About the Assignments

The three assignments in this seminar introduce a range of tools/approaches that can be used in designing for societal transitions and systems-level change:  1) Mapping Wicked Problems;  2) Multi-Level Perspective Mapping (MLP);  3) Transition Design Case Study. Together these assignments represent an emerging process for mapping and understanding complex problems and their dynamics and a framework for designing interventions that can catalyze transition.

The first and second assignments are intended to demonstrate that the development of a comprehensive ‘map’ of the problem (with its interdependencies and interconnections and conflicting stakeholder relations) can guide both research and the formulation of new projects and initiatives. The MLP is useful in thinking about how to shift the larger socio-technical system (that forms the context for the problem) and reveal opportunities for projects and initiatives that seed and catalyze systems-level change. It is important to note that within the context of a semester-long seminar, all we can do is introduce the process. If applied to a real project/problem, extensive research would inform the creation of both problem map and an MLP of the problem and context. The third assignment, the transition design case study, challenges students to evaluate an existing project within a transition design context, then use it as the basis for conceiving solutions that catalyze transition. The second stage of the case study assignment asks students to use a variety of tools such as Manfred Max-Neef’s theory of needs, the formulation of future visions, backcasting, the relationship triad and the domains of everyday life.

All of these assignments will be undertaken within small groups and students will be evaluated upon their ability to collaborate successfully throughout the process. The ability to collaborate with others is a 21st century design skill and the Mindset & Posture section of the Transition Design framework discusses this extensively.

We have identified 12 problems facing Pittsburgh in the 21st century:

  1. Lack of access to healthy food
  2. Lack of access to renewable/affordable energy
  3. Lack of affordable housing
  4. Lack of access to public transportation
  5. Lack of access to high quality education
  6. Poor water quality
  7. Poor air quality
  8. Gentrification
  9. Homelessness
  10. Crime
  11. Unemployment/underemployment
  12. Increasingly elderly population

The class cohort will be divided into 8 groups and each group will select a different topic that they will apply to all three assignments. The objective is to not only understand the complexities and interdependencies within each problem, but to also understand the relationships and feedback loops between the wicked problems themselves. For example the wicked problem of gentrification is likely connected to the problem of homelessness and unemployment. The understanding of the problem acquired by students in the first and second assignment will be the basis for developing synergistic solutions in the case study. Using Max-Neef’s term, synergistic solutions are those that address multiple issues simultaneously.

A detailed description of the three assignments can be found by clicking on the tabs at the top of this page.

#1: Mapping Wicked Problems

Assigned 1.25.2017 – lecture with Terry Irwin

For the first assignment, each group will select one of the wicked problems listed on the previous page and will apply it to all three assignments. The Mapping Wicked Problems assignment tasks students with understanding the anatomy and dynamics of the wicked problem by:  1) identifying root causes;  2) identifying the consequences/ramifications connected to the root problems;  3) identifying the problem’s stakeholders and their symbiotic, conflicting or contradictory relations.

We have mapped out the following steps to help guide groups in thinking through the problem and assignment. An example of a hypothetical problem map and stakeholder relations map are shown at the bottom of the page.

Find a personal connection to the problem: Begin the exercise by finding an aspect of the problem that affects members of the group personally (have you been a victim of crime, do you know or have interactions with a homeless person, are you affected by poor air quality, do you worry about the quality of water in Pittsburgh, are you affected by a lack of public transport, do you have a problem finding healthy food in the course of your day? etc.) and discuss the problem as a group, looking at it from as many different perspectives as possible. Who are the stakeholders that the problem affects (there are likely to be many more groups than you initially think there are)? Starting off with a thorough discussion about the problem is the best way to start.

Begin to map the root causes of the problem within the following categories: 1) Social issues, 2) environmental issues,  3) economic issues,  4) political issues,  5) infrastructural issues. Social issues involve stakeholders (this includes all of the individuals and groups that are affected by the problem, including other species and the environment). Stakeholders often have shared or conflicting value sets, cultural norms, political/spiritual views, belief systems that contribute to the problem’s complexity. Environmental issues involve the natural environment/ecosystem/watershed that Pittsburgh is situated within. Environmental issues are one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of complex, wicked problems. Economic issues are often connected to the dominant, for-profit paradigm which can be at odds with social and environmental concerns. Political issues often concern matters of policy, voter preferences, the funding of projects/initiatives related to the problem, etc. Infrastructural issues are connected to tangible, concrete artifacts such as water purification and distribution, technologies (or lack of) related to the problem or its solution and all of the myriad ‘things’ designers touch (artifacts, environments, communications etc).

