Ep. 12 - Systems Design & Doing

July 12, 2023

In this thought-provoking episode, host Monique Blough engages in a captivating conversation with Roland Harwood, CEO and Founder of Liminal and the Climate Tech Supercluster. Roland is a compulsive connector and esteemed expert in systems design who uses his powers for the good of the global ecosystem. Together, they delve into the principles and practical applications of systems thinking, offering valuable insights for individuals and organizations striving to navigate the complexities of the modern world.

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Welcome to this episode of Responsible Disruption Podcast. My name is Monique Blough, Project Director of the Social Impact Lab Alberta at United Way of Calgary Area. Today we have a special guest joining us, Roland Harwood, an esteemed expert in systems thinking using his powers for the good of the global ecosystem. In this episode, we will explore the fundamental concepts of systems thinking and systems change, delving in both theory and practice. So let me tell you a little bit about Roland. He is a compulsive connector of people and ideas. He is the founder and CEO of Liminal, a collective intelligence community focused on building a habitable planet for all through connecting people, data and ideas, and mapping, convening and activating the climate technology ecosystem. Liminal works with the United Nations, Innovate UK, Hitachi Global and welcome. He is also the author of the book called On The Edge, which I highly recommend, and is also a podcast with the same name, both of which are making sense of our increasingly connected world. Prior to that, he co-founded and led 100%Open the multi award-winning Open Innovation Agency that worked in over 25 countries with companies such as Lego, UBS, Ford, and Unilever. This is where I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Roland and his team. They spun out from the charitable foundation Nesta, where his team supported the launches of the World Wide Web Foundation with Tim Berners-Lee and Bethnal Green Ventures. Graduating with a PhD in physics, having studied with Nobel Prize winner Professor Peter Higgs, he has held senior innovation roles in the public and private sector and has worked with hundreds of startups. He is a board member of the Participatory Cities Foundation and a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art. And lastly, Roland is both a failed astronaut and a failed musician, albeit he has composed some TV and film music for Sony and is a proud, frequently exhausted dad of three children. Welcome Roland, I am so delighted to have the opportunity to connect with you on a topic that is more and more relevant as we navigate the complexity of the problems we're facing in our community and in our world.


Ohh it's great to see you. That's a tremendous introduction. It's great to see you again. Looking forward to this conversation.

03:02 MONIQUE: Likewise, and to start us off, I don't think we can leave our listeners hanging around the comment of a failed astronaut. And so I'm wondering if you can share what that story is about.

03:17 ROLAND: Sure, it's very simple. I we're all failed astronauts at one level apart from the very few that are successful but no in 2008 when I was 34 years old, the European Space Agency. So I'm based in in the UK, which at the time was part of Europe and for the first time in, I think 30 years or 40 years, the European Space Agency was recruiting for new astronauts and 40,000 people applied. And I got through the 1st 4 rounds. I think it was including going to my local doctor and asking for an incredibly detailed medical check up, which she definitely didn't have time to do. And she thought I was slightly ridiculous, applying to be an astronaut. But anyway, I got through that round, and then the subsequent 3 rounds. And then I think I got to the final 800 which I was pretty pleased with and no further, so I'm pretty proud of that. I didn't really expect I would be successful, but I thought I would kind of kick myself if I didn't try always being kind of fascinated in space and space travel and that kind of moon shot mentality. And I'm now 49 years old and I do hope that one day I might still get a chance to see this pale blue dot upon which we live from outer space. But I'm not keen on giving Bezos and Musk lots of money for space tourism, but there may be another way of doing it, so haven't entirely given up on that particular dream.

04:49 MONIQUE: That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. Talk about approaching the edge of the unknown, which I think comes from your book. Could you provide our listeners with some background on your work with Liminal?

05:04 ROLAND: Sure. So Liminal is a community of 120 people dotted all around the world, and we call ourselves compulsive climate connectors and and what that means is we're essentially a distributed consultancy focused on researching, mapping, convening the climate innovation space, and yeah, we've been around for four years, and in particular, we've been noticing that, especially in the climate space, which is growing really, really fast, which is very exciting and important and needed, but it's incredibly fragmented, especially here in UK and Europe. We're seeing lots of people trying to solve the same problems again and again, but not talking to each other, not sharing knowledge and data and money. And so the key thing we're trying to do is kind of shift the climate innovation system or ecosystem. Here in the UK and Europe in particular, through this kind of distributed network of creative and entrepreneurial people.

