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Nushelle de Silva: Leading change in practice

Nushelle de Silva: Leading change in practice

Redesigning the future

Nushelle de Silva explains how design thinking has impacted her life and her project, and how it could help shape all our futures.

Acting transformed me. I’ll never forget how my first attempt at grappling with understanding the role I was playing in a school play led me to grapple with more philosophical questions – like how I worked through understanding and empathising with real-life people, including myself.

It was this gift I hoped to pay forward when in 2012 I started Building Bridges. This is an arts initiative that uses theatre games, creative writing, art, and team-building games to reconcile Kakkaiyankulam and Chiraddikulam – two formerly displaced communities in Sri Lanka.


I devoted my time to figuring out how best to frame the lessons I wanted to teach – compassion, creative and collaborative problem-solving, and critical thinking. As I did, I found myself hoarding resources on design thinking, like the Stanford’s Bootcamp Bootleg, and Frog Design’s Collective Action Toolkit.

But I was figuring out so many things at once – logistics, creating syllabi, mastering a new language, working through my own fears about taking ownership of what I was doing – that I never got around to working through why I felt, instinctively, that design thinking could be useful for Building Bridges.

Drama and design

At first, I thought it was because the human-centred approach to design appealed to my recovering-from-architecture-studio soul. But this past year, Leading Change gave us the opportunity to do a deep dive into design thinking with the incredible Hazel White and Andy Young. It was this – coupled with mentoring from Megha Wadhawan who introduced me to the DIY Toolkit – that made me realise the tools appealed to me as an actor.

smiling boys in the foreground and other children doing drama

Young actors at Building Bridges, Sri Lanka

Generating user stories reminded me of the hot-seat game we played while getting into character – like pondering what Ophelia in Hamlet might like to eat for breakfast. Improvisation games are a staple of design thinking, and I’ve played them during warm-ups before rehearsal. The Fast Idea Generator is essentially Mad Libs.

All of this has given me a reason to re-evaluate what I do with Building Bridges, to own that it is far more than a “side project” in my life, and to understand where my own expertise lies.


It gave me the confidence to attempt a design thinking session at a United Nations (UN) workshop in August on the role of youth in reconciliation – attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself. I was petrified, but also genuinely excited to share what I was learning.

During the session, we wrestled with the all-important question of who we’re designing reconciliation initiatives for – youth who are not removed from us, or even somewhat like us, but are us.

As we worked through what these Sri Lankans thought and felt and said and did, we thought about how important it is to empathise – and how, ultimately, reconciliation absolutely has to take place outside the four walls we were working in.

I’ll be honest, I packed far too many exercises into my workshop, so we didn’t get to all of them. And we were all pretty exhausted at the end. But we got so much more out of it than if we’d just had a polite discussion. And I learned so much about structuring future design thinking workshops!

Clear thinking

As I think about my role in the evolution of Building Bridges, I think about how much fun I had developing the outline for that workshop, and how much I love creating curricula like this.

It has given me so much clarity in terms of the kind of work I want to do for Building Bridges – and for always. I’m already planning a design thinking summer workshop for the children I work with in Kakkaiyankulam and Chiraddikulam.

When I started working with these students, they were in primary school. It felt logical to play with them, while demonstrating how playtime was a time for learning important life lessons like teamwork and creativity. As they grow into serious-faced teenagers – preparing for o’levels and beyond – I still want to give them the powerful gift of theatre, but in the form of tools that they can turn to even when they’re in a jam.

The techniques of design thinking Hazel and Andy shared with us are perfect for this. They are sophisticated tools that students can use to critically examine themselves and their communities. They are tools that will help them work as co-collaborators on the important project of designing a better future for all of us.