On Saturday at the Hazel Hill Autumn Conservation weekend I ran a systems design workshop as a wet-weather activity. Here are my notes and observations from the session.

Theatre of activity

The wood, being a place that people travel to and the leave again, is the perfect place to get people thinking about inputs and outputs to systems. You can ask people to think about what they bring with them, what they take home and what they leave behind. You can also ask, is the system richer as a result. And, what happens to that richness?

Systems design icebreaker

I arrange the chairs in a circle and asked everyone to talk around outside it. The circle represented the system boundary of the wood. I asked people to step inside the circle when they thought of something they had taken into the wood. As they stepped inside I asked them to declare it. No one was allowed to repeat something someone else had said.

Once inside the system I asked participants to carry on moving, emphasising the dynamic nature of the system. I said they could step out of the circle when they thought of something that they were taking out of the circle when they left. Again, they had to say out loud what they were taking away and couldn’t repeat something someone else had said.

The exercise was a great way to get people thinking about the wood as being a boundary of systems with inputs and outputs. And also to think about what some of those inputs and outputs might be.

People began with bringing things like food and clothing, but then the idea of bringing labour emerged. Likewise when thinking about outputs, more tangible goods like landfill and food waste emerged first, and then more intangible things like knowledge and community.

Developing the icebreaker

Next time I run this exercise, I would like to add a second layer a bit later. In this they would write down inputs on larger post-it notes and bring them into the circle and stick them down. They would then process these post-its, tearing the up into waste products, some they would leave there and some they could take away.

Anything taken out of the system would either have to be from one of these inputs, or it would be listed as a deficit post-it note in the system. Likewise, new things created could be left in the wood.

My aim would be to emphasise that for some inputs and outputs there is a mass balance – you can’t create or destroy matter. But for other inputs and outputs, like knowledge or care, there aren’t limits to how these goods can multiply.


The idea of bring and leaving in the system your labour felt like an important conceptual shift in the session. By coming to the wood and working on habitat maintenance you are putting your work into the system to make it richer.

From this idea came a discussion about what you get out when you put in that labour. The conservation weekend itself is in part an exchange of labour for wellbeing.

Low nutrient system

One of the challenges that emerges from these discussions at the wood is what to do with our food waste. In urban settings, food waste is more easily composted to create rich soil for growing. But woodlands like ours are low nutrient environments. When nutrients are high, dominant species like grasses take over, but when nutrients are lower we get a much richer mix of low-nutrient species that support a much richer web of wildlife.

The consequence is that there is not much use for the rich compost we could create with the food waste generated from our groups. One answer would be to find local food growers in the community that could make use of the compost.

But looking at the wider set of inputs and outputs, one of the main goods that people bring in to the wood is food for their meals. If we could create a low-maintenance forest garden close to the buildings, it could use food waste to grow some of the food that people need.

I remember reading from the Centre for Alternative Technology that it is very hard for a visitor centre to grow enough food for its guests. But there would be benefits to even growing a small amount of food:

  • If we can let guests know what is in season in the food garden this might prompt them to think about what other seasonal food they might bring.
  • There may be people in our community that would be interested in looking after this garden, and if so, the opportunity to input this labour might give the benefits of time in the wood: a win-win solution.
  • We would have an on-site way of processing our food waste, removing a waste problem that we currently have.

Systems diagrams as an idea generation tool

Often I start idea generation sessions by looking at a design brief, but I now see creating a system diagram as a rich way of thinking about what might be the underlying causes of a particular situation, and to think about possible solutions. Part of that richness comes from putting people in the system – they see what they bring and take away. And part of it comes from recognising all the massively scalable benefits we can create from very little input: knowledge, community, wellbeing.