Course Overview & Structure

This course aims to familiarize graduate and doctoral students with the concept of ‘transition’ and ‘transition theory,’ which can now be found within many fields, disciplines and grassroots movements. It also introduces a new field of design research, study and practice: Transition Design, that proposes design-led transition toward more sustainable futures. Transition Design has now been integrated into coursework and research strands in other institutions around the world, including: The University of Palermo, Argentina; EINA University, Barcelona; Schumacher College/Plymouth University, UK; University of New South Wales, Sydney; RMIT University, Melbourne. More can be found on Transition Design on the website.

There are 5 components to this course: 1) readings;  2) topical lectures;  3) in-class discussions;  4) online discussion forum;  5) in-class exercises;  6) three assignments.

Readings, Topical Lectures & In-Class Discussions: This is a seminar class that is based upon extensive readings and topical lectures that inform class discussions. Each class has a list of both required and supplemental reading. Required texts should be read thoroughly and we recommend giving the supplemental texts a quick skim to see if there are subjects that may resonate. Discussion leaders are expected to complete readings for their assigned class a week before.

Online Discussion Forum: this course website has been made public so that our partner universities and other educators can use this syllabus to teach a parallel course and/or integrate Transition Design concepts into curricula. At the conclusion of each class, student discussion leaders will seed a discussion based upon the topics discussed and students are expected to contribute a 300+ word response and participate in the ongoing discussion for that week. Educators, researchers and others will be able to join in the online forum. Initially the forum will reside on the class website, but eventually migrate to

In-Class Exercises: instructors and discussion leaders will, throughout the semester, develop a range of in-class exercises designed to challenge students to engage more deeply with the topics being discussed.

Three Assignments: instructors will assign three group-based assignments that will require work outside class. 1) Mapping wicked problems;  2) MLP mapping  3) Developing a Transition Design case study. Information about these assignments can be found in the ‘Assignments’ section of the website and on the corresponding class pages.

Lecture vs. Discussion Formats: Because of the large class size, we will employ two different formats: Lectures will include the entire class cohort and meet in MMCH 107. For discussion sessions, the class will be divided into two groups with one instructor, one PhD student and one teaching assistant in each. Each discussion group will have 2-3 student discussion leaders. The teaching assistants will assign people to discussion groups and assign discussion leadership. One group will meet in MMCH 107 and the other in MMCH 215.

More information can be found in the Requirements and Grading section of this website.

Course Website

This website serves as the syllabus for the Transition Design Seminar 2 course. It has been designed for students taking the class as well as external educators and researchers who may wish to replicate the course or use information and materials to supplement courses they may already be teaching. An overview/schedule can be found in the ‘Course Calendar’ section and on the ‘Classes’ landing page. There are three types of pages students should check prior to each class:

  1. Classes pages: In the ‘Classes’ section of the website most classes have their own a separate page (classes devoted to presentations do not have a class page). Each page contains an overview of the topics covered, discussion leader assignments and required and supplemental texts with links. Students are required to review the class page and complete readings prior to the class.
  2. Additional Resources pages: Every class page has a corresponding supplementary page in the ‘Additional Resources’ section of the website. These pages contain videos and links to other sites with relevant information. Students should peruse the Additional Resource page before starting the readings. The supplemental material provides a ‘soft entry’ into the more in-depth information in the readings and provides a good overview for the discussions that will follow.
  3. Assignments pages: In the ‘Assignments’ section of the website, there is a separate page for each of the 3 assignments. Here a detailed account of the assignment is given as well as a step by step process for completing it. These pages also contain visual examples and concepts diagrams. Note: the corresponding Class pages provide only a brief overview of the assignment with a link back to the ‘Assignments’ page.

This website will be continually updated throughout the semester and assignment due dates may shift, so please check regularly for the most current information.

Course Texts

Please purchase at least two of the four recommended courses texts below. Together these texts set the context for the seminar and are an excellent foundation for the serious student who wants to continue working in the areas of Transition Design and Design for Social Innovation beyond this seminar. You should peruse them during the course of the semester and reference them in class discussions and the online discussion threads.

A NOTE TO OUTSIDE USERS: Many of the text links connect to a closed-access CMU Box site where students download excerpts from books and articles, some of which are out of print. Whenever possible we have linked to outside sources. Some journal articles may be accessed through a user’s academic affiliation. For further information about accessing course readings contact:

Supplemental Readings & Additional Resources

Each class has a list of required and supplemental (non-required) readings as well as additional resources. We have placed Additional Resources for each class in a separate section of the website that includes: topic-related videos, conceptual diagrams and links to related websites and articles. We suggest that you peruse all of these prior to engaging deeply with the readings. The videos especially provide a good overview to the class topic and readings and set a broad context and ‘soft entry’ into the subject matter. Most videos are quite short but we have included a few that are longer.

Course Objectives & Learning Outcomes

By the end of the semester, students should demonstrate:

  • A familiarity with a range of transdisciplinary discourses regarding change and transition within complex systems. An understanding of how knowledge, concepts and theories outside the field of design are relevant to informing new, more responsible and appropriate approaches to design.
  • A familiarity with the range of large, ‘wicked’ problems confronting society in the 21st century (climate change, pollution, growing gap between rich/poor, terrorism, loss of biodiversity, etc.). The ability to identify the roots and consequences of wicked problems and map/visualize their interconnections and interdependencies. Understanding of how these wicked problems form the greater context for almost all design problems and solutions.
  • An understanding of the dynamics at work within living systems (emergent properties, self-organization, network dynamics, systems level relationships etc.) and how these ‘systems dynamics’ can be leveraged in designing for and within complex socio-technical and natural systems (the environment).
  • Familiarity with the concepts of ‘visioning’ and ‘backcasting. An understanding of the importance of thinking in long horizons of time in order to inform the design of short, mid and long-term solutions at multiple levels of scale.
  • Familiarity with the ways in which pre-industrial societies lived and designed relatively sustainably ‘in place’ for generations. Familiarity with global/local concepts such as cosmopolitan localism as a strategy for transition design.
  • Familiarity with Socio-Technical Transition Theory and the study of historical socio-technical transitions as the basis for seeing and catalyzing systems-level change.
  • Familiarity with the concept of everyday life and the reconception of lifestyles as a strategy for sustainable design. Understanding of Max-Neef’s theory of needs as an aspect of transition design and a useful tool in developing design objectives.
  • Understanding of the concept of worldview and its influence on design and designers and an understanding of the characteristics of a holistic/ecological worldview.
  • Familiarity with a range of discourses, approaches and theories related to the acquisition of collaborative skills, more mindful approaches to design and the concept of ‘designer as catalyst for change’.
  • An ability to use existing projects, solutions and initiatives as the basis for transition design solutions that are tied to longer-term visions and use a range of approaches such as amplifying, connecting and ‘solving for pattern’ (Manzini 2015) as strategies for implementation.