How Design Can Support Environmental Conservation

Insights from my Masters critique #2

Sam Rye
Sam Rye
Apr 26, 2017 · 12 min read

This is an approximation of the presentation I made at my second critique with Massey University’s College of Creative Arts Post Grad program.

My project is focused on improving the outcomes of conservation volunteering. In my last critique I spoke a fair bit about my personal journey into this work, the areas I was touching on, and how I sought to navigate my MDes to have a meaningful outcome for conservation volunteering groups.

In this presentation, I’m planning to focus on more of what I’ve been up to over the past months and some of the insights from that research.

Firstly I want to make a comment about why I feel environmental conservation is an important area to explore, and how it relates to my reflections in my last critique about anthropocentric world views being at the core of so many of our problems.

Whether you look at land use, economic systems, urban planning, product development, fisheries, climate change or any other domain — we can see “nature in terms of its value to humans” as a core thread which runs through much of our, especially westernised societies.

If we are truly to achieve any form of sustainable development, or restoration of the ecological damage we have created as a human species, I believe there’s the need for a shift, not just in our behaviour, but in our world views, to acknowledge our inter-relationship and reliance upon other species.

I feel that nature connection, and specifically participation in environmental stewardship (kaitiakitanga) is the bridge between these world views. Done well, environmental conservation can serve as a vehicle for people around the world to engage in this kind of experience. We can think of it as a trojan mouse (1), as it can be incredibly easy to get involved with and enjoyable to take part in.

I also want to very quickly set my MDes practice in the context of complexity. This is a representation of the characteristics of complexity courtesy of Zaid Hassan’s Social Labs Revolution (2). He states:

Complex social challenges are emergent because their properties arise from the interaction of many parts. Imagine the difference between throwing a rock and throwing a live bird. The rock will follow a path that is predictable, that is, it can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy in advance. The path of the bird, on the other hand, is emergent, which means that path cannot be predicted in advance. It emerges from the interactions of many factors from the physiology of the bird to environmental factors. The system of the person (throwing the bird) and the bird is therefore said to be characterized by emergence.

In complex systems new information is constantly being generated. When we study a complex system, we are deluged by new information. If we tied a GPS to the bird and tracked its movements, we would be capturing a new stream of information about the where the bird was going.

This new information gives rise to the third characteristic of a complex system, that of adaptive behavior. This means that actors in complex systems are constantly and autonomously adjusting their behaviors in response to new information.

This feedback loop in turn gives rise to a whole new set of emergent characteristics. If our task is to re-capture the bird once it’s been thrown, then we use information to adapt our behaviors to ensure we succeed.”

As I went deeper into complexity science, I found the work of Jean Boulton (3) who presented these “So What” principles for addressing complex challenges (4), which have shaped and guided much of my design practice — many were already evident, but some were new.

For example, the addition of ‘history matters’ has meant that I’ve done a dive into the historical and cultural context of environmental conservation, to help ground my understanding of how and why existing behaviours and systems emerged.

Likewise the addition of ‘Weave together, with others, a vision for change’ really backed up the strongest call I heard from Liz Sanders (participatory design lecturer) at the recent Workchops training I had the privilege of attending. Liz focused quite heavily on the idea of ‘collective dreaming’ as part of participatory design practice, and I feel like this can help us converge discussions about what ‘the right path’ is for my MDes to take.

Finally I feel like the direction I shared for my practice in my first critique and ‘hypothesis driven design research’ article were both backed up well by the ‘start small’ and ‘learn and adapt’ principles from Jean Boulton.

My intention is to build on my innate bias for participatory design, by further exploring methods and toolkits, with reference to Liz Sanders & Jan Stapper’s key text Convivial Toolbox (5).

I feel like participatory design is an important approach to working with the environmental conservation sector as it is often resistant to outside forces. However, using this approach will mean putting the people I work with at the centre of developing solutions to their own challenges. In other words, the solution(s) will be indigenous to the environmental conservation sector itself — meaning an increased chance of adoption.

