About the Assignments

The 5 assignments in this course comprise 50% of the grade, and are designed to acquaint students with the emerging Transition Design approach for addressing complex, wicked problems and seeding/catalyzing systems-level change and cover the following topics:  1) Mapping Wicked Problems; 2) Mapping Stakeholder Relations;  3) Mapping the Evolution of a Wicked Problem; 4) Designing for Transitions; 5) Designing Systems Interventions. Together, the 5 assignments challenge project teams to frame a complex, wicked problem within a radically large spatio-temporal context in order to design an ‘ecology’ of systems interventions that simultaneously address the problem and ignite positive, systems-level change.

Technology & Format for Assignments

Assignments will be carried out using a combination of Miro, Zoom breakout rooms, and a team Medium site in which analysis of the assignments will be written up w/visuals. Students should make sure they sign up for a free Miro account as well as create a team Medium site. Instructors will provide Zoom links for the class sessions and will invite students to Miro boards with templates for the assignments. Each student must sign up for a free Miro account in order to complete the assignments. For work on assignments outside class, team members will be responsible for setting up meeting times and Zoom links.

The class cohort has been divided into 6 teams of 4-5 people each. In the first class, students will meet in the Miro discussion board to receive their team assignments and select a wicked problem to work on for the duration of the semester. We have tried to create teams with the greatest degree of diversity possible with respect to disciplines and degree levels. Several working sessions have been integrated into the course curriculum that will provide teams with the opportunity to work on assignments during class time (attendance is still required during the scheduled class period) and instructors will circulate among the team breakout rooms to provide input.

Assignments will require teams to do work outside class time and we suggest coordinating with your team early on to try and find time to meet on a semi-regular basis. Teams will work in the online platform, MIRO within the assignment templates provided by the instructors. If students are unfamiliar with Miro, there are several tutorials available on Youtube. Assignments should be submitted in 2 forms: 1) team Medium posts (see below) and 2) hi resolution PDFs of each assignment should be submitted into the course Box folder on the due date. Teams should also set up a course Medium site in which they will post commentary/insights about the assignments.

Wicked Problems in Pittsburgh

  1. Poverty
  2. Racial Discrimination/Profiling
  3. Poor Air Quality
  4. Poor Water Quality
  5. Obesity
  6. Isolation of Elderly People
  7. Waste Management
  8. Homelessness
  9. Rising Adolescent Depression/Suicide Rate
  10. Declining Populations of Pollinators
  11. Rising Negative Effects of Social Networking
  12. Opioid Addiction
  13. Crime
  14. Lack of affordable housing
  15. High cost of higher education
  16. Lack of access to healthy food

Teams will be assigned the first day of class and each team will select a different wicked problem from the list above on which to conduct research and base the 5 assignments. These assignments are intended to introduce the key concepts from the emerging Transition Design approach. To become acquainted with the problems listed above, we recommend teams review Pittsburgh’s Resiliency Strategy Report to gain an overview of the city and its challenges.

Assignment Templates in Miro

Instructors have set up 3 Miro boards (a discussion board where students will review texts and capture highlights on the board and 2 boards with assignment templates). The two assignment boards have 3 team spaces on each board for a total of 6 teams. All students will be invited to all boards so that they may peruse each other’s boards throughout the semester, as if we were together in a studio. Each team space will have the 5 assignments laid out in a time sequence, from the past to the distant future. Most assignments can be completed using post-it notes and connecting lines in Miro, however we encourage teams to innovate on the templates; teams may want to add images, diagrams or other supplemental data to their boards. We ask that teams check with the instructors before radically changing the size/format of the assignment templates.

Assignments will be introduced in-class, but will require teams to do work outside class in order to complete the assignment. Comprehensive instructions for each assignment can be found on the corresponding tabs in this section of the website. Completed Miro assignments should be exported as high resolution PDFs and placed in the team’s folder in the CMU Box. The team should also submit a Medium post of each assignment (see below).

Creating the Team Medium Site

All 5 course assignments should be submitted as annotated Medium posts on a single Medium site that the team creates (please do not submit multiple sites—instructors need to access all assignment posts via a single site). You’d be surprised at how often teams forget to label their post with the name of their wicked problems and ALL of the team members names. This is important! Teams will begin working directly in Miro on the assignment templates, but in order to document the process for the Medium post, we advise you to periodically take screen shots of the work in progress and file them in case you want to show a chronological process. The Medium post for each assignment should describe the process itself, and highlight obstacles and challenges as well as insights that emerge out of the work.

Collectively the assignments amount to 50% of the grade and these will be evaluated based upon the final, in-class presentations (the final two class periods) and the final documentation on the Medium site. Both visual and verbal components should be of a high standard; work will be graded down for poor writing quality, unclear/low-resolution visuals or text and lack of overall coherence. Each Medium site should begin with a title of the wicked problem, the assignment, all team members’ names and an introductory statement about the problem and high-level issues/consequences. Write it as if it was meant to communicate the problem to the Mayor and City council. NOTE: When placing photos in Medium make sure they are hi-resolution, clear, and in focus. You might choose to provide the option to click on photos to view them at a larger size. If we can’t read them, we can’t assess them. At the end of each assignment, teams should create a hi-resolution pdf of the final assignment board in Miro and upload it to the course Box folder.

