A collaboration between government and community, Systemic Design eXchange (SDX) is an Edmonton-based community of practice for people interested in learning about systemic design as a methodology for addressing complex, real world issues. Together, we explore systems thinking, design thinking, and change lab approaches. With a bias towards learning by doing, SDX aims to be a watering hole where multiple sectors can come together, learn together, and act together.
Systemic Design eXchange (SDX) is an Edmonton-based community of practice where people from across sectors and disciplines can come together to learn and practice systemic design. Broadly, we explore systemic design as a methodology to help address complex challenges. With a bias towards learning by doing, SDX aims to be a watering hole where multiple sectors can come together, learn together, and act together.
A community of practice (CoP) is a group of diverse people who come together to learn, share practices, and co-create knowledge around shared areas of interest. Informal CoPs pop up in organizations around the water cooler, but when purposefully stewarded, CoPs can become powerful, positive forces that help people navigate complex challenges together.
SDX is a collaboration between government and community. It is convened by the Government of Alberta CoLab and the Skills Society Action Lab (the conveners). Alberta CoLab is an innovation unit based in the Government of Alberta’s Department of Energy. Skills Society is a disability services organization providing services to people with developmental disabilities. As a social enterprise, Skills Society runs Action Lab, a workshop and gathering space. All SDX sessions are held at Action Lab, in community.
The idea for SDX was conceived by Alberta CoLab in an attempt to help bridge siloes between government and community, provide ways for public servants to interact with and learn from others working for similar scales of change, and help build the field of systemic design practice. Working with Action Lab, Alberta CoLab works to design, convene, and lead approximately six events per year where participants learn a new tool or method, practice it together, and learn from each other’s experiences. SDX also acts as a space for people trying out new and innovative approaches to change to practice, test their ideas, and gain feedback from an audience of interested and engaged fellow practitioners.
Outside the regular workshop series, the conveners also host two annual social events to invite new people into the group. Alberta CoLab also manages an online Medium blog and social media presence for SDX, and conducts regular evaluations of SDX using a developmental approach.
SDX has hosted multiple guests since its inception, including leaders in the social innovation and systems change field. Last year, it hosted its first full day conference.
Members of the SDX community include people working in all orders of government (city, provincial, and local federal government), people working in the social sector, private sector consultant, academics, students, and others.
Over time, SDX has become a diverse community of people with similar aspirations for change and changemaking. A number of collaborations have resulted from the introductions that have taken place at SDX between people who may not have met otherwise. SDX has a vibrant online presence that has attracted followers from around the world, and is being looked to as an inspirational model by others seeking to bring their changemaking communities together.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
SDX is a unique collaboration between government and community. To our knowledge, it is the only space in Canada that is equally open to those inside and outside government and brings people together for shared learning and practice around innovative approaches to systemic change.
SDX is novel in its orientation. Specifically oriented towards growing the emerging field of systemic design, it links it to social innovation and changemaking in ways that are tangible and practical. SDX focuses on providing tools, techniques, mindsets, and connections people can put into practice: unlike other CoPs, SDX is highly experiential.
Unlike other attempts at government-community collaboration, SDX has been increasingly successful. The conveners are highly responsive to feedback and have a strong sense of what people will find beneficial. The focus on promising practices for systems change is broad enough to be useful to many, but specific enough to be useful to changemakers at all scales.
What is the current status of your innovation?
SDX is currently at the implementation, evaluation, and diffusing lessons stages – the conveners use these stages as a cycle, prototyping and iterating with every community engagement. Currently in its third full year of implementation, SDX has established itself as a valuable and reputable community of practice. We have consistently strong participation and growing interest in our activities. Our online presence is growing and more people are showing interest in what we are doing.
We are consistently looking for ways to be useful, and hope to increasingly use our convening power to help others host and lead sessions to get feedback and input on their work – to share the stage we have created. We also aspire to host more full-day learning events, where we can use our connections and convening abilities to help our community access top-notch and cutting edge social innovators, innovation toolkits, and experiences.
Collaborations & Partnerships
SDX is a partnership between Alberta CoLab and Skills Society Action Lab. CoLab brings expertise in public sector innovation and systemic design, ability to convene the public service, and the convening backbone. Action Lab provides design thinking experience, space, some administrative support, and community connections. CoLab’s involvement enables Action Lab to raise its profile to further its social enterprise. Action Lab’s involvement enables CoLab to engage beyond the Government of Alberta.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Participants from the public, private, academic, and nonprofit sectors benefit by:
- Learning new techniques for systems change
- Gaining feedback on their ideas from people with diverse experiences
- Making new connections with people they would not have met otherwise, sometimes resulting in new work opportunities/collaborations
- Meeting and sharing experiences and learning from each other.
