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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Dickson

#020 Leyla Acaroglu: the Dr of change on designing out of problems & reconnecting to nature

How can we make friends with change? Why do we see nature as separate from us? How can design help us clean up the mess that we’ve made on this planet? Big questions that we are deep diving into with Leyla Acaroglu: an award-winning designer, sociologist, and sustainability expert, of The UnSchool of Disruptive Design and a UN Champion of the Earth.

Leyla Acaroglu is a multi-hyphenate powerhouse. A design disruptor and creative boundary pusher, she’s internationally recognised as a leading force in the movement towards a sustainable and circular future. She founded the creative agency Disrupt Design, and the award-winning experimental knowledge lab The UnSchool of Disruptive Design. Her MainStage TED talk has over 1.4 million views, making it one of the most-watched TED Talks on sustainability. To top it all off, she was named one of Melbourne’s 100 Most Influential People.

For changing the game in sustainability with design, Leyla Acaroglu is one of our Green Warriors this year. (The Green Warriors list is our annual list of changemakers, this year from around the world and not just in Asia, who are shaking things up on sustainability and modelling the way in their communities, or even on an international level.)

In this interview, we talk about how we can change with less friction and how we can reconnect to the magic of nature. We talk about the roles we play in perpetuating the consumption machine. We touch on the cultural shift we need, and how we can design ourselves out of the problems we’ve created. You can listen to the whole conversation on the Live Wide Awake podcast here or read the highlights below.

On Leyla’s transformation moment when she was a 19-year-old in design school…

I was 19. I wanted to be a designer because I wanted a career that was not going to be boring. And I really liked solving problems. Midway through my first year, there was this engineering lecturer, and he said that we were going to be reading a textbook. Which they never did, because it was design school. I opened the textbook and read it, and I was like, “oh my God, of course. This makes so much sense.”

So what I’d never been taught or told until that moment in my life, was that everything in the world—nature, me, everything, what I designed—it’s all interconnected, interrelated. It’s dynamic, and actions have reactions. And that those reactions will often have negative impacts on the planet. Unless we make informed choices to ensure that the things that we consume and create don’t basically destroy the systems that sustain us. This was a pretty profound understanding for me.

This dynamic relationship between everything is called the Gaia theory. It’s a scientific theory that has been proven, that says that the planet is a living organism. It’s a whole. And within that living organism, there are dynamic systems, like our bodies, that require particular homeostasis or equilibrium in order for it to function correctly. And we’ve been disrupting all of these reactions. So what that moment in time did was it created this transition point for me, where I’d been like, none the wiser, and then, “oh my God, I know nothing”. And I needed to figure it out.

On how we see nature…

Historically, there’s been this perception that nature is a machine. And that it can be predicted, and fixed. That mindset was born out of the scientific revolution. And the legacy of these old ideas permeates through industries, professions, science and technology, and whatnot. So part of the problem is our perception of nature. What it is, what our role within it is, which are formed from previous ideas. And I think we also lack an awareness, but also awe… Like the transfixed state, of being overwhelmed by something. We don’t know how to foster that when it comes to nature. And that’s something that I’ve certainly learned to bring into my life. Moments, of just being profoundly overwhelmed by how magical things are. In a non-mystical way, if you know what I mean.

I do think nature is extremely complicated, and one of the reasons why we’re so disconnected from it is because humans like simple fixes. Rather than engaging with complex things. And there are very practical reasons, right? We live in urban environments, and we kind of denaturise these environments. And we no longer produce our own food, it comes in plastic packaging… Beautiful, clean, and all perfect. These are all practical explanations. But I do think there’s some deeper cultural issue here. And culture is built over time.

We don’t have that ability to experience the world we’re living in, and the magic of the world. That’s one of the things I’m still exploring.

On how we can change with less friction…

Fear is a major factor in change. And concern about what the outcome of the change will be. We have a predisposition to maintain the status quo which is, I think, inevitable for a lot of humans. Because our lives are often overwhelming, and we have to make a lot of cognitive decisions. So imagining an alternative future, which involves imagining the good and the bad, generates quite a bit of fear.

Change has to be presented in a way that is invitational, rather than instructional. Most humans are rebels, even the most straight-cut person is doing things they probably shouldn’t be. And I think that’s our human nature, to push against boundaries and barriers. Change is often presented as losing something. The environmental movement has unfortunately been a bit of a proponent of that. I did this project for the UN, called the Anatomy of Action. And the thing I really wanted to do for that was frame it as positive swaps, rather than as losing something. Because we generally aren’t interested in giving up things.

