Interview with Leyla Acaroglu

This interview by Hannah MacInnes will be featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject


Designer, sociologist, sustainability provocateur, and 2016 United Nations Champion of the Earth, Dr. Leyla Acaroglu challenges people to think differently about how the world works. As a pioneer of creative change, she weaves together sustainability, design, and systems thinking to activate the transition to a circular and sustainable future by design. Leyla is the founder of Disrupt Design, The UnSchool, and CO Project Farm.

 

Who is Leyla Acaroglu in a nutshell?

I’m a designer and sociologist and I’m deeply passionate about the planet and how we live in it. I run a few different social enterprises that look at the relationship between humans, the behaviours we have, and the impact that our choices have on the world around us.

I run the UnSchool of Disruptive Design (unschools.co), an experimental knowledge lab for adults focused on systems thinking, sustainability and design.

We run programs around the world and online for professionals wanting to adopt a career in creative change-making.

I also run Disrupt Design, where we create learning experiences and content that help challenge the way people and companies think about things in relation to sustainability, encouraging a circular and regenerative approach.

In addition, I recently took on the restoration of an old farm in Portugal; it’s called the CO Project which is an acronym for creative optimism. The farm is a living learning laboratory: a brain spa where we give people the opportunity to reconnect with nature.

 

What is the greatest challenge facing ‘engrained thinking’?

Many people the world over have been through some form of the same industrialised education system – between 5 and 18 years of traditional education, which is designed to teach us reductive thinking. We break the world down into small manageable parts and then we reconfigure it based on that, rather than seeing it as an interconnected whole and that everything is related to something else. We have doctors, engineers and lawyers of the industrial age to manage this growth of human innovation, but we now also need people who are capable of doing several things in different ways and to be able to be flexible and think through complex problems. This is the concept of ‘system thinking’ – being able to see that everything is interconnected.

We need to reconfigure the way we think so that we understand that nature is not something out there, but we are all biological beings that exist in one extraordinary planet. At the moment, we are proactively destroying our earth, whilst some conceptualise moving to another planet that doesn’t have any life-giving activities on it.

 

Photo: James Duncan Davidson Photo: James Duncan Davidson
“The problem is that most people do things without understanding the consequences of their actions.”

 

Do you think your goal of encouraging people to reconfigure the way that they think is realistic? Are you seeing results from this approach? 

Absolutely. Anything is possible – the future is undefined. Nobody has a crystal ball. The future is made up of our actions today. In fact, every problem that we have is a result of multiple people doing the same thing; causing magnified unintended consequences.

For example our consumption-based challenges, such as plastic pollution or even climate change, are all fuelled by micro-actions in the economy. Buying clothes, turning lights on, taking aeroplane trips, are frequent actions, which all have a trade-off.

I work in sustainability and I have a deep passion for it, but I also fly frequently, despite its environmental impact – it’s a trade off. The concept of regeneration is that at the end the gain is bigger than the loss in the system.

If I can make a bigger positive change as a result of getting on a plane and I can also mitigate my environmental footprint of that trip, for example by planting several trees on my farm, my action is at the end in line with the regenerative approach. It is by no means a perfect situation but there’s a very conscious post-rationalisation about its intentional actions. The problem is that most people do things without understanding the consequences of their actions.

 

How do our habits have unintended consequences?

Everyday ubiquitous items, like kettles and refrigerators and phones, are actually scripting our behaviour in different ways.

A kettle has a clearly marked minimum fill line giving you an indication about how much water you need for one cup. The problem is that most people overcompensate and usually fill the kettle half or all the way, even though most of the time they only boil water for one person. A few years ago a study showed that if everyone in the UK boiled only the water they needed every time they used the kettle, one could save enough electricity in a year to power the UK’s street lights for nearly seven months.

Whatever the numbers are, the reality is that micro-actions add up to macro impact.

 

What micro-actions can we as consumers and citizens take?

A lot of people make conscious choices to have a lower impact but they feel frustrated that their single action is not beneficial. I understand that feeling because when the magnitude of the problem is presented with such extremity, you feel insignificant in relation to the giant system that’s around you. One of the big areas of impact is our choice in the food we eat – food is a very intrinsic part of life. We don’t realise that a lot of our everyday food choices have a significant impact on our environment.

But it’s not just what we eat, but also how we store it.

There is a compartment in your refrigerator called a “crisper drawer”, which is where you normally keep the vegetables, but actually it doesn’t make anything stay crisp at all.

According to the UK Soggy Lettuce Report that came out a few years ago, the “crisper drawer” was actually one of the key sources of household waste such as soggy lettuces and limp carrots. The drawer should be a sealed environment in order to stop the liquid that is in the salad or vegetables from evaporating, which it isn’t.

For me it’s a travesty that in the over 100 years we have had refrigerators in our homes, the design of them has not changed that much. We could dramatically reduce food waste (as most food waste comes from the home) by redesigning our refrigerators.

 

Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED
“Continuing to manipulate people into forced consumption cycles is not only unethical but it also takes away any of our consumer sovereignty.”

 

What’s the role of design towards a more sustainable future?

Everything is currently designed to break. It’s atrocious but it fuels the economy and many people would argue that without planned obsolescence we wouldn’t have economic growth. I argue that continuing to manipulate people into forced consumption cycles is not only unethical but it also takes away any of our consumer sovereignty.

Slowly countries are starting to realise this; under French law it is now a crime to intentionally shorten the lifespan of a product with the aim of making customers replace it.

There are a lot of economic opportunities as well as the social and sustainable benefits of creating closed loop products. One of the core elements of a circular economy and all of the propositions around sustainable design is that we can actually create a product service system model where companies can retrieve and recycle and reuse the core elements of the product they sell.

With the rise of the sharing economy we are also increasingly paying for the functionality of a product rather than the product itself.

The changes that are happening need to be amplified more. We need to remain hopeful and creative and learn to take more responsibility over the impacts of our actions.

Generally, I would argue there’s a lot of potential and possibility to reconfigure our economy through design so that we can meet our ecological needs in beautiful ways without all of these unintended consequences.

 


 

Dr. Leyla Acaroglu was a speaker at The Klosters Forum

The Klosters Forum (TKF) is the place where global thought-leaders and change-makers come together to tackle some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. TKF offers a neutral platform to foster and encourage innovative and outcome orientated collaborations in a unique and intimate setting in the Swiss Alps.

The Klosters Forum 2020 will focus on the future of food systems in the context of biodiversity regeneration.

www.theklostersforum.com

 

Hannah MacInnes is a host and moderator for the How To Academy, chairing interviews, events and debates. Before going Freelance she worked for over 7 years at BBC Newsnight. While there she secured a number of newsmaking interviews with leading figures; including former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mikhail Gorbachev and a UK broadcast exclusive with Hillary Clinton, as well as with a range of cultural names from Helen Mirren to Benedict Cumberbatch.

 

Leyla Acaroglu is a designer, sociologist, sustainability provocateur, and 2016 United Nations Champion of the Earth, Dr. Leyla Acaroglu challenges people to think differently about how the world works. As a pioneer of creative change, she weaves together sustainability, design, and systems thinking to activate the transition to a circular and sustainable future by design. Leyla is the founder of Disrupt Design, The UnSchool, and CO Project Farm.