diverse collective embracing the unexpected and everyone contributing to make the experience successful — even when we don’t know what outcomes we’ll land on? That’s something really special about this community and it helps to strengthen relationships and trust across sectors.

Prototyping with Abundant Community Edmonton at SDX6

I’m looking forward to this coming year of SDX, where we’ll work hard to foster many more creative collisions, welcome newbies to learn and contribute their skills, and draw on the experience of seasoned systemic designers.


Thoughts from Aleeya…

Aleeya Velji, AbSI Connect Fellow

Working with Action Lab as an ABSI Connect Fellow on a very unique learning journey, I joined the SDX convening team as a ‘newbie.’ I was immediately exposed to a team of doers that knew and understood systemic design, and had exceptional skills in operationalizing the craft. The exposure to such a stellar team allowed me to gain insights into several elements of hosting a CoP while strengthening my own practice and implementation of systemic design. As a ‘newbie’ I asked myself: how might we collectively design and steward an awesome community of practice that meets the needs of our community while upholding the true concepts/integrity of systemic design?

Source: MindLab

Key learnings for me in the first year of SDX:

  • Convening a CoP in a meaningful way takes planning, listening to the needs of the community, and working well with others. The convening team of the SDX CoP is a diverse team with various skills — the diversity brings out new ideas and balances the strengths of each team member. In saying that, it becomes really easy to rely on team members for specific roles and responsibilities. I have learned that the drivers of a collective convening group need to be shared and the various inputs of what it takes to bring a CoP to life have to also be shared.
  • I have learned that systemic design functions best when operationalized as a team. The reason the team becomes important is because, as we work together, we develop trust, know each other’s strengths, and lean on each other when we need to. As systemic design is inherently emergent, the strength of the team allows us to identify emergence and to pivot before dropping the ball, which allows us to try new things without the fear of failure. This combination of adaptive process and systems thinking comes alive in the planning and execution of SDX. SDX has created itself in such a way that it balances the systems and process to provide bite-sized opportunities for learning, catered to a community of learners. The skill set and ability to adapt on the fly with a team that I trust is an invaluable learning I have gained.

Over the course of our first year, SDX participants have gained new knowledge to learn, evolve and shift. As the participants shifted, the convening team also shifted by listening to feedback and adapting to embrace the needs of our community. Some of the key features of SDX have been:

  • Diverse topics/speakers through hijacks
  • Timing: short but long
  • A safe space to play, test and try
  • A supportive and kind convening team and community
  • A balanced approach to systems and process

The careful combination of these features has supported my evolution from a ‘newbie’ to a not-yet-oldie, but to somewhere in-between. I have gained confidence, learned new approaches, and feel like I understand systemic design. While learning, I have had a great support network to lean on, and now as I begin to dive in and lead systemic design processes in new spaces that are thinking about systems change and deep impact, I know SDX will be a space to learn, test, and try things with a team and participants that are open, supportive, and constantly inviting play. I look forward to what year two has in store.