Begin Research on Your Wicked Problem—Immediately

It is imperative that you begin researching your wicked problem immediately. Each team will select one of 24 wicked problems (found on the Miro discussion board) to focus on for the entire semester. All 5 assignments will be based upon gaining a better understanding of how the problem arose, became wicked over a long period of time, and how it currently manifests (and how it affects) at all levels of scale. In order to complete these assignments, teams should begin immediately to conduct research on the problem. We recommend creating a shared Evernote team folder (or another collaborative platform that accepts multiple formats) which will enable team members to conduct research and archive it simultaneously. Look for books, newspaper articles, reports, interviews and websites that discusses the wicked problem, related issues and its consequences. Be continually adding notes, analysis, insights etc. to the research archive throughout the semester.

The partial list of wicked problems above is common to most cities, therefore research on how a particular problem manifests in other locales can also prove informative for your research and assignments, particularly when it pertains to how other cities/communities have attempted to resolve the problem. It is important that the research process is ongoing and that the team’s understanding of the problem deepens as the semester progresses and that the learning from one assignment, informs the ones that follow. The 5 assignments correspond to the seminar modules and assigned readings are intended to scaffold the assignments. We recommend reading through all of the assignments at the beginning of the semester as they will guide your research process.

Working Successfully with Post-It Notes (What NOT to do)

Successful Team Collaboration

Completing the assignments successfully will depend upon good team collaboration. Because wicked problems are inherently transdisciplinary, they can only be addressed through radical collaboration. We have made team assignments with the objective of creating as much diversity as possible within teams. Although it is often more ‘comfortable’ to form a team with people from a similar discipline who are friends or acquaintances, in group work such as this, it is not an advantage. The higher degree of diversity within a team the better. Ideally teams would be comprised of people from different disciplines, representing different belief systems and cultures and different perspectives based upon life experience and gender. (On an actual project, stakeholders themselves would be engaged in the process of mapping wicked problems, stakeholder relations and creating visions of long-term futures they want).Wicked problems are comprised of stakeholders with differing opinions, beliefs and agendas and having this kind of diversity present in a group attempts to simulate the diversity of perspectives that would be represented on an actual project. This diversity however, can only be leveraged as an advantage if the team learns to collaborate well.

The mindset and posture for collaboration: The mindset and posture section of the Transition Design framework emphasizes the importance of taking up postures of openness, speculation (as opposed to certainty), to listening (as opposed to waiting to talk) and a willingness to change one’s mind. Successful collaboration within the context of this course also means that each team member must be committed to clear and timely communication (participating in discussions, answering emails in timely ways) and delivering on what you promised to do. Unforeseen circumstances always arise, but it is incumbent upon each team member to alert the others as soon as possible if deadlines need to be adjusted and renegotiated.

Successful collaboration requires an awareness of team dynamics and asking (on an ongoing basis): Am I carrying my weight? Am I participating fully in discussions? If I have a problem with something or someone, am I dealing with it in a timely and authentic way (vs. ‘stewing’ on it)? Am I dominating conversations or trying to force my opinions and agenda on the group? Am I moving in ways that would make the other team members want to collaborate with me again? Am I willing to change my mind? If not—why? Developing the skills for successful collaboration is one of the most important aspects of Transition Design. Collaboration is always messy and requires more effort than working alone. But we believe it is worth it because what we are able to achieve in concert with others is almost always greater than what we would be able to achieve on our own. Please put as much thought and energy into the collaborative process as you will your readings and discussion. NOTE: if you or your team members encounter issues/dynamics that become problematic, please let the instructors and TA know this and we will assist you–breakdowns and difficulty in team dynamics are part of group work and can provide an opportunity for learning.

The importance of delegation: Successfully completing the 5 assignments will depend upon clear delegation and teamwork. For instance, on Assignments #1 and #2, we suggest the team conducts research individually and shares it via an online platform such as Evernote. The group should meet to discuss and analyze the findings and begin building the wicked problem map which will require the full range of perspectives represented in the group. The success of working in a group on assignments such as these is dependent upon knowing when to work together and when to divide into small groups in order to work more swiftly and efficiently. At the beginning of each assignment, the group should discuss this and also consult with instructors about the best course of action if they are unsure. When a team member is unable to fulfill a deadline that they agreed to, it is important to give other members as much notice as possible and we recommend discussing the breakdown as soon as the team meets again and have a brief discussion about how to avoid this in the future. This too is part of ‘growing’ good relations and productivity within a team. It is also integral to professional practice within most disciplines.

The Miro templates have been designed to be completed using the post-it tool and, in some cases, boxes within which you may type descriptions. However, Transition Design uses post-its in a decidedly different way than usual. We have a love-hate relationship with the post-it. It can be a useful tool in capturing preliminary thinking as we aim to do in these assignments. It only works however if a few simple guidelines are followed. Too often people use post-it notes when they are working fast and share context with other team members and the artifacts of this process are not meant to be viewed/understood by an outside audience. This is NOT the case with these 5 assignments. In the Miro templates, post-its should be considered part of a final presentation that should be understandable to people with no prior knowledge of the assignment or the wicked problem being addressed. This mean following a few simple rules:

  1. Use light colored post-its and use a Miro typeface that is clearly readable. If you need to use a darker colored post-it, consider making your type white in order to be more legible.
  2. Write in complete, short sentences. One of the biggest pitfalls is writing a single word or ‘cryptic’ phrase on a post-it–you know what it means, but no one else does.
  3. One idea per post-it. Do NOT include multiple ideas or issues on a single post-it!
  4. Think before you write. Think about how you will phrase your thought. Will others be able to understand the point you are capturing on your post-it if they come to the project canvas without any background/backstory. Say it simple and say it clear.

If you observe these simple guidelines when undertaking a post-it exercise your assignment templates will together form a clear, coherent story of the problem and proposals to address it.  Moreover, excerpts from your templates can used in your Medium site to communicate your thinking. In your Miro workspace, partially filled-out examples of each assignment are found above each of the 5 assignment templates. Follow these as a guide for writing.

