Bangkok’s Pop Up Civic Experiment: The Circular Design Lab 2. 0 — from leverage points to zero waste cocktails

Courtney Savie Lawrence
Jan 29 · 9 min read

In less than 12 months, an idea sparked by a handful of people has since evolved into a grassroots, community driven collective that includes more than 20 coleads and has brought together more than 150 others across meetups, public events and systemic design workshops. But why? And more importantly, what have we been discovering along the way that has meaning and momentum?

We call ourselves the ‘Circular Design Lab’- a 100% volunteer, citizen driven, ground up (experimental) open innovation “platform”. We aren’t technically registered, we don’t have a director, we don’t have sustainable funding sources, we don’t have a manifesto, yet we have been able to run on the energy that civil society idea and social capital offers. In today’s political economy mobilizing energy is evermore dynamic when anger, inspiration, curiosity or frustration is latent- at best inspiring non-violent change optimism, at worst sparking massive uprisings that don’t always evolve well.

Since inception in early 2019 we have been focused especially on complex and locally problematic challenges, in Bangkok where we live. We wanted to investigate the core drivers of entrenched climate and social justice issues, and be brave enough, perhaps naive enough, to assume that it is our collective civic role to tackle ‘badly managed commons’ challenges? We started with with waste management in our 1.0 lab cycle (more here about the complexity and corruption). Despite being organized ‘just enough’ and not having capacity to document all of the details of our initial March-May workshop series, we had so much turn out and momentum that it became clear that our team of four now had 20 others wanting to craft the next generation of the lab. Long story short, and many summer evening meetings later, this organic nature led to a 2.0 re-launch last September. As a result we have expanded to include other themes that are relevant for our local context —like record breaking air pollution and unsustainable fast fashion supply chains. We ran the 2.0 with a similar format, yet we added fresh creative spaces for gathering the budding affinity community; as a result ‘Circular Zero Waste Meet and Greets’ (with circular cocktails) were born in tandem. Not everyone can commit to weekend workshops, yet many curious folks are eager to connect. For our first meetup we had nearly 260 people express interest to join, for example.

Back to the start and mechanics behind design

The truth is that none of this would have probably gotten off the ground without an initial seed grant by the RSA and generous space donation by the Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC), a well known and credible creative sanctuary, for our first series. It may be surprising for a city where so much real estate sits unoccupied, but space is rarely free and if you are 100% volunteer run, and in need of a quiet locale for planning meetings, third space coffee shops don’t suffice over the long haul. That being said, we have been able to hold events at spaces like the FREC and Bangkok 1899- critical, yet rare, hyper community centers. After solving the logistics conundrums we were able to ‘pop up’ in a variety of locations around the city to hold sensitizing events (i.e. panels with unusual suspects and grassroots innovators, interactive R+D conversations aided by open source mapping tools like the one we developed here on Kumu). All of this became initial runway for testing demand and seeing who may be interested in working in the trenches with us.

Given that the initial workshop coleads had been teaching human-centered design and social innovation at the university level, our meta hypothesis was anchored in this question- could we curate a community of practice around tackling wicked problems from a systems perspective? Of course we also wondered if the issues prove too large scale? Or would we feel too small and removed from really being able to affect change? We decided to run a process and offer systemic design workshops to move people along the thematic areas. Although design and systems change could be perceived as inherently intuitive, the point was to try to surface context driven leverage points that could become opportunities for experimental prototypes that could respond to the problem spaces. I find the following ‘decision tree for running experiments’ offered by Bas Leurs (in beta!) to be helpful for contextualizing what we mean when we are talking about experiments — in this case we are not running randomized control trials, but exploration, ethnography driven, futures oriented insight safari’s that allow us to build relevant testing grounds that usher in opportunity spaces, or eventual interventions to shock the system to shift in a new direction.

Below I’ll walk you through a few key things: the big picture hypothesis, who has come to the table (and why), what we have been testing, ultimately learning, and what we need to develop.

  1. Why ‘systems change’ is central to our focus?

I suppose it goes without saying: we can not move towards regenerative ecosystemic possibilities if we are using logic frames of the past century. Can development be truly sustainable? Our lab would argue that in fact we must push for design that strives to renew, not sustain, especially where systems are broken or no longer fit for purpose. As I mentioned in another post I wrote during our 1.0 lab cycle: collective wisdom exists, yet time will not wait for us. There is no longer the sloppy luxury of thinking in isolation — in fact all contours of the systems in which we operate must be systemically connected if we are to expedite the aggregated and cumulative impact of intentions and investments. At the risk of over simplifying, yet drawing on what many organizations are striving to develop, including the one I work with on a daily basis, a systems lens is critical to match the exponential challenges that are ushering our planetary boundaries towards the brink of collapse. Below, I mucked up a visual inspired by the work of Sam Rye to (imperfectly) try to express the intention of multiple, faster scale initiatives/prototypes/experiments that are run with an eye targeted longer term systems shift.