06:03 MONIQUE: When we think about the fragmented systems we live and operate in so many of these environments and the work that you're doing specifically focused on climate. Do you see how you are engaging at that level in the climate? That those same practices could be applied in other types of systems like social or educational?

06:31 ROLAND: Well, I think just taking a step back for a moment. I think part of the reason for founding Liminal, which is a word which many people aren't familiar with, but it's kind of related to the word subliminal, which is more common. Subliminal means unconscious and Liminal is kind of the threshold. When things go from unconscious to conscious, or it also means transition. And I think the most interesting and important challenges of our times are to do with transitions around transition to a net zero sustainable future. Right now, as we transition back out of the pandemic into a kind of post pandemic world and a whole range of other kind of transitions, and I think the most interesting people and ideas and innovations. Often come from the grey areas, the fuzzy edges of people, places and organisations so Liminal felt like a good name for what we were interested in doing. I think this idea of systems thinking that we're here to talk about today, we also talk about collective intelligence and there's a range of other kind of terms as well that I might mention, but they're very applicable to the biggest challenges of our times, whether it is climate, whether it's kind of the mental health crisis, COVID whatever it might be it requires. As different organisations people to interact at many different levels to develop new solutions. So that's kind of at a super high level how I'd define what we're doing and I think it's very applicable to many, many different walks of life and types of business, but also the world that we wish to build. Everything is, after all, the subtitle of my book is making sense of our increasingly connected world. As things have become more connected, they've also become more complex and interdependent. And with that complexity and that connectivity requires a greater level of operating at a systems level because we're all familiar, or many of us are familiar with this idea of the butterfly effect, where a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the planet can create, at least in theory, a thunderstorm on the other side of the planet, and I think that is true of our economy and our society as well. There are these unintended consequences that can occur if we're not careful. So I think we need to think and act much more systemically today than perhaps ever previously before.

08:54 MONIQUE: Thanks for that. I'm going to encourage people to go learn a little bit more about these words, Liminal and the threshold to uncover consciousness. So I think you made a good point. As you know, maybe we should take a step back and also think and talk about systems thinking for our listeners for those that might be new to systems thinking theory, but could you give us a brief overview of what systems thinking entails and some of the key concepts that you think would be valuable for our listeners to understand?

09:26 ROLAND: First of all, I've done courses in systems thinking and I think I am perhaps more knowledgeable than average, but I wouldn't naturally say I am the guru in systems thinking. There are other people that I would point to Russell Ackoff, Dave Snowden. A range of others who I think are very knowledgeable and experienced in this space, but my understanding is basically thinking and doing at multiple levels and in different places at the same time and overtime. So thinking and doing at multiple levels and different places at the same time and over time. So what I mean by that is multiple levels you might be thinking and doing it at an individual level, how does the climate crisis affect me as an individual and my habits and my behaviors and my life, my work, maybe at an organizational level or a city level. How does my work affect the climate crisis or how can I have an influence on it? Or maybe how does it affect where I live and work? And then perhaps at a economic or national or even global level. So there's kind of different levels and you can break all of those down into greater granularity if you want, but then also deliberately designing and doing things in multiple places at the same time or in a connected way, deliberately and strategically so I guess the key attribute of a highly interconnected world is that it's very complex and complex means it's very, very hard to predict what's going to happen. And so the art of systems thinking is to experiment a lot in different ways, in different places, and to pay close attention to what happens. And if you see positive behaviours and responses to do more of that, and if you see negative ones to do less of that so. At a abstract, kind of theoretical level, that's how I would kind of describe it. I think it probably is most helpful to kind of boil it down into some practical projects which I'm happy to talk about. But I hope that makes sense. I'll just finish with a quote which I don't know if you saw the Oscar winning film, Everything Everywhere All At Once. It was great and and actually I'm not sure if it did win an Oscar, but I think Anton Gutierrez, the head of the United Nations, recently said that climate action requires everything, everywhere, all at once. So it requires a concerted action from all different nations, all different organizations, all different people in different places, in different ways, over a  compressed period of time. And I think that's true of climate. But I also think it's true of many other things as well. Does that make sense?

12:11 MONIQUE: It certainly does, and it's such a great summary because I think when we talk about systems thinking, we'll often turn it into this notion of how do I boil the ocean. And yet when we think about it in the context of how you've broken it down. Individual organizational, economic, national, and global, we can start to see how our own behavior is in fact have an impact on a bigger system. And yet we often think of ourselves in most ways very individualized instead of as part of a broader ecosystem.