#1: Mapping Wicked Problems

Assigned 2.03.2021 | Medium Post + PDF due 2.15.21

Assignment #1 is given on February 3rd and a PDF and Medium posts of the assignment is due on Feb. 15th. In this assignment, teams will conduct internet-based research on a Pittsburgh-based wicked problem and will visually ‘map’ it on their Miro template within 5 categories: 1) social issues2) environmental issues 3) economic issues4) political issues/governance/legal issues5) infrastructural/technology issues. Teams should work in Miro using the post-it tool to record one issue related to the problem (in one of the 5 categories) on one post-it note. We suggest using post-its that match the color of the category in the Miro template for visual consistency. Please refer to the guidelines for post-it notes at the bottom of the About the Assignments page; all text on post-its and in text boxes in the assignment templates should contain, clear, complete sentences that state the issue and its connection to the problem. An example for how to complete the problem map has been placed above the assignment template. NOTE: teams are encouraged to innovate on the template as long as the parameters of the assignment are maintained (mapping issues and connecting them across the 5 categories).

Learning to Work Systemically

Transition Design works with post-its in a different way than most design-related disciplines do. Rather than using them as a brainstorming tool in which idea ‘fragments’ are captured in a rapid-paced, closed session for later synthesis, they are used to construct an artifact meant to be read/understood by an external audience. One of the primary objectives of the Transition Design seminar is to learn to think systemically and make connections across spatial and temporal scales. In Assignment #1, teams will first conduct internet research on their wicked problem and then begin to populate the problem map with myriad issues (one issue per post-it) related to their wicked problem.

When starting to work in the template, do not treat this as a brainstorm in which you are populating a single category in the map then moving on to the next. Instead, place 1-2 post-its in a single category then ask “how is this issue connected to or creating/exacerbating issues in other areas on the map?” This will mean working in all areas of the map simultaneously and drawing connecting lines between issues and labeling them. We often describe it as “working a circuit around the map.” In a wicked problem map, these dynamics of interrelation and interdependency (connections between issues) are as important as the issues themselves. To use a metaphor: if a wicked problem is like a ball of tangled yarn that must be untangled to resolve the problem, mapping lines of connection between issues on the problem map shows us which threads to pull on to begin untangling it. These lines of connection become quite dense and can reveal what systems theorist Donella Meadows calls “leverage points for change” where solutions have the potential to solve for many issues simultaneously. The process of creating a wicked problem map usually involves toggling between placing post-its on the map and then doing additional spurts of online research as new insights emerge and as you react to the post-its your other team members place on the template. NOTE: all of the assignments in this seminar introduce you to tools and approaches for use on actual projects. As an example, on a project to map a community’s water shortage, the problem map would be constructed over many weeks or even months and would integrate the diverse perspectives of the stakeholder groups connected to and affected by the problem, as well as myriad experts who have knowledge in specific areas relevant to it (for instance water experts, local/state government, ecologists, sustainability advisors, and sustainable technology specialists of all kinds).

The Five Categories on the Problem Map

The five categories on the problem map roughly correspond to a variety of approaches used to analyze problems within communities/societies (STEEP and PESTEL). These are archetypal areas in most societies, and Transition Design argues that we must begin to understand the interdependencies and ‘push/pull’ dynamics among them in order to develop interventions (solutions) that scaffold each other in a systemic way. Transition Design argues this is the only way to resolve wicked problems.

It is extremely important that teams work rigorously to distinguish between issues in each category and clearly state how it pertains to that category—this is one of the important learning outcomes of the assignment. A common mistake is to confuse issues within the Social Issues and Environmental Issues categories. Social Issues are about what people think and do; it pertains to our beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, assumptions, actions, cultural norms—not the laws we pass, the things we build or issues related to economy/business. The Environmental Issues section is about how the natural environment and members of the ecosystem are adversely affected by issues in the other four categories. Descriptions for each category are found on the assignment template. It usually takes teams a while to get the hang of the rigor required to distinguish issues and understand the interconnections and cause/effect among them, but it is key to resolving wicked problems.

Distinguishing Roots from Consequences in Wicked Problems

When creating a problem map for an actual project, an attempt would be made to distinguish among a ‘hierarchy’ of issues (such as shown in the Ojai water shortage example below). One approach teams use is to try and distinguish ‘root’ issues from consequences; large, complex problems ramify up and down systems levels and it can be helpful to try and show these types of relationships in the map–for the purposes of this assignment teams are not required to make this distinction. It is however, important to realize that at the level of our everyday lives, we often experience the consequences of wicked problems, as opposed to the root causes. As an example, consider the wicked problem of Crime in Pittsburgh. At the scale of an individual’s everyday life, the problem might manifest as muggings and break-ins in their neighborhood. We would argue however, that this is a consequence of the wicked problem. In order to develop strategies with the greatest potential to address or even resolve crime, we need to look for the root causes of the wicked problem, which are usually found at higher systems levels.

At the level of the city, research might reveal that other problems are contributing factors; such as unemployment, opioid addiction, and a high divorce rate (among many others). If we go up to the state or national levels, we might trace the roots of crime in Pittsburgh to the collapse of the housing market (loss of money/shelter), pharmaceutical companies’ relationship to the opioid epidemic, the escalating cost of higher education, lack of prisoner vocational programs, racism/racial profiling and Supreme Court rulings. The more adept we becoming at looking at the problem systemically, the more interconnections and interdependencies to other problems are revealed. We often refer to this as a wicked problem cluster. Play with the idea of distinguishing root causes from consequences. There is not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer but using this distinction aids in tracing problems up and down systems levels.

