In April I applied for the Un-School of Disruptive Design’s 7 Day Leaders Fellowship in NYC.
I heard about the fellowship via Leyla Acaroglu. A prolific sustainability provocateur, designer and sociologist that I first came across in her 2013 TED talk. Her talk struck a chord with me, so I explored her professional work further and have been keeping an eye on the many sustainability projects she’s been delivering. Upon finishing her PhD last year she, with others, established the Un-School of Disruptive Design based in New York City (for now).
I applied, feeling it was a long shot, and was accepted! I was going to New York in June, then not quite two months away!
Right from the beginning of the application process it was clear this was going to be a well thought out, highly specialised and unique experience that I was going to learn a lot from. In the application process we were asked to outline the areas we wanted to be change-makers in. This in itself was a really useful exercise for me. I’m never short on ideas, and to have to articulate the nexus of ideas that have been percolating up top for a very long time into something concrete was really empowering. I had a focus! Or in true Bec style, three main focus points for disruption.
Fast forward to my arrival in New York City, and the first day of the Un-School. If ever there was a good omen to start the Un-School off, it was definitely starting at the site of what is now a former, and somewhat problematic lake site. Those that know me well need no introduction to my hobby of standing in lakes for a good time.
You’d be right to notice the lake/pond I’m standing in is pretty darn dry. Well that’s all part of the long history of environmental issues this lake has faced due to a series of not so smart city planning strategies over the course of 200 or so years. But that’s a whole other blog post I’ll save for another time!
Having met all of the 16 amazing fellows (from 12 different countries) and the very talented Un-School crew, each delivering an introductory Pecha Kucha – the Un-School was officially underway. It’s safe to say I was in awe of the incredible and inspiring change-makers sitting around the table.
Before I launch into some of the key (un-)learnings that you’ll be able to trace the threads of through my future projects, it would be remiss of me to not share the unique delivery of the Un-School Fellowship.
First up, the daily schedule. Leyla and the Un-School team very deliberately chose to reveal our daily activities day by day, some of which were still secret like Tuesday’s “Group Secret Dinner” or Wednesday’s “Brooklyn Group Field Trip”. Each day’s schedule was released, with some lingering mystery the night before. I must say to start with this strategy was difficult for someone that’s used to being on the organising side of things and knowing what will happen where and for how long and what I have to prepare beforehand (cough, #controlfreak). But by day two I found this experience liberating. It seems like a small thing, but it was very clever. This strategy ensured our continued focus and ongoing sense of buy-in for the full seven days of the fellowship.
Sidenote: Lets be clear. This approach won’t work for every conference, education setting or fellowship. It came down to implicit trust. We all trusted in Leyla and the Un-School to deliver on the sense of mystery they were creating. And I would argue they blew my expectations out of the water on what unfolded during the course of the week. So if you feel compelled to utilise this technique, make sure you first have trust and that you can fully deliver beyond people’s expectations (which you will have canvased upfront as the Un-School did).
Delivery of the fellowship was diverse and exciting. Sure we had classroom-esque sessions in our home base for the week – the very welcoming co-working (and so much more) space Centre for Social Innovation.
We used a new gamification technique by collaborators Bryan D’Alessandro and Eli Malinsky to explore the entrepreneurial environment to reveal the importance of communication and compelling story telling.
We had dinner with the mentors of our choosing in small groups which was a great way to informally trade stories and secrets of success. I was lucky enough to have dinner with the self-professed Monkey Mastermind Lee-Sean Huang of Foossa.
We engaged in peer teaching sessions to understand the ways we can share implicit knowledge and acknowledge this in our storytelling repertoire.
At the end of the week we were thrust into an epic 24 hour design challenge in groups of four fellows, with a clothing manufacturer in Pakistan that is trying to create sustainable points of difference to their buyers (read: big brands). They wanted to reduce their environmental impact, increase efficiency, reduce cost and make better quality products and we were their consultants for 24 hours only. Calling this a challenge is putting it lightly! We literally needed to understand the client’s operating practices, the industry and standards, identify opportunities for them to explore and rap it up in a compelling presentation of which we delivered to the client via Skype. This was a great way for the Un-School to thrust us into utilising the tools, ideas and methodologies we’d been learning about over the course of the week. It is with deep regret I can’t post the 1am video our group took of a dance party we had to wake ourselves up midst 24 hour challenge
We also took field trips to:
Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator – a hub for ethical designers to build successful sustainable businesses.