Brainstorm as many of the issues connected to the wicked problem as possible, writing a single issue on a single post-it. Try to populate each of the categories with as many post-its as possible. Next begin a clustering exercise (preferably on a white board surface) to distinguish root causes from consequences. This is an important part of understanding a wicked problem and is a bit like distinguishing between the disease and its symptoms. The objective is not to arrive at a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer but rather to enter into a process of analysis in which root causes might be revealed that are not immediately apparent. For example, the problem of poor air quality in Pittsburgh might have a root cause in the political realm (lack of policy regulating air quality) or the economic realm (local economies may rely on industries that contribute to air pollution). The point is to have a discussion about root causes vs. consequences/symptoms.

Connect root causes with consequences: Next connect root causes and their consequences visually. The easiest way is to put them on different color post-it notes. Group these pairs (or clusters) under their respective categories and arrange them to form a large map of the entire problem. Next, begin to look for connections and draw lines between them. Which root causes or consequences are related? For example a root cause in the political area of the map is very likely to have a connection in the social area of the map. Or, a lack of awareness of the problem or issue in the social sphere may be connected to an inability to get a policy implemented in the political sphere that might address it. Mapping these interdependencies and interconnections shows where tensions and synergies exist in the system and will later reveal ‘leverage points for change’ that guide strategies for design interventions. After lines of interdependency and connection have been drawn, photograph the result.

Visualizing the problem map and conducting research: We recommend using a cloud-based mind-mapping tool called Mindmup to visualize the post-it map. This tool is very basic and unfortunately doesn’t enable users to create hierarchies and other graphic effects, but it is useful because it enables group collaboration and is compatible with Google Docs. Once the post-it map has been reproduced in Mindmup, the group should continue researching the problem to correct erroneous assumptions or connections that were made. The initial mapping exercise is a sketch that informs further research and should not be considered accurate. In an actual transition design project the map would be used to guide myriad research projects aimed at arriving at an accurate problem map that would continue to evolve over time. The constraints of the class will not enable field research, so find out as much as you can about the problem with desktop-based research. As the group discovers new causes and consequences, they should be added to the map. For consistency please use black boxes for the categories of root causes, red and orange boxes for primary/secondary root causes and light blue for consequences (see the visual example below).

Mapping stakeholder relations: Using the same process as above, conduct a brainstorming session to list as many stakeholder groups as possible, making sure to include other species and the environment. As before, list one group per post-it. Arrange the post-its on a white board with ample room between them. Next, speculate on two categories of concerns related to the problem for each stakeholder group: 1) fears/concerns; 2) hopes/desires. (Note: this is a purely hypothetical exercise to demonstrate process. In an actual project, conducting extensive stakeholder research would be essential in order to understand genuine concerns). Once the group has listed attitudes that each stakeholder group has regarding the problem, begin to map relations between the stakeholder groups. Use solid red lines to indicate conflictual/opposing agendas and concerns, solid green lines to indicate synergies/aligned agendas and solid blue lines to indicate there may be contradictory relations between groups (i.e. some concerns might be shared and other might be opposing). This is an often overlooked dynamic within wicked problems and these social relations are often barriers to solutions in many areas, particularly in the area of infrastructure and politics. Because these relationships and tensions permeate wicked problems, they also have the potential to serve as leverage points for change. Aligning stakeholder groups who share concerns and working to conceive projects and initiatives that bridge divides is a transition design strategy. When the stakeholder map is complete, photograph it and construct in in Mindmup so that the group can refine it together.

To be completed as homework, due Discussion Session on 2.6.2017

Example of a wicked problem map

The wicked problem map below was developed for a Transition Design workshop in Ojai California to introduce local stakeholders with the process. This quick ‘sketch’ was developed by the workshop organizers to illustrate the process. It is important to note that when working on an actual project, a map like this would be developed in a co-design process with multiple stakeholder groups and would be informed by extensive research. Assignment 1 introduces the approach to students in an abbreviated process informed by desktop research only and therefore will NOT be an accurate representation of the problem.

Mapping Stakeholder Relations

The example below describes the process for mapping stakeholder relations. As with the problem map above, this exercise is meant to introduce students to the importance of understanding the complex and often conflictual relations among stakeholders and will be based upon speculation. An actual project would involve extensive research with stakeholders in order to understand concerns/fears and hopes/desires for each group. Students should draw lines of connection that characterize the nature of the relationship as well as list their speculations about concerns.