12:46 ROLAND: Can I give one example which I think most people will be familiar with, which is named the Uber. The ride hailing app. I think that was whatever you think of the company and whatever you think of the technology, I think it was brilliantly executed for a user perspective for an individual perspective. I remember the very first time I used it, I got my car faster, cheaper, better than any alternatives that were around, certainly in London at the time. But actually what we found over time is that it can contribute to, not necessarily, but it certainly has done to more congestion. Within cities to poor working conditions of some of the drivers and some of the workforce. And so it might be really well designed for the customer perspective, but actually very poorly designed from a city perspective and so good systems thinking takes into account of course the good customer experience, but also needs to take into account, what's the impact on congestion within the city or labour rights so it adds layers of complexity which makes it harder for sure. But I think if we want to be responsible citizens, if we want to be responsible businesses, then we need to think at multiple levels, and sometimes those levels can work and reinforce each other, and in other cases, such as the Uber example I just gave, they can play against each other. And so it's just looking out for those kind of instances and trying to design deliberately for that positive reinforcement.

14:20 MONIQUE: It's a great example and I think leads really nicely into the next question I had, which is really around why is systems thinking so crucial in our complex world today?

14:33 ROLAND: Well, I think we touched upon this a little bit already, but just because everything is so connected, it makes it hard to predict. And yeah, whether it's climate or artificial intelligence or mental health or Ukraine, think about the Ukraine war right now, which maybe once upon a time, wouldn't have had nearly the kind of global impact that it has done. But it's had these huge ripple effects all over the world. And it's part of a deeply interconnected system. So I think it's just a facet of our modern, globalized, interconnected world. I think something we need to come to terms with. Actually my main issue with the term systems thinking is the word thinking. So yes, of course we need to think, but I think it's easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis and you can go round endlessly in circles trying to understand any of these issues, be they, some of the things I just mentioned, Ukraine, COVID, climate. But you never actually do anything because they're overwhelming the complex. You can commission another report. You can endlessly surf the Internet until the cows come home. I think I'm much more a fan of systems doing or systems designing and doing so acting at multiple levels, in multiple places over a concerted period of time and then paying close attention to what happens. Observing, responding, iterating so yeah, I think it's crucial. I think it's an emergent kind of skill set. It's kind of fashionable at the moment. There's lots of courses and lots of people talking about it. Lots of podcasts. I guess part of the reason why I'm here and that's fine up to a point, but I think it's much more about collective action than some kind of abstract kind of thought experiment, because that so from my perspective at least.

16:20 MONIQUE: Yeah, I really appreciate this notion of collective action. I often speak to systems thinking and doing in the context of bringing together a group of people to activate that collective power that comes with working as a as a group to solve something. So I really do like that. I think then it's interesting cause as you were talking about saying systems thinking is not the term or I don't know exactly what you said, but it needs to be something different and I wrote systems action. And I was like, yeah, maybe that's what it is. But the design and doing really does speak to really the process of how we should be working and thinking and moving it forward. And I think systems change it really is deliberate. It's a holistic approach to think about how we transform entire systems and it really starts with understanding the current system and we often don't realize we're part of the system so that becomes our challenge. But when you bring a collective group together to understand what the desired outcomes are and map those interconnections, I think that's when you can get to this notion of designing and doing. And I think if I'm correct, this is really what you're doing with the Climate Tech Supercluster. It's a responsible disruption and a real practical application of systems thinking and doing. And so I'm wondering if you can share with our listeners why you created it, what you created and speak to your approach of bringing all of this to life and to practice in the real world.

18:03 ROLAND: Sure, so I'm very excited about the Climate Tech Supercluster, which we're actually launching a week from today. And so I think by the time this episode goes out, it will be live. So check out climatetechsupercluster.com, and it is a network of innovators and investors and other influential organizations who are seeking to accelerate collective climate action within four hours of London. So it's focused on UK and Europe. It has a geographic focus. We think place really matters and the reason it came about was about a year ago, we were involved in a flurry of events, in person events in and around London, which is where I'm based in the UK. But some of them were with the government audience and others were with VC's and startups, and our third was with the universities and researchers and then a fourth was with brands and of big corporations. And they were all broadly to do with sustainability and climate, but everyone was using different terminology. Net zero, ESG, climate tech, sustainability, circular economy. They're all different words or phrases that broadly, I think, mean trying to innovate our way through or around the challenges that our changing climate poses. And I think that different terminology belies a deeper fragmentation which is problematic. And I think we're better together where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And I would say certainly in UK and Europe, but I suspect elsewhere in the world as well. I'll let you comment about the North American Canadian perspective, but there's a ton of money and activity flowing into kind of climate related projects and ventures. Which is fantastic and I think it's been waiting my whole life for this hockey stick exponential growth in this space. However, I think the hole is significantly less than the sum of the parts right now, and there's still very much a closed kind of mindset. A competitive business model and a siloed way of working, and I don't think we're going to make the progress we need to make as a species, as a planet.