It is extremely important that transition designers develop this ability to look up and down systems levels and see the interconnections among issues and consequences related to wicked problems. To return to the example of crime: If a team looked no farther than the immediate problem of break-ins and muggings in a specific Pittsburgh neighborhood (this is the traditional way that designers consider problems—within small and contained contexts), the type of solutions they would propose would likely be less effective than if they traced the problem up a system levels to the city. If traced up farther to the national level, it might connect to seemingly unrelated issues like bank bail-outs, the collapse of the housing market and divorce rates. When the interconnections and interdependencies between these problems at higher systems levels are revealed, it can seem overwhelming. But, it also opens up the possibility to design interventions that address multiple issues/problems simultaneously because the deeper, root causes are revealed. This is the objective of Transition Design.

Innovating on the Assignment

This assignment requires teams to map as many issues as possible in the five categories on the problem map and draw/label connections between them. Teams need not do more than this to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. However, you are encouraged to innovate on the Miro template, and each year this takes increasingly creative forms. The Miro platform makes it very easy to supplement all of the assignment templates with visuals and other data, but sometimes teams develop interesting systems for indicating hierarchy and nuance within both issues and the connections between them. Please feel free to do this on your problem map but remember to keep your elements on a white ‘canvas’ in order to create a high-resolution PDF to submit for a grade.

Submitting the Assignment

For each assignment, teams must submit two components: 1) a hi-resolution PDF of the assignment template (make sure you select the hi-resolution option in Miro when exporting) should be created and the file identified with the wicked problem name and submitted to your team’s folder in the CMU course Box; 2) the team should write a Medium post about the assignment, noting insights, challenges etc. The post should integrate examples of the problem map as well as other imagery that scaffolds the article. Make sure that you use high-resolution images for your Medium article (you can control the resolution as you export from Miro). Teams should write the Medium posts with the expectation that external audiences will read it in order to learn about the issues.

NOTE: be sure to organize the Medium posts under a single category so that instructors can create one bookmark and easily all assignments using the same team link each time. Also, be sure that each Medium post and assignment template is clearly labeled with the problem name as well as the names of all team members! Creating the PDF: teams frequently use the ‘pasteboard’ around the problem templates as an area for brainstorming or they place research materials relevant to the assignment in proximity. Remember that only items on the template ‘board’ (white background) will be exported as the PDF.

Below are two examples of problem maps: one using a Miro template (workshop with Artefact Design, Seattle) and one is a project map created from stakeholder input (Ojai, California) using the cloud-based tool MindMup.

#2: Mapping Stakeholder Relations

Assignment #2 is given on February 15 and a PDF and Medium post of the assignment is due on March 8th. In Assignment #2, teams will undertake a process to:  1) identify as many of the stakeholder groups connected to/affected by the wicked problem as possible;  2) select three groups from the list who teams speculate are most apt to disagree or have conflicting needs/opinions about the problem;  3) in the assignment template, list each group’s hopes (green bubbles) and fears (pink bubbles) about the problem; 4) map the lines of agreement/affinity (green lines) and conflict/opposition (red lines) between the 3 groups .

Why this is a Hypothetical Exercise

One of the primary barriers to wicked problem resolution are the multiple stakeholders with conflicting agendas who are connected to and affected by the problem. In many cases, different stakeholder groups cannot agree on what the problem even is, let alone agree on how to solve it. Divergent perspectives on the problem are often underpinned by conflicting belief systems and value sets. Identifying areas of both conflict and affinity among stakeholder groups is essential in developing effective ‘interventions’ aimed at resolving wicked problems. Mapping lines of conflict and disagreement shows us why the problem is entrenched and reveal the areas that will require time and energy to resolve. Mapping the lines of affinity and agreement are considered the “low hanging fruit in the system” and this common ground is where work can begin immediately (in the formulation of projects and initiatives which produce immediate results and build trust). This is a type of systems ‘triage’.

Transition Design argues that the concerns and welfare of all of the stakeholder groups affected by the problem (human and non-human/living and non-living) must be considered when formulating solutions/interventions. These concerns can only be revealed through extensive, qualitative research (for example: field interviews, workshops, questionnaires, and even methods employed by peace-keeping missions in war-torn areas) which is not feasible within the short span of this semester-long course (this is why we do not work with actual stakeholders in this semester; within such a tight timeframe, the relationship would not be reciprocal). The results of actual research yield deep patterns and insights about stakeholder groups that inform the design of systems interventions.

This assignment is intended only to introduce the concept of stakeholder relations to students who will hypothesize (based upon desktop research and speculation) who the stakeholders are and what their concerns might be. The results of this assignment could, however, serve as a ‘sketch’ or proposal for conducting actual research.

Identifying Stakeholder Groups Connected to a Wicked Problem

The objective of this assignment is to identify as many stakeholder groups connected to and affected by the wicked problem as possible, including members of the ecosystem (for instance: birds, the local watershed, the land, etc.). Including non-human stakeholders in the Transition Design process draws from the work of Australian writer and activist John Seed who developed a ritual approach called The Council of All Beings, to illustrate the interconnectedness of life on the planet and encourage humans to honor this ‘web of life’. Assignment #1 prepares teams to identify stakeholder groups. This research should also ‘hint’ at where there may be opposing agendas, belief systems and worldviews among different groups.

