Special Edition Number 2 - SystemsThinking

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The Urgency is in the Mirror

What is urgent when the path forward is unclear amidst complex challenges? The paper argues for providing legitimacy to processes where people co-design how they will intervene to adapt for the future, starting now. This implies to support design approaches that engage people who are affected by change, going beyond mere consultation or feedback to extract information. Rather, the paper encourages a participatory approach from framing a theory of change as well as co-designing with others through the process of analysis, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of interventions. The author shares a personal journey and experiences that challenged his mental model, and outlines practical implications for participatory approaches.

Fodé Beaudet

The invitation for this publication was to write about an urgent task for design. To speak from the heart (Lummack, 2017) and from personal experience. To go beyond theories. What then, do we discover? Perhaps these words from Payam Akhavan, recalling his human rights odyssey:

The problem with the world is not a shortage of brilliant theories or feel-good slogans. The problem is that we confuse proliferation of progressive terminology with profound empathy and purposeful engagement. We say the right things, but we fail to act on them because we want to feel virtuous without paying a price (Akhavan, 2017, p. 5).

To go beyond ‘feeling virtuous’ and deeper than exposing ’brilliant theories’ is an invitation to engage with change, be part of the change, and expect to be changed. In that light, design is a participatory process. Co-design is, or should be, an oxymoron for design. Kurt Lewin is often quoted to have said that “the best way to understand something is by trying to change it” (Chevalier & Buckles, 2013, p. 11). To this I would add: we also must be willing to change ourselves, to pay the price. What does it mean then for the urgency of design? First, context. I am writing about design for situations that are complex; therefore, where there are no clear paths or answers to address a particular issue.

What is urgent, when we don’t know the answer, when the path is unclear, when we navigate through unfamiliar territory (Zweibelson, 2017) in a world that gets better and worse, faster and faster (Atlee, 2003)? In my view, it is to provide legitimacy to processes where people co-design how they will intervene to adapt for the future, today. Co-design involves framing a theory of change that is relevant for those affected by the change. This involves engaging people in the analysis, design, monitoring and evaluation of interventions. The rest of this brief paper is an introduction to a journey that sparked this proposition, sharing experiences that strengthen this approach and underlying practical implications.

The Journey

Where to begin? In exploring what is ‘urgent’, I began searching for my own design experiences. But something was missing. So I asked myself a different question: what was the moment that shifted my approach to design? As I thought about it, this moment came before I even knew of ‘design’ or concepts such as systems thinking or complexity theory. And there is no heroic tale. That moment started with a conversation in a living room in South America. I took a break from university to participate with another Canadian student on a two-month exchange with the international youth organization Aiesec. The purpose of this initiative was to increase the international internship opportunities between Ecuador and Canada. That evening, I shared with my Ecuadorian counterpart that she could play a role in helping our Canadian local chapters. “Really, you think I could help?” She added: “If you hadn’t told me this, I would never have believed you.” I pondered about wider structural patterns at play: wasn’t my presence in Ecuador based on the assumption that I had some particular knowledge to impart, not because of who I was as an individual, but whom I represented as a country? Prior to my arrival in Ecuador, I had already begun my own critical reflections about how we divide the world, whether it is through categories of: ‘First World’, ‘Third World’ or ‘developed’, ‘underdeveloped’. However, these considerations were primarily an intellectual curiosity. That conversation had a human face to it. For the rest of our stay in Ecuador, my Canadian colleague and I made it a principle to avoid putting ourselves in any ‘expert’ role. If we stood in front of a group, it was to share about our culture, about ourselves. This provided an opportunity for new members to take a leadership role. The year after we left, the chapter had raised unprecedented exchanges, and six Ecuadorians came to Canada (through their own initiatives and creativity). One evening, an Aiesec Ecuadorian member who came to Canada shared with me, with a lump in her throat and tears rolling down her cheeks about her pride to be in a position to share her knowledge with Canadian Aiesec members. Something had shifted, which I couldn’t articulate clearly. In hindsight, it started with our mental models, our assumptions. How do we create spaces for people to engage and commit to what they want to see?

