“An Invitation to Change the Mindset”

Ashley Scarborough is a Berlin-based system change designer. As part of her co-working experience at the CSCP in spring 2024, we explored ways how to use design as a form of creative problem-solving to address major sustainability challenges of today. In this interview, she shares how pairing design with systems thinking can help shape a better future.

In your work, you combine design and systems thinking – how does this approach look like in practice?

Design is creative problem solving, and a big part of system thinking is about uncovering all the layers of the problem at very deep, interconnected levels. Once the depth and complexity of a system is understood, design solutions can arise that actually deal with the root causes of the problem. In practice, this means spending a lot of time researching and mapping the system before even thinking about solutions. In many cases solutions or “leverage points” are not found or created at what we typically understand to be the design intervention point. For example, policy change isn’t really creative design, but can be a leverage with high impact.

For me system change cannot be separated from design thinking – design uses creativity to imagine, shape, and test different futures, which aligns very well with system thinking and change. I think what Charles Eames said 50 years ago sums it up nicely: to answer the question ‘what are the boundaries of design?’ he replied, ‘what are the boundaries of problems?’.

To change the current food system, a more radical shift may be needed. How can this actually happen?

This is a very complex question. I rely on the Donella Meadows framework to understand where the most impactful places to intervene in a system are. At the top is the mindset, which is why I believe there is a lot of change potential in influencing the fundamental mindsets of decision makers who govern the food system. Despite the need for a more radical shift, sustainable change happens incrementally and slowly, so by thinking in pathways of change, where one intervention may enable another which leads to another, we are more likely to move in the right direction. Additionally, real and lasting change can happen by thinking with a diverse portfolio approach where multiple solutions that solve problems from different angles should exist together.

In one way or another, design underpins everything that surrounds us. From your experience, how can design be placed as a lever for positive change?

I believe in the power of imagination to create an alternative idea of a desirable future world that we can be guided by. When we can picture something different, we know where we are headed to. The creation of future worlds can be facilitated through design or visual storytelling. This is something that I am working on with the project “How We Eat” as a way of inspiring people to think more like nature.

Can you tell us more about your “How We Eat” initiative – how does it support change on a system level?

“How We Eat” is an exploration into the future of food and how we might get there; a regenerative systems design studio. The basis for “How We Eat” is believing the future of food is about regenerative, biodiverse ecosystems which serve local communities and economies. Currently within “How We Eat”, I create and facilitate interactive culinary experiences to holistically engage people in learning how a regenerative food system might taste and feel like. In simple terms, I use food as a vehicle for storytelling, prompting participants to reimagine their relationship with food and the planet and reminding them that we are inherently part of nature. However, I am aware that a single dinner cannot make tangible change, so together with colleagues and collaborators, including the CSCP, we are working on a portfolio of initiatives towards systemic transformation.

Do you have another dream project that you have not started yet?

I would really love to work on a project about the future of supermarkets. I believe the places we buy our food can be an impactful leverage for creating regenerative food cultures and reconnecting people (consciously not calling them consumers) to the food they eat, where it comes from, and how incredible nature is in growing food that allows us to survive and thrive. I think supermarkets are places with so much potential to shape new food narratives. They are the gateway to the natural world through food, yet currently they are untransparent black boxes. Instead, they could be places of rich learning about nature, culture, our health – there is so much we can learn from the diversity of nature and that could happen in grocery stores. This is a topic I explored together with the CSCP food topic experts and we will continue our exchange toward creative solutions that can generate real positive impact.

For additional information, please contact Ashley Scarborough.