First, teams should conduct further research about the groups connected to/affected by the problem, then hold a brainstorming session to list as many stakeholder groups as possible on the column on the left side of the project canvas (listing one group per post-it). Take time with this step and try to identify groups that might have been overlooked by traditional problem-solving approaches. Note: many traditional design approaches focus only on stakeholder groups with power and influence or groups who are directly related to an issue or objective. Transition Design looks at any stakeholder group that is affected by the problem and argues that uneven power dynamics and the disenfranchisement of certain stakeholder groups is a barrier to problem resolution and can even be at the root of complex problems.

Identifying the 3 Groups Most Likely to Disagree

After a comprehensive list of stakeholders connected to and affected by the problem has been compiled, select three diverse groups who are likely to have opposing perspectives, concerns and needs connected to the problem. Power relations among stakeholder groups are often uneven, so we recommend selecting one group who has little to no power to resolve the problem and who is adversely affected by it (this would to pertain to other species and the environment as well as disenfranchised groups); one group who has a lot of power and who may even be invested in the problem remaining unresolved; and one group who might be somewhere in the middle. For this assignment, teams will need to speculate about the various groups, but on an actual project, extensive stakeholder interviews would be conducted with all groups in order to identify asymmetries in power relations and many other opposing factors. Once teams have selected 3 groups to work with, write the name of each group into the template.

Mapping Stakeholder Hopes & Fears

Next, using the set of green and pink talk bubbles positioned around each of the three groups in the template, begin to brainstorm about a particular group’s fears related to the problem (internet research can often reveal the perspectives held by various groups). This assignment asks team to use the talk bubbles to express one fear or hope in one bubble and write it using the first person singular. It is often helpful to write these statements as if a representative of a particular stakeholder group was being interviewed, so these statements should also convey the emotion your speculate would be connected to the problem; remember on an actual project, stakeholders would be interviewed and their responses would very often communicate the strong emotions that surround stakeholder conflict. In order to simulate the actual process, members of your team might choose to adopt the persona of one group and conduct research to try and understand how they are connected to or affected by the wicked problem. Once the hopes/fears for all three groups has been filled out, move on to the next step; mapping relations.

To map relations among the groups, look for areas in which you see alignment, agreement or affinity and connect these with green lines and label them. Next look for lines of conflict, disagreement or opposition and connect these with red lines. Note: sometimes one group’s fear is another group’s hope/desire, so sometimes you will be connecting pink bubbles to green ones–these are the types of relations that are the most difficult to resolve. Feel free to innovate on this template: you may want to map more nuanced types of relations by adding lines of different colors or thicknesses. Be prepared to document your innovation in the Medium post when the assignment is turned in.

Teams should also feel free to annotate the ‘Relationship Triad’ with notes about questions, where further research would be necessary, etc. Teams should also speculate in their Medium post about how the lines of conflict could be barriers to problem resolution and conversely, should also consider how lines of agreement or affinity could be leveraged in designing interventions. A hypothetical exercise like this can serve as a starting point in an actual project and can point the way to more in-depth field/ethnographic research.

Submitting the Assignment as a Medium Post

Medium posts should explain the process, articulate the primary characteristics of the problem, discuss 2-3 interconnections/interdependencies that were revealed on the wicked problem map, briefly describe the speculation on stakeholder conflicts/alignment and speculate on how the results of the two assignments might guide field research. Teams should also report on difficulties, challenges and any surprising conclusions or ‘clues’ that the assignments revealed. Make sure that the process is documented visually with high-resolution images. 

The example below shows an example of mapping stakeholder relationships within a similar Miro template.

#3: Mapping the Evolution of a Wicked Problem

Assigned 3.08.21 | Medium post + PDF due 3.22.21

Assignment #3 is given on March 8th and a PDF and Medium post of the assignment is due on March 22nd. In this assignment, teams will map the historical evolution of their wicked problem over the course of several decades using the Multi-Level Perspective framework (MLP). This assignment looks at how the dynamics of change and transition within a socio-technical system gives rise to many interconnected wicked problems. Mapping the historical evolution of a wicked problem can reveal insights from the past that can inform both future visions and interventions (solutions) in the present. Transition Design expands/builds upon the MLP framework to use it as the spatio-temporal context for the evolution of a wicked problem(s).

Conducting Historical Research on a Wicked Problem

The first crucial step in the assignment is for teams to decide how far back in time to conduct their research, and then establish a timeline along the top of the assignment template (it will probably extend for many decades or even 200-300 years). Teams should refer to their wicked problem map (Assignment #1) and discuss which issues have the oldest origins. An example is provided in the Miro workspace that maps the evolution of the wicked problem “COVID-19 in the U.S.” Two issues from this wicked problem were pivotal in determining when to begin the timeline: 1) the quarantine protests throughout the U.S. and 2) the vulnerability of black Americans to Covid-19. The first issue was connected to the framing of the U.S. constitution, the origin of American’s fears surrounding perceived threats to civil liberties, and the second is connected to 400 years of institutionalized racism in the U.S. For this reason, the timeline began in 1770, just before the Declaration of Independence. Each team should try to find a similar logic for when to begin their timeline/research and discuss their logic for it in the Medium post.

Teams should conduct and organize a significant amount of historic, internet-based research related to the wicked problem and its issues. We suggest that each team member conduct research independently and enter data into a shared team Google Doc that is divided by decades, chronologically. This will enable multiple team members to enter data simultaneously and chronologically, and easily plot data points into the MLP template.  

