Inspiration for Global Responsibility in leadership and practice
Late last year, GRLI’s Claire Sommer connected with Dr. Kirk Bergstrom to learn more about an inspiring teaching effort at University of California, Berkeley that produced extraordinary student-created projects for social impact. What follows is a summary that Kirk kindly provided to the GRLI Community for our collective learning. Please see the end for Kirk’s invitation for collaboration, including the possibility of adapting the Design for Global Transformation course for your institution or organization.
During Spring 2020, twenty-six undergraduate students from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley took part in a course entitled Design for Global Transformation led by co-instructors Tina Chow and Kirk Bergstrom.
Rationale and Philosophy
As educators, we were inspired by the possibility of “breaking the mold” of traditional undergraduate courses. At the dawn of a pivotal decade in human history, we wanted to offer a timely and relevant learning experience. Fundamental to our approach was the idea of human agency, the ability of individuals to think big, take initiative, and invent the future.
The design of the course was guided by several core questions:
- How do we shift mindsets, build a common language, and develop new capabilities?
- How do we enlarge students’ ability to think in systems and navigate complexity?
- How do we prepare young people to creatively address the grand challenges of our era?
The Design for Global Transformation course emerged from this inquiry and a commitment to experiment with new ways of teaching and learning.
Among our goals for the course:
- Demonstrate that big-picture thinking and design can be learned and practiced by undergraduate students
- Shift paradigms and equip students to approach design and engineering with new conceptual lenses and tools
- Demonstrate opportunities to connect learning with real-world challenges
- Demonstrate the value of bridging disciplines, sectors, and geographies
- Prototype a set of learning experiences and resources that can be scaled up (both in-person and online)
Beyond these goals, we wanted to engage students, subject matter experts, and mentors in a larger conversation about the urgent need for transformational systems change.
Our syllabus for the course previewed the learning journey:
“Working in small teams, students will have the unique opportunity to research, imagine, and design a planetary-scale strategy with the potential for transformational change. In the process, we will explore principles and practices from such disciplines as design science, complexity theory and systems dynamics, nature-inspired design, circular economy, futures studies, data visualization, simulation and modeling, and machine intelligence.”
To provide structure and relevance, we chose to build upon an existing, global strategy entitled the Exponential Roadmap. Developed by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Stockholm Resilience Center, and other partners, the Exponential Roadmap highlights 36 solutions that can scale exponentially to halve Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2030 worldwide. As the report states “This roadmap shows how we can build a stronger, more resilient and future-proof global economy and increase human prosperity and health — within the planetary boundaries.”
Students in the course self-selected into teams representing the six primary sectors of the Exponential Roadmap:
- Nature-based Solutions
- Energy Supply
- Food System
The syllabus further framed the design challenge:
“This semester, you will work on strategies to limit global warming to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial global temperature. In the process, you will apply many of the concepts learned in the course to your evolving practice. You will have a chance to experiment with relevant design and planning tools to build your repertoire of capabilities. Final projects will be presented as multimedia exhibits.”
The experiential “spine” of the course was an iterative, design science process that enabled teams to systematically consider their sector and explore strategic pathways. This process included the following steps:
1. Define Preferred State
2. Define Problem State
3. Describe Present State
4. Inventory Alternatives
5. Develop Evaluation Criteria
6. Design Preferred System
7. Design Implementation Strategy
8. Document Process
Design science is distinguished by its emphasis on comprehensive, anticipatory thinking and planning. In essence, design science focuses on structural, systems change. The methodology (and term) emerged from the work of the late inventor and polymath R. Buckminster Fuller. It draws upon such domains of practice as futures thinking, systems thinking, and design thinking.
In a “Skills and Interests” survey conducted during the second week of class, students gave voice to their aspirations for the course. One undergraduate student wrote: “I want to think big and outside the box and better understand my own role in being a lever for change. I want to design with purpose.” Another engineering student said: “I want to understand the complex nature of systems, and with that knowledge, design for transformation.” A common thread was the desire to connect disciplines and explore complex, adaptive systems. “I want to think about solutions to our climate crisis through multiple perspectives. I want to develop the ability to understand systems and their integration, to be able to think across disciplines,” remarked another student.