I’ve included this slide, merely to note that as I worked with my supervisors, I was encouraged to explore the possibilities of the multitude of solutions beyond my original self-defined scope. I originally had a path I had outlined for my MDes to take through strategic design, into service design, and onward to UI / communication design — developing a solution to evaluation and reporting woes which I’d identified in my years working in the sector.

By taking these points off the map, I’ve opened myself up to the reality that the eventual outcome of this MDes may not be my expected path, and all of the landscape is indeed still on the table.

I have adapted this framework from one introduced by Sanders & Stappers in Probes, Toolkits and Prototypes (6) to give a quick overview of my design process, and where I am currently in the process.

It may be of interest to note that Liz mentioned that Design had often been focused in the Generative & Evaluative phases traditionally, but participatory design has increasingly been used in the ‘fuzzy front end’ of a process, to give greater user-led input earlier in the process to define the strategic stages. This echoes the ‘strategic design’ area which I’ve been exploring.

You will notice the different shapes marked on the map, which I intend to share a little more about later — but essentially they show a mixed methods approach to my practice, with the majority of them moving towards participatory methods.

Finally, I also want to note that due to my intention to deliver outcomes for the conservation groups, I intend to also spend time in the ‘post-design’ phase as part of my MDes, to explore how to ensure uptake of the solution(s). I feel it’s really important for designers to do this work to ensure we’re constantly honing our practice right through the entire lifecycle of a project.

Blowing up the first section — Pre-design — this is drilling into some of the methods I used. Having been a volunteer, and a group coordinator, I have several years of personal experience and insights I’m drawing on. I also did a dive into history of conservation movements in Australia and New Zealand, to set a baseline understanding about these cultural contexts for the work today.

I conducted 3 interviews:

  • The first was a semi-structured phone interview with a group coordinator, during which I was making written/visual notes.

I conducted 1 observation:

  • I sat in on a Governance meeting of a community group alliance (approx 9 groups), which I made written/visual notes, and took photos at.

I also participated in a volunteer event:

  • This was a regular event during which I was able to also speak to other volunteers, the coordinator and the president of the friends group. I took photos, and made notes after the event to record my findings.

I’m also working on the sensemaking part of the process at the moment, during which I’m:

  • Making notes about observations, insights and recording my raw data, from each interaction. All of this is recorded in my internal wiki.
Digital whiteboard session

This whole process has been relatively divergent, as I was encouraged to do by my Supervisors, and I intend to choose a couple of core areas to focus in on in the Generative phase.

The historical section of my research turned up some new information for me. The conservation movement is actually relatively young, at least in the European ‘mainstream’. Really kicking off in the 1960’s in NZ, there were protections won for the forests in the 1980’s, and indeed science led a realisation that species-based conservation wouldn’t really work only in the early 2000’s.

Perhaps these realisations were hard won, but it also got me thinking about the indigenous people of NZ and Australia, and how past and contemporary initiatives for conservation and restoration differ.

To focus in on the ‘who’ of the project now, my research surfaced and crystallised some insights into the Group Coordinators and Volunteers who I’m initially focusing on.

Group Coordinators are often overworked, and doing a huge variety of tasks and shoulder much of the responsibility for the outcomes of the project. From what I’ve seen, there is more support in New Zealand for these people to develop skills and competencies, than in Australia.

As for the Volunteers, I found that there is a broad spectrum of reasons that people volunteer, and these are often tacit or latent. They are often (happily) isolated from the day to day running of the project, and turn up to do the work in their spare time.

My interview with Monica Peters (community-led conservation researcher) highlighted that there is little published research about the motivation of environmental volunteers in New Zealand and Australia (7)(8).

In terms of the initial research, I worked with a spectrum of people in what I would term the ‘community-led conservation’ field.

Across this spectrum was the Community Alliance of friend groups, a friends group itself (part of that alliance), and one chapter of Landcare Australia; the largest ‘chapter-based’ conservation group in Australia.

I’m not sure if this is contentious, but I’ve identified some nuances in the different types of Conservation groups which I’ve researched. I think it’s useful to see these a representing a tiny fraction of the diversity of the conservation groups in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, rather than inherently based on race or ethnicity. That said, potentially people’s worldview and culture will affect the kind of project they would create.

