My Journey to Systems Innovation

Abdul Semakula
19 min readAug 25, 2022


May-2024 Update

Today, 13th May, I’m from a call with Tyson Yunkaporta, the author of Sand Talk and the founder of Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab (IKS Lab) and Nalubaaga Valley Community, my current focus will be hosted and supported by IKS Lab at Deakins University in Australia.

This is a turning point for the initiative and development at large — because; Today, enormous human energies and resources are flowing to initiatives around sustainability; climate mitigation and adaptation, poverty, and mental health among others. These are important in transitioning us— but only in the sense that less human death and suffering occurs as nature (inevitably) rebalances its systems.

Unfortunately, these solutions tend to be incrementally building on the colonial foundation that brought us out of balance with living systems —keeping us in an endless problem/solution cycle. Someone put it well in the meme “Sustainability sustains the status quo”.

In a way, we’re spending far more energies and resources on sustaining the status quo, than we are on preparing our landing ground by aligning human activity with living systems.

Here’s a thought experiment highlighting why preparing the landing ground is worth all our efforts and resources.

Imagine we’re in this aircraft, small fires have started around the engine area. Even when we aren’t fully aware of the damage already caused, we are convinced we can control the fire. Also, people on board have important deals to cut, ASAP, so the crew defaults to concentrating on putting out the fire and continuing to our destination, which is still miles away. There’s seeming success in putting out (these small) fire after fire, and this blinds us from paying attention to other possibilities like — seeking an emergency landing and preparing to land.

This is the situation we’re in with the predominant sustainable development model. It’s important to try and control the fire, but it’s fatally risky not to prepare the landing ground.

Qn: Will putting out small fires matter if our aircraft crushes?

The seeming success of innovations that temporarily put out the systemic fires, (renewable energy, circular design, web3, poverty alleviation programs, carbon credits, and others) shouldn’t blind us from preparing for a safe landing — prototyping foundational systems that align human activity with living systems — starting with the way we think about and govern land.

Preparing our landing ground or aligning human activity with living systems, requires us to graduate from deploying resources to sustain the status quo to regenerating our relation with nature — with nonhuman beings.

So it’s a hard collective choice we have to make, we either land safely and regenerate our relations before nature takes matters into its hands, which it will (through increasingly intense wildfires, floods, heatwaves, tornadoes, even wars,) or we keep focusing on putting out small fires and risk crushing.

So in this inquiry, we want to;

  1. Prove that it is possible to unbuild colonial narratives and structures and rebuild development on a living systems foundation.
  2. Build a process of convening neighbourhoods to take pride in stewarding rather than extracting the land and ecosystems they are part of.

Jan-2024 Update…

Happy New Year. In late 2022 someone posted a Regenerative Development & Design course I took it in early 2023 and by mid-year, my entire view of the world had changed and so did my focus and work. Here are a few learnings from the rich content and delivery of the course;

  1. Stop solving problems and start developing potential: Problems can be fixed/managed, but potential can be realised/manifested. Also focusing on problem-solving usually creates more problems. For instance, as Nobel Laureate Herb Simon says, in the process of creating mechanical power to reduce costs and increase productivity, we’ve created multiple problems polluting air, water, and land. Yet problem-solving is a sought-after skill in the modern world. So, I’ve been asking myself, if we’re hired to solve and create problems, isn’t problem-solving the problem?
  2. Don’t design for individuals, design for places: Design and Innovation focus 80% of efforts on enabling the ‘Story of the Individual’ — who is a smaller Whole. Regeneration invites us to shift that 80% to enabling a bigger Whole — the ‘Story of Place’.
  3. Don’t change the system, evolve with the system: We usually see ourselves as separate from the systems we want to change, the course focuses on evolving the self to evolve the system. It takes deep sincerity to oneself to actually make some shifts.
  4. Don’t get stuck in Systems Thinking, Start Systems Doing: I went into the course with Systems Thinking knowledge and came out with systems doing skills and frameworks to design regenerative projects — unveiling the potential of a place and aligning a project/business to influence and be influenced by the place’s potential. I was working on solving climate finance, and I shifted to manifesting the potential of my local community. I got a micro-grant to convene neighbourhoods, rebuild trust in community, and if all goes well generate the collective will to rebuild housing while creating space to restore a reclaimed wetland and its biodiversity and build community spaces.

