Transition Design is concerned with seeding and catalyzing intentional, systems-level change, which will involve processes that last for many years, dozens of decades, or even generations, and require a deep understanding of systems and their dynamics. In particular, Transition Design is concerned with three kinds of systems: 1) living systems (the environment); 2) socio-technical systems (tangles of people, technology and the built world) and 3) wicked problems which are systems problems. Both socio-technical systems and wicked problems exhibit characteristics of living systems: they exist at multiple levels of scale, are interconnected and interdependent, are self-organizing, display emergent properties, and their dynamics are governed by feedback loops. Therefore changes in in one area of a system, ramify throughout in unpredictable ways.
These systems are everywhere and their ubiquity is perhaps best explained by this old joke: Two fish bump into each other and one says to the other “how’s the water?” and the other replies “what water?”. Marshall McLuhan, in his book War and Peace in the Global Village, said “one thing fish know nothing about is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”
Systems are so ubiquitous and our interactions with them so pervasive, we don’t really see them, and therefore don’t understand them very well. But these unnoticed systems produce their own patterns of behavior over time, become entrenched and intractable, and are therefore unintentionally directing our societal transitions toward unsustainable futures. Transition Design aspires to develop an approach to shift the trajectory of these systems through strategically placed, designed ‘interventions’ over short, mid and long horizons of time.
Transition Design resembles Chinese acupuncture in its approach. Acupuncturists look for points of intervention that have the greatest potential to transition the system back into balance and health. Where the needles are placed can seem wildly counter-intuitive, but is actually based upon a deep understanding of the body’s systems dynamics. Transition Design proposes a similar approach to seed and catalyze the transition of our socio-technical-ecological systems toward sustainability. A group of scientists, engineers and researchers in northern Europe (STRN) have been mapping the anatomy of historical socio-technical transitions for nearly two decades—essentially providing a roadmap for initiating transitions. We think it needs to also integrate social practices, human behavior and worldview into its approach, but is nonetheless a useful framework for thinking about complex societal transitions.
Social organizations, natural ecosystems and even wicked problems are all examples of complex systems that Transition Designers must design for and within. The study of the dynamics within these ‘living systems’ (such as emergence, resilience, feedback, sensitivity to initial conditions, self organization and the dynamic/temporal relationship between ‘whole’ and ‘part’) has shown that they have great relevance for design, but can often seem counter intuitive. If systems dynamics can be better understood, they can be leveraged by Transition Designers to seed, catalyze and direct systems level change. A brief lecture will introduce the concept of systems which will be followed by a discussion of the assigned texts.
See Additional Resources for this class before you begin the readings.