A Manifesto for Design-Led Systems Change

I’m writing a book on the ubiquitous influence of design on our everyday lives and the systems that sustain the planet. It looks at how everything is interconnected, the systems at play in the world, and the unconventional ways in which each of us can all contribute to designing a future that works better for us all.

What I have so far learned about writing a book is: it’s hard. Kudos to everyone out there has succeeded in this personal triumph of patience and perseverance. But, I like challenges — so watch this space and feel free to harass me on twitter about it!

In the meantime, I have had many thoughts related to systems change and the way we can all contribute to it. Throughout my career, I have encountered so many humans who want to make a positive impact, who want to change the world, their lives, their profession, their community — people who want to make creative change happen, who want to see the people they love happier and healthier, who want their community and the wider world to be a better, more cooperative place to live in and to raise their kids in.

Most humans aspire to have a good life shared with the people they love, and this requires a healthy environment and equitable access to common resources.

Yet, many people often see all the problematic impacts of the world — the social, environmental, and political issues — and feel overwhelmed, which disables them from taking action. It’s frustrating to know that everyone has the capacity to positively influence the world around them, but the missing ingredients are often a sense of agency along with the cognitive tools to understand, connect, and build change.

As such, I have dedicated my career to finding ways of designing systems change, supporting creatives in their missions to push the boundaries of how we deliver services and products in much more sustainable ways. Throughout my work, I have found so many passionate people burned out by the systems desire to maintain the status quo.

Design and the creation of goods and services that fill our lives offer immense opportunities and issues at the same time. Change happens based on the micro actions of many, and for every complaint you have, it’s critical to offer an opportunity for changing the systems that sustain the issue you are addressing — in your own life, in the work you do, and in the world around us all.

There is a strong case for change; we live in an age of rapid transformation in technology and social systems. With so many people around the world just waiting to flip on their change-maker switch, I’ve created a manifesto for design-led systems change as a unifying code to move forward with intention, direction, and inspiration.

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A Manifesto for Design Led Systems Change

By Leyla Acaroglu, January 2018.

Everything that has naturally evolved from this planet is part of a beautiful web of complex, interconnected, circular regenerative systems — including every single human.

As it stands, our landfills overflow and our oceans become increasingly saturated with plastic pollution because of linear design and reductive thinking.

Nearly everything we humans have created to meet our needs and advance our lives are based on systems of extraction and waste, in the name of “convenience,” profit, and short-sighted strategy.

We exploit nature and human labor to continuously produce more useless shit, designing in value decreases over time, intentionally making things no longer ‘usable’, and ultimately, designing for disposability.

Now, with global problems rising, we must acknowledge the result of this flawed linear design: products, services, and systems do not fit within the complex interconnected systems which nature has evolved to be regenerative and circular, in order to sustain life on Earth and maximize the success of all species.

Humans, and all the biodiverse creatures that share this planet, require healthy natural systems to survive. There are no exceptions to this rule — we all have to breathe, need sustenance, and must participate in the cycle of life if we ourselves are to live.

We thus have a built-in biological imperative to create things that meet our needs, whilst also regenerating the natural systems that sustain us all.

This is the greatest issue — and opportunity — of our time. How do we design a world that works better for all of us?

We begin by embracing systems change and learning the circular systems-based design tools to make this happen because despite our best efforts, humans have not been successful at fully replicating the complexity of the natural systems that provide food, air, and water for free.

Our challenge is to develop systems that meet our needs and that are regenerative to us and nature, that take and give at the same time. This is circular systems design, and it is the way we can meet our needs without doing more harm.

Our generation of creative change-makers can figure this out.

The first step is to remind yourself constantly that we are a part of and will always need nature, every single second of our lives. The byproduct of this is a deeper respect for its complexity and a desire to work within nature’s systems, limitations and rules.

We can all become pioneers of systems change, not replicators of systems problems. These concepts apply to every single one of us. Whatever your position in life, you need natural systems to sustain you, and right now, they need you too.

The current linear economic model does not account for environmental services that nature provides for free. Wood from forests, water from hydro systems, and oxygen from the oceans — we expect these to be continually provided to us all, without fully taking into consideration the negative externalities that result from not accounting for these services.

The complex interconnected systems of the world are constantly seeking to thrive and to sustain a balancing act that is impacted when we over-extract, pollute, or destroy our natural systems.

Everything created must take from something else; this is the law of entropy. Every industrial action has a reaction, an impact, and we currently do not design these trade-offs into our products, systems, or services. These impacts are ignored, minimized, or avoided in the name of economic progress.

But we can create economic value whilst regenerating the services that sustain us. This requires a shift to circular systems thinking, and a revaluing of natural services.

The second step is to account for system wide impacts in the things we do. This requires a knowledge of systems thinking and a full lifecycle perspective of how the things we create and consume impact the larger systems at play.

There is no blame in a complex system — therefore there are only opportunities to discover how to do things better. Every experience is knowledge in action, and the more you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, the more you will discover how the worlds systems work and what opportunities you have to create positive change.

Here is the best thing though: the future is not defined. It is made up of the individual actions of those that live today, and today is the day that we can all activate our own agency to make a positive impact on the planet, the people around us, and the systems that sustain life on Earth.

And this is the third step, to activate your own agency to influence the systems around you in more positive and proactive ways. To build things that make the old obsolete, to overcome biases, to love these problems we all face, and to be a pioneer of design-led systems change.

When all’s said and done, the world judges you not on what you own or have, but on what you have contributed and the impact that it has had on other people’s lives. Design your life to create value, with integrity and purpose.

This is how we change the world. We connect the dots, do the work, love the problems at play, find the connections that breed the places to intervene. We collaborate and test, explore and fail productively. We find joy in the challenges, and we challenge ourselves to be contributors, not just extractors. This is how we change the world with the intent to make it work better for all of us.

Design systems change.

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I am passionate about helping others activate their agency for creative change-making. Through the UnSchool I run programs that help you learn these tools and find your career in this space. My next live mentoring based program is at the end of February online. Find out more here >

You can also join me for a 4-day leadership bootcamp in April at my new CO Project Brain Spa Campus in Portugal. Find out more here >