Field Guide 2020: Designing Māori Futures – Systems Disruption

1 year ago by

This Field Guide article is the fourth in a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 16 weeks on and culminate in a downloadable PDF publication which will be distributed nationally. 

We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand who funded this 2020 Field Guide, which actively investigates, celebrates, nurtures and challenges current design thinking, methodology and practitioners in the Aotearoa design community. The project is “a multidisciplinary exploration of New Zealand’s post-COVID design practice”. It is produced by five authors, five illustrators, with art direction, design, editorial, publishing and production support from the Design Assembly team & RUN Agency



Supported by Creative New Zealand

The artwork to accompany this essay is by Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho a Takatāpui artist based in Tāmaki Makaurau. Huriana is a self-taught illustrator and designer whose work is primarily influenced by their Māori whakapapa, takatāpui identity, and political beliefs. They have produced work for Action Station, Auckland Pride, Pantograph Punch, Rainbow Youth, RNZ, Re: News, Te Rau Ora and Waikato University among others. Their illustrations are also featured in Maui’s Taonga Tales/He Paki Taonga i a Māui and Protest Tautohetohe published through Te Papa Press.

Written by Desna Whaanga-Schollum, with thanks to co-interviewer, Mihi Tibble

This is the first practitioner profile in a series of articles that explore the ways that tangata whenua are drawing upon their ancestral knowledge and adapting the learnings to challenge the status quo. Design-thinking skills are being employed in diverse fields of practice, weaving together tangata (people, community), te taiao (environment, place), wairua (spirit, intent) and mauri (energy, life-force). Moving beyond human-centred design, tangata whenua practitioners reference an eco-system of actors, and draw upon intergenerational knowledge. Social and cultural equity aims are served through the deployment of design tools.

Design-Thinking, Co-Design, Social Innovation, Disruption, and Systems Change. Are these labels vocation, jargon or tangible methodology? What do these practices look like for Māori practitioners on the ground? How do tangata whenua draw upon their identity and sense of place, to move cultural issues forward in a complex contemporary context. 





Anaru has whakapapa to Waikato, Ngāti Whāwhākia, Ngāti Hikairo and China. Born in Auckland, and raised in Wellington before attending boarding school at Te Aute College. Through the Healthy Families platform, with an emphasis on systems change, innovation and disruption, Anaru saw the potential to improve health outcomes for Māori, where Māori are empowered as drivers of change and designing their own futures. Anaru is inspired by kaumatua, kuia and tohunga who have, through lived experience, gained wisdom and knowledge, and seen some radical change in their lifetime. He says they are crucial to taonga tuku iho, intergenerational knowledge and equity.

Anaru’s core kaupapa (purpose) is seeing Māori at the forefront of driving change. Currently working in South Auckland, his mahi (work) seeks to address some of the complex issues in community health and wellbeing. Through a Systems Change approach, his team make use of design-thinking methods, and champion whanaungatanga (building relationships) as the foundational platform for designing lasting wellbeing.

“Whanaungatanga is a massive part of what we do, and being able to switch that work potae on and off, and being able to communicate and relate to people is a huge aspect to the mahi that I do.” 

Anaru’s work-life has been diverse, spanning banking, corporate sector, trades, health and design. He sees the unusual career trajectory as having enabled his current mahi as at the core, his work is relational. Systems change requires mindfully creating connections and opportunity for innovation between many peoples, places and practices. Systems change looks at how to identify and subsequently map the system, then undertakes designing change within it.

“Unless we attempt to deal with the causes of social problems, we will only be mitigating the consequences of malfunctioning systems, or even providing inadvertent cover for their failure—we will not create the change we want to see. Systems change is not the only way of addressing social problems, but it provides a helpful way of understanding them and evaluating them, and sets out principles for achieving change.”

The following is a (relative!), transcript from an interview with Anaru. 

