Untying a socially complex problem, one knot at a time

December 22, 2020


© Shuja Hakim


How Innovation-AccLab Pakistan used Systemic Design to derive actionable Intelligence on Plastic waste management in Rahim Yar Khan 

Following suit of the global partnerships between UNDP and Unilever, we started exploring the issue of plastic waste management with Unilever Pakistan. We investigated, mapped, and examined the entire system of plastics in Pakistan particularly, in Rahim Yar Khan (RYK) with the citizens, industry players, government, and academia. Unilever Pakistan’s largest production plant is in Rahim Yar Khan, so to start off, the ambition is to turn RYK into a model zero-waste city.

Designing the Plastic Waste Management Portfolio: our learning Methodology

Our learning methodology has majorly focused on understanding the system as well as behaviours. We used ethnography for contextual inquiry to gain user’s insights. Furthermore, we conducted systemic analysis and solutions mapping through community of practice, to understand the context, policies, and relevant systems (formal and informal) in place and how different categories of people experience it. We use a suite of techniques ranging from:

·       Exploration and contextual Inquiry; identifying emerging trends and entry points in plastics management system

·       Solution Mapping; identifying innovative solutions and experiment leads through System Design and strategic foresight

·       Experimentation; developing portfolio of learning experiments that will test multiple solutions

For our plastic waste management portfolio, we have used methodological frameworks from Design Thinking, Systemic Thinking, and Strategic Foresight. To organize thoughts, the approach and findings are structured under two main headers; Ethnographic Inquiry and Systemic Design (our ethnographic work feeds into the systemic work). 


Innovation-AccLab Pakistan’s Head of Solutions Mapping holding stakeholders consultations to map the issue of plastics. © Shuja Hakim


Solution Mapping & Unpacking the System around plastic waste

After exploration and contextual inquiry stage, we deep dived into Systemic Design— an approach developed by Alberta CoLab that combines Systems thinking with Design thinking— and strategic foresight work sessions which support heavily in informing the project at a strategic level by;

·       Having an in-depth understanding of the current system by using the intelligence of the collective,

·       Being able to identify the stakeholders and hone out personas to know their motivations, influences, and problems,

·       Identify shortcomings in the current systems,

·       Identify the roles of formal and informal influencers, 

·       Being able to collectively brainstorm, ideate and envision the future of the system and multiple projected scenarios (desirable and undesirable),

·       Identify gaps between the current system, and the desirable futures,

·       Planning for the agents of change, with the right persons and developing a solid strategy with ready to experiment initiatives, 

·       Identify experimental leads

The Environment Unit at UNDP, and Innovation-AccLab proposed to do a systemic design session instead of a usual round table meeting. Using the systemic and portfolio lens, the work was structured in three segments; pre-session work, systemic design session, and post-session.

Pre-session work mostly focused on research on policy frameworks, and users (ethnography) and solutions mapping that helped us understand the context, policies, and relevant systems (formal and informal) in place. We gathered insights on what has worked and what hasn’t in terms of formal structures, and policies in place. It also helped us pinpoint leakages into environment, and gaps in the current waste management systems.

Systemic Design Session was a four days engagement that started with augmenting ethnographic research through interactions with Unilever Pakistan’s team, and observation and documentation in markets with waste collectors, etc.

Our ethnographic research work included consultative sessions with five groups: Housewives, Caregivers, Academia, Municipal Corporation, and Industry partners. From each consultation session, challenges, and desired action items emerged, which were chalked out through a priority matrix. This priority matrix was later ran parallel to the portfolio of experiments. 


Systemic design workshop with Unilever in Rahim Yar Khan city. © Shuja Hakim


Day 2 and day 3 were a deep dive into the system via systemic design workshop, looking at mapping and visualizing the current system, stakeholders and empathy mapping, resource and leakage identification, envisioning desirable and undesirable futures and formulating a strategy for the next five years through ideation and prototyping, on how might we turn RYK into a zero-waste city by embedding circular economy. The last day was a visit to Unilever facilities, and debriefing on the workshop and way forward with their management.

Capability development is an important ingredient of mainstreaming innovation across organizations. That is why the facilitation was jointly done with the Environment Unit at UNDP, with the help of an in-house run-through of the entire agenda.

In addition to the trainings, the process of co-creation and learning by doing is the most effective way of building new capabilities and mental models— another space our Innovation-Acc Lab is actively working towards.



Systemic design workshop with Unilever in Rahim Yar Khan city. © Shuja Hakim


Here are a few insights from the Systemic Design Session:

  1. Order in chaos: Collection, sorting and disposal of waste that we consider informal and hard to cover is actually very organized. There is a constructed chain, rates of buying and selling, designated people and spots. It’s now a matter of how to acknowledge it as an asset that can be part of the formal system.
  2. Convenience trumps everything: The problem is not just about getting rid of plastic or decreasing the production. It is about changing structures and mental models. It is also largely our behavior and perception, derived by consumption, and by the most convenient options available.
  3. Economics Psychology: Infrastructure, policy, education, behavior, governance, on one side and micro-economics on the other.  Mainly this aspect affects the decision implementation for small producers and retailers and small businesses where the profit margin is small. Incentivization is powerful, and is a good space to explore social currency.
  4. Broadband intervention: Finding solutions and testing interventions needs to be aligned on multiple factors, i.e., it should be as systemic as the problem. As we observe, single-entry point solutions often solve one problem but create several new. Widespread but unprepared plastic bans exemplify it.
  5. Participatory approach: Social. Social. Social. Getting the all relevant people in the room while tackling the issue is key. Participatory approach will lead to better by-in and more informed strategy, based on what motivates people and how they can change.

Post-session. We produced an Intelligence Report. Using that intelligence and findings from the session and the field work, a set of hypotheses was designed, which was passed on for experimentation cycle. Working closely with our partners, a task force is made and because of our shared mandate and vested interest in reducing plastic pollution footprint, an MOU was recently signed between UNDP and Unilever. We are all set to role our first intervention and will be sharing results as we go.


Some of our assumptions also got questioned, and we realized that even our own experiential understanding of plastics falls short in face of the scale and magnitude of the problem. Engagements with multiple stakeholders and the community at large, helped broaden our perspective. 

We aim to create a circular system of plastics management in Pakistan by rethinking economic models, industrial and consumer behavior, shifting policies, exploring finance, engaging private sector and other non-traditional partners. The meta question that we took forward is “How can we rethink our relationship with plastics in Pakistan? Is plastic waste an issue or plastic waste management is the issue?”




Javeria Masood

Head of Solutions Mapping, Innovation-AccLab Pakistan.

On behalf of Innovation-AccLab and the Environment and Climate Change Unit (ECCU) at UNDP, she designed and facilitated the systemic design and strategic foresight mission in Rahim Yar Khan (RYK), with participation from Unilever Pakistan and RYK community. The author would like to thank colleagues from Innovation-AccLab & ECCU; Unilever Pakistan for participation in the workshop; Salvatore Cucchiara, Brent Wellsch (Alerta CoLab), Alex Oprunenco & Shumin Liu (UNDP Regional Innovation Center) for guidance. 

Edited by: Ayesha Babar, Head of Communications Unit, UNDP Pakistan & Tabindah Anwar, Communications Consultant, UNDP Pakistan