Framing the problem well: why are we using Systemic Design to understand the problem of plastic waste management in Pakistan

November 13, 2020


Open dumping site in a market space in Rahim Yar Khan city in Pakistan. © Shuja Hakim/UNDP Pakistan


Let us befriend plastic. To understand the complexity of problem of plastic we need to move from linear to non-linear approaches, changing parts to rethinking whole systems. Is plastic waste an issue or plastic waste management is the issue? Not all plastic is bad, it’s a product that still holds merit. If the system allows, how can we turn plastics from ‘waste to resource’? How can we rethink our relationship with plastics in Pakistan?

 At Innovation-AccLab Pakistan, our journey of plastic waste management had led us to investigate, map and examine the entire system of plastics, and multiple loops of sub-segments within it.

A socially complex environmental problem of this nature and scale calls for a new way of thinking and doing, as opposed to a traditional linear projectized approach.


We need to find partners and collaborative synergies across sectors to create a movement that enables the larger community to join us in responding to the ongoing systemic collapse and leakages in the system’s loop. A by-product of that is a circular economy for plastics— in which they never become waste, or have minimal leakage into the environment. The undertaking is to befriend plastic and find friends to help tackle the mismanagement.

What will this movement and enablement look like?


  • We will bring different value propositions to cover different stakeholders and agencies of change.
  • The government will not find itself alone in addressing these problems through single point bans on the usage, rather will have partners who are supporting the entire chain.
  • Policy makers will see the cause and effect of policies and their implementations to further support the policy and systemic legislative grounds.
  • We will have findings for researchers and academicians.
  • Municipal corporations will be better equipped for the job, through capacity building and infrastructural support.
  • There will be an increase of business opportunities for start-ups and the entrepreneurial eco-system.
  • There will be economic and social (currency) value in acquiring refurbished products by buyers.
  • The end consumer will be relieved of the environmental footprint, hazard on the roads and will find a micro-system to responsibly dispose of waste.

Thus, forming an entire loop that is in sync and closed

Our plastics portfolio is a collaborative work with Environment and Climate Change Unit (ECCU) at UNDP Pakistan, where we are working with private enterprises, academia and other non-traditional partners, with a focus toward turning the waste pollution problem into a circular economy system.

We have engaged with partners from industries and stakeholders from across socio-economic strata and have developed a portfolio of experiments. A crucial step in this has been to get a private partner Unilever on-board, from the production side, as a partner who is equally motivated to shrink the waste footprint. We have recently signed an MoU with them on the shared vision to reduce plastics pollutants and move towards a circular economy model. 

Meanwhile, UNDP Regional Innovation Centre is also working on plastic waste on priority and we are part of the cohort of five countries including Pakistan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Philippines. This is helping us learn faster, and the insights shared are guiding our efforts in a more transnational manner with a local outlook.

This is a retaining complex problem, in depth and breath, that needs an innovative systemic jab— for interventions too— and not just the problem exploring component. We are cognizant of our limitations and the possible resistance to want to change our relationship with plastics.


Why did we use the learning cycle approach?


For our work to remain relevant, we have to pivot constantly to respond to emerging and changing needs of our stakeholders and the larger mandate. The foundational underpinning of our ethos remains the same; Inclusivity, Learning, and Agility.

In addition, we have a toolbox of frameworks, methodologies and approaches borrowed from across disciplines. For this portfolio, we’ve used methodological frameworks from Design Thinking, Systemic Thinking and Strategic Foresight. We pick, choose and customize these tools with reference to the problems, teams, and ambitions. 


The problem of plastic pollution is complex, conditional and collective.


The plastic waste pollution problem is complex, conditional and collective. It is a product, an industry, a habit and an entire consumption cycle with a systemic nature, touching many industries and sectors.

Our initial scan of desk research and exploratory calls highlighted that;

  • Plastic waste is a bigger behavioural challenge than an infrastructural or environmental problem, starting from production to consumption, collection, sorting, and wasting.
  • The policies such as ban on use of plastic bags is reactive and doesn't include people’s perspective thereby loses it’s probability to stick.
  • People are likely to follow regulations that are accounted for even when they do not agree with the problem or are unable to see the larger impacts of non-regulatory actions.
  • The leakage of plastic waste in the environment is well documented with many solutions executed every year. They fail because of short-sightedness and lack of connectivity with the larger system

Why use systemic design to unpack this problem and seek solutions?


