Solutions Cast is a podcast series hosted by Innovation-AccLab Pakistan—where we explore disruptions in the system, form connections, and highlight local innovation & solutions.

In our current set of conversations, we are aiming to decode what our methodologies and service offerings mean at an introductory level. View our previous episode on the role of innovation labs in reimagining development here.

In this episode, Ehsan Gul (Head of Experimentation) and Javeria Masood (Head of Solutions Mapping) explore systems design and systems thinking as a concept, followed by examples from Plastic Waste Management Portfolio.

Ehsan Gul: Hello everyone, welcome to the Solution Cast series by UNDP Accelerator Lab, Pakistan. Today we are going to deep dive into systems design and systems thinking as a concept.

Javeria Masood: I'm Javeria Head of Solutions Mapping, and I will be talking with Ehsan today, Head of Experimentation, and we will unpack systems design.

Ehsan: Okay, Javeria, let’s go deeper into understanding the concepts of systemic designs or system design. What is it?

Javeria: System design is a very integrated approach. This is as integrated as we normally talk about other cross-disciplinary practices. Maybe I can start by just deconstructing the terminology itself, which is systems and designs. So design by nature we understand as a problem-solving tool, and that can be applied in whichever way. Either solving a problem that comes with a product or service or policy or in the conversational sense, theory, practicality. So a lot of options. The design really is just improving on something or solving a problem. And the system, anything that has multiple elements with co-dependency on each other. So we can understand that this is a system. When we talk about systemic design, I've often kind of used it to draw this diagram with one dialogue design thinking, and the other you know of the system is generic. So the cusp of it is where design in the systemic sense emerges. And maybe we can use a few analogies to understand what a system really is. What I mean when I say it's a composition of different elements that are interdependent on each other.

Ehsan: Right.

Javeria: So, for example, a watch. If you open your watch, it will have multiple dials. It will have multiple components that are moving in sync. Some are completely in reverse of each other and what they do is contribute to creating. And what they do is that they contribute to creating each and each has its own specific part, and they contribute to telling us what the time is. When one of the elements stops working and ends up being a little slow it has an impact on the entire telling mechanism. The needle may be perfectly fine in itself but the dial underneath is not operating as it's supposed to. It will not function. So that's the co-dependency I am talking about now. If we take it through a slightly more sophisticated approach and start talking about say for example, hosting a brunch, you know you have to take care of the guest. Are you communicating with them? Are they all invited? You need to make sure that the number of guests to invite, you have created a seating space for the same number of people. Within that, if one or two, you must have some kind of a specific requirement either because of disability or another preference, you will have to simultaneously be mindful of that at the same time food has to be prepared, procured… so they are again different elements, a lot of different stakeholders. If the person you’re getting the meat from doesn't provide it to you at the right time or at the right quality, that has an impact on everything else. And then you know we use the same kind of understanding when we deconstruct a social problem. In a nutshell, when you are looking at things holistically in totality, with the number of factors, and the number of stakeholders involved, and you want to solve that problem by understanding all of those factors, that’s what systems design is.

Ehsan: Usually, we have words like when someone is defining a system like the complex, complicated, simple system-- so maybe in this word of let's say designing a brunch might be a simple system problem, right? When we use it in development space, largely we use the word ‘complex’ very casually we say complex problem complex system do you have a take on how we define complex or in the systems world, what is complexity?

Javeria: A complex system is where the number of elements is increased, or, their dependency is increased, or there are multiple layers to it. So any time we talk about social problems, the social problems will have a layer of infrastructure to it, that in itself is a system. You know if you look at its infrastructure in isolation, that in itself is a system with many layers of the policy, of behavior, of structure, of environment, and when all of those layers are on each other that's something really complex. Where you often cannot pin on what is actually the thing that you move in order to resolve it.

 Ehsan: Just like you were just saying that one characteristic of a system is in individual elements, and their dependence. I also see the speed at which they are changing. What we define as a complicated problem, or a system a day ago, might turn into a complex system because of the rapid speed at which parts of the system are mutating. For instance, it adds to more complexity for the solution provider and the designers to think through, and there could be spaces which are blind spots for us in the system as well so a lot of those techniques which you use in your work– horizon scanning, to future scoping, can be brought into, while working with the system as well. So that brings me to another question, do you think this is a theory of practice as opposed to something which is more theoretical and is a theory of change?

