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The UN’s Champion Of The Earth Explains What It Will Take To Redesign The Government

“Design is one of the biggest social scripters that exists”

When it comes to innovation, Leyla Acaroglu is a jack-of-all-trades. As the founder of Disrupt Design and the UnSchool, Acaroglu combines design, cognitive science, systems thinking, and sustainability sciences to challenge the status quo and fundamentally shift the way we think about our surroundings. For these efforts, the United Nations Environment Programme recently presented her with a 2016 Champions of the Earth award. In light of this prestigious honor, GOOD spoke with Acaroglu about how we can change our perspectives to create meaningful change and about the exciting projects she has lined up as well.


For the uninitiated, design may sound like a field limited to choosing upholstery and organizing sleek tech-startup lobbies. But delve a little deeper and you’ll find design has a hand in everything we use. From laptops and electric kettles to clothing sizes, stoplights, and urban infrastructure, no facet of our day has escaped the influence of human design. Indeed, “design is one of the biggest social scripters that exists,” says Acaroglu. She stresses that,

“There isn’t one second from the moment you’re born to the moment you die that you won’t be encountering the production of somebody else’s creativity or lack of creativity.”

When something has been designed well, we tend to not notice the inherent craftsmanship or take those elements for granted. Something designed poorly, on the other hand, demands our immediate attention. For instance, consider the number of times you’ve been unsure whether to push or pull a glass door or have missed your exit on the freeway because the signs weren’t displayed clearly. Those are minor frustrations as a result of bad design—and ones we can easily fix—but what are we to do when the government itself seems to be poorly designed?

One of the most obvious things we’ve designed, but overlook as a natural progression, is the government. It’s manmade, but when it doesn’t go right, we have a hard time of thinking about how to reroute it. To get past that mental block and effect change, Acaroglu suggests we start by trying to understand perspectives that seem starkly different from our own—even those of red-hat-wearing, post-truth-preaching nincompoops. Yes, you read that right; the U.N.’s Champion of the Earth wants you to jump inside the mind of a Trump supporter for the sake of bettering ourselves and the planet. After traveling across the country for six weeks at a time and meeting conservatives of all shades, Acaroglu found that there’s more complexity behind the typical Trump supporter than we’d like to believe. She attributes his win to his capacity to speak to a latent desire people have to economically motivate themselves and improve their circumstances.

The shock of defeat and utter confusion currently plaguing progressives takes its roots in an inability or unwillingness to see outside of our usual frame of mind, says Acaroglu. “That inability to see from somebody else’s perspective,” she adds, “especially someone in a different socioeconomic strata—is what causes this separation and perpetuates it.” Obviously, this problem runs deep for both sides of the political divide. Not all liberals are part of the nebulous “coastal elite,” in the same way that not every Trump supporter is poor and uneducated. Obviously, the problem is more complicated than confronting an angry mob of outright bigots, but the responsibility to reach across the aisle and reorient perspective falls on both sides. Moving forward, the question shouldn’t be, “Who is in the wrong?” Instead, it should be, “What are we going to do now?”

Acaroglu has some sobering advice:

“We all got really badly rejected and hurt and dumped and it’s really shitty for those of us who have social values and want to see the world not destroyed by climate change. What the fuck are we going to do about it? Posting shit on Facebook is not going to solve the problem. Protesting in the streets is not going to solve the problem. But there’s a whole huge gamut in between there of potential possibilities that any individual can put to action.”

For starters, Acaroglu recommends reaching out to conservatives and broaching a conversation if you haven’t already. Stepping outside of the digital landscape and into the real world is an excellent way to build connections as well. Breaking out of the neurological habits that keep us bound to conventional thinking starts with breaking out of our comfort zones.

Looking ahead to 2017, Acaroglu is most excited about giving people the tools to activate their own agencies. To do that, she’s launching a number of different platforms, expanding the UnSchool, and further implementing design as a catalyst for change. By focusing her energy on the creative community, she hopes to channel the skills creatives have for communicating and influencing people into social good. “We’re already designing the world for everyone,” says Acaroglu. “Let’s design it better.”

All images courtesy of Leyla Acaroglu.

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