The power of learning through participation in practice

by | Jun 21, 2023 | Ecological Design Thinking, News & blogs

Sarah Hawkins, a student on the MA Ecological Design Thinking programme, describes her crucial inner transition while on a recent work placement as part of the course.  With a background was in brand design and communications she was used to working at management level with a wide variety of global consumer clients.  Here she describes how her experience has moved her from acting as a ‘consultant’ – needing to fix or solve a client’s pre-defined problems – to a more relational position of being an active ‘participant’ in the life, process and dynamic complexity of an organisation.

Sarah’s colleagues Taye and Flora, with a gardener and a volunteer at The Brixton Orchard (a green oasis in the heart of London).


“Having lived and worked in London for 15 years, I believe that Ecological Design Thinking is needed most in our cities, where society is least connected to nature. It felt important, therefore, for me to choose a work placement in London. I excitedly got in touch with Brixton-based Urban Growth, an awesome CIC that create and care for green spaces, and together we created an initial brief to help support the social enterprise with their communications.

I’ve worked in creative agencies in the Consumer Industry throughout my whole career, so I am used to working in pressurised professional environments. However, what immediately struck me in this new organisational environment of social enterprise was a very different kind of energy.

I could very quickly see that trying to survive as a small not-for-profit organisation is tough – money is tight, and resources are stretched. The day-to-day challenges soon became clear, and I realised that the usual approach to stakeholder engagement, for example, sending out discussion guides and pre-booking formal meetings, felt neither kind nor appropriate.

So, I offered to work on the ground (quite literally), visiting various green spaces and participating in everyday tasks with the team and local communities.

Although generating organisational insight to help design change normally involves a purely observational approach, I put my Ecological Design Thinking principles into practice and instead looked to gather a living understanding of the organisation. I decided to actively participate and apply my own lived experience.

My participatory input and presence seemed genuinely helpful and appreciated from the outset, which felt wonderfully satisfying and different to the usual lengthy process. I found that in-the-moment conversation flowed much better when we were working in collaboration and that a deeper sense of trust and openness grew as a result.

The insight and understanding I gathered from these encounters were much richer and more authentic than I had experienced in the past, and I found that key questions emerged naturally rather than needing to be posed.

As I continued to apply a holistic way of thinking during my participation at Urban Growth, it gradually became apparent that, if this organisation wants to thrive, not just survive, there were deeply complex, systemic challenges that needed attention before simply reviewing the organisation’s approach to communications design.

Despite feeling internally conflicted and uncomfortable at the thought of changing the direction of the agreed brief, I decided to focus on these other challenges so that I could more genuinely be of service to the needs of the organisation as a whole.

Whilst putting this holistic, relational, and participatory approach of Ecological Design Thinking into practice, I started to reflect deeply on my career before studying at Schumacher. I realised that I had previously been constantly responding to corporate hierarchical expectations and impersonating what it means to be ‘a professional’ to simply meet shallow, often financial, performance standards.

The shift of moving away from focusing on what the client pre-defines as a ‘problem’ to be solved, or a standard to be achieved, to paying attention to the dynamic living complexity and fundamental needs of the organisation felt overwhelming.

It meant that I had to put my trust in the process of engaging in an embodied experience of working with the organisation, to gain a deeper understanding of the organisation on its own terms. It was a bold professional move that relied on emergence rather than fixed plans or a pre-set formula.

Although this shift was definitely uncomfortable to begin with, I found that being able to bring to the surface what really mattered to the organisation, rather than simply meeting a narrow, pre-defined brief, felt immensely empowering and more genuinely in service to the incredible work that this social enterprise does and their ability to thrive.

Throughout Module 4 and my time spent working with Urban Growth, overall, I learnt that being in participation with a client is a radical and powerful approach to authentic insight generation.

As an Ecological Design Thinking practitioner, it involved delicately moving between first and second person action enquiry, moving my attention back and forth from my own lived experience and to the lived experience of others working within the organisation and the communities their work serves.

For me, this feels key to the embodied practice of Ecological Design Thinking. Deep listening, empathy, and partnership can only really happen when you are working in harmony with the people who form the organisation and simultaneously reflecting on your own actions, perceptions, and values along the way.

Bringing participation into practice means you become part of the team, at least temporarily anyway. It means you must hold back on proposing pre-defined outcomes and let go of expectations.

Practice as participation means responding to the needs of the moment and nurturing and supporting trust in each other. It means that practice extends far beyond a way of thinking and acting, and instead transforms to become a way of being. It also means holding space for emergence to happen. It means letting go of ego and having the courage to be and do differently.

And perhaps, most vitally – it means also leading with the heart, not just the mind.

If you would like to find out more or read the full placement report, feel free to contact Sarah at: