For years, Leyla Acaroglu travelled the world advising people on how to think about and save the planet. Until, one day, she realised that theory wasn’t enough, and she had to get her hands dirty. So, she bought a farm in Portugal.
If it weren’t for her life as a professional traveller, Leyla Acaroglu probably wouldn’t have ended up in Portugal. She spent years traversing the globe, sometimes half a dozen countries in a single month, hours and hours in planes, and a lifetime in airports. Even after buying a farm in the sleepy Ribatejo region, ten kilometres from Tomar, she spends over 200 days travelling. We talked to the 36-year-old Australian designer in Lisbon, shortly after she had returned from Thailand and a week before leaving for Nairobi.
Leyla was named United Nations Environment Programme Champion of the Earth in 2016. What was already a full diary then became virtually unsustainable, especially for someone whose middle name is sustainability. The UN’s distinction as one of the world’s most innovative environmentalists led to countless invitations to conferences about sustainable design, making audiences aware of how urgent the planet’s problems are, as well as teaching people to enjoy problems and unpicking myths, such as plastic bags being environmentally worse than their paper equivalents.
The hours on planes end up being useful, whether for sleeping or working. She says that her latest project with the UN – Anatomy of Action – was conceived during a trip between two continents. Contradicting the much cited saying, Leyla believes it’s better to arrive than to travel. “As a sociologist, I’m intrigued by human experiences in the world. Discovering so many different cultures makes my work as an activist and educator more varied, and makes me more empathetic.” Another issue is Leyla’s carbon footprint – she doesn’t know how many countries she’s visited, but she mentions South-East Asia, Europe, South America and various cities in the USA –, which she tries to compensate, be it by planting 200 trees on her Portuguese farm, eating a vegan diet and offsetting her impact by trying to travel sustainably. “For example, if I have to go to Thailand for a month, I always catch direct flights because most energy consumption occurs during take-off and landing, I carry my water bottle, I try to avoid waste.” When travelling, she also tries to pick ecological accommodation, buy food in markets, eat at local restaurants and avoid multinational chains.
Another of Leyla’s main concerns for her Portuguese project involves supporting the local economy. In 2017, she bought an old farm in the village of Serra, in Tomar. She restored two old houses and olive mill, which had been abandoned for over a decade, treated the olive, fig, orange, lemon and apple trees, planted new ones and cultivated the land, which now feeds participants in the Brain Spa that she set up in Tomar. The CO Project – Creative Optimism Project (“co” for collaborative work, co-creation) is not only the UnSchool’s European base, but also the place to “regenerate neurons”. There are workshops and activities, with a strong connection to nature, which helps participants “think differently”. For example? “Designing something you’ve never seen before to understand how it works.”
Social entrepreneur, sustainability agent provocateur, disruptive designer, ever-ready to break down barriers, Leyla also founded alternative knowledge lab UnSchool, in New York, the Disruptive Design agencies, also in New York, and Eco Innovators, in Melbourne, and now the CO Project. Armed with a degree in sociology and a PhD in design, she started studying the latter until a teacher told her about the Gaia hypothesis, and how everything is interconnected in nature. “That completely changed me. I realised that the decisions I made as a designer would have a negative impact, unless I understood more about the system in which I was working.” She read about “how design has caused half of the world’s problems”, sustainability and introduction to systems. “I read how bears eat salmon but leave the scraps in the forest and that provides the trees with nutrients and I thought: that is magic.” She changed to sociology, sure that she “wanted to do design to change the world for the better and not design that perpetuated problems”. Leyla, “a lover of problems”, travels the world with “a constant curiosity about stuff, how they work, why they don’t”. Security queues at airports? “I totally redesign them when I’m in one, I make all of them more efficient.”
She left college and focussed on analysing the life cycle to work out how to produce more sustainably, reducing waste and finding ways of transmitting that knowledge. When she was 25, se launched Eco Innovators to design educational tools and create an animated series Secret Life of Things. In the first of three short films, Mr. Eric-Sun, a mobile phone with an existential crisis, does regression therapy with Dr. A. Fraud: understanding how mobile phones are made it’s possible to teach that they can be produced so all the components can be reused. The video, which Leyla does all the voices for, is permanently on display at Milan’s Leonardo da Vinci Museum.
Ever since starting the CO Project, she has welcomed people to Tomar from Lebanon, Turkey, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Germany, Spain… the world over, or at least the part that’s “interested in changing their life and work”. “People from major organisations come, as well as others who can no longer ignore what’s happening to the oceans.”
Living on a farm, albeit for short periods between trips, helps Leyla to see the world differently. After growing her first vegetables, she’s never viewed produce in the supermarket in the same way again, in addition to living in a rural environment having taught her to do things that “allow for a more sustainable life. We have a zero-waste policy on the farm, we learn and teach other people how to have more sustainable lives, anyone who comes here realises that we’re all caught in this consumption loop”.After years learning about the way products and industrial environments work, she’s now discovering another side of the planet in Portugal. And arriving in Portugal and Tomar, after finding that farm via an internet search, was a way for Leyla to solve her own nature deficit disorder. “I didn’t know how nature worked. It’s magical. I’m still trying to understand how it solves problems, how it creates something.”
Between trips, when she manages to spend a few days in Tomar, Leyla says she has what she calls “wow moments”. “I have this apple tree on the farm that loses its leaves in winter, I assumed they were asleep, but no. It drops the leaves that are no longer needed for photosynthesis because there is no sun. It drops them and when it rains, they rot and fertilise the soil and roots and saplings emerge from the trees. Every time I look at it, I think ‘You’re doing things. You look dead, but you’re growing something’.”
Now, when she leaves Tomar and travels elsewhere, Leyla doesn’t just talk about theory. She knows what an apple tree looks like, she knows how to plant garlic. Theory has given way to practice, even if it means dirty fingernails and scratched arms.
by Hermínia Saraiva
web design & development 262media.com