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.