Anaru’s relationship to… Te Taiao // Environment, Place

Placemaking from a Te Ao Māori perspective, in the mahi that I’ve been doing, essentially is about anchoring yourself in place. It’s about fully understanding the context of the area in which you live, the places where you live, learn, work and play. It understands that there’s a historical-cultural context to that area.

This word ‘Placemaking’ is quite interesting, it’s used in a discipline now around the whole urban regeneration of an area. Generally what we do, is take some of that jargon within the discipline and reframe it. ‘Placemaking’ comes from the design world, and it is a discipline that we use within the organization that I work in. Also, the stakeholders that we work with, they use this jargon. But when we talk to our communities, especially with Māori, that is all it is; it’s jargon.

What is placemaking? It’s anchoring yourself in place, understanding the historical, cultural, geographical context of the area. When we look at that from a Māori perspective, we look at the histories of Mana Whenua. We understand the people that have come before us; we look across seven generations. (Three generations in the past – then we look at now – and then we think about three generations into the future).

Generally, with urban design practices, they only think in the now, and they think within 30-year cycles. They think that’s a long period. When we bring indigenous thinking, in seven generations, we’re spanning 500 years, and we’re looking back, in order to go forward. This lens is nothing new to Māori, but when we bring this sort of thinking to the table currently, it’s seen as fresh thinking. It buzzes people out when we say, ‘actually this is just the way we (Māori) always think’.

Anaru operating by…. Wairua // Spirit, Intent

One of the things we’re trying to do is create a disruption, create a shift in mindset and have that cultural point of difference. If we’re talking about systems change, it’s about working across the system. That’s the role that I work in my mahi as a social innovator. 

What does that look like? That means working at both ends of the spectrum. One day you might be talking with council stakeholders who have a lot of resource and authority over certain areas that affect every aspect of our life. Later on the same day, you might be working at a grassroots level on a marae. Talking with kuia around some of those issues and understanding what this means in their lived realities. When we are talking about the system, that’s being able to identify where the gaps and the opportunities are. Being at the interface and trying to bring those two different spectrums together to create something that’s going to actually work for people. If we look at policy, it usually misses the mark, because those people that are creating policy are just not connected to the lived realities of the people that they are creating for. Essentially policy people are designers; they’re designing or creating something for people. 

The concept that we use is underpinned by indigenous thinking. Wairua Centered Design-Thinking. It’s a flip on human-centred Design-Thinking, where you put in the aspirations of the human being of the person at the top of the pyramid. Everything is focused around what we’re extracting or taking out of the environment, versus putting us back into a circular system of how do we have a relationship with something. And it’s all about that relationship, vs us. 

So in that whole paradigm of design and working with policy creators designers, the key question we’re asking them is, ‘who are you actually designing for?’ When you consider this through an indigenous lens, that might be, the unseen, the unheard, the marginalized, the groups that are usually locked out of the process. 

So that’s our spin on systems design in placemaking, and an angle that we have a lot of leverage from and a point of difference to bring to the table.

How I define systems thinking is, ‘an interaction of a whole lot of relationships’. Obviously it is a discipline, a science discipline and it comes with a whole lot of jargon, and academic jargon. The way in which we operate in our mahi, is that we totally reframe. We flip what the jargon is, to make it understandable for ourselves and for the people that we’re going to work with. 

The way we look at it is systems involves a whole lot of inter-connections, interactions, relationships. Let’s look at the body as a system. You have the blood system, you have the lymphatic system, you have kidneys, the heart, and they all interact with each other to create us as living human beings. To compare we can look at systems in our environment, and how people interact with the urban environment, We look at road and transport, we look at how people interact with green and blue space, we look at the housing environments, none of those things exist isolated of each other. You don’t just build a house and have no road that connects you to your school or to your workplace. 

So, when we work in systems, we’re looking at the whole entire network of things that interact with each other. What does that look like in practice? It’s understanding those interconnections, those interactions, those relationships, and who has influence in those different spheres. Our objective is to find out, and build relationships with key people. And again, as I mentioned before, our role is to understand the lived realities of the people that interact with those systems. There is no point building a system that has no relevance to people that live within it. 

