Over the years, my team and I have created a range of free, open-access toolkits to support changemakers in adopting the skills needed to help transform the global economy into a circular and sustainable one by design.

Here I have assembled some of my favorite ones and a list of what we have created for anyone wanting to get started on activating change for free!

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Through my design agency, Disrupt Design, my small team and I take commissions to make tools and self-initiate our own designs to help make change, wherever we can we get our clients and collaborators to allow for 20–100% of the content to be free and open access. …

The Disruptive Design Method (DDM) is a systems-based approach to creative problem solving for tackling complex social and environmental issues. It combines sociological inquiry methods (mining) with systems explorations (landscaping) and design and creativity (building) approaches. The method is built on systems, sustainability and design, allowing for a three-dimensional perspective shift of a problem arena to ensure that interventions create positive change. Here we cover a quick guide to the DDM.

We live in a complex interconnected world riddled with dynamic and often chaotic problems that requires a mindset and skillset shift in order for us to address them at a systemic level. …

The Circular Economy is all about the transformation of the way we do business, create goods and services, organize society and ultimately respect and cherish the world around us. Moving from a linear to a circular economy requires a reconfiguration of nearly all business structures, which is where circular business strategies come into play.

In my quick guide series, I am providing an overview of the different decision making support tools that enable the transformation to a circular and sustainable society. We are all consumers in the current linear economy, but as we transition to one that massively reduces waste and instead promotes a variety of reuse approaches, we will each become shareholders in the delivery and cycling of goods and services throughout the economy. This requires a redesign of nearly everything, and the sustainable design decisions I outlined already cross over with these sustainable business strategies as they interlock to provide a pathway form linear to circular. …

Sustainable design is the approach to creating products and services that have considered the environmental, social, and economic impacts from the initial phase through to the end of life. EcoDesign is a core tool in the matrix of approaches that enables the Circular Economy.

There is a well-quoted statistic that says around 80% of the ecological impacts of a product are locked in at the design phase. If you look at the full life cycle of a product and the potential impacts it may have, be it in the manufacturing or at the end of life stage, the impacts are inadvertently decided and thus embedded in the product by the designers, at the design decision-making stage.

This makes some uncomfortable, but design and product development teams are responsible for the decisions that they make when contemplating, prototyping, and ultimately producing a product into existence. And thus, they are implicated in the environmental and social impacts that their creations have on the world. The design stage is a perfect and necessary opportunity to find unique and creative ways to get sustainable and circular goods and services out into the economy to replace the polluting and disposable ones that flood the market today. …

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Earthrise Photo: NASA taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, at mission time 075:49:07

This week, on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, it was the 50th celebration of Earth Day, a single day marked in the 365/6 days in a human-described calendar year that is dedicated to remembering or celebrating that we all need the Earth to survive. In my opinion, that should be inverted, and every day should be Earth Day, given we all live here, on the only known life-sustaining planet in the universe — yet we have, in the last 50 years, managed to make a complete mess of things.

In 1968, astronauts headed toward the moon snapped a photo of the Earth from space, and this was beamed back to the millions of humans watching the Apollo 8 mission. For the first time in the history of humanity, we saw our home in all its fragile beauty from space, bright blue rising above the infinite black of the universe, and it changed the way the world saw our home, planet Earth. The image, etched into the psyche of all who have come since, is called Earthrise, and it helped spur on the burgeoning environmental movement. Major General William Anders, the astronaut who took the photo, said: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” …

Over the last year, the UnSchool team and I have been working on an exciting project in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to activate sustainable living and lifestyles. The outcome is the Anatomy of Action, and this week, we have launched it into the world! Here are the how’s and why’s of this exciting new initiative.

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When I talk about sustainability, a topic I have spoken about a lot over the last 15 years of my career, people often react in one of three ways: 1. they are really into the idea but don’t know what to do about it; 2. they are openly hostile about it, usually because they have had a bad experience with some form of environmentally-motivated actions/product etc; or, 3. they are confused by what it actually means and whether it is achievable, which makes them feel overwhelmed by it.

I try to remind people that sustainability is about the social, economic, and environmental considerations of what we do in our personal lives, the way we do business, and the government decisions that our elected representatives make on our behalf so that we can sustain the systems (such as food, air, and water) that every single living thing on Earth needs to survive and thrive. What it is not is a hippy-dippy, tree-hugging, wishy washy, anti-business concept that means you have to give up a lot and go back to the ‘dark ages,’ which is literally what some people who fall into the openly-hostile category have said to me. By being human, you need the planet, and as a result of our collective actions, the planet now needs us to alter damaging practices and replace them with more sustainable and regenerative ones. …

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Lady stands and looks at stockpiled recycling. Image by Vivianne Lema yon Unspash

This pains me to write, but we all have to come to terms with the harsh reality that recycling validates waste and is a placebo to the complex waste crisis we have designed ourselves into. The things you are separating and putting in your recycling bins are probably not being recycled — and there’s a good chance that they are ending up somewhere you never imagined.

The current recycling crisis, where much of the diligently separated waste is not getting recycled, started in January 2018, when China announced that they would stop taking the world’s recycling through enacting their “National Sword” policy, which after more than 25 years of accepting two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste, suddenly banned the import of most plastics and other recyclable materials. …

I have long been a fan of showing how problem solving desperately needs systems thinking. If you are familiar with my work, you may have already seen the series I wrote on Systems Thinking, but let me share the personal experience in how I came to uncover the power of thinking in systems, the insights that I have gleaned from seeing the world through a series of interconnected systems at play, and some reflections on how this has helped me make more positive change through my creative work.

I first encountered systems thinking as a practice around 8 years ago just as I started my PhD, and it completely blew my mind. I was going a bit mad at the time, as researching a PhD tends to result in some strange deep dives into all sorts of tangential aspects of your professional practice. At that time, I was exploring many of the adjacent fields to my actual area of study — sustainable design. This could otherwise be called procrastination, but I like to call it productive distraction. Days would start with looking into some more sustainable material processes and then I would end up looking into fractals, Newtonian physics, reductionisum, Lakoff’s work on metaphors… and then somehow in one of these Internet binges, I ended up in the world of systems and the fascinating transition from the mechanical worldview (thanks in part to Newton) through to the evolution of biology as a field of science which helped to form the foundations of understanding the interconnected systems that make life possible, which in turn helped to form the field of systems dynamics. …

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. …

In our hyper-consumption based societies, it’s always smart to raise a skeptical eyebrow when you hear organizations make claims of how they’re “doing their part” in the quest to “save the Earth”, (although at the UnSchool we truly believe that no one can “save” the Earth, but we can all change it!). But when companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable — this is called greenwashing.

Cambridge Dictionary says greenwashing is designed “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”


Leyla Acaroglu

UNEP Champion of the Earth, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability Provocateur, TED Speaker, Educator, Founder of unschools.co, disrupdesign.co & coproject.co

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