UnSchooling The Pioneers of Change

Leyla Acaroglu’s Knowledge Lab for Creative Rebels

Landscaping during a Sydney workshop

I first heard of Dr. Leyla Acaroglu when she started publishing her Tools For Systems Thinker series on Medium. The first article made the rounds in my various feeds and explained the 6 fundamental concepts of systems thinking. It was followed by five more pieces that collectively make for a great read. I then looked at the Unschool of Disruptive Design, at her three books, at the restoration project in Portugal, at the online classes, the coming Master program, and the Design Gang. A broad, impressive and inspiring body of work, all aimed at fostering creative change-makers.

She is focused on sustainability, on having an impact, on solving complex problems, and doing so by sharing knowledge and concentrating on teaching others the tools to change themselves and the world. She’s also 2016 UNEP Champion of the Earth. We discussed her career path, her Unschool project and many other topics. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Patrick Tanguay — What is the UnSchool of disruptive design? Why have you created it? Maybe run us through how the fellowships work.

Dr. Leyla Acaroglu

Leyla Acaroglu — It’s an experimental knowledge lab that I set up three years ago to help overcome what I call the knowledge-action gap, the difference between people knowing that there are problems in the world, feeling that they want to address them, but not knowing how to take action. I really struggled a lot with the mainstream structural system of education, I did a lot of research in pedagogy and the way in which we teach and the way in which the brain works, how a lot of the experiences we have in life educate us, and how actually a lot of those experiences de-educate us.

I wanted to create an experience based program that equipped people with the thinking and doing tools that would help them figure out how the world works, and then to actively participate in the redesign of the systems that surround us, so that we can design a future collectively that works better for all of us. In that, I’ve created a methodology called the disruptive design method, which is essentially a way of synthesizing a series of complex theories and practices into a set of tools, I see it as LEGO or a jigsaw puzzle, that you can fit together in different ways in order to enact a practice of creative change-making.

The disruptive design method is a three-part process of mining, landscaping, and building. In the mining phase, we do deep research to understand the complexities of a problem. I always say we’re learning to love a problem rather than avoid it. Then we move into the systems thinking stage, which is the landscaping, where we put the pieces together to be able to get that bigger picture perspective, the bird’s high view. Based on our sphere of influence, our available resources, and through insights, we identify the areas of potential intervention. We can then move into the building stage, which consists in designing — whether it be a product, service, system, an idea, an article, a project, it doesn’t matter. You’re actively designing something that you can contribute to help shift the status quo of that problem arena.

You then iterate through this. It’s really a practice of actively participating in the world that employs well-respected, academically valid practices such as participatory action research, systems thinking, and creative innovation, in a way that helps you move through this process. It also helps in reminding anyone of which parts they need to understand before they can build something with substance in the world.

My educative work is to create environments and experiences that give people the tools and thinking tools to overcome reductionism. I called it the UnSchool because we undo the damage that mainstream education does to you. We also created a global community of practitioners, emerging and established, who are interested in using their skills to participate with purpose in the world.

We have our fellowship program, which is an emerging leaders program. It’s a seven day adventure-based experience that takes place in cities around the world. It’s nomadic, it pops-up. We take inspiration from the city, design an experience that is extremely intense, twelve hours a day for seven days with sixteen to twenty other people. It’s a showcase of all of the divergent, creative, provocative ideas and actions that are happening in that city around system changes, sustainability, and social innovation. We design these crazy adventures that we all go on together but there are also more traditional forms of knowledge transfer, like participatory knowledge transfer, mentors, co-mentoring, peer-learning. All of these different mechanisms to help create a really robust set of experiences that will stay with the fellows and help create internal transformative change with regards to their own agency and the way in which we can participate respectfully in the world and contribute to solving some of the complex problems we face.

Collaborative work during Christchurch and Mumbai Fellowships

You mentioned creating robust products that can address and disrupt. Are those usually first steps into something becoming real or more along the lines of what might be called design fiction?

LA — Design fiction is definitely something that exists as a proposition to our community. For example we’ve had Stuart Candy, who’s done some really amazing projects in that space and really spearheaded that practice as one of our mentors in our São Paulo fellowship. It was amazing learning about his process and his tools and a lot of the fellows in that program adapted that during the week.

It varies according to the skillset of the mentors involved. I try to curate the experience so there are divergent approaches and we include practitioners from a number of different backgrounds. For example Kyle Wiens who founded iFixit, one of the world’s biggest repair communities, is an activist for the right to repair. Through his experiences, he teaches how any individual can take a problem and turn that into not only a profitable enterprise, but also a community driven knowledge bank, and something that influences policy.

