SHADOWING sustainable living & design

7 min readFeb 1, 2020

5 key takeaways from an experience-based farm in a Portuguese countryside

Sunset at the Co-Project Farm //

Are you interested in how sustainable living and design can be done in practice, in daily normal activities? Or maybe you are into the science behind it, such as circular design, systems thinking or zero-waste approach to farming? If any of these ring a bell, then you might like to hear about my experience and insights I have collected during my The UnSchool Educators Training and Job Shadowing experience at the CO Project Farm. It’s an amazing place and a project in constant progress, founded and run by Dr. Leyla Acaroglu, UNEP Champion of the Earth and the brain behind the Disruptive Design Method.

In late July 2019, I took the time to participate in the Unschool Educator’s Training to further investigate navigating the process of change as a facilitator. Also, I wanted to further learn and practice the principles of circular design and systems thinking that I could use both at Cohabitat Foundation, as well as in my private and professional life. This area of knowledge is a big-picture approach that allows seeing every project from a more sustainable viewpoint — in relation to the connected environment. It offers a useful, actionable framework to see how different elements in the ecosystem impact each other and how to make change taking this interconnectedness in mind. Among others, it featured Theory of Change, Learning Arc, Life Cycle Analysis or Interconnected System Mapping.

After experiencing the Co-Project Farm from the lens of a training participant, I quickly changed my role by joining the farm team as a ‘shadower’. In simple words, I became an intern on a job shadowing project. I have spent my next 2 months observing and interacting with the team at this a regenerative, zero waste oriented small ecosystem that is a constant sustainability test site on farm revitalized by dr Leyla Acaroglu. From many other existing farm projects, I chose this unique place to learn (by doing) how such an ecosystem operates and evolves. Also, I had a chance to see how this place functions as a teaching facility, as two other Unschool training sessions took place during my shadower stay. It was great to see how they were designed and operated from a backend perspective. As shadower, I have followed Leyla, Joana (the farm manager) and others, to both observe their work. Also, I have been helping them out with the regular daily activities as well as I have contributed with my design audit viewpoint on the strategy and farm program.

My key takeaways from this experience:

Unschool Educator’s Training //

1_ Long live the internship! This experience reminds me of how valuable were the internships I have done 15–10 years ago. However, when I grew into my career and roles, I have stopped this practice completely. Job shadowing at Co-Project farm felt like an internship for adults and I am now 100% sure that I will be doing more of such experience — on my own, or within other programs. I see this as a crucial strategy not only for maintaining health and appreciation of my work and teammates but also preventing me from burnout, allowing me to redefine and adjust as well as to constantly educate and update myself. This is especially crucial in the line of work as educators, facilitators and NGO workers.

No matter how senior you are in your career — I challenge you to do one internship or job shadowing a year or two, no matter how short. I highly recommend trying one of the industries or positions analogous or adjacent to yours.

Unschool Educator’s Training //

2_“Everything I know is wrong” I love how the unlearning moments feel. These ‘aha!’ moments, when I recognize that I was mistaken, that my viewpoint was not the only one or that the knowledge I believed in became obsolete. Understanding that I am wrong is probably one of the hardest things for my ego to the stomach, but there is not a better way for it to happen than by experiencing it. Such unlearning ‘aha!’ moments have happened at least a few times during my stay — challenging my approach to teamwork, workshop facilitation, linear design processes or approach to living and working outside of urban areas. “Everything you know is wrong” was just this old quote that got stuck in my head, reminding me to notice my status quo as a challenge. It helped me not anchoring myself in what I already know, since all the knowledge has been always changing, never constant.

Co-Project crew Henryk, Joana, Justyna, Tory and Veronica

3_“It all goes down to human” This quote I have heard at the farm and it became an insight. It reminds me that working together is as strong and fulfilling as the relationships in the team are. No matter how carefully crafted projects, or big visions that bring people together, it is always how we hear each other is what matters in the field of action. At Co-Project Farm I’ve learned that most work lays in teams' ability to communicate, understand each other’s values, agility response styles. Also, I’ve experienced different leadership and management styles, that played a crucial role in relationship building in a team united by common values and visions.

Unschool Educator’s Training //

4_Triple Bottom Line (or otherwise noted as TBL or 3BL) is a framework that takes in consideration 3 cost-income ratios: social, environmental and financial. At Co-Project Farm I’ve noticed and felt that almost every decision included calculations that also included environmental costs and profits (footprint, waste, impact, etc.) as well as social ones (local economy, local resources, community, equality, fair trade, etc.). Seeing this at pretty much every step made my enthusiasm grow towards the power of sustainable design and circular economy. I am constantly driven by the vision of bringing change to organizations through the design that results in more sustainable solutions. Such shadowing experience simply reminds me that this direction is not a hippie thinking anymore, or just one of many options to run projects, but rather the key fundamental of future economies where I want to play my role.

Unschool Educator’s Training //

5_Nothing is completely linear. Coming from a background where about half of the frameworks included linear thinking (project management, Design Thinking, lean manufacturing), I felt relieved to learn how to teach and practice more circular, interconnected projects. The most comprehensive principles came from the Systems Thinking approach that adds a synthesis to the analysis (represented in the linear thinking) by focusing on relationships between different elements in a system that we aim to have an impact on. Sometimes it is more powerful to leverage an unusual, forgotten element of the project, as it is connected to other actors or nods and it might present the best approach in creating the desired change.

Donkeys Tiny and Sky at Co-Project Farm //

My impact from this experience:

This experience has impacted how I adjust my plans for future steps. First of all, I decided to more enthusiastically, with no regret, implement the 80/20 rule to my professional life and private life, so I don’t get fixed on what I think I know the best. In practice this means that I will spend no more than 80% of my working hours at job-related activities, while 20% of the time left, I will continue to dive into experiences that help me learn, unlearn and explore new viewpoints. This, of course, relates only to my job hours, not private life. Secondly, I came back from Portugal with an enthusiasm for slow, smart collective project work at Cohabitat Foundation using the systems thinking framework and inspirations from the Co-Project. I’ve seen a lot of similarities and differences between these two projects which helped me reflect on the team and organization back home. Finally, I came back with enthusiasm and motivation for working with the integrity of equal social, environmental and financial cost/profit ratio. It’s much easier for me to see in practice and most of all, an argument for, this balance and inclusivity even in the tiniest projects.

This training mobility and shadowing experience is a part of our work on the future scenarios at Cohabitat Collective. It has been done with the amazing support of the Erasmus + project and our awesome coordinator, Krystyna.

#humancentereddesign #systemsthinking #circularthinking #sustainableliving #circulardesign #zerowaste #jobshadowing

#coprojectfarm #unschool #disruptivedesign #changepilots

Text: Henryk Stawicki, co-founder of Change Pilots




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