If we work in that way, so Climate Tech Supercluster is a way to do three things really. One is to raise awareness of climate innovation within this geographic region, but also the shift in mindset and behaviors and ways of working that we think are needed to unlock that innovation. Secondly, it's kind of researching mapping trends and organizations that are doing great things and bring them together. And then thirdly, it's that activation piece. So it's building new markets and new partnerships and new collaboration across this geography, between different organizations to accelerate our kind of collective progress and I guess this links slightly to your previous question around what systems thinking is and why it's important. I think any systemic challenge is bigger than any single person or organization or some case even country and so cannot be solved. There's no incentive for a single organisation to address it on their own. So one thing that we've done quite a bit of work on is alternative proteins. A huge amount of land mass is given over to livestock to sheep and cattle, with all the climate impacts that that has. There's a huge kind of trend towards alternative proteins, cultivated meat, other forms of sustainable soya protein etcetera, etcetera. These are all huge behavioural shifts, dietary shifts, economic and social shifts. They require technical innovation, policy innovation, behaviour change, and communication and marketing innovation selling new products to consumers. This is a much, much bigger shift in transition than even the biggest food brand in the world, I don't know, is it Nestle or whoever. It’s bigger than even any single organization like that to take the lead here. So it requires governments and corporations and startups and investors to work together around that transition towards more sustainable diets and food, and likewise around energy and transport and construction, and other big sectors, other big emitters. And we also need to take that approach so hopefully that explained a little bit about what we're doing and why we're doing it. So yeah, I'm very excited about it.

22:29 MONIQUE: Congratulations on that. I'll be excited to follow the journey and see what comes next.

22:38 ROLAND: Yeah, I've just noticed, Monique, sorry to interrupt. We're in a Liminal space right now because we're talking before it's launched, but by the time people listen to this, it will have launched. So we're sort of in a between Liminal state of not quite having launched, but when people listen to this, it will have launched. So anyway, I've just noticed that as we're speaking.

22:58 MONIQUE: How appropriate. Thank you for that. So 'm curious, how does how does a person start? I think what you've created with the Climate Tech Supercluster is a great example and of course it's going to go live and you're going to learn a lot. And you're creating these energies around that connective connectedness. But but how does a person that sees opportunities, whether it's in their community, their city, province, in the context of Canada start with something like this? Where do I even begin to think how I might create something that you've created?

23:41 ROLAND: I mean, first of all, I would say you've gotta run your own race. But I would say start where you are. Pay attention to what you're noticing, both for you as an individual, but around you, trends, patterns, whatever it might be. And it might be really small. A few friends mentioning a film or a book or a company or whatever it might be, or it might be something in the more mass media or what have you. But I've always been led by my curiosity and by my empathy, I suppose. So I'm kind of endlessly curious in almost any topic, so I go down rabbit holes on a frequent basis, which is great, and I enjoy it a lot. But it's also I have to manage that because it's not always the most practical way of working. But I'm also very creative, entrepreneurial kind of people as well. And so I spend a lot of my time having, I call them random coffees. They're not always entirely random. Sometimes they're a bit more focused around specific topics, but the way I learn is mostly through dialogue and conversations like these, where things occur to me through the dialogue and the interaction with others. It's not always appropriate, but if there's the time that people can take some time to connect with other people and do compressed period of networking but not from a transactional point of view, not necessarily wanting to get something out of that conversation necessarily other than learning. And one of my favorite quotes, which is in my book is from a guy called Valdis Krebs, he says, “connect on your similarities but benefit from your differences.” So find stuff that you have in common and it can be anything. It can be where you live. It can be a shared passion for a sports team or a band, or anything at all. There are a lot of people who just stop the conversation and focus on what they have in common. But actually what's most interesting where you can learn the most is where you have different expertise or different experiences. So go to the edges. That's part of the reason why the book is also called On The Edge. You can see much further from the edges, and that's where all the interesting stuff happens. The edges of people, places, and organisations so those are a few reflections. I have many, many more, but be guided by curiosity and empathy I think is probably how I'd summarize that.