‘Systems’ has been described from a scientific perspective as being complex. When we look at it, it looks like a big nest of everything going in many different directions. Nothing is linear, which is probably one of the things that I think relates to Te Ao Māori processes. It’s never from A to B to C to D. You might have heard a saying previously that one plus one equals three and it totally does… It doesn’t make sense but it does make sense. 

That’s how I interpret what a system is, and for us the big focus of what we do is that front end of the relationship. Whanaungatanga is probably the biggest aspect of getting it right upfront. Having the time to invest in that relationship. If we look within a lot of organizational systems, and the work within the system which works with people, you’ll find that many do not allow the platform to invest in whanaungatanga. We know if we don’t get that right up front, then we’re going to be forever trying to fix things up thereafter. So one area that we’ve really pushed through in my line of work is investing that time. People ask, ‘Well, how long is it going to take?’ Well, that’s similar to thinking ‘How long does it take to cut a Kauri tree down?’ As long as it takes.

Sometimes things can take a year before you see real fruit. But when you invest in whanaungatanga or building a relationship, it’s non-transactional. We’re not going in there, necessarily, to build a relationship knowing that we’re wanting something from it. When we’re going in there generally it is “Ko Wai Koe? (Who are you), Ko Wai Ahau? (Who am I), Ko wai taua or Ko Wai Tatou? What are we going to do together, and then what is the direction that we’re going to paddle this waka? We invest in that, we put in the time and energy to whakawhanaungatanga.

That’s a good start on understanding the journey towards systems change.

Anaru generating… Mauri // Energy, Life-force

So what does this actually look like in practice? We work that space of ‘disruption’, I suppose another way to say it is ‘shifting mindsets’. When you’re working in systems, people have influence on certain levers in the system. You want to get at the table with those people, those key stakeholders that are able to manoeuvre certain levers and create certain paradigm shifts within the system. What we do, is we map that out, and we intentionally try to build relationships and connect with people in those positions. That can take a lot of time. 

When you’re trying to shift mindsets, when you’re trying to disrupt, it can be a hell of a process, and you’ve just got to stick in there. You’ve got to be willing to take hits, you’ve got to be willing to be the unpopular person, you’ve got to be willing to bring the issues to the table that people are trying to avoid. When you’re talking about issues like institutional racism, the ugly things that the system upholds. Usually the people that don’t have to deal with those issues are perpetuating them, and they don’t actually want to be hearing about them. So you’re ‘that person’ who is bringing it to the table, and it’s the really gnarly complex issues that people try to avoid. That’s part of what it looks like to disrupt and shift those mindsets. 

Another entry point for systems disruption, is you’ve got to build the groundswell, you’ve got to mobilize the masses and have the people, the numbers to be able to shift those mindsets. When we look at our political system it’s all about votes, it’s all about numbers. When we’re able to bring the masses in and get them mobilized behind the kaupapa, we know this is going to be able to create the shift. 

How do you mobilize, how do you create that groundswell? Well you’ve got to have the tangibles, you’ve got to have things people can see, touch, and interact with. That’s where you employ methods around activating or prototyping. Concepts that you’ve created with the people across that spectrum, bringing all these people from different areas of the system, bringing the unusual suspects to the table.

If we look at the area of public health (as an example), the people who are addressing public health, for people that have been in public health for the last twenty years. There are the same old issues, same old sort of approach, which gets the same old response. It’s like banging your head against a concrete wall. So what we’ve thought is, let’s bring people from outside of public health to the table. Let’s bring the creative people, bring the economists, bring the environmentalists, bring the activists. Bring the rangatahi (younger generations). Bring the people that the health industry never usually consider having any contribution to that system, but actually they are able to bring a completely different perspective, fresh ideas. From those fresh ideas, we’re able to co-create a starting point, something we can prototype, or activate. And from this, we are able to bring others in, and see if the prototype works, see whether it’s something that is worth progressing or not. 