For me, because of that course, 2023 was a life-changing year (both work and life) but also a stepping stone to co-creating a more beautiful world by unbuilding the colonial foundation on which development is built and rebuilding it on a living systems foundation.

So, If you are looking to go beyond the profiteering goals of problem-solving, I highly recommend the course.

I wish you all a peaceful 2024.

I’m actively looking to join an agile team of purpose-aligned systems innovators or a venture studio to co-create a social finance project I’ve been researching for a while now. Since I deactivated my social media accounts (reasons in here), I thought it necessary to still maintain a low-key online profile.

So, I will condense into 15 minutes 15 years of attained skills, experiences, and current interests — specifically how my changing learning, thinking, and doing dragged me from project to project — refusing to settle for symptoms of glocal injustices and finally pivoting from developing websites to innovating Social Systems.

University — I focus on the substance, not formalities.

Early on I saw how computers were increasingly becoming a part of society and changing people’s lives. Although the Computer Science program was one year old in 2003 at the most prestigious University in East Africa, I thought it was a great opportunity to learn how computers work.

One year into it, I noticed the course was more theory than practical. 100% of examinations were written theory for all course units. I looked up the teaching and exam structure of the course in universities where it was established (developed countries) — it was 30% theory and 70% practical. This meant you had to fend for yourself to gain the skills the market required. People graduated with first-class degrees but could hardly identify a RAM chip from a computer nor create a simple HTML page.

I started to teach myself practically web development, programming, and databases, with internet resources. Like most, I was doing BSc. Computer Science without a computer, I wrote source code on paper at home and brought it for compiling at the computer lab. Sometimes I and a few others spent nights in the computer lab practicing and trying out learning projects.

Later that year I took on web development projects for small businesses like arts & crafts, tourism, and others that were targeting Europeans whose lives were already internet driven. This helped me acquire a computer and pay for my hostel fees at the university for the rest of the course.

As a graduation requirement, students had to submit projects. This was the only practice exam about the course and as you would expect the hardest for most. My own project; a computer version of a local Matrix board game was selected to showcase at the university open day.

Work — I like to build from the ground up.

As fellow graduates were looking for jobs, I was taking on web development projects for small and medium businesses, and NGOs. To take on bigger government, and development agencies projects, I registered a company (Elmot) with an OB which has grown to take on projects like redesigning the look and feel of the tax portal for the Uganda Revenue Authority (initially contracted to an Indian IT multinational), Nutrition Database for UN-FAO, Mobile Apps for Ministry of Agriculture and hundreds of others mostly for small and medium businesses.

I helped grow Elmot to 15 employees and 55 freelancers, serving over 1,500 clients in Uganda, UAE, and Europe, and generating UGX 550M in annual revenue.

Elmot was selected (Gold Category) for IT Export Support by the International Trade Centre (ITC) as at

When we won a government contract but couldn’t get bank credit to deliver it, after a long search I turned to individual investors. They gave us money, we delivered and shared profits. Access to credit is a $2.5T (IMF) problem for SMEs — so, I later experimented this model with other credit-needy SMEs who had won a contract. Although this wasn’t scalable in an SME environment where the government pays too late, I helped 16 SMEs access over $200K in credit from a network of individual investors on a profit/risk-sharing model.

One of Elmot’s corporate projects: Mobile App for the National Agricultural Research Organisation which I led from Proposition, Project Management, Information Architecture, UI/UX wireframing, to Sign-off

At Elmot when 4 in 10 customers didn’t renew hosting, I knew they weren’t getting returns from the websites. I initiated and developed a digital marketing subscription service called VAROWS where we actively worked with clients to get more returns from websites. For this project, we received Export mentorship support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to export our services to Europe. While lockdowns slowed us down, this project was eventually acquired by another local company and was listed as bankable by the Uganda Investment Authority for the DubaiExpo2020. See page 083.

I create new feedback loops and close information gaps for civic engagement.