That’s really different to Dagny Tucker who’s also a systems thinker and a sustainability practitioner, who founded a really cool social sustainability start-up in New York called Vessel, a library system for reusable cups so that consumers don’t have to bear the burden of disposable cups. The provider of coffee is incentivized to have this closed loop, reusable system that dramatically reduces waste and impacts.

As a creative, educational experimenter, my job is to provide the foundations and the scaffolding that’s going to transformatively challenge these people.

There are so many different tools and ways of doing this, changing the world, participating in creative change-making. As a creative, educational experimenter, my job is to provide the foundations and the scaffolding, to pull all those pieces together to try to create a learning arc that’s going to transformatively challenge these people and provide a diverse array of tools so that they’re exposed to multiple ways of solving the same types of problems. It’s important to also show that everybody who has contributed successfully and productively has often failed, has often bawled their eyes out on many occasions, almost run out of money, and all those other challenges that we don’t hear about. But they’ve also managed to overcome those through the support of their community and through the tenacity of their faith and belief in what they are doing as an individual in the world.

What we’re seeing more and more is it’s those of us who are willing to challenge the status quo and do it with the weight of a thorough, science-based approach to understanding the world behind us. And when I say science, I don’t mean that we’re breaking it down and sitting in laboratories, but we have this curiosity mindset which is what scientists are basically doing, they’re trying to understand phenomena. You look at the world through the lens of curiosity and wonderment. You see the world and yourself in a dynamic relationship of learning and experiencing. That’s my own personal practice, what I curate with the other mentors and the people I bring into the program, but it’s also what I see blossoming and burgeoning in our alumni.

You look at the world through the lens of curiosity and wonderment. You see the world and yourself in a dynamic relationship of learning and experiencing.

I was impressed by the video for the San Francisco fellowship, how shocked and energized the participants were, and by the diversity of the people I saw there.

LA — In that program, we had two 60-something year olds, which to me is really shocking. When I first started the program, I assumed the ages would only be like 20-something to 30-something year olds, yet we get applicants from 16 year old through to 65 years olds. That blows my mind. They all say the same thing, “I’ve done what the system told me to do. I got a job. I got a career. I’ve done all those things. Now, I feel deeply conflicted about the kind of world that we’re living in and the way I’m contributing to that. What I want to do is I want to learn how I can contribute back to this planet in some way.”

We work really hard to make sure that our programs are extremely diverse, but not just in your classic distinctions like gender and ethnicity, but also in types of practitioners, age, where they’re coming from, where they’ve been, what they’re doing. Our programs are oversubscribed with applicants but we always try to make sure to mix it up. For example, when we’re going to an emerging economy, like our latest in Mumbai, our scholarships and 50% of our places are given to local participants. Then the other 50% places are given to international people from a variety of different backgrounds, we have people from Puerto Rico and from Guatemala, and from South Korea, and all sorts of places. That’s one of the strengths of the UnSchool and it’s been one of the most rewarding things for me, meeting these people from every single corner of this planet who are deeply passionate and deeply committed to figuring out how we can solve some of the complex problems that we face. That is extremely humbling and rewarding.

“I’ve done what the system told me to do. I got a job. I got a career. I’ve done all those things. Now, I feel deeply conflicted about the kind of world that we’re living in and the way I’m contributing to that.”

When I go and stand in these windowless rooms in fancy cities, listening to a bunch of very wealthy people telling us about the problems of the world, I’m reminded of the practitioners on the ground in all of these places, of the stories that I’m now invested with and how I can help share these stories of creative change-makers around the world who are actively doing stuff. That’s what really excites me. I’m sick of hearing people deflect responsibility onto others, rather than acknowledging that they themselves, especially those people with power, are the ones who are inhibiting the change by maintaining a stagnant position in the status quo.

Some believe that putting the emphasis on what we can do as individuals draws responsibility and attention away from the most polluting industries, that instead of pushing for individual responsibility like recycling, composting, or using better light bulbs, we should concentrate on effective limitation and stricter control of those industries.

LA — First and foremost, I am not into simple and painless actions. There was a great report written six years ago, which I quote extensively called Simple and Painless [PDF]. It demonstrated that the environmental movement had shot itself in the foot by promoting individual actions such as changing your light bulb. These things do not add up to the cumulative impacts that we need in order to change the systems that sustain the unsustainable pathway we’re on.

To be honest, the simplest and most efficient thing you could do tomorrow to reduce your environmental impact is to go vegetarian and be very conscious about your consumption choices. Every impact that we see on the world is directly related to consumerism and hyper-consumerism and wastefulness. At the same time, I also argue that recycling validates waste, thus it is not a sustainable solution to the problems that we face.

