Embracing disruptive design with Leyla Acaroglu

Embracing disruptive design with Leyla Acaroglu

Spring 2019 | Written by Kiley Jacques

It’s not easy keeping pace with “sustainability provocateur” Leyla Acaroglu, Ph.D. The breakneck speed at which the designer, social scientist, and sustainability expert formulates and articulates game-changing ideas is astonishing—and galvanizing. The self-described “design disruptor” approaches environmental and social complexities as a “problem lover,” seeing difficult issues as “design intervention” opportunities. Much of her work is centered around helping people think differently. As an “agitator” for change, Acaroglu shares ideas aimed at disrupting the status quo. Her goal is to give individuals and agencies tools that enable them to perform their work more efficiently, more effectively, and more creatively with the agenda of making sustainability more mainstream.

The notion of a single individual’s ability to effect positive change developed during Acaroglu’s doctoral work at RMIT University, where she studied change-centric disruptive design—the basis for what would later become her globally recognized Disruptive Design Method. “I learned at school that, as a designer, I was going to have a pretty profound impact on the world around me—not only on human experience but also with respect to the choices I’d be making, whether it be materials or the way a product is formed,” she recalls, adding that there was a seminal moment when she was introduced to the Gaia Theory, which says everything in nature is interconnected. “It was a scientific concept I had never encountered before and it was mind-exploding. I had the sudden realization that I was very ill equipped with my knowledge. Even being at the school I was in, I wasn’t getting the information I needed to make sure I did not accidentally do damage.” By her own volition, Acaroglu began searching for information on “eco design,” as it was called at the time. It was the year Cradle to Cradle came out; she started paying more attention to economic theorists and connecting ideas from different disciplines that would inform her methodology.

Finding answers to the question of how to make change in the world as a designer turned into Acaroglu’s main provocation—it is the stem from which all of her talks, workshops, and interventions branch. Upon completing her Ph.D., Acaroglu founded her Disrupt Design creative agency in New York and the globetrotting UnSchool, which she describes as “an experimental knowledge lab for creative rebels and change agents wanting to challenge the status quo for positive social change.” Through both enterprises, as well as her Melbourne-based Eco Innovators, Acaroglu disseminates her unexampled approach to design-led systems change.

Leyla Acaroglu is a designer, sustainability innovator, and educator. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

The pioneer practitioner describes her Disruptive Design Method as “scaffolding” for thinking in a three-dimensional way about how we interact with and make change in the world. She boils it down to having three parts—intentionally labeled using a construction metaphor: Mining, Landscaping, and Building. During the Mining phase, participants—organizations, corporations, and individuals as diverse as the problems they tackle—conduct participatory research and employ systems thinking that forces the suspension of the need to solve. The idea is to deeply understand the components that make up a problem and to reserve judgment. “Essentially, it’s an inquiry and curiosity mindset, not a solving-the-problem mindset,” she explains. “In this phase, we go on a treasure hunt to find all of the parts and pieces.”

During the Landscaping stage, those findings are used to do systems mapping and dynamic exploration. They study the Iceberg Model, which is the way most people approach a problem—by understanding only the superficial and most obvious aspects. The work here is aimed at understanding what holds up a system. They look at feedback loops, systems dynamics, and archetypes to identify new insights and areas for intervention. “It’s like getting a bird’s-eye view of the condition or problem you are trying to address, or the creation you are trying to develop,” Acaroglu notes.

Ideation and creativity are explored during the Building phase. “The reason we don’t do that until we have done the other two phases is because you need to really push through the cognitive biases that limit our ability to understand the systems dynamics,” Acaroglu explains. “So when we come up with a solution, it is the right fit for the problem rather than another reductive idea.” She goes on to quote Peter Senge, MIT professor and author, saying: “Today’s problems are often the result of yesterday’s solutions.” The Disruptive Design Method seeks solutions that will not become future problems.