When I watched the President showing photos of hospitals and schools on TV as proof of 35-year progress, I knew public service information is hard to access; hard to interpret; and hard to react to. I created a platform for citizens to visualize progress data; interact with public databases; react to corruption; view regular updates, and engage with state services instantly. Because the hands-off political system is designed to alienate the citizen from common issues & decisions, this project didn’t receive the support it needed to grow.

Prototype screenshot: I was in charge of concept research and development, ideation, planning, persona development, customer journey mapping, UX research, wireframing, UI/UX design, and UX writing.

Along the way to my office, an old woman begs daily along traffic-jam to care for cancer-tumored kids. When I saw the same faces for over five months, I thought her model wasn’t working so I created a platform to target goodwill buyers to buy from merchants willing to give a share of the sale to help fix the children’s disfigured faces and care for their recovery.

Ann calling for help on a traffic-jammed road along the way to my office.

After 12 years running Elmot, a 40-day sabbatical with a Sufi order practicing selflessness, humility, and inviting others to good inspired me to question my role in the digital world. On each project, I relived cynical ‘lack of motivation’ with how we were optimising websites for wealth accumulation; on the other hand, the above incident preoccupied me with ‘optimistic imagination’ about how we could instead optimise the system for wealth distribution.

Systems-Thinking: I question the status quo including my own beliefs

As I dug deeper into the above initiative, I learnt that poverty was the main cause. Rural poverty (which I had lived and breathed in my youth) denies people the healthcare to prevent tumours from growing to malignant levels. I initiated a Product Innovation Centre; to be equipped with the right talent to help people increase incomes through product & process innovation, business model, & cultural innovation for micro/small businesses to access richer markets.

Here I worked on three projects, a rural women’s group to access finance for their income projects, another group of urban women selling roasted plantain on the street to get healthier and environmentally friendly stoves and access richer markets, and designed a partnership concept where local corporates adopt purpose-driven growth by investing in handholding micro-businesses through their digital transformation journey while increasing incomes for the poor.

As we talked to these women, you could see the spark in their eyes for the prospect of lifting their lives a level higher — one elderly woman said ‘don’t leave me behind my child’ — a strong reminder and condemnation against a system designed to lift a few while leaving most behind in its pursuit for limitless profits.

From this initiative, I learned that social projects find it hard to get funds because;

  • Untold Stories: Suffering prevails not because people don’t care or because they are selfish, but because the stories of those suffering aren’t known to those willing to help out — wherever they are.
  • Social Middlemen: The social finance architecture is riddled with self-interested social-middlemen. Whether it is big development organisations like UNDP/USAID, Fund managers, CBOs, or Individual Initiatives, the social finance pipeline has enormous leakages — it’s fertile ground for corruption (I know first-hand incidents of how insiders & outsiders game the system), delays, fraud, and many central inefficiencies. As a result, fewer funds reach the issues that most need them — then they become worse — then they require even money to fix.
  • Profit over Purpose: Corporates/partners prefer profit-led growth to purpose-led growth; meaning that they would rather invest in manipulative marketing to grow than in achieving the same goal by investing in communities to handhold the very people they get profits from.
  • Innovate, but for only the rich: How are we to lift more people out of poverty if the engine of capitalism, ‘Innovation’ is a preserve of the ’haves’? MIT Solve says “while over 70% of the world’s population lives under $10 a day, most research, technological development, and innovation are designed to solve the problems of the top 30%.” I visited ATOS’s innovation center in Netherlands and 9 in 10 high-budget projects are futuristic ‘solutions looking for a problem’, which is a common theme nowadays. Innovations’ focus on the haves explains the elusive global economic inequality.
  • Predatory Innovation: It gets worse, the people above the pyramid will instead squeeze even the last penny from those below them to remain atop. Some are intentional others not. Take the chocolate industry, for example, African cocoa farmers receive only 5% of the price of chocolate — am sure you know who gets the biggest chunk. Vodafone’s MPesa charges 20% per ‘mobile money’ transaction — that would otherwise be free with cash — not to mention that it’s public money that funded the Mobile Money pilot. This is the theme for most of Africa’s resources.

The intentional ones are even tear-dropping. While market-researching for that P2P Lending solution for companies with a contract, we interviewed staff of a Microfinance bank with roots in New York — she advised us as a strategic insight to instead focus on informal micro-businesses run by mostly women because the bank lends them at +75% interest and that in her words “They Pay It Without Knowing”.