Sketching during the Mumbai Fellowship

The future is defined by the emergent outcomes of the individuals that maintain or change the system. Anthony Giddens talks about the structuration theory, where systems are only perpetuated and reinforced by the individual agents making up the system. It’s from that perspective that I talk about individual agency.

I have absolute optimism that by providing the right knowledge and motivation and putting the right energy in the right place, that we can shift the trajectory of the course we’re on, that we can not only solve the problems we face, but that we can actually get to a point of regeneratively contributing back to the planet that created and sustains us. I have full faith in that.

You followed both formal and informal learning paths. Through the UnSchool, you provide yet another way for others. What are the benefits of each?

LA — I quit design school because I realized about 15 years ago that I was learning how to create crap to sell to careless masses. It was a very profound moment. I was very frustrated, the reason I wanted to study design was to have a creative and interesting career. Then I realized I was just going to facilitate consumerism.

I remember getting a brief to design an internet connected fridge — this was well before the internet of things. I was thinking, “Why? Why would I want my fridge to order stuff for me? Why?” There was no critical questioning. That just because we can make something, doesn’t mean we should. I was looking at the various impacts design has on the world and feeling thoroughly unequipped to be in that position.

I studied social science, majoring in sustainability, because I wanted to understand how humans worked and how the world worked. In that time, I ended up interning and then working in life-cycle assessment, an environmental impact assessment method. It’s one of the best internationally respected approaches to understanding how materials move through the economy and their impacts on the planet. At the same time, I was always committed to this idea of eco-design, sustainable design, using design creativity to have positive impacts on the world. I did forge my own path, but in reaction to frustration at the fact that we hadn’t progressed very far. I was reading Victor Papanek and Cradle to Cradle, and Vance Packard, looking at books from the 60s, and hearing about Buckminster Fuller’s work, thinking “where are all these people, the designers with the consciousness who can figure out how to make money out of changing the world?”

I realized we had a huge PR problem around sustainability, it was made to be this hippie, ‘crunchy granola,’ total opt-in thing. That, to me, was a massive problem. As long as something doesn’t have universality to it, people aren’t going to engage with it. I started using my creativity to push back and provoke systems in a respectful way that would give people tools and agency, not just tell them that they were doing something wrong.

With the UnSchool, it’s a proposition, it’s an experiment in critical pedagogy and experienced-based education and what we can do with experience between humans.

Then I did a PhD in industrial design, when I was invited back to reflect on the practice that I was working with; where creativity is used as an intentional change-making tool. But even though I did end up finishing that PhD, it was very frustrating because the focus was put on myopic briefs and old visions of academia and not on what I could have produced or what I didn’t produce. That gave me this gestalt moment. Thinking, “well Leyla, if the system is failing people, then why don’t you design the alternative to help challenge that system.” I’m a big believer in something Buckminster Fuller said; “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

With the UnSchool, it’s a proposition, it’s an experiment in critical pedagogy and experienced-based education and what we can do with experience between humans. This idea that everyone has locked in tacit knowledge, whether you’re a five year old or a 50 year old. Under the right conditions, you have the tools to unlock that and share knowledge to help solve problems. With real world collaboration, a shared frustration or shared problem, perceived through the lens of opportunity, can become a creative intervention or provocation in the world. This to me is like magic, combining all those things, pulling from all the different disciplines and experiences to create something new, but also to really push at the boundaries of what we perceive to be knowledge and education.

Most humans have been conditioned to believe that you learn in a formalized environment. The actual reality is that the cognitive experience you have in the world, your entire perception of reality is constructed by the interrelationships that you have with other humans and the world. The biggest educator that anyone has is their life experiences, micro-moments adding up over time. If you end up being bitter, twisted, and power hungry, a lot of that is the byproduct of your lived experiences in informal environments. Mathematics or a science experiment are merely just blips in the tapestry of knowledge that you have. Unlocking the idea that every experience is an opportunity to learn, it makes you totally re-imagine what you’re doing with your life and what you can do with the time you have on the planet.

The cognitive experience you have in the world, your entire perception of reality is constructed by the interrelationships that you have with other humans and the world.

I am extremely interested in how our system, especially our education system, has dis-empowered so many agents and has created very unhappy people. It’s really important that we unlock this and provide ways of helping people develop their own purpose-filled careers. Not in a cheesy way, I mean genuinely figuring out how to forge pathways, sharing our experiences and really challenging some of these archaic systems that make no positive contribution to the planet anymore. We must find ways of giving people the tools to do that in respectful, proactive, and provocative ways.

All images by The UnSchool of Disruptive Design.

e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.