Chevalier and Buckles (2013) raise two questions about design: What is it? Who is it for? I was not aware of their work, nor participatory action research at the time. However, this journey, which began with a simple statement and a provocative response, would shape my approach to who is it for, and what is it? This experience started to simmer a thought: by changing the mental models, the narratives in which we grow, we can actually be more effective or impactful about what these narratives were meant to achieve in the first place.

Experiences along the journey

The urgency to provide legitimacy to processes where people co-design how they will intervene to adapt for the future, today, began taking shape over the years. I was drawn to experiences that engaged with co-creating with others a shared purpose. One of these experiences was an initiative with the premise that leadership in Africa already existed. The idea was to connect individuals and organizations who already knew what changes needed to happen, drawing on complexity theory and emergence as one of the underpinning theories of change. For instance, in West Africa, I recall how one organization discussed whether to incorporate as an NGO or as a company for their production of solar panels. The leadership favored to register as a company, even though it didn’t make business sense per se. The leader explained to his team: “If we want to make money, it’s better to be an NGO. We pay much less tax and have easy access to donors. But that’s the dependency we need to step away from. As a business, we will pay higher taxes, but we will contribute to a greater purpose because more money will be directed to social programs.” What difference does one organization make? It’s easy to dispel the ‘effectiveness’ of such strategy or to question how ‘scalable’ that can be. Yet, the organization wasn’t interested in proving their results to other entities. They were driven by a deeper sense of purpose; the fundamental change began with a systemic view about how individuals perceive themselves in the world.

In other instances, I met organizations that did not want to be known; their effectiveness relied on discretion. Should their work be promoted by others, they would gain undue attention that could compromise their work or their security. In some cases, these included individuals who were involved in a country that would be shaken by the Arab Spring a decade later. While working with an NGO, I visited a project in northern Thailand that was the exemplification of co-designing for the future, today. The organization’s mission is to train Burmese refugees on human rights, to send them into Burma and have them come back to document human rights abuse. But here’s the key about reconciling the future with today: the founder of the organization said to me: “Like all dictatorship, the junta in Burma will fall. When it does, there will be violence among ethnic groups. Our role is to start a conversation now about the value of diversity.” Essentially, the organization did not only work towards human rights, but also purposefully involving different ethnic groups in their process. What these experiences solidified was this: the value to provide people with legitimacy to design their future, starting today. In many ways, current events in Burma are predictable, like any other nation that has been under the grip of dictatorship. The implication is that strengthening legitimacy for a better future begins prior to civil unrest. This isn’t about choosing political alliances, but about strengthening the conditions leading a stronger civil society.

Through my experience at Global Affairs Canada, I took part in the design and facilitation experience of putting into practice some of the features of the urgent design mentioned in this paper. Our approach draws from adult education design models and participatory methodologies. Concretely, it means giving ownership to groups to design how they will measure change, how they assess their progress, conduct this analysis and propose change. As a result, a transformation occurs at the individual level because participants are now part of the change, they recognize their own vulnerability, and challenge their mental models. These shifts do not happen as a result of an explicit goal; but rather they are implicit in the participatory process. In other words, as people are invited to engage as active participant in change as opposed to being observers or as data sources for someone else, they become self-critical about their role in that change. This included me. I was also discovering, through the change in others, how my mental model was evolving. And how, structurally, in terms of design, I had to think differently about design.

Recently, I was privileged to work with a client who genuinely supported a participative approach to change. A group of forty people, from students, farmers, NGO staff to former ministers, university deans and vice-chancellors came together in Eastern Africa. The aim was to develop a theory of change, a concept note and a representative stakeholder platform to sustain their vision for transformational learning in higher education institutions in Africa. No one was promised any money nor funding. As a result of their own creation of a theory of change, people questioned their own systems as they no longer had to think about what a funder wanted to hear. But questioning is not enough if you are not part of the process of change. Hence, in setting up a framework whereby it is the responsibility of participants to commit to the change, then, the buck is not passed to someone else. Essentially, they were committed to enhance what their institutions were meant to achieve.


