What it means to be an UNEP Champion of the Earth — A Thank You Letter
Today, I am incredibly honored to have been named a 2016 Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme, in recognition of my work in advancing science and innovation. I proudly accept this prestigious accolade on behalf of the millions of people around this beautiful planet who are championing change in micro and macro ways every day. I am fortunate to get to work with some of these everyday superheroes through my work– as founder of the UnSchool of Disruptive Design and as a sustainability provocateur and creative protagonist at Disrupt Design.
“The Champions of the Earth award is the United Nations’ highest environmental honour, recognizing visionary people and organisations all over the world that exemplify leadership and advocate action on sustainable development, climate change and a life of dignity for all.” — UNEP
I am, indeed, a very passionate Champion of the Earth and will continue to dedicate all of my creative powers to making positive change throughout my life. But, it was not always this way. In fact, I spent the majority of the early part of my life completely unaware of how the Earth sustains us and how I was the direct beneficiary of a complex interconnected whole.
It wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I had my first experience of understanding how the world is a beautiful, dynamic, and chaotic interconnected mess of problems and opportunities. Sitting in my engineering class in design school, my professor took out a textbook and started to explain the Gaia theory, which states that everything in nature is interconnected. He casually explained that, as designers, we would make decisions that would have impacts on the planet and people, often ones that we would not know about, which could have far reaching and potentially catastrophic impacts. He really didn’t spend that much time on it — just gave a quick rundown on potential ecological impacts — but in that pre-climate-change-is-a-reality time, it was enough to blow my mind open. The 20 minutes he spent of this topic completely changed my entire worldview and sparked a knowledge quest that would come to define my experience of the world and ultimately lead me to where I am now, receiving the highest environmental award from the United Nations(!).
Sitting in that classroom, I was shocked that I had made it through 20 years of my life without having a clue about how the world really worked! The idea that everything is interconnected sparked a gestalt moment in my head — suddenly all the pieces of the crazy jigsaw puzzle, of my confusion about life, started to fit together. I knew I would never be able to unlearn or unfeel the deep connection and responsibility I felt to the planet, its people, and all its interconnected beauty that I was a beneficiary of. I became thirsty for knowledge on how to be a part of the solution, instead of an accidental perpetrator of the problems I saw around me, so I went on a self-directed learning quest and began devouring everything I could unearth about how our incredible planet works.
Education– the access to diverse thinking, the possibility to engage in knowledge, and being open to new ways of thinking — literally changed my life. Education is the one thing we know changes the world. That’s why I am committed to experimenting with educational experiences that create transformative change and activate the agency for people to self-select into more participatory roles in the world around them.
Back to that moment in my design class– in awe and shock, I turned to the room full of other budding designers and asked, “What are we going to do about this, guys?” (I was one of only 2 women in the course). The response from one of my classmates was, “I don’t know why you are freaking out, Leyla. It’s not like any of these catastrophic environmental impacts will happen in our lifetime. So, why should we care?”
His response has stuck in my mind ever since, as a constant reminder that there are people who don’t see the role that each and every one of us play in sustaining or accidentally depleting the Earth’s life support systems.
That exchange and many other moments like it fuel my personal mission to learn as much as I can about the beauty and complexity of Earth’s ecosystem services and the unique human experience. My goal is to figure out how to change the conversation on what it means to be alive on this planet at this point in time. I also want to make sure that current and future designers and creatives don’t deflect the responsibility of what they create. Designers, engineers, scientists and business people literally script the human experience through the things that they create. This is why I design tools that help people across professional disciplines make change.
This is also the main reason why I started the UnSchool of Disruptive Design– to create immersive, experiential learning environments that enable peer-to-peer collaborative engagement around the critical and complex knowledge sets we need to participate in changing the world around us so it works better for all of us. In our first two years, we have run programs in 8 cities and have grown an alumni community of 140 people from 32 countries. I am wholeheartedly committed to disrupting the way knowledge is built and shared so that we can empower a generation of creative leaders who not only care about the planet but who are also equipped with tools to help design the future so its more sustainable and regenerative for all of us.
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I ended up dropping out of design school in pursuit of my quest to change the way the material world works and to discover how we as humans impact the planet. I needed access to information that would empower me to level up the way the industry worked, so I went off to search for it myself.
I was incredibly lucky to have been mentored by an expert in life cycle sciences, Tim Grant. For years, he casually supported my development as a thinker and doer, encouraging my crazy idea to start my first company at 25 (EcoInnovators) and to develop my thinking in totally different ways. He also gave me access to new knowledge by letting me do things that were way “out of my league” in the early days. That’s the power of organic mentorship: the casual support of another activates your agency and gives you the real life lessons you need to get shit done. If you’re looking for one thing you can do today to change the world, start supporting someone else in their quest to learn and grow– even if they don’t ask for it!
