Open Thinkering


Tag: Steve Jobs

TB872: Systemic inquiry and the ‘design turn’

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

An artistic depiction emphasizing the 'design turn' in knowledge and learning. The image displays a stark contrast between two halves: the left side features structured, linear patterns in monochromatic tones, representing conventional learning systems. The right side bursts with colorful, abstract shapes and swirls in a spectrum of reds, yellows, and blues, symbolizing a shift to creative, user-centric design thinking. The central area, where these two halves meet, blends the elements, illustrating the transformative journey from traditional methodologies to innovative, design-led paradigms.

The direct consequence of the profound changes in the character and role of organised knowledge is that the future must now be regarded as increasingly a human artefact — an art-in-fact. The future can no longer be regarded as a natural object, a fact already there or objectively determined by present trends. Rather, it must be chosen.

Hooker (1992), quoted in Ison (2017, p.269)

The above quotation reminds me of this Steve Jobs video in which he says “everything around you that you call life was made up by people who were no smarter than you; and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use”. There is no ‘fact of the matter’ but rather approaches we can take to shift our own and other people’s perspectives.

A ‘design turn’ is “a shift in perspective and level, as well as in critical reflexivity” (Ison, 2017, p.270). It’s a move towards incorporating principles and practice from design thinking to create a more holistic, generative, and creative approach. It’s visual, focused on action, and inherently user-centred; taking a ‘design turn’ means “considering a situation as if it were a learning system” (Ison, ibid.).

My situation of concern (S2) is the work that We Are Open Co-op (WAO) is doing with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC) around Verifiable Credentials (VCs), where we’re helping with documentation and asset-creation. If I think about taking a design turn with this work, then it means challenging some assumptions.

For example, the reports put out by the DCC either implicitly or explicitly discuss primary and secondary audiences for influencing the Higher Education (HE) system to use VCs for issuing digital credentials. We created a simple diagram of this, and then compared that with one we created from the user research interviews carried out with staff.

Analysis of the difference between what the DCC's reports identified as their audience and what user research interviews with staff identified as their audience.

Having clarity around who it is that you’re trying to influence is key to designing effective documentation and assets, and telling the right kind of stories. We’ve therefore carried out some more user research interviews with the DCC’s Leadership Council, and will be running a ‘Theory of Change’ workshops for staff in the next couple of weeks.

The outcome of these workshops should allow us to agree on primary and secondary audiences and therefore draw an appropriate boundary for the situation of concern involved in this work. In turn, this should mean that we can spot the influence that different audience groupings have on one another (i.e. ‘system dynamics’) so that we can map feedback loops and opportunities for intervention.

Screenshot of Theory of Change workshop (Whimsical board)

The key to all of this is testing and iteration. One of the ways we’re doing this, in addition to the above is by starting to tell stories which introduce mental models and metaphors. Through a series of blog posts and other assets, we expect will learn what resonates with the wider public, with particular stakeholder groups, as well as discovering unexpected connections and ways of describing the required conceptual shift.

Helen Wilding, who is now one of the tutors for this module, wrote a blog post about the design turn when she was a student herself. She reflects on a video which discusses how you never arrive at a ‘blank slate’ situation; there is always something going on, meaning that “in effect you are working your way through understanding an existing dynamic and trying to think about how to work to improve it” (Wilding, 2013)

This ‘design turn’ is something which sits comfortably with me. Unlike some of the other approaches and ways of thinking on this module, design thinking is something more familiar and embedded in the kind of work that WAO do with clients. For example, we don’t ‘deliver’ projects, but explore situations with clients through tools and approaches such as user research, experimentation, prototyping, and encouraging people to work more openly.

So in terms of taking a design turn to “go about designing a learning system to enact a systemic inquiry in the context you are using… for your Systemic Inquiry 2” (The Open University, 2021), the learning system is to a great extent the existing practices of the co-op of which I’m part. There are certainly some approaches from this module that I’m already adding into the mix with our work, but in terms of a learning system, the main thing is to help our client (the DCC, and in particular the director) learn more about, and how to influence, the system of which they are part.

This might mean, for example, helping them realise that they don’t have a direct way of themselves influencing a key stakeholder group. So who can they influence? How? What kind of assets and resources might they need to do this? How might their documentation need to change? What about the events they go to? What would the ‘minimal lovable product’ be in this regard?