What are the practical implications of providing legitimacy to processes where people co-design how they will intervene to adapt for the future, today?

Leadership as part of the system. For one, leadership must be explicit and humble about acknowledging our ignorance and tackling issues for which there are no clear answers. I once heard a former ADM at Global Affairs Canada hosting a conversation about risk and failure. He raised the question of whether staff feared failure. What was particularly effective about this intervention is that he modelled the very inquiry he raised with others; he shared his own failures and his own vulnerability to risk. As a result, an outpouring of transparency and discussion ensued. What I took from this, and others who mirrored leadership by being part of the change, is that ‘ordering’, ‘motivating’ or ‘encouraging’ design for change is not simply a matter of pushing others in front. It is to be there, in the circle, in the fire, among others.

Embodying the theory of change. Co-designing with those affected by change is not asking for input or to ‘consult’. Analysis, design and implementation must be acted upon by those who are engaged in change. If the right people are not in the room, then it is the task of those seeking the change to find ways to expand the circle of influence and of people making decisions. Essentially, this means that a design does not conclude with recommendations, a publication or a brainstorm. How can we – with people affected by this change - design a theory of change that recognizes how change happens? The literature is rich for finding ways to do this. It’s a matter of adapting or blending theories for the corporate culture, whether it is Participatory Action Research, to Social Labs, Socio-technical systems, Design Thinking or Open Systems Theory (Emery, 2000). And there is certainly a military tradition to engage people when facing the need to adapt:

As the war proceeded, military technology gave increasing scope for, and prominence to, small group formations, recognizing their power to make flexible decisions and to remain cohesive under rapidly changing conditions. This led to a recasting of the role of junior officers and the kind of relations (more open and more democratic) best maintained between them and their men. In Britain the War Office Selection Boards (to which I was attached) were created to choose officers capable of behaving this way (Trist, 1981, p. 13).

Design as compliance. Any system will bend towards compliance. Understanding social systems, and making use of non-linear systems of analysis, such as system dynamics (Chevalier & Buckles) has to become an explicit tool for making compliance work. If we are expected to be acting within complex systems, then our tools for understanding reality will have to go beyond rational-technocratic perspective. Hence, that is why a focus on ‘effectiveness’ or ‘efficiency’, while compelling, will always be insufficient. Organizations do not behave to be effective as a natural, rational state. In effect, the purpose of the system is the system (Beer, 2002). And in a compliance culture, individuals respond to what is expected of them. So to be ‘compliant’, is also being ethically responsible. Nevertheless, history has taught us that to be compliant to the rules in place also involves refusing people of colour or the women’s right to vote or to open a bank account. While in hindsight, we may feel surprised or dismayed that past rules were so absurd, a brief look in the mirror may humble us.

Finally, the urgency to provide legitimacy to processes where people co-design how they will intervene to adapt for the future, today, is not a hammer that assumes every issue is a nail. The context is about complex challenges and within this realm, further priorities are required. Nevertheless, the urgency of co-design does raise questions about the alternative: are we safer by excluding others from the design of what affects their lives? Are we more effective by directing change to fit our own rules of compliance? Is ownership possible without being part of the change?

By giving legitimacy to participatory processes for complex challenges, we continuously open the conversation, humbly, without necessarily knowing what the next step is (Zweibelson, 2012). Instead of putting aside the elephant in the room, we acknowledge it. Including our fears.

This urgency is not about being a revolutionary or a rebel. It’s simply doing our job: making the system work for its intended purpose.

Author Biography

Fodé Beaudet is a Senior Learning designer with the Centre for Learning in Intercultural Effectiveness and International Assistance Policy at the Canadian Foreign Services Institute (CFSI), Global Affairs Canada (GAC). He has extensive experience in designing and facilitating multi-stakeholder workshops around the world. He also conducts research design for Whole-of-Government approaches around theories of change and intercultural effectiveness. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Performance and Learning. Fodé has a diploma in Adult Education (StFX) and a M.A. in Human Systems Intervention (Concordia University).


Akhavan, P. (2017). In Search for a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey. Massey lectures.

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