As part of their learning journey, students were excited to explore a range of tools and methods. Among those cited by the students: modeling and simulation software, geospatial visualization, data analysis, design science, and systems thinking and systems mapping. They also voiced a desire to practice team collaboration, presentation skills, and visual and narrative communication.
Project-based, Experiential Learning
The design science focus of the course opened the possibility of a more project-based, experiential structure. For undergraduate students who have grown accustomed to a lecture-based format as the norm, this was a significant change. On the day the Design Science Process was introduced, we invited the students to embrace this definition of project-based learning: “A dynamic classroom approach in which students acquire deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges.” Each team also prepared a set of values and expectations to guide their collaborative enterprise.
In addition to their planetary-scale design projects, a number of learning experiences were integrated to model new ways of thinking and to experiment with relevant tools. Among the experiential activities:
En-ROADS Climate Workshop
A climate change solutions simulator that lets students (in role play teams) explore the likely consequences of energy, economic, land use, and other policies. For the course, we challenged students to combine design and policy interventions that would limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius by 2050.
Systems Thinking Playbook
A collection of 30 games and learning activities related to systems thinking, mental models, team learning, shared vision, and personal mastery. We chose several activities to develop new insights about paradigms, exponential growth, system boundaries, and causal-loop diagrams.
Systems Mapping (Kumu)
A visual, data mapping software tool for systems mapping. Student teams used this software to develop system maps of their sector and identify casual loops and other system dynamics.
Geospatial visualization and analysis plays a key role in design science. During the course, students became familiar with the mapping capabilities of both Python and ArcGIS. Teams located relevant data and visualized it on world and regional maps.
Anticipating and designing the future was a core theme of the course. In one activity, small teams were introduced to a fictional character working on climate-related issues 100 years in the future. Teams were provided with climate projections for 2120 and a short, narrative preamble describing the geographic location and historical context. Each fictional character faced a climate challenge in their region. The small teams completed the story arc.
ArcGIS StoryMaps is an online digital storytelling tool that lets students combine maps, photos, videos, and text to create a scrolling website. Each student team designed and published a StoryMap to communicate their planetary strategy in a visual and interactive form appropriate for a general audience.
To deepen the students understanding of relevant disciplines — and to model possible career pathways — we invited ten special guests to share their professional work.
- Gurpreet Singh, Skoll Foundation — Transformational systems change
- Khalid Kadir, UC Berkeley — Social justice as a context for design
- Beth Rattner, Biomimicry Institute — Biomimicry as a design process and tool
- Rob Simmon, PlanetLab — Art and science of geospatial visualization
- Amanda Ravenhill, Buckminster Fuller Institute — Design science and a regenerative future
- Toshi Hoo, Institute for the Future — Futures thinking and methods
- Mikhail David, Interface — Circular economy and regenerative industry
- David McConville, Spherical — Planetary systems and ecological renewal
- Rick Kos, San Jose State — Geographic Information System (GIS) tools
- Linda Booth Sweeney, Author — Systems thinking and systems mapping
Taken as a whole, the guest speakers facilitated a multi-faceted inquiry into the theory and practice of systems change. Each guest opened a door to new ways of comprehending and understanding the world.
Design Science Process
To scaffold the design science process, students were asked to submit four Progress Reports and a two-part Final Presentation. The progress reports synthesized work product from the following stages of design:
1) Define the Preferred State and Define the Problem State
2) Describe the Present State
3) Design the Preferred System
4) Design Implementation Strategy
Each progress report consisted of a slide deck and a written report. For the final presentations, student teams prepared both a slide deck and an interactive Story Map to communicate their strategy. As the students engaged with the design process and became more familiar with their sector, we noticed a distinct shift in their speaking and writing. Their vocabulary became more varied, sector relevant, and precise. Terms such as agroforestry, biomimicry, food literacy, and industrial symbiosis entered their lexicon.