#2: Multi-Level Perspective Mapping

Assigned 2.27.2017 – discussion session on Socio-Technical Regime Theory

Assignment #2 introduces the Multi-level perspective approach (MLP) as a strategy for seeding and catalyzing change within complex, socio-technical systems. Assignment #1 was aimed at understanding the anatomy and dynamics of the problem itself. Assignment #2 challenges students to look at the anatomy and dynamics of the problem’s context—the socio-technical system. Students will continue work in their same groups with the wicked problem from assignment 1.

Becoming familiar with the MLP: to begin, the group should discuss the MLP and refer to the Geels article (2005) that documents the historical socio-technical transition from horse-drawn carriage to automobile (see diagram below). The MLP distinguishes between three systems levels; the landscape (large and slow moving social/economic/political/cultural/environmental events); the regime (networks, groups and institutions and/or infrastructure that can become ‘entrenched’); and the niche (small, informal ‘protected’ spaces where innovations can be developed, risks taken and norms challenged). Socio-technical systems have similar anatomy and dynamics as wicked problems that include: beliefs and norms, designed artifacts and communications and large infrastructural systems. Donella Meadows’ article “Places to intervene in a System” can be a useful guide for thinking about which factors are likely to trigger the most significant systems-level change. An initial discussion is a good way for the group to ‘play’ with the MLP and practice thinking between systems levels to see their interconnections and non-linear dynamics.

Situating the wicked problem within the MLP: Using the Geels diagram as a guide, develop a visual map that situates the wicked problem within a socio-technical (MLP) context. To begin, work informally at a white board with post-its. What are the factors at the landscape and/or regime levels that are connected to the problem? What are the factors at the regime level that might be barriers to solutions proposed at the niche level? Note that the Geels diagram maps an historical transition in hindsight. Assignment 2 challenges students to understand a problem in the present in order to propose strategic interventions aimed at transitioning the entire system toward a more sustainable future. For example: the wicked problem of Ojai’s water shortage is connected to climate change, a condition that exists at the landscape level. The problem also exists at the regime level in a number of ways including ‘entrenched’ cultural norms (attitudes about water use, hygiene, aesthetics connected to gardens etc.) and an inefficient and outdated water infrastructure (that results in loss of fresh water and inefficient irrigation and purification technologies).

These landscape and regime-level issues have opened up opportunities for innovation in a number of areas at the niche level (such as new technologies aimed at water purification). We say ‘opened opportunities’ because these new technologies did not/could not gain traction until climate change led to the critical lack of water that could not be solved within the existing regime structure. The group should attempt to map the various technologies, infrastructural systems, businesses, practices and services and ‘norms’ that are connected to the wicked problem from a socio-technical point of view. Pay particular attention to where barriers lie or where what the socio-technical researchers refer to as ‘path dependence’ may exist, because these are often points of opportunity for seeding systems-level change.

Proposing ‘interventions’ and solutions: Once the group has developed a good visual overview of the problem within the socio-technical system context (resembling the Geels diagram), they should begin to identify ‘leverage points’ within the system where proposed solutions would have the greatest potential for change — solving for the problem (we say solving for the problem because their is single solution that will solve it). It might be easiest to begin at the level of the niche. What new projects or solutions could be proposed, protected and developed at the regime level? What is occurring at the landscape and regime level that would enable or prohibit these proposed solutions? Is it possible to introduce interventions at all three levels simultaneously that reinforce each other (feedback) to impact the problem more significantly? What are existing projects, solutions, policies, norms etc. that can be leveraged for greater impact? (sometimes projects that may seem unrelated, when linked, can become powerful collective leverage points for change). Within this context, ‘leverage’ might mean connecting new and existing solutions, amplifying some, or in other cases, ‘dampening’ or eliminating them altogether. Remember Meadows’ concept of positive and negative feedback loops and the ways in which they can drive change within a system.

At this stage, simply discuss what ‘types’ of projects might help address the problem and note them on the diagram as well as existing projects and initiatives related to the problem. Existing and potential solutions will likely exist at all three levels within the socio-technical system and will involve action in many areas (economic, technological, political, infrastructural and social; i.e. changing mindsets, cultural norms and everyday practices). Once existing and proposed solutions are indicated on the diagram, the group should discuss which of these have the potential to trigger the greatest degree of change in the system and how they might be connected for greater leverage. For instance, conceiving a new policy aimed at water conservation could be reinforced by projects aimed at educating citizens about water use and providing them with information and initiatives that encourage them to change their mindsets about water use and support behaviors aimed at conserving water. Try to identify as many intervention points as possible in the system and identify what type of solution would best be situated there.

