About Transition Design

Transition Design acknowledges that we are living in ‘transitional times,’ takes as its central premise the need for societal transition (systems-level change) to more sustainable futures, and argues that design and designers have a key role to play in these transitions. This kind of design is connected to long horizons of time and compelling visions of sustainable futures and must be based upon new knowledge and skill sets.

In the past, there have been many attempts to leverage design as an agent for positive social change, but few of these have articulated how to undertake, lead and catalyze such change. Nor have they identified or incorporated the areas of knowledge and investigation required to do so. Transition Design is complementary to, and borrows from, myriad other design approaches (such as design for service and social innovation), but is distinct in several ways and is therefore generating a corresponding body of new knowledge and skill sets that can deepen and enhance design within more traditional and mainstream contexts.

The idea of and need for transition is central to a variety of current discourses concerned with how change manifests and how it can be initiated and directed (in ecosystems, organizations, communities/societies, economies and even individuals). These approaches inspired the term ‘Transition Design’, a new area of design focus that is informed by knowledge outside design such as science, philosophy, psychology, social science, anthropology and the humanities in order to gain a deeper understanding of how to design for change/transition in complex systems.

Characteristics of Transition Design:

  • Brings together two global memes: 1) the recognition that whole societies and their infrastructures must transition toward more sustainable states; 2) that these transitions will require systems-level change and a deep understanding of systems dynamics.
  • Uses living systems theory as both an approach to understanding wicked problems and designing solutions to address them.
  • Develops solutions that protect and restore both social and natural ecosystems through the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between people, the things they make and do, and the natural environment.
  • Sees everyday life and lifestyles as the most important and fundamental context for design.
  • Emphasizes the need to resolve conflictual stakeholder relations, while leveraging area of agreement/alignment.
  • Emphasizes the value of developing compelling visions of long-term, sustainable futures: stakeholders are able to transcend their differences in the present by focusing on a future they can all agree upon.
  • Designs solutions for short, medium and long horizons of time, at all levels of scale of everyday life (the household, the neighborhood, the city, the region).
  • Looks for emergent possibilities within problem contexts and amplifies grass-roots efforts and solutions that are already underway.
  • Develops ‘ecologies of solutions’ that are linked and act as steps on a ‘transition pathway’ toward the long-term future vision.
  • Develops interventions in both the material/tangible realm as well as the immaterial/intangible to consider the ways in which worldviews, mindsets, beliefs, assumptions, values, behaviors and practices can be used as leverage points for change in complex systems.
  • Distinguishes between ‘wants’ or ‘desires’ and genuine needs and bases solutions upon maximizing the satisfiers for the widest possible range of needs.
  • Sees the designer’s own mindset and posture as an essential component of transition designing.
  • Calls for the reintegration and re-contextualization of diverse transdisciplinary knowledge.

Roles of the Transition Designer:

  • The Acupuncturist: looks for places to intervene in the system and identifies the ‘fights’ worth fighting—the ones that can change the logic of a debate, the trajector of a system, or shift mindsets, assumptions and values.
  • The Narrator/Storyteller: uses the power of narrative and storytelling to challenge old paradigms and help ‘birth’ new ones. They help develop powerful narratives about long-term desirable futures and help stakeholders glimpse new possibilities and new ways of being/thinking/acting.
  • The Questioner: supports deliberation on fundamental questions that create new discourses and prompt cultural shifts. The Questioner facilitates dialogs around big questions with large consequences and makes sure that citizens from diverse social groups take part in these debates.
  • The Gardener: seeds systems transition by identifying, connecting, supporting and spotlighting the pioneers of the new system by ‘watering the seeds’ of new ideas and enabling change through emergence. Emergence happens when separate, local efforts are connected to form communities of practice. Once this happens, systems-level change suddenly appears.
  • The Connector: creates connections and learning cycles between systems levels and geographic locations. Complex social systems are comprised of members of civil society and industry that form clusters of informal networks, movements, and grassroots organizations, each with their own language, norms and belief systems. Connecting these clusters to enable information learning and exchange is a key leverage point in systems-level change.
  • The Maker: brings a deep understanding of materiality and human needs to the creation of designed artifacts, built structures, communications, and scripted interactions and experiences. The maker ensures that all of these are desirable, meaningful, viable, sustainable as well as inclusive and equitable.

Based upon Reimagining Activism by Narberhaus

The Transition Design Framework

We use a heuristic model to characterize four different but interrelated and mutually influencing and co-evolving areas of Transition Design. These areas are 1) Vision; 2) Theories of Change; 3) Mindset & Posture; 4) New Ways of Designing. The knowledge, skillsets and concepts represented are not a ‘process’, but should be seen as an evolving kit of parts that can be used/configured in place and situation-specific ways.