Sustainability provocateur

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

Dr Leyla Acaroglu, a founder of two innovative design agencies and creator of the UnSchool of Disruptive Design, speaks to Geraldine Faulkner about her unique take on how products and systems can be tools for change

Described by Sir Jonathon Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, as “a powerful advocate for new ways of thinking about the world and its resources”, Dr Leyla Acaroglu (pronounced ‘A-jar-a-loo’) likes nothing better than to push creative boundaries and disrupt preconceptions, particularly when it involves environmental and social change.

A true world citizen, she is an Australian designer who is based in New York and whose work takes her all over the world – RWW caught up with her while she was on a trip to Mexico – and is described as a specialist in the use of disruptive design across sustainability and educational initiatives.

The designer is one of those unique individuals who uses systems-based thinking to disrupt mainstream ways of thinking. And even though the process for the person at the receiving end of her methods might initially be uncomfortable and unwelcome, we all need someone like Acaroglu to ‘shake things up a bit’ to enable a fresh perspective.

The designer’s portfolio of areas of expertise is impressive and includes sustainability, systems thinking, disruptive design method, circular economy, creative intervention design, lifecycle thinking, social innovation and change methodology.

The refreshing thing about Acaroglu is that she “says it as it is”. At the start of her handbook entitled Make Change, she says: “Let’s be honest, the world is a little bit broken. And who better to help fix it than designers and creative thinkers? It’s not the ‘way’ you should make change – that should be pretty bloody obvious – [it] is about training your brain to actively make change happen.”

What took her down the path of sustainability provocateur, design disruptor and social-change-maker?

“I wanted to do something creative so I started off by studying design. I was also into social issues, but not yet conscious of environmental issues and myself as an individual along with the effect I have on the planet. I was studying design, looking at everything in nature and scientific theories, when my whole mind rearranged itself. I suddenly realised that I had an impact on my surroundings and how the decisions I make would have an impact. Essentially, I could really do bad things and not realise it.”

Acaroglu was 20 years old when she had her ‘road to Damascus’ revelation.

“I was trying to decide what to do with your life, so what happened to me catalysed a domino effect. While in design school, I refused to design an internet-connected product so I designed a really bad one instead and they still gave me a good mark. I ended up changing tack and studied social science, majoring in sustainability, so I could figure out how to solve complex problems better. My aim was to learn about design and sustainable strategies and it was possibly one of the best decisions I had made. I became a thirsty learner and I felt I could never have my thirst quenched.”

Most youngsters wouldn’t dream of taking on the design industry, but then Acaroglu is not ‘most people’.

“Everything I have done creatively is to fulfil the need to engage people with the possibility of what sustainability offers,” she states. “My aim is to design out linear thinking and siloed thinking to help make change in the world, that’s how I feel life should be.”

Are there other similarly minded cultural provocateurs?

“I hope so. It’s not all my responsibility. Historically, there have always been people who are pushing the boundaries and today there are a good solid handful of practitioners. How robust their theories are remains to be seen. I can be a harsh critic of existing systems, but I am also a harsh critic of myself.”

Along with founding two design agencies, Disrupt Design in New York and Melbourne-based Eco Innovators, Acaroglu has also developed the UnSchool of Disruptive Design where creative rebels who are interested in pushing the boundaries of social change can learn about the disruptive design method, which she describes as the ‘“backbone” of her “design-led social change” practice.

As well as her work in the education sector, she carries out consultancy work for private clients.

“There are many different ways to work with me to leverage change and it depends on what kind of relationship clients are looking for,” says the social change-maker. “Do they want to activate a project? I create tools that help people figure out how to change the world.”

She points out that the waste sector is an “interesting” one, which is usually the adjective people use when they find something particularly vexatious.

This is corroborated when she goes on to point out: “The waste sector is still pretty old-school, still very male-dominated, and run by organisations that are making money out of other people’s trash. It is motivated to perpetuate waste, and that’s a problem as it doesn’t lend itself to a natural design for innovation and efficiency.”

Acaroglu explains she is interested in the whole supply chain management.

“How can we close that loop and create systems at the beginning to the end of life? There are lots of opportunities to create relations for the industry to work on this. We need people willing to be pioneering leaders for change”

Nor does she have much time for companies that use sustainability simply as a marketing tool.

“I work with a lot of companies who are engaging with sustainability, to add substance,” she comments. “For too long, businesses have used it at a very superficial level or a very technical level; this is very disengaging at a superficial level and often creates more problems.”

So what are the projects that interest her most?

“I’m most interested in the way materiality exists; namely the by-products of our human desire for material things and the critical opportunity of the sustainability paradigm. How can we make the things we need in a more beautiful, sustainable way? How can we weed out the stupid things that we keep creating and invest out creative capacity in creating products and services that work sustainably within the complex systems at play?”

An example of this is, as the designer puts it in her inimitably and refreshingly blunt way, are adult bum wipes, or as retailers refer to them more coyly, wet wipes for adults.

“What about the disposal issues with adult bum wipes? It is a huge problem,” she says exasperatedly. “Sewage systems can’t cope with adult wipes which don’t degrade like the products’ packaging says. It is putting external pressure on systems that were not made to cope with such items. There are huge cost and infrastructure outcomes of hyper-consumer products like this.”

There is a strong temptation to cheer her at this point, and the urge grows even stronger when Acaroglu tackles the topic of social media.

“We’re creating apps for problems that don’t exist and streamlining efficiencies so we can be more hyper-addicted
to entertainment experiences. This all creates a lot of unintended consequences,” she complains.

But how to combat the insidious effect of such marketing?

The designer says the trick is to “pit yourself against marketing, and whichever media they choose to engage in, competing for airtime and people’s neurological capacity for taking in information. One of the main skills is engaging people in a fun and provocative way, to help them develop a three-dimensional set of thinking so they can challenge the big complex problems at play, in small and significant ways. It’s a big battle, but it’s the only thing worth doing.”

And finally, what does Acaroglu think of Donald Trump?

“His opinions on the planet are reductive and incredibly frustrating; we need to use the wealth of science that has been developed, not just be reactive to the emotional and financial needs of a small percentage of the population. We must make more informed and effective decisions about how we can all live on this planet, and Trump’s so far stated position is that science does not matter and that the planet is just a giant resource open for exploitation. This in my opinion is
very dangerous.

“We must continue with tenacity and perseverance. Trump does not represent a majority of the opinions of the people around the world, and he is the product of a system that is failing. The political system was designed before the internet, before hyper-connectivity and marketing algorithms, so we need to work on re-redesigning democracy,” declares the indefatigable design-disruptor who has definitely won my vote.

Five things I can't live without...

My brain: It does all the work for me and while it is a little unfunctional on some days, I can’t live without it

Kindness of others: I travel the world and would be lost without the constant global offering of kindness and generosity of others

Notebook and pen: Ideas come in odd locations, but the ability to map and explore them in my trusty notebook is critical for me

Shoes: I love to walk around cities and be intrepid, and shoes make this possible

My voice: I use it a lot. It helps me make change and it can rise above many things


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