How transition design resembles acupuncture: Conceiving solutions within large socio-technical systems can be likened to the work of an acupuncturist who first examines the human body in order to understand where the dissonance/disease lies, and then strategically places needles along certain meridians to ‘nudge’ the system back into health. The acupuncturist’s understanding the of whole system and its interconnections and energy dynamics (the meridians) enables him/her to place the needles for the greatest impact.

The final result: The final result of this assignment should be a map that resembles the Geels diagram but also has existing projects and initiatives that address some or all of the wicked problem as well as proposed/new projects indicated. The group should find a way to visually show how these projects could be connected for greater leverage and be prepared to discuss how systems dynamics informed their work.

Documenting the process: an important part of a Transition Designer’s role is to develop effective ways of visualizing the complexity both problems and their context. These visualizations can serve to both coordinate action and guide strategy. The group should document each phase of their process and most of it should be undertaken together. Each group should prepare a final digital presentation that shows:  1) overall MLP diagram that shows conditions related to the problem at the 3 levels;  2) proposed solutions/interventions;  3) description of the process;  4) brief discussion on the difficulties, insights gained and how this compares with traditional design process.

An important note: In actual practice transition design will be slow, patient work that requires careful observation followed by a period of waiting and observation after an intervention is undertaken. For this reason, transition design projects will likely span many years or even decades. This assignment introduces a process and it will not be possible to do more than speculate on the questions posed. The transition design process would always be informed by extensive research.

To be completed as homework, due Discussion Session 3.5-3.6.2017


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#3: Transition Design Case Study

Assigned 4.5.2017

In assignments 1 and 2, students developed an understanding of the wicked problem and its context, identified opportunities for new interventions (solutions) as well as existing ones, and proposed connections among them for greater leverage in ‘seeding’ transition of the entire system. Assignment 3 challenges students to conceive a specific transition design solution using additional tools and approaches. Working with the same wicked problem, groups will develop a 2-step transition design case study.

No single project or solution will solve a wicked problem: Remember that there is no single solution to a wicked problem. The individual project/solution that is developed in this assignment will not solve the wicked problem or catalyze systems-level change on its own. This assignment introduces a process for conceiving more responsible, effective solutions that are tied to a compelling vision of the future. Solving for a wicked problem and seeding/catalyzing systems-level change requires the strategic implementation of multiple interventions at multiple levels of scale over multiple time horizons.

Step 1: Critique of an existing project/solution: Step one asks groups to critique an existing project/solution related to their wicked problem through the lens of transition design. To begin, the group should work with the visual map from assignment 2 and look for existing projects or initiatives aimed at solving the problem that may already be underway. One of the challenges transition designers will face is the need to ‘retro fit’ existing solutions; building upon them, changing their objectives or trajectories (by connecting them to a future-based vision) and establishing symbiotic connections with similar or complementary projects and solutions. Discuss which of the existing projects mapped on the MLP diagram has the greatest potential to impact the problem and seed change within the system. Using Case Study Template 1 (below) the group should answer all of the questions posed in order to gain an understanding of the project. The template lays out a process for ‘critiquing’ existing projects and initiatives from a transition design point of view. The evaluation process integrates additional tools and approaches including Manfred Max-Neef’s theory of needs and the Winterhouse Social Pathways matrix. It encourages students to evaluate projects within spatio-temporal contexts in order to understand where in the system they sit and what their potential to catalyze change might be. It also asks the group to speculate on the Theory of Change used to develop the project and analyze whether it is meeting genuine human needs. Groups do not need to follow the same visual format as the template. Instructions for presentation are outlined below.

Step 2: developing a transition design solution: In step 2, the group will speculate on how the project critiqued in step 1 could become the basis for a transition design solution. As in step 1, walk through all of the content areas of the template and have a discussion about each of the questions. An important note: the transition design process always advocates that solutions conceived in the present are connected to long-term visions of a future in which problem(s) have been resolved. Backcasting from this preferred future creates a ‘transition pathway’ along which individual projects become steps in a longer transition. Because of the limited amount of time, we have not had a session dedicated to developing a future, life-styles based vision in which the wicked problem has been resolved. For the purposes of this exercise, the group should spend a limited amount of time discussing this vision as part of step 2.

Case study format: Groups should plan to create their 2-step case studies in Medium (do not create Word files) and connect to the class publication website. All of the content areas in the templates provided below must be addressed, however the Medium pages can be created in any format the group wishes, as long as there is a clear separation between part 1 and part two. We encourage the use of imagery and groups should reference the diagrams created in both assignment 1 and 2 to provide context.

Due at the end of the semester, case study presentations 4.24.2017 – 5.01.2017