Even if we believe in the better alternative, it still can be quite hard to go through that transformation and to be okay with it. To accept that things need to change is one of the biggest challenges. A lot of transformations can be initially perceived as quite traumatic, but with time and with acceptance, they can be much more transformative. But it takes time for things to evolve. But at the same, we also need to have a sustained commitment to the change that we want to see.

It’s about framing. Overcoming the cognitive barriers, and realising that change is inevitable. You can’t resist change: it’s just the degree and the direction. So for me, like I said, it’s invitation, not instruction.

On navigating this time we’re living in…

There’s a lot of loss. Not only a loss of life and of security but also, losing work. And with that, comes financial impacts, impacts on our sense of self, value and identity. But at the same time, there’s a lot of opportunity. It’s messy, there are a lot of complex emotions going on, and real-world implications. We need to remember that nothing’s permanent. And this impermanence is the lifeboat to hold on to. But this doesn’t mean that we should say that we want things to “get back to normal”. Instead, we should be imagining the way we want things to be. In doing so, we can release the tension that all the restrictions that this has placed on us. We can embrace changes, adapt and accept them. How do we want the world to operate differently? And how can we help make that happen?

So I think it’s just really important in navigating this time and space, to be empathetic to ourselves and to others. To hold all these realities at once: that we haven’t seen people in months, that it’s a global pandemic, but that we can do so much more good. There’s the fear-based, isolationist mentality. But we have to hold faith that in the future, it’s going to get better. And the way that’s going to happen is if we’re part of that.

On better design briefs…

We’re living in a time where our economy is based on extraction from nature, processing into usable goods, us buying them, but then wasting those products. We can have growth and development, without the extraction from nature in a wasteful way. This is what the circular economy is trying to do. But that’s also what, as a whole concept, sustainable design, is trying to do. The idea that we can create goods and services that add value throughout the economy: the producers and the consumers, if we can design the products, but also the systems around it, to fit that value in. So we have to redesign everything, basically. But that’s a massive opportunity, right?

I think it’s great because the design brief is not fucking up the planet. The design brief that we’ve got right now, collectively as a species, we have to work together to figure it out. And I think we’re seeing those shifts happen. It’s a mess, and we’ve made the mess. So we have to clean it up. But I truly believe we can.

On “citizen design” and Disruptive Design…

To me, it starts and ends with design. But that doesn’t mean it’s solely the designer’s responsibility. It’s all of our responsibility because if we keep buying crappy products, they’re going to keep making them. So we need a cultural shift to happen. And that’s something that non-designers can equally contribute to. I call it “citizen design”. We all participate in constructing the world through the choices we make. And we can help design the services and systems around us by participating in society in a different way. There’s a lot of ways we can do that.

And I think that’s really part of the Disruptive Design approach. To understand the system, to figure out our role within that system, what our agency is, sphere of influences, and then to design solutions that can shift the status quo. So there are three parts to the approach: mining, landscaping and building. In the mining phase, we understand the problem. And then in the landscaping phase, we put those parts together and get that bird’s eye view. We find our place within the system, our agency, our spheres of influence. And we figure out how to navigate the system. The final phase is building, which is figuring out how to apply whatever resources we have to create an intervention. That’s cultural shifts, campaigns, etc.

On having the power to change the world…

I already have the power to change the world. We already do. Everyone has the power to change the world through our individual actions every day. We’re not going to see the time gap between doing the action and the change… the world-changing part takes quite long, which is what people have a problem with. So for me, the power is in seeing the world differently and helping other people do that. It is magic, not in a whimsical way… but in a really incredible, or inspiring way. So to help people understand their role within the world, and see the systems at play and be a part of it.

On how we can live wide awake…

Sleep more. In order to appreciate things when you’re awake, you need to have the opposite of that. If you’re not well-rested, you can’t function properly when you’re awake. I saw this great line with something to the effect of when you want to give up, you just need rest. And it’s so true. Sometimes when I’m having a really day and everything’s really complicated? I just sleep it off and see how things are in the morning. And it’s always better in the morning. Even if you’re hungover, it’s still always better. I think in order to appreciate things, we have to understand the opposing forces of those things.

Three things I’m taking away from this conversation with Leyla:

1. Nature is magic and we are in a dynamic relationship with the natural world. Every action we take against it is an action against ourselves. 2. Change needs to be presented in a way that is invitational, not instructional. Let’s focus on positive swaps, rather than loss and adversity. 3. To live wide awake, we need to sleep more. If you feel like giving up, rest first.

Listen to the whole conversation with Leyla Acaroglu on the Live Wide Awake podcast. Stay connected with Leyla, via her website and Instagram, or The UnSchool’s website and Instagram.

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