Views over Punakaiki Coastal Restoration Project, South Island, New Zealand

Toitū te marae a Tāne-Mahuta, Toitū te marae a Tangaroa, Toitū te tangata.

If the land is well and the sea is well, the people will thrive.

- Māori whakatauki (proverb)

There is widespread international agreement about the scale of the crisis facing our planet’s biodiversity (Convention on Biological Diversity 2014 [1]). There is clear evidence that human actions are what is causing this sixth mass extinction (Ceballos et al, 2015 [2]), which at the current rate, may well lead to disastrous consequences for humanity (Cardinale et al, 2012 [3]).

In this research project, I make the case that our current dominant forms of collective action are failing us. I explore a form of design practice that is rooted in complexity theory and systemic action, sharing the kinds of activities undertaken, insights generated, and outputs which emerged whilst designing a targeted systems change initiative (Mühlenbein, 2018 [4]) for environmental conservation in Australia and New Zealand.

“Systems change is an intentional process designed to alter the status quo by shifting the function or structure of an identified system with purposeful interventions”

Foster-Fishman et al, 2007 [5]

My focus is not on transition to radical new paradigms (Irwin et al, 2015 [6]), but to develop interventions to challenge existing socio-economic paradigms (Design for Social Innovation - Manzini, 2015 [7]) using systemic and strategic design.

I initiated this research as a direct response to the environmental challenges faced around the world, specifically my multitude of concerns about the loss of biodiversity, locally and globally. Having travelled the world from the plains of the Serengeti to the jungles of Borneo, the Rocky Mountains of California to the rainforests of Te Wai o Pounamu (West Coast of New Zealand), I have a deep appreciation for our planet’s biodiversity, for its intrinsic value, and for the myriad of value which we humans derive from it.

Strategies and action which operate at the scale and intensity necessary to reverse the rates of biodiversity loss remain elusive despite a continued increase in conservation efforts (Tittensor et al. 2014 [8]). This calls into question whether our dominant approaches to collective action on biodiversity loss are appropriate for this challenge (Gavin et al, 2018 [9]).

Despite ongoing work on various complex, global issues, we rarely achieve the goals we set for ourselves as a global society (such as the Sustainable Development Goals; Goalkeepers Report, 2017 [10]), and this is cause for concern considering the scale of challenges facing our planet. Despite this, we continue to invest huge amounts of resources in centralised planning-centric processes, regardless of the acknowledgement that the majority of these plans with fail (Mintzberg, 1978 [11]; Boyer et al, 2013 [12]). As a society we have become stuck in a predictive approach to complex problems (characterised by strategic planning), which by definition are unable to be predicted as they are emergent (Boulton, 2015 [13]).

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Heraclitus, Greek Philosopher

Acknowledging and embracing complexity demands alternative practices, rooted in prototyping culture (SNRC, 2010 [14]; Hassan, 2015 [15]), which focus on new ways of being and doing that include social and environmental justice (Escobar, 2018 [16]) in order to change the paradigm in which we live and practice (Kuhn, 1962 [17]).

This exegesis draws together my practice which is inspired by several domains, including:

  • Complexity science and systems practice from thinkers and practitioners such as Jean Boulton (Complexity Science), Zaid Hassan (Social Labs Revolution), Dave Snowden (Cynefin), Donella Meadows (Systems Thinking), Adam Kahane (Social Change), Otto Scharmer (Theory U), Nassim Taleb (Antifragile), Ella Saltmarshe (The Point People), Jackie Mahendra (Citizen Engagement Lab / Omidyar).

  • Strategic and Fourth Order Design from thinkers and practitioners such as Richard Buchanan (Wicked Problems in Design Thinking), Tony Golsby-Smith (Fourth Order Design), GK VanPatter (Humantific), Liz Sanders (MakeTools & Convivial Toolbox), Pieter Jan Stappers (Convivial Toolbox), Dan Hill (Strategic Design Vocabulary), Indy Johar (Systems Design, Dark Matter Labs), Terry Irwin & Cameron Tonkinwise (Transition Design), Ezio Manzini (Design, When Everybody Designs), Anna Meroni (Strategic Design), John Thackara (In The Bubble), Penny Hagen (Smallfire), Suhit Anantula (Business Models Inc).

  • Organisational and Platform Strategy from thinkers and practitioners such as Adrienne Maree Brown (Emergent Strategy), Henry Mintzberg (Of Strategies Deliberate and Emergent), Richard Rumelt (Good Strategy & Bad Strategy), Simone Cicero (Platform Design Toolkit).

As part of an ongoing inquiry into working on complex challenges, I have adopted a mindset of evolutionary design; a perpetual dance of generating, evaluating and sensemaking in order to continuously evolve concepts to ensure they orientate and sustain impact.

Change is constant; systems change is about influencing the direction.

In essence, tackling a complex challenge is about inhabiting an ongoing state of becoming, not having a final destination at which to arrive. Complex problems don’t get solved, but they do get better.