Leyla Acaroglu: the disruptive designer reshaping minds to change the world

In September 2019, the UN Environment Programme will honour Champions of the Earth, outstanding environmental leaders from the public and private sectors, and from civil society who have had a transformative positive impact on the environment. Here we meet previous winners of this prestigious award and find out how they still are making a difference in their communities and across the globe.

Leyla Acaroglu traces her passion for disruptive design to twin epiphanies in her late teens: the realization that her survival was intrinsically linked to the health of the planet and the simultaneous conviction that she was incredibly privileged to be able to do something about that life-changing appreciation.

“I was really surprised that nobody had told me that everything is interconnected, including me. Every second of every day, I rely on the planet to survive and my health and well-being is directly linked to the natural environment,” the Australian said.

Just as she grasped her place in the natural ecosystem, another epiphany struck.

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Photo by Leyla Acaroglu/Disrupt Design

“I was pen pals with a young female refugee in one of the detention centres in Australia. She was my age and she had fled Iran and wanted to study. I was very moved by the reality of my freedom and her lack of freedom… It became very obvious to me that as a young female who was fortunate enough to grow up in Australia, I was able to agentize myself… and commit to something that was going to have a bigger impact than just my immediate needs.”

And so she did. Today, Acaroglu is a self-proclaimed “positive disruptor”, an educator, a designer, a social scientist and a powerful advocate for a new world order where the take-make-dispose logic of the linear global economy will be replaced with a circular and regenerative model.

In 2016, Acaroglu won the UN Environment Programme’s Champion of the Earth award for science and innovation for her work to bring about positive environmental and social change through innovation.

“Winning the award really helped establish some of the work I’ve been doing as a professional ‘positive disruptor’ and allows more people to see that there are different ways to engage with the big problems we face,” she said.

Among her many projects, Acaroglu devised the Disruptive Design Method to promote circularity in all aspects of product and service creation. She creates educational programmes on circularity, advises businesses on sustainability and has bought a farm in Portugal to regenerate and restore.

Through it all, she has held onto the empathy that inspired her younger self.

“A lot of the reason I do sustainability is because of the entrenched poverty and lack of opportunity faced by so many people,” she said. “I could never undo that experience of realizing that I had a voice to speak for other people… For every one of me, there are 10,000 potential mes that don’t have that opportunity.”

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Photo by Leyla Acaroglu/Disrupt Design

Acaroglu’s multifaceted expertise and boundless enthusiasm for sustainable living are exactly the qualities expected to be on display at a pivotal Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September 2019.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged world leaders, businesses and civil society to come to the summit with concrete ideas of how they will cut emissions by 45 per cent in the next decade and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. What is required is a full transformation of global economies.

This is Acaroglu’s philosophy in a nutshell. But she recognizes that the status quo is a powerful force that can limit leaders’ potential to tackle problems effectively.

“It is important that we give people—at all levels of decision-making and power—the opportunity to change their minds, to think differently, to experience what it could be like if we do not just reinforce the status quo of diplomacy and of business,” she said.

One of the most pervasive and persistent examples of the status quo is the linear nature of the global economy.

“The linear production model is an addictive model and so nearly every business, even the ones that want to transfer to a circular economy, are addicted to a linear model of selling consumers goods designed for landfill,” she said, noting that a global reconditioning of business is required to turn this notion on its head.

It is an enormous ask but there are signs of progress with more dynamic leaders coming forward and daring to disrupt traditional ways of doing business.

Acaroglu cites recycling firm TerraCycle’s Loop system, a global shopping and reuse platform, as a positive movement towards a fully circular production system, and says many small and medium-sized enterprises are seriously committing to circularity. She is also delighted to see more design agencies seeking her advice on providing circular economy services to their clients.

This shift is partly the result of consumers demanding more sustainable products and services. Acaroglu is working with the UN Environment Programme on a sustainability lifestyle project called Anatomy of Action that aims to show that each individual can be part of the solution by making informed, deliberate choices about how they live and what they consume. This is one of many initiatives being undertaken across the UN System of funds, programmes and agencies as part of a larger social mobilization campaign called #ActNow. Over 170,000 actions have been logged on the ActNow platform. The activities raise awareness, ambition, and action on climate and hope to accelerate implementation of the Paris Agreement and sustainable living overall.

Acaroglu is passionate about the need to equip young people with the cognitive and creative tools necessary to take a leap into an alternative future. In 2014, she founded The UnSchool of Disruptive Design—a global experimental knowledge laboratory for creative rebels and change agents. If Acaroglu’s work inspires these budding innovators, they also galvanize her.

“The UnSchool and the work I do with these people who are coming to learn how to change in the world, is the biggest optimism shot I could get any day of the week,” she said.

In her bid to rework education, Acaroglu has designed a circular economy curriculum—the Circular Classroom—for Finland and is working on another for Southeast Asia. She is also a passionate advocate for disrupting the gender-based stereotypes of leadership. This thinking reflects calls by the United Nations for women to be included as key decision makers in the critical transformation needed to tackle climate change.

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Photo by Leyla Acaroglu/Disrupt Design

“The gender debate is not one-sided,” Acaroglu said. “What we need is for women to be given more space to show leadership and men to be given more space to be emotionally mature and intelligent. It’s a big problem and I would love to see it tackled because it directly affects our ability to solve problems.”

Her own environmental champions include Afroz Shah, the Indian lawyer behind the world’s biggest beach clean-up in Mumbai and a fellow Champion of the Earth, and designer Ron Finley, the ‘gangsta gardener’ on a mission to bring urban gardening to South Los Angeles and beyond.

For Acaroglu, leadership through action is key but inspiring others to step up becomes more difficult when the prevailing narrative is one of despair. This idea that our climate crisis is too profound and too complex to address is sapping the energy of younger generations, Acaroglu says. Yet again education and understanding are key. Learning to hope may be the most important lesson of all.

“When you understand that the world is this dynamic, interconnected, chaotic mess of opportunity and challenges, then you are equipped with the tools to see that you can turn challenges into something else. That resilience, the ability to be flexible in the mind and see the future as being different to the present, that’s something we need to make sure all of our young people have,” she said.

“Now is the time to take all of that technology and all of that power and that collaboration and figure out how to be a force that is giving back to the planet that created us rather than continually extracting. That’s the challenge of my lifetime and I hope to inspire future generations to be able to take on that challenge.”