Why I Started a Gang for Creative Rebels & Change Agents

Leyla Acaroglu
7 min readJan 20, 2017

I started a gang. Yes, a gang. But not the kind you might imagine.

What schema (your visual mental images) comes to mind when you hear the word gang? Do you think of a violent group of criminals? Do you think of the Mafia and organised crime? #girlgang? A gang of puppies? Kids’ movies where gangs of red-haired kids rode around on BMX bikes? Our experiences dictate what our brains evoke when we hear words that have stereotypes and meaning embedded within them. (I’ve received a wide range of reactions when telling people I’ve started ‘a gang,’ and all are drawn from personal experiences). Sometimes, stereotypes make us miss valuable insights that lie dormant under the social connotation of a word though. This is where the perpetuation of issues often lies — in the complicit agreement with, and acceptance of, evocative frames. Why not restructure the objectives and meaning that the original instigator of that word was intended to transfer?

So yes, I started a gang for creative rebels to gang up on unsustainability and anyone who wants to creatively change systems so they work better for all of us, can join.


The power in words

I am fascinated by framing of words and how they are used to empower or disempower. The etymology of the word gang has its origin in ‘going on a journey’ and in later Middle English it became ‘a way or passage,’ later on it came to mean a ‘set of things or people that go together.’ Nowadays, the dictionary has multiple meanings for a gang, ranging from a ‘group of people with compatible tastes or mutual interests who gather together for social reasons’ through to ‘a group of persons associated for some criminal or other antisocial purpose.’

When you separate yourself from the cognitive framing that creates the personal, experience-based connotation of the word, you may start to see that not all gangs meet the stereotypes of violence, and that words such as this one are often used to disempower an already disenfranchised group of people. When you look at the design of a ‘gang,’ how groups of people operate under certain circumstances, and the functional benefits of a community of people banding together to subvert systems that don’t work for them, you will start to see that gangs offer incredible ingenuity in their structures, cultures, and outcomes.

Before I go on about the Disruptive Design Gang that I started (a motley crew of change agents and creative rebels on a shared mission to make the world work better for all of us), let me acknowledge that some gangs do pose serious and legitimate concerns for many people around the world (as do many other groups of people with vested interests not labeled as gangs). The impacts and issues of gang-related violence and intimidation are a very real part of many people’s daily lives and are not to be taken lightly. Gangs operate in different ways, and I am by no means an expert on gang violence. But from a sociological perspective, I see how they exist to achieve a similar function as many other organized groups in society — to create group unity, poach power, and in turn empower its community in certain environments where people have been excluded or marginalized.

The mechanisms and tactics used to achieve this vary in extreme ways, but the existence of a gang in any system is the byproduct of that system’s lack of equitable access to power and resources for all its agents.

There is a lot of dichotomy and complexity that exists around this, and I am interested in challenging and re-framing it. In these unprecedented times (population growth, environmental issues, social complexities) I am committed to finding non-violent ways of challenging the status quo around what collective communities can do to shift power and subvert systems, specifically with the goal of creating positive social change.

From an objective vantage point, a gang is a group of people who work together to create a new system, poaching power and resources to reorient it so that it works better for them, especially if the system is designed to intentionally disempower them. So why don’t we create gangs of people who work together to create alternative, equitable, sustainable versions of the status quo? What about a gang that works to design new versions of the future, through tools and services that help us solve some of the most complex problems we face today?

To answer these questions, I started the Disruptive Design Gang, a group of creative rebels and change agents working together to challenge the status quo, collaborating on systems re-design and actively pursuing positive change through the work they do and the communities they exist within.

The Motivation

For years I have been creating tools that help people make change in the world. The Global DD Gang is a new way of helping to support and facilitate the global community of creatives that have been using and applying these tools in their everyday work — and to further grow this community of can-do change agents. The support, and collaboration, from the gang also helps us to build new tools that activate change and challenge the status quo around critical issues from power and inequity, to unsustainability, to systems change and beyond.

Right after I received the honor of being named a UNEP Champion of the Earth for my work in advancing innovation for sustainability, we launched our first DD Gang collaborative project — an activation kit of#DDSuperpowers for activating positive change (it includes the Power of Future Framing, Bias Recognition, Ethics & Empathy and other change-making superpowers!).

The Superpower Activation Kit, available for free via online.unschools.co

I’m incredibly honored by the UNEP title and want to continue to level up the conversations, actions, and outcomes of people wanting to make sustainability a priority through the tools, experiences, and resources that we create at Disrupt Design and The UnSchool. Over years of working in social and environmental change, I discovered that it can be incredibly isolating and exhausting — sometimes you feel like you are one small voice trying to agitate for change in a big ocean of inertia. The DD Gang is intended as an antidote to that: a community of practitioners, all self-selecting into a simple space that is about investing some energy in figuring out how to have a louder voice, with more impact. To action collaborations and ignite complex conversations, to refine and share resources and skills.

DD Gang members will co-create and co-curate the types of tools, propositions, and resources that will help to shift the status quo around critical issues impacting all of us — from poverty to the environment. In fact, we already have a second collaboration in the works with one of our first gang members — a systems redesign toolkit for designers! The gang dues also help support out work in creating tools for change-makers.

Throughout my work with educators, CEO’s, designers, students, social entrepreneurs, engineers and every profession in between, I have found one common thread that sticks out : people do more risky and creative stuff when they feel supported by the people around them. My motivation for starting this cheeky gang proposition is exactly that — to facilitate this support so change agents know that there are other people out there just like them — people who give a shit about the planet, who want to invest time, energy, and resources in figuring out how to do more purpose-driven work, and who want to level up their leadership for positive change within their communities.

For far too long, sustainability and social change have been in a secluded space, pitched as hippie and ‘alternative’ ways of living and doing things. But the reality is that we all rely on the life support systems of air, food, and water, for survival, and their destruction, through ignorance of these systems, unintended consequences and unprecedented growth rate, impacts all of us. The opportunity to invest creative energy in solving problems that matter is even greater as we enter into more uncertain times. Now more than ever, we need to gang up on unsustainability, inequity, ignorance, and the anti-science approach to seeing how the world works.

“Surely it is our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth”
— Sir David Attenborough

So, let’s get started! We have so much hidden human potential, creative powers and hard skills that can be applied to the pressing, real and significant problems of our time. Let’s not waste time and talent designing solutions for problems that don’t exist. Instead, let’s invest in creating propositions that activate purpose and redesign the way the world works, so it works better for all of us. Are you in? Learn more and join the gang here.

#letsgetstarted #ddgang #ddsuperpowers #disruptbydesign



Leyla Acaroglu

UNEP Earth Champ, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability & Circular Provocateur, TED Speaker, Founder: unschools.co, disrupdesign.co & circularfutures.co