Mapping the Evolution of a Wicked Problem Using the MLP

Prior to beginning the assignment, teams should read the Geels article (2005) “The Dynamics of Transitions in Socio-Technical Systems,” that documents the historical transition from horse-drawn carriage to automobile (see diagram below). The MLP distinguishes between three systems levels within which teams will plot their historic research. Data points should be written on post-it notes (the same rules apply; complete, clear sentences), and connections between post-it notes made/labeled. Data points/historical factors should include both the material and non-material! 

THE LANDSCAPE or top systems level is where large, collective events (that affect many people or entire societies) should be situated. Events at this level usually move slowly and accrue over time, but sometimes, large, unexpected events occur that create sweeping, unpredictable change throughout the system. Landscape factors can include things such as religious movements, changes in beliefs and cultural norms, as well as social and infrastructural changes such as suburbanization, the rise of the U.S. southern enslavement economy, globalization, capitalism and even climate change. Examples of sudden, unexpected events include war, pandemics, natural disasters (if they are big enough) and political movements such as the fall of the Berlin wall or the Arab Spring that have far-ranging consequences. 

Landscape events are often connected to multiple factors at the middle, Regime level. One of the objectives of the assignment is to ask how conditions (either inertial or change-related) at the Regime level are connected to larger events at the Landscape Level (these connections could be causal, interdependent, symbiotic or part of a feedback loop). Identifying connections between Regime and Landscape Level events can simultaneously reveal unseen/counter-intuitive connections among events at the Regime Level which opens up possibilities to develop interventions that address multiple issues at once. Because Landscape events are collective in nature, they are rarely directly or solely connected to a single wicked problem; rather they are connected to multiple wicked problems and related issues (problem clusters) at lower levels (for instance, a Landscape level factor like globalization is related to myriad wicked problems at the Regime level below).

THE REGIME or middle level represents the ‘status quo’ where existing infrastructures, networks and ‘ways of doing things’ become ‘path dependent’ and entrenched (a socio-technical system becomes set in its ways, just like people do). This level is where teams can use issues from their wicked problem map to research the historic events and factors within each of the 5 categories. As an example, on the problem evolution map for COVID-19 in the U.S., there were many Regime Level events surrounding the American Medical Association’s early, for-profit relationship with large pharmaceutical companies that contributed to the evolution of a system in which a privatized, for-profit healthcare/insurance system that is tied to employment. A present-day consequence related to COVID-19 is a healthcare system that ties insurance to employment, resulting in millions of Americans losing healthcare coverage during a global pandemic. One of the objectives of the assignment is to reveal long-forgotten events and connections such as these that form the origins of wicked problems. These insights and narratives can reveal where and where not to begin working within a system.

THE NICHE or lower systems level is where small, informal, ‘protected’ innovations can be developed, risks can be taken and norms challenged. Ideas, innovations, new practices and technologies at the Niche level almost always arise in response to things happening at both the Regime and the Landscape Levels. In their paper “Typology of Sociotechnical Transition Pathways,” Geels and Schot describe the way in which interactions among the three systems levels triggers different types of transition. The type of resulting transition is often dependent upon how developed/’ready’ particular innovations are at the Niche level. Changes in the Regime, almost always opens up opportunities at the Niche level for innovations to rush up and into it, further disrupting the status quo (with the potential to shift the transition trajectory). 

To return to the COVID-19 example: the Landscape event of COVID-19, placed pressure on the Regime level below, resulting in unprecedented levels of unemployment combined with a loss of healthcare benefits for millions of Americans, which in turn damaged the economy as a whole. Universal Basic Income (UBI) was a Niche level policy idea that had been around for some time, however as new ‘fractures’ at the Regime level were opened up by COVID-19 (Landscape) and unemployment and loss of healthcare (Regime), there are now openings for UBI to gain traction and footing at the Regime level.

As teams populate their historical evolution map, they should focus on the change dynamics at work (as described in the COVID-19 example above), by mapping the lines of connection/progression/cause-and-effect among events at the different levels. This is the primary objective of this exercise. The example below shows a detail from the Miro template for mapping the evolution of a wicked problem (from a workshop with faculty from Monterrey Technical University, Mexico, 2020.)

Learning to Work Systemically

Teams should work in the same way as on the wicked problem map; do not brainstorm and add multiple post-its within a single systems level. Rather, add an event in one level and then ask what it connects to or caused at the two other levels. Then, take the time to consider the nature of the connection, draw the connecting line and label it! Like the problem map, teams will be working up and down and back and forth along the timeline as connections spark new questions and research. The work is holistic/organic not linear. Good historical research and interpreting its implications for the present is the basis of this assignment.

Questions teams can ask to guide their research include: What historical factors at the Landscape and Regime levels of scale gave rise to the problem? What innovations at the niche level ‘bubbled’ up in response to it? How did historical attitudes/values and cultural norms contribute to or exacerbate the problem? Were there Niche level innovations that attempted to address the problem but failed because they were too weak to ‘take hold’ (or the timing was not right)? How and when did the Regime begin to get ‘stuck’ with respect to the problem? What were early warning signs? What events began to connected or ‘cluster’ over time to make the problem wicked?

The success of the final Evolution Map will depend upon good research, a clear articulation of the events entered on the map (remember the post-it rule!), but most importantly—the connections (dynamics) that are drawn and articulated between events, that collectively create a new narrative about the rise and evolution of a complex problem. A comprehensive historical evolution map contains multiple narrative threads that explain the rise and evolution of many problems that converged to become the wicked one you are working on. The Medium post in particular should outline these narratives and discuss insights from the past that can inform both Assignments #4 and #5.

An important note: On an actual project, mapping the evolution of a wicked problem would entail extensive research, informed by many different types of experts as well as stakeholders themselves. 