This microfinance is unethically profiting from the ignorance of my mums, aunts, old village playmates and is keeping them in the very poverty they borrow to escape. My own aunt ran away from her village because of group pressure to pay an exorbitant -$500 microloan. In Andhra Pradesh — India hundreds of people committed suicide for failure to pay microloans.

  • Private Control: Social and Environmental initiatives aren’t getting the funds they need — not because there is no money, but because it’s controlled by private interests that target even more quick profits.

This led me to question the sustainability of a commercial system designed to milk the cow without feeding it. As a Digital Innovation Strategist, and Social Entrepreneur, I got obsessed with; How can technology coordinate the masses to flourish Nature and Society, the same way it coordinates us to flourish corporations?

I further learnt that inequality is inextricably linked to the climate crisis. This sent me further down the rabbit hole of learning, unlearning, thinking, and strategising how we can engage the everyday citizen to regain agency to positively impact society and environment. I got insights from research, reports, and whitepapers on social & tech trends and a range of subjects like climate change, inequality, activism, regeneration, behavioral science, philosophy, anthropology, sustainability, justice, futurism, commons, systems thinking among others.

In summary, I learned that;

  • life on earth is maintained by a natural flow of resources in which an element depends on the whole to survive and the whole depends on the individual(s) to keep functioning for life to flourish on earth.
  • as an element in the system, the human gets his/her life purpose from that of nature — to serve life by maintaining the natural flow which ensures natural system resilience.
  • but, the scientific classification of elements that promoted differences than relationships between elements plus the enlightenment-era narrative of humans being superior to other beings, both nurtured the now dominant view that we are individualistic material beings whose purpose is to accumulate as much as possible as soon as possible — a narrative that breaks the natural flow.
  • this cycle of accumulating wealth and breaking the natural flow is even accelerated by digital technology that has made it possible to (1) make digital representations of the material world (2) and lowered the cost of reaching the masses — speeding up a destructive demand and supply cycle that is escalating inequality and climate change. Not, that technology is bad in and of itself — it is just a tool, but that if it was driven by purpose over profit, inequality and climate change wouldn’t be increasing.

Only recently has it dawned on me that I was always targeting symptoms of the same problem; self-interest at the expense of common-interest.

A common denominator in all global injustices is a capitalist system designed to ‘legally’ but unjustly disregard the natural flow. This self-reinforcing feedback loop directs the self, markets, and society in an unsustainable direction.

The solution here is harder but not impossible because — as a starting point, we can reconfigure the capitalist tools (ownership, competition, innovation, branding, marketing, & accounting) that have shaped our current beliefs and behaviour, to instead nurture a mindset of balance between ‘self’ & ‘common’ interests. We can redesign commerce to flow with nature instead of against nature. This is a solution to the core problem I’m happy to die working on — which is why I quit my job at Elmot to focus on;

1) Systems Innovating & Design Thinking

to tell inclusive narratives and design just models of value creation and ownership. The just transition will be scaled by a mindset shift, which is why I’m also slowly researching and writing a book “Civic Economy! Live & Work in a Just Future Today.” I started this book project with two goals;

  • as a challenge to take my writing skills a notch higher through daily practice.
  • to gain (through the research and thinking involved) a deeper understanding of the root causes of the injustices that plague the world
    and the leverage points we can adjust to scale justice and accelerate sustainability and regeneration.

The thesis is that, if we reframe the person as a holistic being with spiritual needs, material needs, civic needs, and moral needs, we can inspire;

  • people to live and work with the natural flow — balancing self with common interests and be rewarded with inner and mental well-being.
  • businesses to redesign their practices and strategies to flow with nature by offering spiritual value, civic value, and moral value to customers which is reciprocated with community trust and support.
  • state policies to deploy their coercive power to maintain the natural flow as opposed to protecting self-interest at the expense of common interest.

Another output of my 2–3 year investigation is a (still WIP) design thinking map that reframes the customer from a material being to a holistic being with four categories of value that businesses should be offering.