Javeria: Essentially what you are often able to see in a system are the obvious elements. There is a lot that influences all of those obvious elements, and that is what the blind spot usually is. Either it will be in something that is yet to unfold itself and present itself as a problem, or is something that is so deeply immersed by the influence of a lot of other aspects. So you are not able to see it or put a finger on it that this is what it's causing, and often we see that those are the elements that are considered either as stagnant within a system or something that we ignore.

Ehsan: For our plastic waste management work, we did an iceberg diagram. Do you want to explain a little, that often I know of sustainability enthusiasts or the people who want to learn about innovation techniques often see these iceberg diagrams explaining the system? What are those and how can one navigate and learn from those tools?

Javeria: So, when I was talking I kind of weirdly paused and that was because a lot of the time the work is not theoretical in nature. What we do is very practical; it has a very physical manifestation. Even when we talk about service and tangibility, it has a very strong concrete result to it. So when we start talking about it we are very limited in how we explain. So we resort to using analogies, examples, and diagrams. And visualization in itself is such an important tool not just to communicate what we have mapped so far but also to really understand. When we do system diagrams we're taking a 400  feet above bird’s eye view (and I don’t know why I said a number here that made no sense), but really taking the bird's eye view and understanding that this is the current state. When we have everything mapped, with all of the elements, their connection with each other-- you're able to see the patterns, you're able to see within those patterns any anomalies that exist, and then you're able to see what is missing, what is redundant, what is obsolete, and what is no longer required.

Ehsan: And the mental models, right?

Javeria: And the mental models that are either encouraging them or tolerating them.

Ehsan: Do you want to give an example of the plastic one?

Javeria: So in the plastic portfolio, again multiple layers, for example when we started to investigate what the problem looks like from the municipality front, we met stakeholders and looked at the system both in the Rawalpindi/Islamabad space but also Rahim Yar Khan, and Lahore. So if you recall in Lahore, the municipality there had this huge room with lots of monitors, where they were in real-time monitoring. Even the movement of who is picking the trash, in what quantum and how much is the portation taking place. And then when you start looking at what the existing picture is, you're able to see and ask questions. For example, person A is picking this quantity of waste at 2 PM on a Wednesday, and this is the time that is taking, and then person B following exactly the same, this is the additional time that they are taking. And then you run the comparative analysis. Then through that analysis you’re able to extract some synthesis based insights, and you know you have a hypothesis, then you test those. So in a sense in our Plastics Waste Management portfolio, every component we investigated, presented itself as a very core component within the system, and as something that we could test and bring back the learning and say that maybe we can maneuver it differently.

Ehsan: Especially remember when we started the work, the blanket ban on single used plastic especially polythene bags was announced in major cities. When we started digging it further the issue with plastic bags is more than, let's say the consumer behavior, and is the quality of the plastic bag. If you go systematically into the issue it was, let's say I don't know the technical term of it, the weight of the plastic bag, the milligrams were so low which are not acceptable in the recycling world, or it doesn't have the recyclability potential. Hence they had to kind of think through okay what are the alternative materials going to be available. But then when we saw that when we explored it further, that okay people working in shops and domains where the liquid is a product that they sell, that's another challenge. What kind of alternatives they'll use. When we did a life cycle analysis of the alternating products they turned out to be far worse because of cloth being used, and the unsustainable practices started happening in those industries as well. So the system problems goes bigger and bigger until or unless you underpin on what is really happening here. And another mental model which we looked at was that it was no more a nuisance to me if it's out of sight out of mind kind of concept. If it's not outside my house it's no longer my problem. But if it's you can see the pile of a big heap of plastics lying 2 Km from your house as well, and if it's showing past the length of the wall then you would think that yes it's a problem. So that's the general way our society reacts to such problems and also a challenge for us, and people like us who are working on developing systemic solutions. In the up-coming episodes, we will share how we are using identified systemic problems and creating systemic shocks within all of this domain to help at least transfer or translate it into some form of action. Coming back to let's say systemic design as a concept, what value and scope do you see of this concept in the development space?

Javeria: So a lot of value. Maybe I can refer to what you just said, and also a previous reference to the iceberg diagram, because like you also hinted on our ethnographic inquiry work which was also to see how people are responding and reacting to the plastic ban. A lot of the findings came that were short coming from the behavior element but it was directly related to it with the infrastructure, and the lack of participatory policy. So that's essentially where those blind spots also in the system come, that when you look at the iceberg you are only able to see the dip which is obvious but as you go much deeper you’re able to see trends, patterns and the history that is contributing to it. So in the same sense you know if we start talking about any value or scope that it has so the first value is that it lets you understand the problem because understanding half the problem is half the solution. If you know where the pain point is then you can strategize and test that pain point into something that is very resolved and you know a solution to the problem. So the scope in development work is huge.