To bridge global and local, each student team provided an example of adapting their strategy for regional implementation. For example, the Nature-based Solution team chose to adapt their strategy to a ten-year, statewide plan for California. This “downscaling” process applied a core concept from the course: connections and relationships across nested systems.
With a global pandemic underway, the students’ final presentations were presented via video conference to a virtual audience of faculty, guest speakers, and practitioners. Students logged on from as far away as China and Turkey.
Each team framed their project with a short mission statement:
Leverage nature-based strategies to decrease atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and enhance ecological systems that will assist in reversing climate change.
Shift to clean energy use through policy changes, technological advancements, and infrastructure improvements, with a strong focus on social benefit and environmental justice.
Reduce carbon emissions by promoting plant-based diets and limiting food waste, while ensuring equitable access to healthy food.
Improve energy efficiency, encourage the complete transition to renewable energy sources, and re-use vacant spaces to provide affordable housing and a built environment in harmony with nature.
Halve the emissions of the transportation sector while increasing mobility for all people by 2030, with a clear path for achieving a net-zero system beyond 2030.
Ensure that the manufacturing and design of all goods/structures incorporate ecological principles that focus on circular guidelines, and are accomplished without harm to any one group of people or the environment.
In addition to showcasing the bold strategies of each team, the final presentations provided a public forum for the students to practice the art of visual and verbal communication.
During the final weeks of the course, we invited students to reflect on the course experience and their personal transformation. We looked back at our learning journey and forward to possible career pathways. Following is a sampling of student responses.
How has your thinking changed as a result of the course?
- “I think in systems now, instead of the linear mindset that is often taught in engineering. I find connections and discover root causes.”
- “I’m better at synthesizing information from different sources. Rather than just design something ‘cool,’ I imagine a preferred system.”
- “I clearly see how my work in engineering has social, environmental, and political effects. My first question when starting a project is no longer ‘how do I make this work?’ but ‘how do I make this work for everyone, everywhere.’”
How has the course influenced your career aspirations?
- “I feel more prepared, excited, and proud to be a civil engineer. The course has shown how much work needs to be done, and has made that work seem possible.”
- “I am interested in a career that addresses climate change, both scientifically and socio-economically. This course has only made me more resolute about pursuing such a path.”
- “I am a human with a beautiful mind who can go out in the world and design creative solutions.”
Evolving and Extending the Course
The Design for Global Transformation course demonstrated the potential of engaging students in a semester-long process of comprehensive thinking and design. The course challenged students to enlarge their frame of reference to include new perspectives, disciplines, and practices. For many students, this was a transformative, life-changing experience.
As the global community begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing consensus about the need to re-imagine and re-design our world. This will require citizens capable of understanding and leading transformational systems change. How will we prepare people to “think big” and “design with intention”?
To evolve and extend the course, we plan to focus on the following activities:
1. Adapt the content for hybrid learning, with a blend of online modules and real-world practice.
2. Continue to use the UC Berkeley course as a laboratory for developing and testing novel approaches to teaching and learning.
3. Further connect the students’ design process to real-world settings, organizations, and initiatives.
4. Research and develop an “Academy” for aggregating and connecting existing online courses and resources that embody a design for transformation lens.
We want to hear from you. Would you be interested in adapting the Design for Global Transformation course for your institution or organization? Will you join us in translating the content of the course for distance learning? Would you like to participate in our research and planning for an Academy?
Thank you for your commitment to catalyzing the development of globally responsible leadership and practice. How can we collaborate to shift consciousness from “I” to “We” to “All of Us”?
Dr. Kirk Bergstom is a social entrepreneur with a passion for bold initiatives that contribute to “making the world work for 100% of humanity.” He can be reached by email at email@example.com.