A playful tool for systems change?
blog post

A playful tool for systems change?

Words by Eva Oosterlaken
November 21, 2023

At the end of October, we partnered with the Dutch Design Foundation on InterCHANGES, a new programme that connects people around shared missions.

The events, led by presenter Marsha Simons were a space to experiment with new types of dialogue that go beyond keynote speakers and network drinks; a space where participants were not just part of the audience but became active contributors.

For us, it was the perfect chance to test out The Changemaker Labs, a workshop and tangible tool for activating system-wide collaboration. In each workshop, we explored personal changemaker archetypes and used colourful cardboard shapes to represent - and reimagine - systems topics: How might we better collaborate towards truly circular living spaces? Empathetic healthcare systems? An ethical digital future?

We had 45 minutes to try out the tool each day. Besides being pleasantly surprised at the intricate system maps (bouquets? sculptures?) that appeared on the tables in just 20 minutes, we also learned A LOT about the tools potential and about which voices are needed most in these conversations. These are our most important insights.

Workshop participants stand around a cardboard sculpture

1. A spatial discussion helps to develop shared metaphors to understand a system

Building a spatial sculpture forced groups to create a shared language through metaphor and start to consider power dynamics in their system. What does it take to create a system that is in balance? Should we organise from the  top-down vs. the bottom up? Where do we need to build more bridges and create solidarity? How could caretakers form the foundation of our system?  Many groups used spatial metaphors to start articulating where there was tension to address.

2. Playfulness gives people permission to take risks  

Although some groups needed a little encouragement, many quickly picked up the pieces and got building. Ideas were shaped in response to the pieces. Trial and error was accepted as a natural part of forming new ideas. This felt like a stark contrast to less tangible workshops where an idea is discussed before finally being translated into a visual.  

Finish cardboard sculpture representing a dynamic circular system

3. Ambiguity can unlock conversation at different levels

Although we designed the tool to be used to imagine specific collaborations between the people in the room, it was interesting to see how each group adapted the tool for the conversation they were having. Many participants became representatives of abstract actors in the system, e.g. Representatives symbolised the government; Creators the creative sector; Educators the education system.  The framing of the workshop had most impact here. When the question was particularly abstract (i.e. imagining a more ethical AI on day 3)  the pieces became more questioning and philosophical, representing concepts like “solidarity”, “trust” and “nature”.

4. A personal approach reveals who is (and isn’t)represented in the room

The emphasis on roles through the changemaker types heightened everyone’s awareness to which voices are over- and under-represented in the questions they were exploring. Changemaker types such as organisers and caretakers for instance were given new, more expansive roles, indicating that there is a greater need for those who can weave networks and work across systems. Despite the changemaker types, a pitfall remains that those not present will not be represented. In the future it would be worth dedicating time to think specifically about who is missing.

Workshop participant labeling a cardboard piece

5. Personal conversations can be transformational; if there’s time to build trust

The personal aspect of the workshop revealed dynamics within groups. For instance, we saw how intergenerational and older groups were more stuck and knotty (but had more expertise) while younger groups could build more readily. A group of caretakers didn’t get started because there wasn’t a force to drive them.

However, we also heard from participants that there was not enough time to explore their personal changemaker roles and connect with their team-members. With more time for introspection, the tool has the potential to expose group dynamics, bring to light differences in perspectives, and could be a way to engage usefully with conflict. As one participant mentioned: “our conversation got quite heated, I didn’t realise until today that not everyone shares my perspective on how transparent the design process should be.”

Gril smiling next to big colourful sculpture

So what’s next?

We’re keen to keep running these workshops in a more focused format. We have seen that the workshop can (1) help expose group dynamics and build mutual understanding, (2) help a group create a shared language around a topic and start to reimagine a system, and (3) bring the learnings back to day-to-day lives of participants in a way that inspires action.

Are you someone who is gathering a network around a topic? Or would you like to better understand your individual roles in a team or organisation? Let’s have a chat!

Girl holding a teal puzzle piece with the question how can we make this relationship more inclusive