25:59 MONIQUE: I really appreciate that. Cause I would agree. I think the work that we've been doing in the lab and how and at least how I live is to be extremely curious. And I think to your point, sometimes I don't know if I go down rabbit holes, but I can offer that maybe it not got me in trouble but had me pause for a moment to wonder whether or not I should be exploring something that I am...

26:22 ROLAND:

But also, sorry, one more thing that just occurs to me is we live in an increasingly politically and otherwise polarized world. We form our tribes and we find our clusters, our little social groups, and trying to listen without prejudice and learn from different perspectives. This is the number one driver of innovation is the bringing together of diverse, often different even in some cases, contradictory perspectives. But if you can find a way to hear those and then synthesize them into something new, that's kind of how good ideas come about. And that's hard. So I try to suspend judgment, sleep on things for a little while until things kind of bubble up. Sometimes that's easier said than done, and with some people that's easier, said than done. So I think it is important. Life's too short, so trust your instincts. If you think there's merit in another conversation or following up with somebody. Or perhaps not. So I think that's also important to think about your suspending judgment, but also trusting your instincts as well.

27:36 MONIQUE: Yeah, it's great advice and something I will consider. I love the conversation and quote that you've shared and even the title of your book. And I really enjoyed your book On The Edge. And we're gonna put a link in the show notes for anyone that’s listening. But in your book you have a quote from Douglas Rushkoff, which is “find the others.” And I find that even this conversation and how you got started feels like not only were you curious and trusting your instincts, but you found others. And when it comes to successful systems change, I think finding others to be engaged, I suspect is key, and so are there other thoughts that you have around tools that people could use to start figuring out what that means?

28:30 ROLAND: Well, I'll come back to the tools in a second, but just to give credit to Douglas Rushkoff, who I spoke to for my podcast. Probably it was during the pandemic. I'm gonna say two and a half years ago I might be wrong on that. But at the time, I don't know if this is still true, but he was doing a podcast and also published a book called Team Human and I don't know if you heard about that or you read that, but it's a good book. I think it's a collection of his blog posts. But yeah, it's a good book. And on the back of the book in big bold letters, there's just those three words. Find the others and he does talk about that in the book as well, but in a nutshell, I think what he's talking about in that book, and I think it's even more salient now with the rise of artificial intelligence and tools like ChatGPT which I don't know how they're being covered in Canadian press and media, but there's just this morning on the BBC there was a pretty scary sounding headline that we could all... I can't remember the exact words, but it was basically we could all be dead in two years because of killer AI robots or that was the sentiment. And that's pretty terrifying. I think it's over the top personally, but I do think there are real risks that need to be thought about and managed and that's another example of a systemic challenge. But I think what Douglas Rushkoff was talking about in that book is, in a world of increasing automation and artificial intelligence, the only choice we have as people is to be more human, to be more messy, to be more empathic, to be more flawed in all the wonderful ways that people are and can be flawed. So we can't compete with the machines for short sheer algorithmic number crunching power. Nor should we even try. But there is something special about you and I connecting on this call and or reconnecting on a very, very human level, which is why I think that find the others mantra is something that resonated to me and I know resonated with others. In terms of tools of how to do that, that's kind of almost a paradox using tools to do that but for me, I carve out a pretty as I mentioned already, pretty significant proportion of my working week into having random conversations with people, either who reach out to me or I reach out to them and every single person you'll ever meet know something that you don't. So try and go into those conversations trying to see what you can learn from that, even if you'll never speak with them again, even if it kind of feels perhaps a bit like a waste of your time. In the time that you have with people make the most of everything you do, make the most of the time you have with that person. What can you learn from that? What can you take from that? But maybe I could and should have systematized my kind of approach to networking. It's been really quite organic and emergent and curiosity driven. I do however, use social media and Twitter and LinkedIn in particular, as almost my record of interesting people and articles and things. So I periodically browse through my own social media feeds, largely just as a record of what I happen to find interesting or noteworthy on a particular day, and there are of course trends and patterns that can emerge from that which is part of the reason for me why writing a book was felt like it was time to do it, because there were all these kind of quite big themes that I've been exploring for quite a few years. And I've met you several times on that journey. And I wanted to try and distill that down into a tangible, digestible form. And so the book. Yeah, it's only 10,000 words. It's easy. It's quick to read but it's a distillation of, I guess my take on the world and the wisdom of others that I've had a chance to speak to over that over the last four or five years.

