Innovation for Justice

Waters Center for Systems Thinking has had the privilege of working with students from the University of Arizona who are engaged with the Innovation for Justice (i4J) program. Stacy Butler, Program Director, explains, “i4J is a social justice innovation lab that designs, builds, and tests disruptive solutions to the justice gap.” Students apply both systems thinking and design thinking to pressing, relevant challenges. Waters Center has been fortunate to help build the systems thinking capacity of these remarkable students.

Description of i4J

The civil legal system promises justice for all, but in reality, that promise is not being delivered. Barriers to entry, power imbalances, and flawed processes inhibit the civil legal system from working as it should. Marginalized populations are most likely to be excluded from effective use of the civil legal system. In the midst of this system failure, how can innovation and technology unlock the promise of equal justice?
The Innovation for Justice (i4J) program exposes students to the justice gap, engages students in thinking critically about the power of technology and innovation to close that gap, and empowers students to be disruptive problem-solvers in the changing world of legal services. Students will work across disciplines and with government, private and community partners, implementing design thinking and systems thinking to create new models of legal empowerment.1

Project Goals

  • Use systems thinking Habits and tools to assess the state of current systems
  • Think critically and solve complex problems using systems thinking Habits and tools
  • Apply systems thinking to specific i4J tasks
  • Self-assess personal systems thinking capacity development
  • Apply systems thinking skills to define and clarify desired results


In 2019, Waters Center had the joy of meeting with students in person and hearing first-hand how they could connect the Habits of a Systems Thinker and systems thinking tools, like the Ladder of Inference, in their drive to understand critical issues in human trafficking from multiple points of view. Students reported that systems thinking genuinely helped them see things from different perspectives and referenced the tools and Habits as they developed and tested solutions.
In the fall semester of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, students worked to address issues of medical debt, specifically in Utah, and once again approached this issue from a systems thinking point of view. Our systems thinking support for students also became 100% virtual. While personal contact is still desirable, the upside of the virtual work was that we could see the connections and ideas of individual students as opposed to working with the whole group all at once.


  • Students use the Habits of a Systems Thinker as a means of building systems thinking into their daily practice.
  • Students give themselves permission to not “fall in love” with their first idea, but rather explore the consequences of multiple solutions.
  • Students think more broadly about problems and what could be contributing to them.
  • Students have tools for dealing with complexity.
The following are statements of impact in students’ words:
“Layering systems thinking strategies into our work made this challenge way more approachable.”
“This felt like an effective tool to refine what problem we will address and the best way to address that problem. This helped me practice not just jumping in when I spot a problem using design thinking, but to evaluate the best intervention point and potential cause and effects to make sure our intervention will be the most effective and efficient. This is important for whoever will be benefiting from the intervention. It is also essential given the limited resources many problem solvers have.”
“I learned the components of the system are interconnected and interdependent. Making a change at one end of the system can have a positive effect on the other end. Bright spots are solutions that come from alternative thinking that is tailored to meet the needs of the community. Ripple effect helps expand our range of empathy to encompass not only our immediate stakeholders but those connected to them as well. We can come up with innovative approaches by analyzing the problem upstream and downstream - we can begin the process upstream with no outcome assumptions and results in diverse outcomes or downstream with product creation assumptions and results in product outcomes.”
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