Systems thinking in action: learning alongside industry

In my Development role for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation I am lucky enough to get to meet and work with both teachers and professionals from other fields, most notably design, architecture, engineering and a range of the sciences. I’ve been using the insight of the latter group to inform my sessions with the teachers, who are as eager as ever to hear about local examples of the latest thinking and developments in the various fields. Therefore it makes perfect sense that I’d look to put the two groups together for them to learn from one another, and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing recently.

At this juncture I should point out that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is interested in taking a systems approach to designing a regenerative future under the banner of what we call a circular economy. Through careful, innovative design, and with that regenerative goal in mind, we say we can develop an industrial economy which uses things without using them up; simultaneously regenerating the economy and the biosphere. Basically, we need to become better designers and work out how to get materials back at high quality for reuse.

Right, back to the idea of sitting down teachers next to designers and science professionals. We’ve been running a series of what we call ‘Teardown Labs’ in which we look at how products have been designed by stripping them apart as much as possible. We mix up the groups for these sessions so that there is a rich blend of backgrounds at each table. After stripping the objects apart, we debate the economic, social and technological circumstances under which the products were produced, and then ask the groups to redesign the product (and its system) with a circular economy in mind. Mixed among all of that are case studies of firms adopting circular economy principles, and an investigation into the theory underpinning the circular economy.

Plenty of room is left for the groups to debate the issues raised, and to share with others how the circular economy could affect their day-to-day role. I’m pleased to say that feedback from the audience has been terrific, with both the teachers and non-teachers enthusing about the relevance of these sessions. Both groups found the interaction with the other to stimulate a better conversation and to “discuss things we would not otherwise”, as one put it. Teachers particularly enjoyed the opportunity to hear from the designers, etc who do this sort of thing on a day-to-day basis. Amusingly, some of the non-teacher group admitted they felt a little like the schoolboy/girl again, and found themselves addressing the teacher as Mr/Ms even when they knew their forename!

The idea of mixing teachers with other professionals isn’t new, of course, but it was agreed by all participants that it’s a worthwhile experience. I know that several teachers went home with business cards and contact details of those they shared conversation with, in the hope that they can continue the dialogue at some other stage, and perhaps with a class listening in. The interdisciplinary nature of the debate during the sessions was highlighted as vital by the teachers, yet they also noted that not enough of that sort of thing is going on in their school. Joined up thinking – whether IDL or mixing different professionals together – is a good example of the sort of systems thinking approach we at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation believe should be going on more often.

We are running several more of these sessions, should anyone out there be interested in attending. They will be hosted at the MAKLAB, The Lighthouse, Glasgow. Dates are 13 April 11-1, 16 April 430 – 630, 11 May 11-1. Contact colin.webster[at] to book your place.

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