Leyla Acaroglu giving a workshop on circular design and system change

‘We need people who intentionally poke and prod at the system,’ says award-winning designer, entrepreneur and social scientist Dr. Leyla Acaroglu. As the founder of Disrupt Design, UnSchool and Swivel Skills, Leyla has helped countless creative and social enterprises to gain the critical skills they need to contribute to a circular and regenerative future. She’s also a prolific speaker and educator, and was named UNEP Champion of the Earth in 2016 for her work in advancing science and innovation for sustainability.

Last June, we had the chance to see Leyla in action during the Make it Circular Challenge Winners Bootcamp in Amsterdam. She delivered one of the most energetic masterclasses of the week, leading our winners through a crash-course on systems thinking and circular design, and how these tools can be used to create transformation within the broader economy. Here, we ask Leyla a few follow-up questions about the responsibility of design, her approach to change-making, and what she’s learned about the ‘beautiful little dynamics’ of nature.

Hi Leyla! You’re often described as a ‘provocateur’ and an advocate of ‘disruptive’ design. What are you hoping to provoke or disrupt with your work?

I think that a lot of the problems we’re trying to solve in the realm of circularity and sustainability are systemic issues. They’re things that are very much maintained by the status quo. So, as a young person who desperately wanted to contribute to solving some of these complex problems, I realised how important it was that I approached them from a creative standpoint. And it became evident to me that we need people who intentionally poke and prod at the system.

So that’s the provocateur, and the disruption is really about understanding the system and then actively working to change the way that system operates. If these words come across as a little sexy and cool, that’s partly because I want to attract people to the idea that you can have a successful career while being a positively disruptive force.

Driving change through disruptive design

When did you first realise your responsibility as a designer?

For me, it happened while I was studying product design. I wanted to be a designer since I was young, because I liked solving problems and the idea of a creative career. But during my studies, I realised that I was probably going to be responsible for creating a lot of problems. I remember that at one point, I had a teacher who taught us about the Gaia theory, which posits that everything in nature’s interconnected. But in that same week, in our other classes, we were learning that design was a profession that’s really about getting people to buy shit.

So I had this big conundrum, where I realised that as a designer I’d be making choices that had far-reaching impacts on the natural world and that could potentially have negative effects on people in countries I’d never been to. So I took myself on this deep dive into what it means to be a designer who designs products and services that are actively good for the planet. I didn’t want to create products to sell to people. And so I ended up quitting design school and becoming a sociologist, because I realised that many of the problems that I wanted solve were actually people problems. Like: why do humans buy stuff they don’t need? Why do we have an economy that’s all about exploitation and extraction? Why don’t we account for the waste that’s produced? These are the kinds of questions we need to ask if we want to transform the design industry.

Can you tell us a little bit more about systems thinking and why it’s so important?

Basically, systems thinking is the fundamental tool for the circular economy. You cannot create circular solutions without understanding how systems work, because one of the core principles of circularity is to work within natural systems rather than working against them. The current economy works against nature’s principles and systems, and it creates waste that is not metabolised by the natural world. So the fundamental concept of transforming from a linear, waste-based economy to a circular, sustainable one is about understanding natural systems. That is why systems thinking is so critical to the transformation that is underway.

“You cannot create circular solutions without understanding how systems work, because one of the core principles of circularity is to work within natural systems rather than working against them.”

As a concept, systems thinking has a longstanding history in the contemporary academic world. It was born out of MIT in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but also has its origins in Indigenous first nations perspectives. Actually, we had tens of thousands of years of humanity working within nature’s systems, being very intimately connected with the interrelationships and the natural cycles that literally sustain life. So our disassociation from nature and the systems that make life on earth possible is one of the fundamental challenges that we’re trying to rectify.

Leyla Acaroglu explaining the difference between linear and circular systems

Make it Circular Challenge winners during the workshop

Would you say that systems thinking is actually more intuitive than people might think?

Yes—it’s how we naturally interact with the world. As a kid, you are very perceptive to these things at play around you. But as you go through 16 years of education, you are taught that being successful is a matter of breaking down and managing the world. You start to believe that the world is made up of individual parts—like when you study maths, science and English as separate components. But in reality, we live in a very dynamic, chaotic, interconnected and interdependent world. Sure, you can break a system down and identify these beautiful little dynamics, like: here’s this cause and effect relationship. But you have to start with the whole. By not understanding the whole, you’re just assuming that you can manage the parts. And if you only manage a part, then you are severing it from the system.

What does it look like in practice? 

Systems thinking can be a very embodied practice. For example, I myself participated in a project in which I spent four years living on an abandoned farm, learning how to be an organic farmer. I learned a phenomenal amount about life-sustaining systems like how to grow food or how nutrients and byproducts move through various cycles. And that’s really one of the fundamental concepts of the circular economy: to create either technical or biological systems that can be metabolised in a sustainable and even regenerative way.

“That’s one of the fundamental concepts of the circular economy: to create either technical or biological systems that can be metabolised in a sustainable and even regenerative way.”