Ehsan: Like after we have a capacity building, training programs are the only solution but then maybe that’s not because it’s not working in that particular setting, for let’s say a decade, now you’ve been pouring in money and resources for just training and capacity building program. Maybe the systematic problem was something larger than that. Nobody kind of at least put resources towards unpacking that part of the system. For example, we often think training program is what will help women get into the economic livelihood domain, or empowerment but maybe it was more of an empathy driver, but maybe it was more of values-driven activity which was to be done with them, for building resilience and that behavior shift as opposed to economic empowerment. I just love thinking here but maybe we see one part of the system or one side of the coin without unpacking the other components, hence a lot of criticism on the development sector especially bigger organizations who pour in money is that they have set defined solutions, and objectives, and suggested interventions that this is how the system was going to get fixed without really going deeper into understanding the system.

Javeria: I don't disagree with a lot of these things. I don't disagree with training and with any kind of initiatives that are taking place. What I find the problem to be is that those are done as stand-alone projects, that for example if you have identified that the social problem is lack of representation of women. And then your solution is that you come up with good training programs. As a solution, I don't think that this is a bad solution but it isn’t sustainable enough, is it systemic? So I feel like multiple jabs at the problem need to be taken, and simultaneously and they need to be built into each other. So often the simplest thing to do in our approach is to ask three things in every step. What if, and what now? So you know what if this happens and when this happens, then what? Is it leading to something so for example you have empowered women with the hope that it will give them a voice, they will also come at the same level of representation as you know the other gender. But at the same time, there are lots of other systematic problems. For example, women can be as trained as possible but, do you have employability? Do you have a cultural understanding of the family dynamics or by the men to let the empowerment happen? There are so many well-educated well empowered in that sense where men who then are not restricted to perform their work and take part in the largest society towards the economic space and so training by itself wouldn't work. That is why there are a lot of times we advocate for a packaged systematic approach. That’s the reason why you are doing training at the same or actually beforehand, do a little bit of analysis, about what you are training them for, for example, where did this idea come from. I mean there is so much training now about digital literacy. The area where you are providing digital literacy, do they have the bandwidth, do they have the infrastructure, and is there scope for them after graduating from those training programs, and then getting employed. When they get employed, is there an understanding from the employers that there might be some cultural barriers, and larger societies so everything kind of feeds into the other layer. Looking at the single perspective often blinds us. And this is happening a lot. I mean this is, this needs to be explained by an example that throughout a lot that if you see a leakage somewhere and you just go and put a scotch tape on it a) it's never going to actually solve the problem, it's just a very quick fix and b) you doing that might have actually clogged something at the back so later when the problem re-emerges it's going to be far worse. So what you actually needed to do was follow the trail of the leakage and go and then fix it.

Ehsan: Which recently with this pandemic you know one health as an issue for instance antimicrobial resistance is something that scientists and health practitioners have been talking about for quite a while now. And one health as a concept where the human diseases, the ecology, the environment as a nexus together was never brought to the front burner, because people always thought that's an issue of the future when now it has hit home and now the development sector, as well as the health agency, are thinking of how they can push funding or resources towards such domains which are the problems of the future, yet they're already here right, because it was systematically mentioned like when you use the system mapping it always popped up the zoonotic diseases as an issue but never saw the light of the day in terms of this bigger funding mandate but now all of a sudden with the pandemic it's a realization that we need to put money towards it. Like I just want to pick your brain as a practitioner like you are a system design practitioner for someone listening to us let's say they have a problem at hand. Sorry, we have been using plastics as a problem but that's because we need to keep consistent with one topic so that you can then follow the pattern of what activities we have been doing in that portfolio. For instance, your work in plastics in Rahim Yar Khan was a systemic design workshop by title. As a practitioner, I'm asking you this question. Someone who's listening to you and wants to let's say an abridged version of that systemic design workshop. a) How did you design it, what were elements of your workshop and what was the outcome of your workshop. If it was titled a system design workshop for plastic waste management in Rahim Yar Khan.

