Design for Life: a constellation of practices - RSA blog - RSA

A constellation of practices


  • Design
  • Environment

Joanna Choukeir and Al Mathers build on the thinking required to move the world to better futures by exploring how we can collectively do the things needed to get us there in this blog about our Design for Life practices.

At the RSA we are optimistic about a future world that is resilient, rebalanced and regenerative. We are optimistic that we can apply different ways of ‘thinking’, and different ways of ‘doing’ together to take us out of the permacrisis paralysis, to bring about a different world. We write about different ways of ‘thinking’ in our Design for Life perspectives blog. This blog here is dedicated to the different ways of ‘doing’ – our Design for Life practices.

Starting in 2022 and continuing into 2023, we’ve been re-orientating our activities and teams around ‘communities of practice’; actively seeding, nurturing, and growing the practices necessary to transition towards a regenerative world.

Aiming for the stars

We describe these practices as coming together to form a constellation. Why a constellation? Because we don’t believe a single area of practice is sufficient to grapple with the interconnection of complex challenges, entanglement of systems, and diversity of ecological and cultural contexts that make up our world. Each practice brings strengths but also has limitations when acting alone, failing to show us the bigger picture and broader patterns. As you’ll see below, some are well-established, and some are emergent. Some are often placed in confrontation or even in competition with one another. But all add valuable nuance and have the potential to be woven together through harmonious tension to transform the changemaker’s ‘craft’ into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Shaping a rich palette of colours beyond the primaries, that is a better fit for better futures.

The practices draw from disciplines across design, innovation and research to ensure systemic and long-lasting impact. Christopher Smith and Ottoline Leyser speak strongly of the misconception that innovation is at the end of a stream that flows in one direction:

Upstream is the pure water of research, downstream is the muddy but fertile silt of business… The system is far more interconnected, and we need to recognise that research and innovation are synergetic and frequently blended.

Christopher Smith and Ottoline Leyser

We’ll briefly define each area of practice below, its value and limitation, before weaving it into the next area of practice. The below narrative is for illustrative purposes only, and the constellation does not necessarily need to show up in change work in this order or combination of practices.

Design for Life constellation of practices - The RSA

Shifting systems

Let’s start with systems thinking; a practice that dates back to antiquity but that has grown in popularity in the last decade among changemakers in the western world. Systems thinking is centred on understanding the complexity and relationships in our world and seeing the systems as wholes, rather than splitting them into discrete parts. Systems thinking can help us understand the complexity, dependency, and causality of challenges in our current world while identifying levers or nodes that could be pulled to create ripples of change that alter the current system towards a desired future system.

Systems thinking, a holistic and relational approach to understanding complexity, should complement qualitative and quantitative research practices. These practices weave in the rigour needed to test hypotheses, verify root causes, and build the evidence based behind some of the patterns and relationships we are spotting and sensing in the systems we are looking to understand, change or imagine. They enable us to start building a robust foundation of the what, how and why, from which we can travel forward.

But how do we know that the evidence we are gathering through these practices is inclusive and that insight and foresight represent the plurality of perspectives affected by and affecting the challenges and the change? Grounding in participatory practices can help us take more deliberative and inclusive ways that harness the inherent intelligence and agency of those at the heart of change to lead the change. Participatory approaches also help us challenge existing power imbalances and hierarchical structures that sometimes stifle impact and true innovation driven by lived experience. Professor Graham Smith and Jane Davidson (both advocates of participation and deliberation) go as far as asserting that these practices offer the most effective democratic response to protecting the interests of the generations to come.

Designing futures

So how do we move beyond talking about today’s problems and a state of analysis paralysis, towards imagining and realising better futures for people, places and planet, while building resilience in response to unexpected and unprecedented shocks? We weave in futures thinking, and the diversity of mindsets that cluster around these practices; from predictive to imaginative, from data-driven foresight to speculative futures, and everything in between.

Our Stitch in Time report makes a strong case for the value of futures thinking in change work. With futures thinking, we weave in long-term and long time practices, as well as good ancestor practices, so we can start to care about the long-term future of our planet and generations as a way to start taking responsibility for it in the short term. We also weave in collective imagination and the necessity and the power of the collective to have the ability and agency to shape their own futures. This practice is a nascent one with stewardship from a brilliant community of thinkers and practitioners including Geoff Mulgan, Rob Hopkins, Cassie Robinson and The Emerging Futures Fund, Superflux, Department of Dreams and more.