There’s also a more theoretical way to apply systems thinking, which is very practical for businesses, decision-makers and designers. And that is where you learn to look beyond the obvious parts of the system. By looking for the relationships that reinforce the dynamics of the system, you can identify the areas that can be intervened in to dramatically shift the status quo. So if you are seeking to design a circular solution, this means you are looking at cultural change, you’re looking at what’s available, and you’re looking to design a service offering that’s going to be delightful, engaging and effective for the customer. An example of this is the product-service-system model, which is when you literally take a linear product and design a service delivery model and a system around it.

This approach is the opposite of what we are taught in our education system. This very simple shift changes the way you see the world, so that you are actually always starting from an expansive perspective rather than a reductive perspective. Within that, there are many practical tools available to designers like systems mapping, life-cycle assessment and identifying causal relationships.

Understanding system mapping

What is something that often gets overlooked in the circular design process?

If you’re designing a circular solution, it’s important to think about all of the potential points of failure and all the ways in which your innovation could be misused. Because if you bring a product into the world and you make too many assumptions about its environmental performance, what you’ll learn is that there’s a point where this great solution could actually be damaging to your cause.

I’ll give you an example: say you’re a sports stadium and you want to start using reusable cups for your beverages, instead of disposable ones. But usually with a reusable product, you’re going to be making it out of a thicker, heavier, more durable material. So let’s say you use a stainless steel cup, which would be much better than plastic. But of course, there’s a higher embodied environmental impact in producing a stainless steel cup. So you have to make sure that you are consistently keeping a certain number of products in the loop, avoiding them being taken home, because if you drop down below that number, then your whole system actually becomes environmentally damaging . This could mean, for example, that you have to design the cups in a way that they’re good enough to use in the stadium, but not cool enough for people to want to steal them.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t think like that (yet) and that’s part of the issue. Too often, we think that a simple solution will solve a complex problem, and that humans will miraculously behave entirely as we assume, which they don’t. So that’s why it’s so important to have this kind of dynamic systems approach if we’re really trying to optimise solutions to be truly beneficial.

“We need more experimentation and more willingness to apply our creativity to solving the waste, climate and general social equity crises that are in front of us right now.”

Could you give us one example of a specific project that is really doing it right or that has inspired you lately?

There are lots of different things at play right now, and I don’t like giving single examples. I think the reality is that we are in a massive experimentation phase. So we do not have all the solutions to these challenges—in fact, I think we are in a real deficit of creative minds investing in the real problems that we need to solve.

I think part of it is because it seems overwhelming and it can be quite distressing to have to engage with this stuff. So I love it when I see startups or individuals who could be making lots of money just selling a new product or service, but instead they’re really energising themselves to tackle these issues in a sincere and creative way and making a viable business out of it. That gives me so much hope and motivation.

I also think that it’s important to see more success stories collectively. And that’s why the Challenge programme that WDCD has is great: because we need more experimentation and more willingness to apply our creativity to solving the waste, climate and general social equity crises that are in front of us right now.

Tools of a system thinker

Can you tell us about the work you’re doing through UnSchool & Swivel Skills?

UnSchool is an experimental knowledge lab for adults where we teach systems, sustainability and design to individuals who are interested in transitioning in this space. During the pandemic I started to have this idea for a corporate version of UnSchool. Because what I realised was that though we’ve worked with tens of thousands of individuals, what often happens is they’re working within a company and they’re investing all their energy trying to fight the system of the company rather than actually applying the sustainable skills they learned.

So it made sense to me that we need to offer at-scale sustainability training that works to create cultural transformations within industry and business. So whereas UnSchool is very much about individual agency building, Swivel Skills is really a corporate training platform that’s designed to help teams shift their skill sets towards literacy in climate action and the circular economy.

An introduction to UnSchool

There’s a course for every systems thinker at online.unschools.co.

What advice would you give to a designer who wants to dive into entrepreneurship but doesn’t know where to start?

I think the reality is that we’re all on our own journeys of discovery and we should all become more open to the idea that our careers are fluid. So whatever we studied or started with doesn’t necessarily have to be the destination we end up with. Take it from me: I’m a designer and also a sociologist, and I know that part of my success has been about forging a new type of design practice that marries those two professions.

So always be open and willing to adapt over time. Be willing to use your knowledge gaps to fuel discovery and experimentation (that’s how I ended up on a farm!). Get excited about the things that you don’t know and the problems you haven’t solved. These things can be frustrating, but frustration often drives creative production. I think that right now, no matter who you are, no matter what your job is, you have the opportunity to contribute to making the world work better for all of us.

“Always be open and willing to adapt over time. Be willing to use your knowledge gaps to fuel discovery and experimentation. Get excited about the things that you don’t know and the problems you haven’t solved.”

Last but not least, are there any new or upcoming projects you’d like to share with our readers?

Well, we just launched a new toolkit called the Circular Business Redesign Kit, which you can grab for free from the Swivel Skills website. It’s basically an entire redesign process that starts at understanding the functionality of a product or service and gets you all the way through to the circular redesign and then the service delivery model and the business case. It walks you through the whole process, and it’s a really great way to start a circular journey or to explore how you could potentially redesign whatever products or services your company offers in a more sustainable way. So I highly recommend giving that a go.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Top image: Leyla in action at the Make it Circular Challenge Winners Bootcamp. All photos by Anisa Xhomaqi. All illustrations and diagrams are by Disrupt Design and UnSchool.