There are infinite ways to utilize this approach. Asked for an example, Acaroglu points to the “Solution Hack for Journalists” held in Helsinki in March 2019. The master class was designed to help journalists get a firm grip on climate science and its global implications. Students assessed green solutions at business, industrial, and city levels. Using the life-cycle and systems-thinking approach, they learned to communicate big-picture ideas more effectively, and they came away with the ability to dive into a problem set and identify opportunities for change. According to Acaroglu, being able to understand climate science, hyper consumerism, the economy, and energy production without being overwhelmed by them empowers the journalist, researcher, or communicator to pull those pieces together to weave into a new story that helps the reader understand the complexities.

Acaroglu describes her endeavors as antidotes to mainstream education and reductive thinking, stating: “We have a linear economy, which creates the normalities of unsustainability. Everything that is unsustainable is the result of actions of society and the economy. And that thinking is a product of the same system that created it—a universal product of mainstream education, which teaches us how to break the world down into individual components. It doesn’t teach us how to understand the dynamics and the flexibility of nature and our relationship to it. This disconnect with our interdependence with the world and our ability to affect it through our actions—whether with a negative or positive impact—is one of the fundamental flaws that we have created in modern society.”

Left: Leyla Acaroglu presents at TED2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson | Middle and Right: Leyla Acaroglu is the founder of the CO Project Farm, an abandoned olive oil mill from the turn of the century in central Portugal which was transformed into a unique mixed-use facility for learning, collaborating, and activating creative change.

Her own approach to learning incorporates a lot of gamification. She has developed teaching tools that include Design Play Cards, the Secret Life of Things, and Designercise, among others, to create experiences that are “cognitively activating and that support people’s own intrinsic learning journey.” Acaroglu taps into the opportunities inherent in universal socialization through games; she uses the mechanisms of challenge, reward, and payoff to connect people to a fluid state where creativity can occur.

Her latest undertaking, the CO Project Farm Portugal, is the embodiment of creativity. Acaroglu calls it “a brain spa for creative optimists.” Located on a bucolic olive and citrus farm, it is designed in the name of regeneration. Her reasons for starting this “completely crazy project” are threefold: The first was personal—she was starting to burn out. “I wanted to disrupt my own normality,” she says. “I was living in New York and wanted a place to go with other people to regenerate inspiration and energy and be connected with nature’s systems.” Second, she intended it to be a place to run UnSchool programs, where she could experiment with creative design experiences and where others could have “transformative learning outcomes.” And finally, she recalls musingly: “I really experienced my own personal deficit when it came to understanding nature’s systems. I was trying to grow tomatoes and I didn’t know I needed to cross-pollinate them. I had received the title ‘Champion of the Earth’ and I realized I needed to walk the talk. I wanted a place to go where I could observe and participate in nature.”

Offerings at the CO Farm Project include lifestyle programs, workshops, small retreats, and activities centered around organic farming. Acaroglu describes some of what goes on there as “lifestyle hacks and swaps”—practical day-to-day activities like cooking and making bath products, cheese, and nut milks. Every activity on the zero-waste property is treated mindfully as part of one system. Heading into its second year, the CO Farm has proven a wellspring of inspiration. “The things I have learned in the last year and a half while setting up this project—and being more intimate and connected with natural systems—have enhanced my work with unprecedented amounts of knowledge. I can’t explain the things you learn when you have to respond to natural systems.”

The Project Farm hosts UnSchool, a living laboratory for exploring positive change through creative interventions. It is a unique off-site retreat facility shared by like-minded organizations for collaborative learning around sustainability, design, and systems change.

Making the planet’s problems your life’s work takes gumption, which Acaroglu has in spades. It could be argued that it’s a playful spirit and exultant attitude that keep her going—no doubt, they help. But her desire to own her actions as a single agent with limited resources is key to her drive, too. It’s easy to imagine that designing systems to radically disrupt the mainstream—and facing the repercussions that lie therein—is exhausting work. Acaroglu concedes, it is. But she’s equipped. “I’ve got a lot of energy and I am very passionate about what I do, but I’m also just as devastated by the world’s tragedies as anybody else. The one secret weapon I have is that by doing systems thinking I realize there is no blame; there’s only inquiry and relationships. Trying to understand why and how something exists is a very empowering way of finding energy and agency, even in the most depressing of scenarios.”

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