The customer runs the economy. Today businesses focus on offering only material value which is just 25% of what a holistic person needs. The neglected 75% is what would maintain the natural flow — that ensures justice and sustainability. If businesses can redesign their customer personas and journey maps beyond providing material value — innovation will move from endlessly optimising product features to optimising well-being for people and planet.

I stumbled upon this sustainability design map while playing with personal need and personal duty with respect to two intersecting concepts well-known about ‘man’ 1) Man is a political animal — on the x-axis 2) Homo economicus — on the y-axis. What came up after labeling was that map.

In a few steps, you can identify which quadrant has more of your attention, which one requires more attention, and what intervention you can prescribe. This tool aims to establish balance and harmony with the natural order.

When I mapped our current financial system and saw that one quadrant didn’t have financial tools for citizens to connect to a common purpose (see next figure), I thought this could be extended to be a design thinking tool that considers the complex entanglement of those four aspects of human life to design sustainable business products, processes, models even personal lifestyle goals.

2) Developing civic tools

for the masses to care, love, and protect the health of nature and society as they do their own. There is a $4.5T climate finance gap p.a. (GGGI) and a $2.5T SDG finance gap p.a. (UN). These gaps and their effects are increasing not because there is no money, nor because there are no incentives to send money to social and environmental issues, but largely because of the way our main tools of finance are designed— financial accounts are designed to maximise accumulation, not distribution.

The absence of financial accounts designed with distribution in mind has led to less distribution than is needed, while the ubiquity of financial accounts designed for private accumulation has led to far more accumulation than is sustainable.

However, the advent of digital currencies and blockchain technology as well as the growing consumer demand (read consumer studies) calling on businesses to impact society and the environment more is an opportunity to design an incentive model and prototype a new type of financial account with these balancing features:-

  • An account built with distributive sharing in mind to foster outflows from the commercial system into nature and society.
  • An account built with collective control in mind, to fast-track funding decisions to the issues that most need funds.
  • An account that bypasses social-middlemen to increase impact per dollar.

So, after mapping the narrative, its effects, and the tools used, a fintech innovator using the above design thinking map would come up with the following

I’ve completed a draft whitepaper, customer journey maps, use-case diagrams, and a sprint brief for a community treasury which I consider a civic financial account built with distribution in mind. It empowers citizens to self-organise along forces of belonging (like location, profession, interests, workplace, faith, university etc ) to inspire businesses and individuals to flow with nature by contributing to collective funds pooling and funding decisions. This requires a shift from Ego-centric roles to Eco-centric roles as below.

Below is the potential impact of such an account.

Individual: At the Individual level, this account will accelerate mindset and lifestyle conversion from unsustainable to sustainable. The assumption is that people update their economic beliefs based on the issues their lives interact with daily. As the individual interacts with a civic financial account, connects to stories of common interest and makes common-interest decisions, s/he is inspired to reflect on and update her/his beliefs to balance self with common needs making him/her more likely to value the common good by choosing a sustainable lifestyle. This impact can be measured using randomised control trials to show causality.

Civic Markets: As more people adopt sustainable lifestyles, markets are incentivised to switch to sustainable products, processes, and business models. But a more direct impact is the contribution to the social/climate finance gaps — as businesses are inspired (as a strategic policy) to share the economic cake and be rewarded with community trust and support.

Society: Abundance not Scarcity
The civic financial accounts are designed to increase the velocity of money. The faster money moves, the less you need to hold onto it, and the more there’s for everyone. The less we all need money, the less we extract earth/society, and the more sustainable the world becomes.

Since this project requires radical collaboration, I’m actively looking to join a purpose-aligned agile team to co-create the project. I’m looking for organisations with an entrepreneurial culture, a focus on purpose, and the ability to convene a partnership with FinTech, blockchain, and others to develop the MVP.

The future of non-state social-finance is a love triangle between the business, its customer community, and social/environmental issues — no middlemen. This interdependent love triangle needs a financial account to bond the three together for the common good — just like corporate bank accounts bond corporate workers to maximising profit and growth.

This love triangle is the moral and civic infrastructure we need to transform the self, markets, and society to build the natural-flow muscle while fixing climate change and inequality. In case you’re interested in making this future possible, I’m happy to chat more about co-creating it.



Abdul Semakula

Systems Innovator co-creating bottom-up a distributive & regenerative future at