This is also about helping to raise the benchmark of what is possible. In our work we are in the privileged position of being paid for putting in the mental mileage. So you don’t want to go through a co-creation process and come out the other end with a pamphlet or a bouncy castle, we want to raise that benchmark. When you’re able to do that, you’re able to see a whole lot of innovation, and people are able to see what different looks like. That feeds back into that loop of disrupting and shifting mindsets, because if people can see what different looks like, that helps create shift. 

If you’re trying to mobilize and build the groundswell you’ve got to have something for people to get in behind, something that they believe in, and can touch and feel. That’s a very simple model. When you put it down on paper it looks linear, but it’s actually concurrent, it all moves. All these different moving parts, moving simultaneously. So you might be activating, prototyping – as well as sitting with a bunch of academics, trying to shift their way of thinking at the same time – as well as bringing a whole lot of people you work with at a grassroots level to be part of the process.

Anaru setting the Wero // The Challenge for Māori Designers

When you work in this type of space, especially when you position yourself as Māori, you have got to ask yourself the question, ‘am I just a Māori working in this space, am I being Māori, or am I here just to get a pay packet, doing the nine to five?’ I think that in this line of work that I’m involved in, that other people will be involved in, it’s really important to ask the question of ‘where do you sit on that spectrum?’ Especially, if you say ‘I’m Māori working in this space’. This is one of the key challenges that you have to address on a daily. 

And yeah, it can be very taxing but what you find is, if you’re in this mahi, you’re in it because there’s a passion to do it. You don’t want to be just caught up in that system of going round and round in the washing machine. You’ve got to keep reminding yourself, ‘why am I doing this?’, ‘what is the change I want to see?’ Sometimes it’s not driven by just being fulfilled and satisfied to go and collect the pay packet. You’re in there because you understand some of those complex issues that Māori face. You probably in the line of mahi you’re doing, because you’re passionate about the mahi you’re doing, and want to see change for Māori. 

You’ve got to keep asking yourself, am I willing to put my passion on the line, put essentially what could be my head on the chopping block, to be disruptive, to challenge some of those dominant discourses. If it’s institutional racism you’re looking at, are you able to go up and face that head-on. Because if you’re in a position, and you’re able to reach into certain places, sometimes it’s only you that is bringing that voice to the table. If it’s not you doing it, then you are leaving it to be the voice of those people that are pulling the strings. What I know is, as Māori we are left out of that conversation a lot of the time. If we are left out, no one’s actually ensuring that they are bringing the Māori voice to the table. 

So you have to be really willing and determined to put your neck on the line. Sometimes you might be asking, could this cost me a promotion, or could that harm my chances of moving up the ladder? But I think the key thing that we have as Māori, is coming back as a collective, that whanaungatanga, and that we look after each other. It doesn’t matter what sector you’re working in, whether it’s health, education, justice, we’re all facing the same issues. 

We need to be collectively working together, and we need to be ballsy in our approach. Don’t be afraid, because there are other people doing the same thing.

It is very important that you look after yourself, your own mental health and wellbeing, because you are working at the interface, the aspirations of your community, and you are also working within the paradigm of your organization. But never lose heart, never lose your identity and always strive to really push for those aspirations for Māori.



Up Next...

Fresh From the Field — Ultrella by Ann Davenport

This painterly and playful Fresh From The Field is for an innovative plant-based ‘demi-perspirant’ Ultrella and designed by Ann Davenport. If you have new or recent work that you would like to share in Fresh from the Field email  for details. The Brief: Ultrella is a fresh and fun range of powerful, natural body…

More from 'Interview'...

Take 10 with... Phyo Thu

During categories 3 and 4 of New Zealand’s COVID response we launched Take 10 with… to do a pulse check on how our community was feeling, working, what you are missing, and learn about your hopes for the future. We think the format has merit as we transition into practice in the post-COVID landscape, and…