2. What do people want and why do they spend their evenings and weekends with the Circular Design Lab?

Ironically, during our 1.0 lab we only took ‘attendance’ to workshops once, and we were just lucky enough to have university student volunteers track those who came to our public events. Needless to say, as it became clear we were going to run another cycle, yet equipped with another 20 volunteers, we got organized and leveraged the operational talents that were around the table. Thanks to one of our heavy-lifting volunteers, who happens to be a Bangkok born, Stanford trained engineer, we got data, and lots of it! This opened up a new chapter of inquiry and space for trying to understand what motivated people to join, and come back across workshops, events and meet ups in general. You can see from the Tableau that’s public (lifted from multiple feedback forms) that most of those who joined the workshops came for knowledge and learning about the topic area and innovation approaches. We also learned through the qualitative feedback dimensions, that most people were inspired to be a part of a community of “doers” who wanted to affect change at the local level. As for participation, the composition was typically half Thai, with the expat crowd representing 15 different nationalities.

As for the curricula —we are happy to share the slides — yet you can get the gist from the description here too (www.circulardesignlab.org). Since launching we have had teams in Vietnam and Germany reach out asking to run a CDL, and we gave a live talk on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation DIF platform (https://www.thinkdif.co/sessions/foster-change-with-the-circular-design-lab) — our materials have been happily shared in these such cases.

3. Where do we go from here? Is there substance to what we are developing?

Depending on who you ask, there may or may not be much going on in our lab. It feels liberating to say this as we have no funnel of funders to try to impress, just our own experience, our truth. If you ask me I would say that it is clear that systems oriented change is not an overnight process, yet the combined collective development of ideas, community and connections is indeed significant. At the risk of summarizing something complex that could be interpreted superficially: in our 1.0 lab the first waste management group ran ethnographic and action research at one of Asia’s largest markets in Bangkok— a heavy consumer of single use plastic bags. Their eventual intervention was a concept note to eliminate and ban these elements in the supply chain. This idea emerged after 4 systemic design workshops, hours of interviews and exploratory research searching for a relevant prototype. They presented their proposal to the local Bangkok Metropolitian Authority- and since January of 2020, in fact all of Thailand now has this ban. So in this case, not because of this team’s concept note did that happen, yet one could posit that any additional pressure from civil society matters. So did that make an impact to the so-called system? I can not honestly say to what extent, if at all.

Fast forward to today. It is 2020 and we are past our latest 2.0 lab cycle workshops. All teams are in the middle of prototype development that is softly led by the thematic co-champions. Speaking for myself, as one of the co-leads of the ‘air pollution’ track, we are now working at two levels: one on shaping policy, primarily thanks to our team member who leads the ‘Right to Clean Air’ of the Clean Air Network collective of Thai environmental activists, lawyers, medical professionals- there is a policy proposal note going to government; and secondly, we are idea networking an awareness campaign that is directed at democratizing access to air quality sensors, pinpointing source industrial pollution (have you seen this New York Times article on illegal e-waste processing in Bangkok?) and corroborating big data- we have been on calls with Pulse Lab Jakarta and Kopernik who have been building community based air quality monitoring projects for the past few years. We are running action research at the Bangkok Design Week this weekend, co-located with the Urban Studies Lab, and most importantly we are sustaining our energy, passion and momentum.

Our prototype query is also anchored on this question: Would you Go to a Funeral for Clean Air? this is one of directions we are going- imagine joining a Thai funeral at your local temple. Seem to not make sense? Take a look at the workshop notes here to understand elements and the deeper layers of thinking that went into this idea.

Slide deck of systemic design workshop notes compiled by Severine Clocet: http://bit.ly/CDLAIRGROUPNOTES

Stay tuned for more as we map the ecosystem of actors, iterate with feedback, data and community goodwill. We would be happy to hear your ideas or interest to contribute. You can see all of our channels at circulardesignlab.org and connect on twitter @cocosavie @circular_lab and facebook here.

With endless thanks to everyone who has been involved in this journey- in particular: our organizational collaborators at the RSA, TCDC, Cafe Na, FREC, Bangkok 1899, WeLearn, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The Presencing Institute/s.lab, the Incubation Network, Scholars of Sustenance, and of course the humans behind it: Chris Oestereich, Praewa Satutum, Jett Virangkabutra, Kin Fucharoen, SoMA SoMA, Ashley Wilson, Kamonnart Ongwandee, Flavia Reale, Lotta Adelstal, Nok Boonmavichit, Madeleine, Laura Hammett, Bing Dhanarachwattana, Supot Chunhachoti-ananta, Irene Laochaisri, Frederic Pouget, Alka Puri, Wamaree Nusuwan, Mali Kos, Buranee Soh, Alice Razon, Kahwei Yoong, Jiratcha Archawapongpanich, Posthorn Mungmee,Sornsawon Luxsamevaranond, Kittikun Saksung, Liepa Olsauskaite, Severine Clocet, Amy Baum, K. Weenarin, David Henderson. You can see them all here.

Courtney Savie Lawrence

Written by

Head of Exploration @ricap_undp, colead Circular Design Lab, #FRSA #THNK alum, connecter, ecosystem builder, cross-pollinator, design + social innovation

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