32:17 MONIQUE: Well, it's a great documented journey for sure. And it's interesting is when I asked this question around tools. And I'm thinking about the person who's listening to us that says I'm not a natural networker. I'm not that person that's just going to call up someone for a coffee. And I think maybe I thought I have is possibly teaming up with someone that might have that strength or for those of us that might do it on a regular basis, think of it as something that's natural. Maybe it's about connecting with someone that does that naturally, and then how do you then combine those expertise to then go out and and and connect with people that may not be the usual suspects or the people that you connect with on a regular basis.

33:11 ROLAND: I think that's a great idea and yeah we all have different preferences and different interests and what have you and I would, and this is maybe not coming across in a one-to-one conversation, but I'm not usually the most extroverted, outgoing, gregarious person in a group setting. In fact, I'm often quite quiet in a group setting a lot of the time, not always. I like to listen. I like to observe. I would probably describe myself more as an introvert than an extrovert. So just in case there's anyone listening who thinks they're not a natural networker, it's not only for the extroverts and the loudmouths out there. There's ways of doing it for people that you know like to engage with people in a different way perhaps a deeper, more thoughtful one to one way, but yeah, pairing off with somebody with a complementary skill set, of course, is a great idea. Rather than working on your perceived weaknesses, why don't you just benefit from other people's strengths and bring your strengths to that relationship in a different way.

34:15 MONIQUE: Yeah, and I think that comes full circle to when you said meeting with people. It's not about thinking about what you have in common, or what are the similarities but more, what are the differences? And then how do those differences then come to play and what you are trying to achieve together collectively. I think that leads us really nicely into this notion of, what role do stakeholders play in helping to ensure successful systems change? And I know in your experience you've engaged with many stakeholders. But yeah, how can stakeholders be effectively engaged in the processes of some of the complex challenges we're facing and what role do you think they play?

35:04 ROLAND: Well, I think that everyone has a role to play and I think we've lived through a century of a shift towards consumerism and mass marketing. And which has made most people and I would include myself in this absolutely, far too passive in respect to... and this is generalising massively but very passive consumers of products and services served to us by multinational corporations, what have you. But I think there's a great book called Citizens, which again I interviewed the author of that for my podcast, and he's mentioned in the book as well and he talks about a shift from a consumer based kind of society to a citizen based time and world and I think there's something in that when it comes to climate. I think for instance, I think every job should be a climate job. It shouldn't just be left to the climate scientists or the sustainability professionals. Everybody has a role to play. Whether you're a CEO of a multinational company or a kid in school or you know anything in between the two. So I think my favorite example, perhaps to mention because it also has a UK Canada connection which might be interesting for some people listening is an organization called the Participatory Cities Foundation, which is a charity, a nonprofit that started in the UK in in Barking and Dagenham, which is a relatively economically deprived part of east London that most people visiting London wouldn't necessarily go and check out, but it's an interesting, very diverse part of town, but it's had various economic, social, political challenges over the last decade or two and about six years ago, there was a very visionary, pioneering designer by background, a woman called Tessie Britton who founded this organization, called the Participatory Cities Foundation, and this was a way to engage all stakeholders within Barking and Dagenham, which is an area of London with about 200,000 people. So it's pretty sizable in terms of population. And it was, in her words, it was top down, bottom up, and everything in between. And so it was a way to reenergize that part of London, which had the lowest economic, social, health, and employment outcomes of any part of London, so it was bottom of the league table and created a way that all citizens of that part of London could get involved in regenerating and and re stimulating their immediate environment and one way they did that they did it through a range of different activities. They brought up these derelict shop units in all the main high streets across Barking and Dagenham and created essentially these community spaces where people could come for a cup of tea or coffee, connect with other people in the community. But then it was connected to a program of learning and courses and workshops and facilities and a whole bunch of things that people could get involved with if they wanted to and there was a real ladder of participation that was very carefully designed and it's actually had a tremendous impact on that part of London. And the model has now been successfully developed and scaled and replicated in Halifax and Canada and East Paisley in Scotland and a range of other places around the world as well, and so if people are interested, check out participatorycity.org I think is the web address. Maybe we can put that in the show notes as well.