Javeria: So one thing I should say for my own self is I don't like workshops at all and I don't believe in giving workshops as a solution, and the reason I am saying is that I have done so many of those. No workshop is ever going to bring any kind of transformation because it has to be a very long-term process of patience. So with regards to Rahim Yar Khan’s work, we were engaging with and you know for months we interacted with our partners Unilever because they have a presence in Rahim Yar Khan. That's how we narrowed down on that city also. And the vision is to transform Rahim Yar Khan into a zero-waste or zero plastic waste city. So that is sort of a larger aim through which we started figuring out how to use an engagement opportunity to come up with a strategic plan that takes you towards zero waste space. So there was a lot of homework done before the actual workshop, before the 3-4 days. There was an active analysis of you know ground realities pertaining to your knowledge of the plastic landscape in Pakistan. Then again in a sort of multiple factor. What does the infrastructure look like, what is the policy around it, if any? What is the general opinion of the citizens, what are the general practices, how do people react to it, what is the government's mandate towards it? Are we as a country office aligned towards it? So a lot of these kinds of studies and then what we found out when we started to really narrow into the plastic area was that there is such a dearth of data that there was no actual figure what would tell us what the quantum, of you know the waste is? When you don't know the problem enough and how can you say that something needs to be shifted? Putting that aside and just coming to that workshop you asked, so that workshop was again the aim was to look at the system and use collective intelligence for it. So we as individuals and even as a team can do as much research as we want but there are a lot of people who already have that knowledge from their own perspective. So it kind of was important to go and co-create a system and map a system.

Ehsan: Who were the participants like the audience?

Javeria: So it was largely you know Unilever’s people but in multiple segments. People from the production side, the consumption side, the management side, then we also interacted like we had engagements with different community participations like homemakers, you know caretakers, then retailers. We kind of both catered both to the production and consumption side and at the same time with the municipality which was kind of looking at it and managing it. So there was a set of exercises, a set of steps that we went through. We started off with an ethnographic inquiry to understand and observe how people even respond. So exactly what you said for the majority it is out of sight out of mind so if you have something in your space you would just throw it out and then your problem is somewhat sorted for you, but you don't understand the gravity of the dump that you have caused, that's where we come in. So there was a lot of contextual ethnographic inquiry to map the journey of even the trash that you're throwing. You've thrown the plastic out, who's picking it, are they picking all of it, or are they doing some kind of segregation so that's where a lot of the informal sector comes in because they see value in what's left behind.

Ehsan: So kind of map the whole journey against the various cycles right?

Javeria: And so this was one leg of it. The other which was sort of a war-room, was to just come together deconstruct the journey of that plastic into four segments—one was production, then it was consumption, then it was how it was picked up from the environment, and how it goes back so up-cycling, recycling whichever journey it takes. And then we had groups come in and visualize what that system looked like. So really a lot of diagrams to map out with the current you know the state is and we can link some of those as well for you to get a visual sense of it. And again as we were talking earlier so what the system actually comprised was every element, whether it was inanimate or people orientated and then their linkages. What helped was identifying was where the plastic was leaking in that system and what and who was causing it. So what and who means; was there you know a loophole in the infrastructure system, and who would be? Was it practices coming from the consumer side or the production side? And then once we had all of those four laid out we brought it all together to see what it's missing. Another thing was to identify the influencers in it. Often the influencers were really in the back seat. You may not even see them but they have a lot of influence on the entire journey.

Ehsan: The power dynamics play a role right?

Javeria: Exactly, and then so that was one component. The other was to now just after kind of absorbing and reflecting on that entire system. You take a back step and then you start thinking of desirable futures. For example, if the aim is to turn Rahim Yar Khan into a zero-waste city, what would that be the most desirable?

Ehsan: like an ideal state?

Javeria: Like an ideal state without worrying about whether it's possible or not. Exactly. How much it is going to cost, will it happen here or not.

Ehsan: No conformity?