It was particularly of note that both Australian & New Zealand ‘European-led’ initiatives had many commonalities, including the ageing volunteer base and focus on environmental outcomes (such as trees planted) often without recognising the social value of volunteering (social capital, trust, health and wellbeing etc).

I have a hypothesis that many of the projects I found which were Iwi or Indigenous Australian-led, were place-based because they were land which was returned under Waitangi Tribunal, or as part of Indigenous Protected Areas land. These are then used as platforms for a variety of other initiatives, which blended economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes. I hope to visit a couple of IPA’s here in Australia in the coming months to find out more about the model behind their work.

As part of my research, I was also able to develop a model which summarised the functions of environmental conservation groups I had contact with.

This model has helped me to abstract some of the challenges that have been identified, as well as seeing the work of group coordinators across a range of modes.

There is huge opportunities to use design in all of these domains.

I then mapped some of the challenges which had come up in my research across these domains. These are some of the common challenges which came across multiple times, and include:

  • Governance: Relationships with agencies, funding, organisational structure across functions, ability to collaborate, data storage (compliance and day-to-day use)

All of this is set against the reality that the conservation challenges are actually growing and getting more complex.

This brings me to the question of how to create a suitable boundary for my MDes?

Should I choose a domain and work with people to identify and tackle challenges within this domain?

Or, should I zero in on one of these common issues, and work with people on a very specific challenge to improve that area?

Or should I in fact choose a person or group of people to work with, and leverage this relationship to tackle issues together?

My intuition is to lean back into my design process, and increase the participatory design sessions to weave a vision for change, with people who have the time, energy and insight to participate. I feel like I’m in a good place with the relationships I’ve already built to do this.

However I’d love any feedback and critique people may have to make suggestions for next steps.

Finally, my research has of course led to some more nuanced questions which can help frame what I seek to learn from the Generative Design phase.

Thanks for your time, and to all the people who participated in this first stage of research!

Invitation to support next steps

Thanks for getting this far! I’d like to invite you into the next steps of this project, if you’re interested to help.

I’m really keen to build a few more relationships to help me explore this challenge from a couple of other angles:

  • Funders of environmental outcomes. Especially those interested in the multiple-values of doing this work with community members, rather than just contractors or staff.

I’m always on the look out for organisations who are looking to support researchers and support their research to reach wider audiences, or be specialised to their own challenges.

Please contact me on if you’re interested to talk about any of these.


(1) Mahendra, J (2016). Wheeling in the Trojan Mice. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Available at

(2) Hassan, Z (2015). The Social Labs Fieldbook. Social Labs Ltd. Available at

(3) Boulton, J. G., Allen, P. M., & Bowman, C. (2015). Embracing Complexity. Oxford University Press. Available at

(4) How do you go about embracing complexity? It’s complicated Duncan Green. (2015, August 26). The Guardian. Retrieved from

(5) Sanders, E. B.-N., & Stappers, P. J. (2012). Convivial toolbox : generative research for the front end of design. BIS. Retrieved from

(6) Sanders, E. B.-N., & Stappers, P. J. (2014). Probes, toolkits and prototypes: three approaches to making in codesigning. CoDesign, 10(1), 5–14.

(7) Peters, M. A., Hamilton, D., Eames, C., Innes, J., & Mason, N. W. H. (2016). The current state of community-based environmental monitoring in New Zealand.

(8) Peters, M. (2016). Completing a socioecological PhD; Reflections on process and key findings. Blog. Retrieved from

MDes: Environmental & Social Impact

Exploring and documenting my Masters of Design (MDes)…

MDes: Environmental & Social Impact

Exploring and documenting my Masters of Design (MDes) focused on improving environmental and social outcomes of environmental projects

Sam Rye

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Sam Rye

Connecting with people with purpose; working to make people more comfortable working in complexity, so we can make better decisions that restore our planet.

MDes: Environmental & Social Impact

Exploring and documenting my Masters of Design (MDes) focused on improving environmental and social outcomes of environmental projects