But yeah, I don't really like the word stakeholders, but all people have a role to play in systemic challenges in different ways, and I think when addressing a large systemic challenge, you need to communicate with people. You need to explain what you're doing. You need to create ways in which people can engage and participate, and sometimes you might not like what you're doing, but you need to kind of create this space to hear that and engage. So it's hard. The stuff is not easy. I know from being a trustee of the Participatory Cities Foundation that they've certainly had some challenges along the way, but it's a really, really interesting model. And if anyone's interested in place based systems change, then I urge people to check it out as it's a really interesting model.

39:40 MONIQUE: That’s great! A great example. So a bunch of things. I'm super curious about the ladder of participation. I'm going to go do some homework... curiosity there. And I so agree with you in this context of people in place and as you know, I worked for an organization called J5 and when we first started we really leaned into this notion of people, practice, place, and our lead designer at the time, Kelly Shaw, spent a lot of time explaining what we meant around the people. We all have a role, place based and how important that is. And then the practice, whatever it is we are bringing, whether it's design thinking or systems thinking and doing these things matter, and the combination of the three, create this beautiful narrative and so in our conversation today, you've mentioned many times people in place. And so I just wanted to share that I agree with you and I echo that sentiment.

40:37 ROLAND:

And to build on that. I think the pandemic for me and for many others has just reinforced how important place really matters, especially when it comes to innovation and creativity. And it's easy maybe... I don't want to extrapolate my experience onto you, but maybe in this digitally enabled world where we can, at least in theory, work with anyone from anywhere, which is amazing obviously. But you can't replicate the dinner we had in Detroit. Do you remember that? Before a big workshop with a big automotive company. Maybe I won't name who they are. I remember having dinner with you in Detroit probably about eight years ago, Monique. And those kind of in person interactions and the role that plays in terms of relationship building, in terms of innovation. I think notwithstanding Apple, who just announced their fancy new VR headset last night, I don't know if you followed that and the amazing things that technology can enable. Place I think matters more than anything. And I think the pandemic has really reinforced that for me and others as well in a way that perhaps we've forgotten about a little bit.

41:45 MONIQUE: Yeah, I agree. And I remember that dinner very fondly. So I think that this brings us to a nice place to really talk about maybe what the future of systems design and doing and where systems change is heading and what are your thoughts on that? Can it become something that just becomes a way we do business and especially when we think about how you broke down this notion of systems thinking and doing around the individual, the organization, economic, and national. Is it possible for it to become just the way we work and what do you think that future might look like?

42:24 ROLAND: I think it can and it will. I mean at one level, if I'm being a bit cynical, I'd say it's just another fashion sort of management practice. And I've seen a few of these come and go throughout my career. Design thinking, open innovation, collective intelligence, now systems thinking. I think they're all in many ways build on each other or very similar, but with different nuances. But I've seen them all go from marginal to mainstream and I think something similar will happen with systems thinking it will just become the way we do business. But something will come and replace it in a year or two or three or five. Some new terms, some new fashion that everybody's using but that's my prediction. Not too shocking a prediction, I don't think. That it will be superseded, but it will become more normal, not more mainstream. I think it already is at least my perspective, it already is. I think where it's heading again, I'm just thinking about my own kind of assumptions and biases, but I'm I think we're living in particularly disruptive decades or two. So a lot of research I've been looking, at a lot of the work I've been doing talks about we're going through a once in a century disruption in lots of different aspects of our society and economy all at once. So I touched upon it already briefly earlier about food in transport, in energy, in labour and artificial intelligence in all of these areas. We're seeing a once in a century kind of disruption from an old paradigm to a new paradigm. And often those kind of transitions happen. They happen remarkably quickly in a 10 - 15 year period. If you look at the history of some of these things. And there's a fascinating organization called RethinkX, who describes this and has tons of data backing it up. I don't know if you've seen any of their work, but they're worth checking out.