Javeria: None at all. And again, a very strong chance to be creative. So if one idea was you don't see anything on the ground, you know anything that is produced for example a shampoo in a factory. It would go directly through a pole and certain pipes would come to your home. Now that you know, too idealistic and how can it go to every single person? But it's just to understand what are the possibilities. And when you start thinking with this no boundary creative space, that really opens your mind. So we did a lot of these exercises, and then we did a little resource plug into it. What are some of the resources that you have to let go now in that future state? And then you go through a process of elimination that brings you closer to reality, and then you do collective future states mapping to understand that within these existing things and whatever forecast that you're doing. What is that you need to do now in order to achieve that state in five years? So there is a lot of reverse engineering to it. A lot of you know the flow and again what now and what's ifs to it. So that's how we came up with a lot of hypotheses, a lot of speculative imagery, to collectively visualize what that future would look like and what we need to do in our strategic plan today that will lead to something in year 1, which will result in this, and the by-product is going to be this and then we're going to next year. And then as we were really overexcited and geared up to execute one of those as an experiment COVID happened. Two big things out of COVID; one is that it did kind of disrupt your organic way of working.  But on the other end is similar to what you were saying that you know so much happens, and we often are not planning according to it like the healthcare. When COVID hit it basically you weren't prepared and it didn't give you time to be. There was no readiness. And I think that push was very good for innovators because suddenly it was a space where none of your previous planning, documents were helping, or your you know, years end goals were going to meet. You had to completely blank your canvas and you had to completely re-shift the way that you were operating and working. So for us, it was a very good launchpad to come in and work. This was the second component of the workshop. The third was the lot of consultation sessions, and then stress-testing them with that, because from our ethnographic inquiry work previously we had identified personas, and that was actually an important part of the workshop where we placed those personas in the system as to how the system either benefiting them or they were benefiting the system. Again the influence marker. And then place the same people in the future to see if that is the future is actually going to implement something. So these were overall some components.

Ehsan: Along with, let's say indoor activities, we also went out to the field, talked to the people in the market, the women, the young children.

Javeria: Map the journey

Ehsan: Map the journey and try to bring that information back into the room so that we can create those synergies, and leverage upon those interlinkages. One last question, just trying to understand that if this is such a crucial and important exercise and we see absolute value in it. Why is it so restricted to certain domains, and why isn't it widespread? Why isn't this tool being used so commonly at even our office or let's say other offices?

Javeria: Multiple reasons as far as I understand. Top of the list being lack of understanding of the approach in itself, and a) is lack, b) is incorrect understanding, so this association of certain tools and frameworks with a certain domain. We talked about it in one of the previous episodes also that innovation is linked to the cool kid’s persona, which is not true actually. So similarly all of these approaches we will talk about experimentation, portfolio, we will talk about design thinking, this is systemic design. All of these, from a third person's understanding, are looked at as part and parcel of one or two, either individuals or organizations or at maximum domains.

Ehsan: I also have one reason. I believe in the beginning, these things create more chaos than streamlined thinking so people get scared. You know for instance we just do a systems diagram for a plastic experiment, and if it's someone who is a little nervous, and is not too comfortable with these tools, they’ll think that this has swelled up the problem to become more complex for me. Like what they were able to see at the surface now you tell them okay it was not just this problem but there were a hundred others as well. Now let's come together and resolve it. Maybe they don't, or they do not wish to or they are scared to pass that funnel you know. Like okay, now we're going to help you bring that back. Like I remember when we were pitching the system designs to a few of our colleagues as well initially they were just like let's come up with a solution and then aid this thing towards it.

Javeria: Yeah

Ehsan: We were like no. Let's hold on to the solution, let's do this, and then we can find a way to bring it, to this but there are other things we have to do alongside learn about within the system. So I feel like as human nature, this tool initially adds chaotic thinking in the beginning and then brings that system thinking element. I don't know if you agree.

Javeria: No, I totally agree. This idea of being fixated with your solution or the end of it beforehand. It doesn't allow you to follow the process. And the beauty of the process is that it unfolds things in itself and then gives you a direction but if you have thought up the direction and the end product beforehand then this becomes redundant. And the other thing is that it is exactly this. It’s like opening a can of worms and then the worms are all over, and then you have to pick each and kind of figure it out. So that process is not just it's scary because of lack of unfamiliarity but also because often the understanding is that it's going to take so much more time, it's going to take so much more resources. And it will kind of push us back from our deadlines, and general psychological rule anything that we're not familiar with is a lot of resistance there is resistance to change, there is a lot of comfort in status quo, whether that is current affairs or the way we operate. So you have to have that openness, but I also want to emphasize that there are so many practitioners who have filtered out and tweaked out certain frameworks for exactly the same purpose, that multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches need to be catered when you are you know pitching for something. You don't want to advocate for something that is so out of line with their work, so it's a very integrated approach. It will ensure that all the stakeholders including your colleagues are the core component of it. It will follow the traditional route as well so it is very in between leading from behind kind of a tool. So it may be destructive in nature but you know the process is very empathetic across the board.

Ehsan: Thank you so much Javeria, I hope our listeners did understand, or we instill some kind of seeds into their brains to further explore systems designs as an approaching tool. Thank you so much for listening and we will be back with another episode of solutions cast.

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