  • Ison, R. (2017). Systems practice: how to act. Springer, London.
  • The Open University. (2021). ‘2.5.1 Taking a design turn in your practice’, TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at (Accessed 26 January 2024).
  • Wilding, H. (2013) ‘Returning to the “design turn”’, Just Practicing, 12 March. Available at: (Accessed: 26 January 2024).

Top image: DALL-E 3

Wednesday Wisdom #28: Influence

Wednesday Wisdom #28: Influence

I’m not sure when this video was created, but it’s certainly a younger Steve Jobs. It includes the above quotation, which I think is so powerful – especially if you come across it as a young person.

I’d love to get a poster of it for my kids’ bedrooms. Perhaps I’ll create one.

The whole set of Wednesday Wisdom images can be found in my Creative Commons-licensed Flickr set.

A Week of Divesting: an introduction

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, having a Zen moment at home in 1982

I can’t seem to find the exact clip I want online, but there’s an episode of the Simpsons where Homer eats a chilli pepper and hallucinates. He eats it at the Springfield fair where Otto has hippy-like booth encouraging people to “Simplify, man…”

It’s amusing because we’ve all come across the stereotype of the zealot who wants everyone else to live their lifestyle. They sing its praises and assume that as it’s a lifestyle they enjoy and value that it’s both more appropriate and morally superior to others. In the Simpsons clip it’s a lifestyle defined by the mantra ‘simplify.’ What I’m interested in this blog post – and, in fact, this week – is not merely the ambiguous call to simplify one’s lifestyle, although what I’m going to do could be seen to be a constituent part of that. I’m going to spend a week divesting.

The best definition of ‘divest’ that I’ve found comes from Wiktionary:

To strip, deprive or dispossess oneself of something (such as a right, passion, privilege or prejudice).

What prompted this?

I subscribe to a number of podcasts that I listen to whilst driving. One of these is a Radio 4 programme called Beyond Belief. I caught the end of it when it was broadcast live and then listened to the podcast on my way to the National Christian Football Festival the weekend before last. This particular programme was about poverty and whether or not, especially in this time of recession, it could be seen as a good thing. I was particularly struck by what the Jainist monk had to say.

As my wife will attest I have, at several times during our marriage, talked of ‘getting rid of everything’ as I felt it was weighing me down. The Jainist spoke about this directly, and mentioned a poem [find poem] about a prisoner locked in a cage. This prisoner pleaded to his captors now and again. However, his pleading was not to be released from the cage, but simply to have a newer and shinier one. The Jainist likened this to being in the thrall of collecting material objects and wealth.

After the programme, and unusually for me as I like my music, I spent the rest of the journey in silence, contemplating. I reflected upon my new job, my Dad being half-way across the world, and my wife’s accusative statement the other day that all my son sees me do is ‘go on the computer.’ I realised that there’s stuff getting in the way of that which is important. I need to get rid of that stuff.

Why are you telling me this?

It would, of course, be quite possible to ‘divest’ quietly and with only my immediate family knowing about it. After all, as Jesus said, we should not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Am I showing off or attempting to garner praise?

Not at all. There’s three reasons why I want to document my actions and the thoughts behind them:

  1. Sharing what I’m thinking and what I’m up to comes naturally to me.
  2. I’m human and therefore weak. I may not actually go through with it unless I’m accountable to someone or something.
  3. Perhaps you or someone you know wants to do something similar. This may give you ideas or lend support.

This week, therefore, I’ll be writing blog posts focusing on the following:

The final blog post of the week will be my reflections on whether it’s all gone to plan!

Are you weird?

I expect some of you reading this will assume that I’ve had some kind of re-religious conversion, especially given the references above. That’s not the case. This is purely a secular decision to reclaim some mental and physical space.

Some might think that I’ve turned into a Luddite. Far from it! It’s hardly likely given my new official job title is ‘Director of E-Learning.’ There’s a difference between recognising the appropriate use of technology and being the equivalent of a dog chasing shiny cars.

Others may consider that this is simply a fancy way of saying I’ve got too much stuff in my house and it’s time for a clear-out. Actually, the opposite is true, actually. We’ve moved house recently to a larger property. Compared to others, our house looks quite spartan.


Have you gone through or thought about something similar to this? If so, I’d like to hear about your experiences. Again, I’d like to point out that I’m not doing this for the back-slapping or to be praised. It, like many things I do, is an experiment. I hope it pays off!