So I think we're right in the middle of this shift to a new kind of paradigm. I think things hopefully can and will settle down in a while, but I think we've still got quite a lot of turbulence ahead in the next decade or so, and I think systems thinking is just part of that navigating that transition and one of the examples I like and I remember it's applicable to that dinner we had back in Detroit that I just referenced earlier. If you think if you look at pictures of any city from the early 1900s, be it New York or London or Calgary or anywhere else in 1900, it was all horse drawn carriages and the fear that people had was that the streets would be full of horse manure. That was literally front page news on the Times of London. The predictions for all this increase in horse traffic and then less than a decade or a decade and a half later, the Model T Ford and the vehicles that came after it had completely replaced that old technology, namely horses, but also had gotten rid of that old problem, namely horse manure. It had replaced it with a different problem, namely carbon emissions, which we're now having to deal with. But it's very hard to predict what that new paradigm will look like, but I think that does touch upon one of the core fundamental tenets of systems thinking which is rather than focusing too much on the current problems that you're facing so as well as focusing on problem solving and try and focus more on problem dissolving. So it's a different form of creativity and innovation. So the problem of horse manure was dissolved by the motor vehicle where that wasn't an issue. So through systems thinking, we create a new paradigm where the old set of problems maybe don't go away completely, but they become less important overtime. And I think sometimes if we get too obsessed and focused on our current set of problems, we get slightly trapped by them and can't see that bigger system, that new paradigm that is maybe on the horizon. And I think there's new paradigms, almost every horizon right now, so it's in many ways a great time to be alive. It's also a pretty scary time to be alive. Very little security in lots of different ways, and I think we need to pull together to be responsible with the disruptions that are all around us and which is why the reasons I was keen to talk to you because I'm drawn to the theme of this podcast and what you're doing and I have faith in humanity to pull together and navigate some of these disruptions along the way. So yeah, that's what I think but I'm very curious to hear what you think and people listening to this conversation think as well.

47:24 MONIQUE: Beautifully said, I really do like this notion of problem dissolving and paying attention to... It's hard to look past the signals we are seeing, like how do we go deeper than just what's around us? And I think because we're often in the day-to-day or to some of your points, we are in the “how do we solve the current problem that we're seeing.” We may not take the time. Yeah, most of us may not take the time to actually look beyond those signals and to potentially find individuals that are disrupting what's occurring in their environment, in their place in ways that we hadn't considered. I often say to people in order to solve a problem, we shouldn't look at just what others are doing in our circles. We need to look at how other organizations or sectors or countries are doing it and to learn from that and see where there is these sparks of opportunity, and then how might we then harness that.

48:34 ROLAND: I think the solution to almost any kind of problem that you can articulate is out there somewhere. And often the challenge and this is increasingly true of kind of automation and what have you is as long as you need to be able to articulate, you know the systemic problem or challenge that you're looking to address, and if you can do that clearly enough and broadcast it widely enough, then I have seen again and again, and I have many examples of this where the solutions are out there already. So it's kind of a coordination problem and a matching problem, but it's seldom a technology problem. So this is why systems thinking and systems doing and acting is so important.

49:20 MONIQUE: I think this is a really great conversation and I wish we could have more time together. So I would say to our listeners, stay tuned, there may be more of Roland Harwood on Responsible Disruption. But just before we conclude, we'd love to give you an opportunity to use our platform to support the work that you're doing with Liminal. So is there anything that you'd like to share with our listeners before we end today's conversation?

49:49 ROLAND: Well, I guess the main thing I'm in the process of launching, as I've mentioned is the Climate Tech Supercluster, which is focused within four hours travel of London, so it has a UK, European focus, but we would be absolutely delighted if other places, other locations would want to collaborate with what we're doing or maybe replicate it in different ways, in different places as well. So I guess the key thing is just you check out what we're doing and please get in touch if you want to find out more or get involved. And there's a variety of ways that I described on the website in which how people can do that. And then on a more personal level, if people are interested in Liminal or the book, then check out weareLiminal.co, which tells you a bit more about both of those things, and I'm a compulsive connector, so I'd love to hear from anybody. Let's listen to this conversation and is interested to find out more.

50:42 MONIQUE:

Awesome, thanks Roland. We will include all of those details in our show notes and thank you again, Roland. I really enjoyed the conversation.

50:51 ROLAND: Thank you. It's been great to be with you today. And I've enjoyed it very much as well.

50:55 MONIQUE: Thank you to our listeners for choosing to spend this time with us. We hope this discussion has deepened your understanding and inspired you to explore the world through a systems lens.

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That's all for today's episode of Responsible Disruption. Thank you for tuning in and we hope you found the conversation valuable. If you did, don't forget to follow, rate, and share wherever you get your podcasts. To stay up to date on future episodes and show notes, visit our website at the socialimpactlab.com or follow us on social and until next time, keep on designing a better world.