#4: Designing for Transitions: Visioning/Backcasting/Assessing the Present/Transitions

Assignment #4 is given on March 22nd and a PDF and Medium post of the assignment is due on April 12th. Assignment four is a very full/rich assignment in which teams extend the problem frame into the distant future, develop a vision of where they want to go, then think deeply and rigorously about how to get there. Teams will undertake the following three steps:  1) develop a vision of the long-term future in which their problem has been resolved; 2) backcast to create a transition pathway between the problematic present and the desired future and decide what to take with them on the decades-long transition (as well as what to leave behind); 3) develop a series of milestones (mini visions) describing the transition.

Developing Long-Term Future Visions

In this step, teams will develop ‘vision facets’ of a long-term future in which their wicked problem has been resolved. The Miro template uses Kossoff’s Domains of Everyday Life to challenge teams to develop ‘facets’ of the future at five different levels of scale in everyday life: The Household, The Neighborhood, The City, The Region and The Planet. Leveraging their understanding about the problem and its issues gained from Assignments #1-3, teams will develop vision facets at each level of scale. As before, teams should work systemically and record one idea per post-it in complete, clear sentences. If a post-it is placed in the domain of the City, the team should ask “what would be happening at levels above and below to support this? (The image below shows an example of the Miro template for visioning.). It is crucial to continue to work in a systemic way and resist the urge to ‘brainstorm’ by populating one areas at a time with post-its. Work up and down systems levels!

The objective of this step is to try and envision long-term future in which lifestyles are sustainable and place-based and in which relations among the levels of scale of everyday life are symbiotic and mutually reinforcing. Draw from strategies and concepts from Cosmopolitan Localism, Commoning and Mutual Aid, Pluriversality and Manfred Max-Neef’s Theory of Needs for inspiration. Futurists often allege that modern societies have difficulty imagining truly different/better futures because we focus on the impossibility of attaining them; we’re so focused on how to get from point “A” to point “B” we don’t allow ourselves to ask “what if?” In this exercise if the future you are envisioning doesn’t sound a bit far-fetched/impossible—then you aren’t thinking boldly enough. This exercise asks teams to set aside the logistics of how the future will be attained, and focus on conceiving completely new, sustainable and equitable socio-economic-political paradigms which would have brought about problem resolution. Imagine a future your team wants!

This exercise is not about describing potential solutions, rather it is about describing aspects of everyday life, at different levels of scale, in a future society. Solutions, new ways of living, working and playing should be implicit in your descriptions, not the focus of them. Once teams have populated each level of the Domains (Household, Neighborhood, City, Region and Planet) and have ensured there are symbiotic connections among them, they may choose to develop a narrative about a long-term future that is sustainable, desirable and equitable and that makes clear why/how your wicked problem was resolved. The formulation of this narrative is not required for this exercise, however teams will be given extra credit if they choose to. An example of a narrative for the COVID-19 problem has been placed in the Miro workspace.

NOTE: on an actual project, this vision would be co-created by the stakeholder groups connected to the problem via workshops and a wide variety of qualitative field research methodologies.

Backcasting & Assessing the Present

In this step, teams will backcast from the desired future to the problematic present to create a ‘transition pathway’ along which interventions (in the present) act as steps toward the desired future. Teams will also work with a matrix that challenges them to evaluate both established/existing practices and ways of doing things and new and emergent ones to decide what they want to ‘take with them’ on the decades-long transition.

Teams need not do anything in the backcasting phase; it is simply symbolic pathway along which they will place milestones in the next step. The diagram below shows the matrix which they will work with to prepare for the transition by asking what do we want to keep and what do we want to leave behind. These can be either material or non-material: protocols, processes, technologies, structures or organizations as well as mean old modes of thinking or cultural/disciplinary norms that no longer work.

ESTABLISHED ways of doing things: what to keep/what to throw out: The top row asks teams to identify 3 established ways of doing things and asks “What doesn’t work anymore? What is going to prevent us from transitioning to the future we want?” In the previous example using COVID-19, things to leave behind might be: 1) tying healthcare to employment; 2) using scientific journals as the primary mode of sharing information and advancing knowledge (due to the year or more lag time from submission to dissemination); 3) using virgin forests in the manufacture of ephemeral products (deforestation has been directly linked to the pandemic). The second row also looks at established ways to do things but asks “What should we keep? How do we not throw the baby out with the bathwater?” For the Covid-19 example this might be retaining and strengthening the World Health Organization or continuing to deploy the Army Corp of Engineers for state and national disaster response.

NEW ways of doing things: what should we take with us in the transition? The two rows below the transition pathway challenge teams to first look around and ask “What new, yet existing innovations, technologies and practices etc. (that we don’t currently have) can be adopted in order to disrupt ‘things as usual’ and inform solutions and ignite change?” With Covid-19 it might involve adopting practices of wearing masks and socially distancing during flu season or when an individual is ill or it might become standard practice for businesses such as restaurant to have secondary and tertiary offers, so that they can ‘pivot’ quickly during times of emergency such as a quarantine. In this row, fully developed practices exist “out there”, they just haven’t been adopted by the community/organization yet.

The bottom row is what we call “future finding” and argues after author William Gibson who said “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” In this final row of the matrix, teams look around and ask “Are there aspects/fragments/signs of our future vision here in the present?” In contrast to the row above, these are not fully fledged projects, initiatives, policies, protocols etc, but purely ‘signs’ or ‘facets’ of them. They might take the form of ideas, debates, or aspects of projects and initiatives rather than their entirety. These ‘future fragments’ can inform both the milestones teams will develop in the next step as well as the systems interventions in the last assignment. To continue with the Covid-19 example, fragments of the long-term vision might include the widespread practice of working at home, the home emerging as the new hub of everyday life and people exploring new ways for homes to accommodate work, family and leisure activities.