As part of my personal quest to figure out how the world and people worked, I ended up completing an honours degree in social science, majoring in sustainability. I got really into exploring systems and life cycle sciences, and eventually, after starting my first company, working as a radio journalist, and experimenting with divergent communication tools (from animation series to games — many of these projects ended up being used around the world and even ended up in art galleries!), I was being invited to do a PhD on how to make change in the world through creative practice. I did it, with much angst and stress along the way, I got the PhD. But let me make this very clear: you definitely don’t need a PhD to change the world!
All of this intensive life learning to date has allowed me to uncover some fascinating things about how one human, even with limited resources, can affect change in their lifetime. Here are just five of the many takeaways:
- Everyone has the potential to make positive change.
No matter how big or small your sphere of influence is to start with, you have the capacity to grow your impact through intentional interventions. Mine was tiny, but I had a loud voice and a passionate desire to be an active participant in the world.
- Change is constant, so make it intentional change.
There is nothing permanent, except change, and we all participate in it whether we like it or not. So, make your change matter by exploring systems and seeing how you can intervene in them with more intent to affect change.
- Every problem holds its own solution. Learn to love the problem.
Like matter and antimatter, everything that exists has the opportunity to change itself. The more you invest in understanding the underlying things that feed a problem set, the more intuitively you will be able to see the hidden opportunities for changing it.
- Challenge is actually reward because we are wired for reward after work. The more you see the opportunity in complexity the more you can find joy in the journey to figuring it out. Our brains love to pump out reward neurochemicals. Program your responses to love challenge and you will get a kick out of getting through it.
- The secrets are in the systems that make up the world around us.
You me and the entire universe are interconnected as part of a beautiful chaotic system that sustains life and all the magic that exits around us. Systems thinking is the secret sauce to seeing past the simplistic surface level stuff and being able to understand the complex dynamism that exists in everything.
Redesigning the future now.
In the last 25 years, we have seen astronomical advancements in science and technology, and we as a species have been growing at an exponential rate. Whilst there is much talk about artificial intelligence and colonizing other planets, I personally am planning on staying on this one. Buckminster Fuller, the ultimate creative shapeshifter, put it beautifully when he said we are all co-pilots on Spaceship Earth. I will stick here, fighting to keep this beautiful ship afloat– and I know that the group of people on this planet who feel the same way as I do outnumber those who want to opt out and move to Mars!
We are a product of this system and, thus, are in a dynamic, interconnected relationship with the ecosystem services that Earth provides us with. I am constantly in awe of the possibilities and opportunities that we have on this planet. Yet, we invest exorbitant amounts of money and collective creative powers in trying to get to another one, trying to solve problems that don’t exist, while we ignore the significant ones here. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Biosphere 2, where I was reminded of just how unprepared we are to live on other planets!
There are many problems that need to be addressed here on Earth. Since every problem holds its own solution, by reframing the cognitive experience of a problem and flipping the script on the conversation, it can become an opportunity, a possibility, a parameter for creating something new within it. Sustainability has been framed completely wrong for far too long. It’s not about giving stuff up– it’s about designing things better, redesigning the now so that the future works better for all of us. (If you want to bust through eco-myths, sink your teeth into what sustainability is really all about, and learn how to make truly sustainable decisions in your professional and personal lives, check out this class I did for the UnSchool — it’s 40% off through December 5th with the code “EARTHCHAMP”)
I am passionately optimistic about our potential as a species to solve and evolve the critical issues facing us on this planet. If we can create artificial intelligence, then we definitely have the collective smarts to figure out how to create human sustainability on Earth. (If you agree, you should join the gang for creative rebels that I started!)
In honor of receiving this incredible title, UNEP Champion of the Earth, I am launching a free project to promote the superpowers that everyday people can embrace to make massive change in the world around them. From recognizing our own biases to learning to love the problem, every week I will be releasing a new power that anyone can grab and use to activate change in their own unique way.
No matter what your political, religious, or personal ideology is, you have to breathe, drink water, and consume nutrients to survive. There is no way you can escape these very basic human needs. Thus, championing the way we treat the Earth’s resources and life support systems is a critical part of being a human alive on this planet right now.
We need to ignite a rational, bipartisan conversation about creativity, action, science, ingenuity, and integrity. Let’s all champion change to design a world that works better for all of us.
December 2nd 2016
PS: A BIG thanks to the UNEP for this acknowledgement of a passionate (and slightly crazy) unconventional creative approach to activating social and environmental change!