Working differently often means being agile and maintaining relevance with changing times and needs. The intent to work differently is not limited to solving problems. It guides the whole process. Our recent work has followed four guiding principles:

  • People at the core (of the process, not just the reporting)
  • Longevity (portfolio approach vs scotch tape solutions)
  • Proof of concept (to some degree at the very least)
  • Impact (experiences vs numbers) 


Problems in the system: consolidated from all our exploratory and systems design work.


Why we must study People and (in) their context?


People are often not very good at verbalizing about what they want. This is the most agreed upon point about ethnographic inquiry work. To gain in-depth understanding of consumption models, decision making drivers, influences and kinks in the day to day, we went in the field to analyse the problem from multiple users’ perspectives.

Why learning from people is a two-way street?

Our field research covered four cities (Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Rahim Yar Khan, and Lahore) and provided us with a realistic picture of plastics use, behavioral, and habitual consumption models, and problems due to (at the time) recent ban on plastic bags by the Federal Government of Pakistan. We started our field research by asking vendors regarding the ban on plastic bags.

We observed, for example: Vendors selling daily products (milk and yogurt), meat and the likes, cannot replace plastic bags with the suggested alternative like fabric bags. They lose business to counterparts who still use plastic bags if customers forget to bring their own bags or containers.

Our Insight: End user to be involved in policy making process as well as design of alternative materials.

Why we brought designers, start-ups and citizens to build solutions for plastic waste?

To activate a community of practice to solve complex problems, we brought designers, start-ups, academics, innovators, environmentalists, private sector, engineers, social scientists, activists, architects, juggaris to a maker space for a weekend, where they converted different types and degrees of plastic waste material.

For example: one team built a prototype that turns plastic waste to green gas using solar thermal mechanics.

Our Insight: encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration results in unobvious use of material and new solutions. for example the green gas apparatus which can have possible applications in various spaces such as cooking, heating, small engines etc.,

Intelligence for systemic transformation to answer the ‘why’

Intelligence from the ethnographic work is a step to ensure buy-in, longevity, and co-creation. In parallel to our consultative sessions with Unilever and ECCU— where, resisting the assumption that we already ‘know’ the problem well— we mapped the issue through a series of stakeholders’ consultation sessions capturing the voice of local citizens.

We used the power of mapping and visualizing the current system, used the intelligence of the collective, applied the futures lens to acknowledge contingencies, and ran baselines to gather data (on waste production, generation, and handling, and information about the informal sector). We believe that, simultaneously used, these are strong markers for systemic work, and forging partnerships. This also brough to surface gaps, opportunities, and friends of our portfolio. 


Intelligence from the systematic design workshop with Unilever Pakistan in Rahim Yar Khan city.


Complex and in-flux problems like plastic pollution cannot be tackled singularly. For us, the challenge is to redesign the system in a way that it brings relief to everyone— from big manufactures to the informal sector.

Based on the methodological work, we help derive intelligence, co-create portfolios with relevant unit(s) for further implementation, while mobilizing catalysts for long term systemic change.


In that sense we are both strategic and tactical. Through movement building and collective vision for the future, we are planting the seeds for a systemic transformation. As we move towards a radical change, our role in this space is that of an enabler that brings partners together and explores the unobvious.

Watch this space to read on our experimentation journey.


Our Portfolio of experiments: derived from intelligence from our exploratory and systems design work.





Javeria Masood

Javeria Masood is Head of Solutions Mapping at Innovation-AccLab Pakistan. You can follow her on Twitter @javeria_mh

Author’s note: The author would like to thank her fellows at Innovation-AccLab Pakistan and Environment and Climate Change Unit (ECCU) at UNDP Pakistan for collaborating and leading on this portfolio; Alex Oprunenco (UNDP Regional Innovation Center) for guidance and asking hard questions; Brent Wellsch (Urban Matters) for helping with reflections; and the participants of the ethnographic and systemic work sessions for their support and insights.