There we met Teel Lidow, of Boerum Apparel – who are succeeding in fully traceable, ethical apparel, with New Zealand merino.
We got outdoors and undertook a systems analysis of the Highline utilising the systems principles we’d learnt in the classroom setting.
The future site of Prime Produce a modern day guild of social innovators that focus on nourishment rather than the growth economy. We toured their still-being-realised living room and collaboratory (<my new favourite term) with the inspired Chris Chavez.
And… the TED 250 offices where we were able to grasp the concept of successful platform building and how applying smart and ongoing leverage points can build a strong brand offering.
Of course, there were plenty of opportunities for shared learnings between fellows and Un-Schoolers a-like. Just hearing what others are working on and have achieved was a real shot in the arm for each of us I’m sure. After such an intense and brain bending week together I’m sure many connections made in NYC will continue to grow and evolve. An incredible and defining feature of the Un-School is its focus on supporting us all post-fellowship in our change-making endeavors.
I’m going to share just four core concepts (via this platform) that I’ll take away from this epic experience. But know that I will be more than happy to extend further upon these if there is any aspect you’d like to probe deeper on!
Positive change comes about when you take a systems-thinking perspective of the system(s) your target area/concern exists within. Everything is interconnected. The issue you’re trying to tackle is influenced by something and what ever change you make will in turn influence something down the line.
Successful change-makers use their circle of influence to make calculated interventions in systems and leverage small change for larger change.
It’s literally as ‘simple’ as that. So long as you’re considerate of all the impacts you’ll cause, intended or otherwise, and are starting from a human-centred design perspective which in essence keeps you focused on the people you’re trying to create change with and for.
- True Collaboration
I’ve always been an avid supporter of collaborative projects. But the compounded epiphany of collaboration came to me (as a relatively risk averse individual – something that I hate to admit) in the way that collaboration allows individuals to take risks together for stronger and more audacious outcomes/impact.
Having been exposed to so many high quality examples of successful collaborations I’m absolutely fired up for as much meaningful collaboration as is humanly possible both in my “career” and those projects that just don’t fit neatly into a pigeonhole but are none-the-less just as important to me. So I’ll be actively seeking folks that want to collaborate on the long list of projects I have up my sleeve, but equally I’ll be putting my hand up for projects with collaborators with their own vision that will benefit from skills or perspectives I offer. Let’s collaborate!
While the importance of compelling storytelling is not a new concept to me the Un-School provided so many opportunities to hear expert storytellers or communicators demonstrate their craft. I’m not a confident public speaker, yet. Though I feel like that might be about to change with some really great examples of so many ways to deliver stories in my now memory bank I feel like my immediate paralysis of standing in front of a group of people may disperse over time with the ability to craft my message into a compelling story. What ever it is I’m trying to communicate it’s just a story. This will take ongoing practice on my part, something I’m looking forward to the journey of mastery. Thanks to all those amazing storytellers out there that make it look so effortless, I hope to join your ranks in good time!
- Prototype: quick, dirty and fast (rinse and repeat)
This isn’t just restricted to testing design ideas. This is for everything. Again, a simple concept that sometimes gets left behind because we wrongfully assume we can guess the outcome of our idea, so why test your assumptions when you know the outcomes already? How wrong this assumption is. I’m definitely guilty of it. Less so in my working life, but in other areas of my life (or as Leyla calls them “side hustles”) I let ideas stay as just that, ideas. The process of prototyping allows you to problem solve on the fly and identify any gaps in your earlier assumptions. You’re already one step ahead having completed this simple, inexpensive processes.
So, where to from here…
In case it isn’t obvious I feel thoroughly re-invigorated from my Un-Schooling.
I am determined to act, practice, prototype, collaborate, share, learn, fail, leverage, tell good stories, make positive change and expand my circle of influence in new and exciting ways, starting yesterday.
I’m actively creating space for the projects I want to see realised, starting with reducing my working hours for workSpace (the day job that I get to work with some pretty inspiring folks) and re-launching my business Sustainable Projects so to share my skills with businesses, communities and individuals that want to deliver resilient and impactful projects.
Thanks to Leyla and the Un-School crew and the diverse group of fellows that made my fellowship experience outstanding! You guys rock!
Thanks heaps for your financial support in getting me to NYC: workSpace, Ma & Pa McMaster! It is massively appreciated and money well spent!
And to Scott for your unwavering support and encouragement!