From our ambitions for the long-term future, we can then weave in design thinking as a practice that can support us to return to the present, to reshape the ideas and actions that we might take today to create the desired future trajectory. Design thinking’s mindset is rooted in putting people at the centre of designing solutions to the problems that affect their lives.

This mentality overlaps with that of participatory practices but is more maker and action-based involving people in actively co-designing and co-producing interventions, and in prototyping and testing early and quickly to learn and iterate. But design thinking can be limited in focusing on people’s immediate needs before their assets or strengths, and in putting people before planet.

Regenerating our world

This creates the necessity to weave in regenerative thinking - a practice sometimes also referred to as regenerative design - which recognises that people and planetary needs are intertwined and that social and ecological communities have the potential to be sources of health and regeneration for all life on Earth. Josie Warden has written extensively on regenerative thinking in her paper Regenerative Futures: From sustaining to thriving together, as has RSA Bicentenary Medallist Daniel Christian Wahl in their medium article Regenerative Futures: Redesigning the human impact on Earth. The practices in regenerative thinking take us away from the more recent quantitative growth and extractive and exploitative ways of living, working and producing, towards qualitative growth through natural circularity and circulation of resources within planetary boundaries, to replenish and restore economic, social and environmental health in equal measure. It’s important to acknowledge that regenerative thinking holds roots in deep indigenous knowledge as practised by communities and their ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years to regenerate our social and natural world. Melanie Goodchild speaks openly of this in her Creating change together RSA event from November 2021.

The transition from extractive or even sustainable thinking to regenerative thinking requires a significant paradigm shift that necessitates the creation of entirely new economic, social and political systems. There is value here in weaving in innovation and entrepreneurship practices as means to take action to disrupt current systems. Traditionally, innovation and enterprise have explored what is possible to achieve through the technology we have, rather than the problems we are trying to solve or the futures we are trying to realise. They have also been arguably preoccupied with venture building and capital growth over social and ecological outcomes.

Shaping conditions

However, a growing movement of practitioners and thought leaders see innovation and entrepreneurship as mechanisms for transitioning and transforming whole systems and the business models, markets, structures, behaviours and mindsets that operate within them. An example is The System Innovation Initiative led by Jennie Winhall and Charles Leadbeater of the Rockwool Foundation, which brings together the best of both worlds from innovation and systems thinking to create systems-shifting innovation.

For emerging innovations to truly infiltrate and change markets, funding, infrastructure and policy, and to ultimately shift the wider narratives, paradigms and value systems we operate within, we need to draw on policy and convening practices. This is a strategic area of practice rooted in the belief that the policies governing our lives are created by people, and that people can be influenced. Through strategic approaches of identifying key stakeholders at the regime level - to convene, engage with, understand incentives and disincentives, inspire, and excite with new change ideas and possibilities - we can influence those who hold the levers to change current systems towards more desirable ones.

Therefore naturally, policy and convening practices are woven into systems thinking to identify key levers, key players, and complex relationships to drive change. So, we work our way back to systems thinking around the constellation, and so on.

Learning to learn

At the core of this constellation, (and connected to all other practices) are learning design and evaluation practices. We believe responding to complex social and ecological challenges and change, requires the development of new capabilities among changemakers, some of which relate to the practices we shared above. Some draw on learning design to support capacity and capability building for shaping the mindset and ‘craft’ of the changemaker of the future, within communities, organisations and systems. Similarly, working with emergence and uncertainty as we craft the future system requires systemic evaluation practices that move beyond measuring short-term outputs, towards measuring the long-term change in behaviours, structures, mindsets and narratives as valuable outcomes.

In this blog, we’re sharing openly evolving thinking on Design for Life practices. We know that our world’s very nature is living and changing. Our understanding of how to shape futures better for people, places and planet is evolving too, as must the practices we do this change work through. Continuing this blog series, RSA colleagues will be sharing more thoughts that bring to life, through case stories, how we weave these practices across our work to create change.

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We welcome any reflections or builds from The RSA’s Fellowship community with the valuable and diverse experiences and expertise you bring.

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