Developing Milestones on a Transition Pathway

In this final step, teams will develop 3 milestones that describe the decades-long transition from the present to the desired future. These should be written as ‘moments in time,’ or a description of a situation at certain points along the pathway. The first milestone should be about 5-10 years in the future, the second about 25-35 years in the future and the second about 50-60 years out. Milestones are not descriptions of solutions, rather they are like mini-visions and scenarios. Like the vision ‘facets’ developed within the five domains on the visioning template, the milestones together form a powerful narrative about a decades-long transition from a problematic present to a long-term desired future.

It is important to remember that we do not develop milestones and visions because we are trying to predict the future. Rather, we are individually and collectively learning to think creatively and rigorously about it. Transition Design argues that both long-term visions and milestones also have the potential to guide and inform solutions in the present

We suggest that teams begin at either end and work toward the middle of the transition pathway: In this exercise teams will imagine a decades long transition in 3 steps. Most people find it difficult to work in a linear, chronological way and find it much easier to work at either end of the transition pathway and move toward the middle. It is often easiest to develop the first milestone out from the present after having ‘taken stock’ in what to pack for the journey. Try to imagine 10-15 years out and describe what is happening at that point in time. Next, try to imagine what things would be like just 25 years or so before the long-term vision was realized; a lot would have changed, but what would yet be left to do? The middle milestone is often the most difficult and sometimes teams imagine breakdowns or turning points that emerged out of disasters of some kind. Again, this isn’t because we are attempting to predict the future, but rather imagine the possibilities and probabilities we might encounter in an intentional, long-term transition so that we can prepare for them. The example below shows three milestones connected to the Covid-19 example.

#5: Designing Systems Interventions

Assignment #5 is given on April 12th and a PDF and Medium post of the assignment is due on May 3rd. This assignment applies the learning from the previous four assignments and challenges teams to conceive an ‘ecology’ of systems interventions (solutions) that act as a first, tangible step on the transition pathway toward the desired future. The primary objectives of Transition Design are to understand both complex, systems problems (wicked problem) and their systems contexts (past/present/future) in order to develop ‘systems interventions’ that can solve for multiple issues/problems simultaneously. This is what ignites positive, systems-level change and societal transitions toward more sustainable, equitable and desirable long-term futures.

Working in the Miro Template

Assignment #5 consists of a matrix that combines the scales/domains of everyday life along the horizontal axis and the five categories from the problem map along the vertical axis. Most problem-solving approaches are focused on the development of a single solution for a single problem. This exercise challenges teams to 1) develop 3 or more ‘synergistic solutions’ solutions that are connected to each other and the long-term vision and milestones; 2) situate these interventions at different levels of scale; 3) include both material and non-material interventions in the ecology. 

One-off, ‘silver bullet’ solutions are rarely effective in resolving wicked problems because they don’t gain enough traction to destabilize stuck systems (both the systems problem and it’s systems context are inertial). Interventions of different kinds, situated at different levels of scale over different time horizons and that are connected to and informed by the long-term vision and milestones have greater potential to destabilize the problem and its context (systems), and ignite positive, systems-level change. The example below shows the assignment template with intervention concepts that address the problem of Covid-19 in the U.S. and concepts for both material (buildings, artifacts, services etc.) are combined with non-material interventions (education, new narratives and protocols). Note: almost all interventions will have material components to them. What we mean by non-material interventions refers to what we are trying to change; i.e. mindsets, beliefs, assumptions, cultural/disciplinary norms, practices and behaviors.

Color code your intervention concepts using the same color system from the wicked problem map to show which sector the intervention is aimed at (social, environmental, political, infrastructural, business). Also think intentionally about which level of scale they should be situated (domains of everyday life). Note that every concept for an intervention has been linked across societal sectors and up and down systems levels and clearly labeled to describe how they are mutually supportive of each other. NOTE: interventions need not be conceived from scratch! A key Transition Design strategy is to look for existing projects, initiatives and concepts and ask how they can be amplified, scaffolded or slightly changed to become part of an ecology of interventions.

Interventions are NOT Visions!

A common mistake we see teams make is to describe mini-visions, aspirations or ‘situations’ in the matrix, as opposed to interventions. Assignment #5 differs from all of the others in that it asks teams to develop concepts for actual, tangible projects and initiatives. On an actual project, a completed matrix would be like a ‘menu’ of projects/initiatives that could be taken to funding organizations. Even if an organization were only interested in funding a specific type or category of interventions, the matrix would illustrate how, in funding one in an ‘ecology’ of projects, they were supporting systems-level change. Teams should make sure that descriptions of their interventions read like short project descriptions and that connecting lines clearly illustrate how projects scaffold each other.  

Questions that can help inform the development of an ecology of systems interventions

  • At what level of scale will the intervention be situated?
  • How does this project connect with and amplify the others?
  • How does the intervention connect to both the long-term vision and the near-term milestones?
  • Does the intervention represent changes in material (artifacts/processes/technology/policy, etc.) or non-material factors (attitudes/beliefs/values/cultural, social, disciplinary norms)?
  • Has the intervention been conceived with Max-Neef’s theory of needs in mind? If so, what needs does it satisfy? Are they synergistic satisfiers?
  • Is the intervention ‘synergistic’; meaning, does it solve for more than one issue at a time?
  • What are the main barriers to the implementation of the intervention(s)?
  • How long could/should the intervention last? What is its lifespan?