- Leaving inspired to go back to the tough job of innovating in their home organizations & systems
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Alberta CoLab leads SDX evaluation efforts, taking a developmental and qualitative approach that includes:
- Regular surveys to get feedback on every session (4-6 per year)
- Regular convener debriefs and planning touchpoints to discuss what went well and areas for improvement
- Annual year in review interviews with select participants to dive deeper into their SDX experience
- Annual convener debriefs and planning sessions to review the year as a whole and pull those learnings forward into the following year’s activities
Rapid feedback has enabled the conveners to quickly learn what is needed and how SDX can address them.
Overall, participants score SDX highly on whether they gained new insights, made new connections that could benefit their work, and learned new tools or concepts beneficial to their work. As one participant said, “SDX provides a safe and creative space to empathize with issues, brainstorm ideas, and co-create the potential for system change!”
Challenges and Failures
We do not believe in failure. There have been several challenges and learning opportunities as we conveners have grown SDX from an idea to what it is today.
- Budget: SDX operates with no budget. This presented challenges over time, as we were not able to put on the type of events we aspired to. We established a small admission fee to address this, which has not tempered participation to our knowledge.
- Time and Resources: as an emerging field of practice, there is not a large pool of people locally who can lead SDX sessions. This has placed considerable work on the CoLab team to design and deliver SDX sessions, not just convene them. To address this, we are working on growing the field and on reaching out to invite others into SDX to lead sessions.
- Collaboration: there have been times when the convening partnership was not equal in terms of work and contributions. Open and honest communication about capacities and implications has helped in this.
Conditions for Success
To run a community of practice like SDX, the following is required:
- A clear purpose to orient the work and to be able to clearly communicate to people what you stand for and how they will benefit from engaging with you.
- Communication channels so that people can find out about your work and have ways to share their experiences.
- Content expertise in the subject matter for the community of practice; while this can build over time, there must be direct access to expertise in early years.
- Defined roles for all partners with clear expectations upfront and practices that support ongoing communication and planning.
- Sufficient resources of time, money, and space to give people a safe and welcoming experience they want to return to
- Convening skills to bring people together across networks and sectors.
- Commitment to evaluation and reflective practice to track your impact and incorporate learnings as you progress.
SDX is the only community of practice around systemic design and social innovation that we are aware of. A number of people inside and outside government have met with the conveners to discuss scaling the SDX model around social innovation in other locations, but none have yet been implemented. There is great potential to take the SDX model and use it in other locations. In our opinion, the greatest potential lies in a geographic network of SDX-like communities of practice, all learning from each other and potentially even working on similar systemic challenges together. For Alberta CoLab, the partnership model between government and community is particularly promising as an approach to working on societal challenges that cross sectors. It is a low-risk, low-budget, highly relationship-based way for public servants to gain empathy and access the world outside themselves in their day to day work, from which they are so often separated.
Before we embarked on SDX, it would have been useful to know the following:
- It will probably take more of your time than you think. A few sessions a year doesn’t sound like a lot of work, but it is. It’s not just about the learning opportunities; it’s about the community. Communities have to be stewarded and have regular touch points – not just a few times a year. That takes time and energy.
- You can’t do everything. A community of practice, ideally, is a community. If no one steps up to help with a big idea, then it’s not the time for the big idea. Do what you can with what you have.
- You can’t be everything, to everyone. It’s challenging to create spaces that people with no systemic design experience can take away as much as those with a lot of experience. Overall, we have been successful with this, but it’s easier to say upfront that different sessions will be more useful to some groups than others, and to specify the audience for everything you do so that people can self-select.
- Be realistic about your potential impact. When we started SDX, we imagined it would be a place for people to work on challenges together. In reality, people are busy and they all have their own work. It’s not reasonable to expect people to come together repeatedly, every time, to work on one thing over time – at least, not if they didn’t sign up specifically to do that. By focusing on a quality and meaningful community of practice, we aspire to create a place where collisions and connections will happen – and they have. But we can’t force them.
- Choose your partners wisely. Because this will take up more time than you think, be realistic upfront about what you can offer. Find ways to hold each other accountable. Choose partners that can benefit from what you have, and who can offer you what you need. Try to match your challenges with others’ opportunities.
SDX also has a vibrant social media presence at https://twitter.com/sdxcop?lang=en
- Implementation - making the innovation happen
- Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
- Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways
25 January 2015