Lecture & Discussion – 4.03.2023

Designing Systems Interventions + Assignment #5

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 believe this can be supplemented by approaches that seek to understand how social practices, human behavior and worldview can also be strategies for change and designed interventions.

One of the primary ways that Transition Design differs from other design approaches is its emphasis on ‘design for systems-level change’ which can take many years or even decades. Instead of thinking in terms of one-off solutions, that are completed within relatively short time frames, Transition Design thinks in terms of designing ‘systems interventions’ that are implemented at multiple levels of scale, over short, mid and long time horizons. These interventions are connected to each other as well as the long-term vision and near-term milestones that are positioned along a “transition pathway” formed by backcasting from the future vision to the present.

‘Ecologies of interventions’ have the potential to ‘transition’ a system (a wicked problem, an organization or entire societies) over time, toward new, sustainable/preferable futures. Because we can never predict how a complex system will respond to these interventions (because of their self-determining dynamics), periods of design/action must be balanced with periods of waiting/observing to see how the system responds. This will challenge our dominant paradigms that call for quick, decisive action that yields quick, profitable results. For this reason, Transition Designers will need to create compelling communications and narratives that explain why both action and observation are crucial to designing over long periods of time.

In this class we will discuss the emerging Transition Design approach and in particular, how teams’ research and the learning from the previous assignments can inform the conceptual development of 3 or more ‘designed interventions’ aimed at resolving the wicked problem. 

Discussion Prompts

  • Based upon your previous research and familiarity with your team’s wicked problem, what are the most obvious ‘leverage points for change’ in the system? What are the most immediate and relatively easy interventions that could be immediately implemented?
  • In your research, did you run across any existing projects or initiatives that could be refined/redirected (using Transition Design principles) to become one of your ‘ecologies of interventions’?
  • Try to imagine interventions at the macro, mezzo and micro levels of scale. How could they be interconnected for greater leverage?
  • Try to think of both material and non-material interventions; some interventions might involve new technologies, new narratives/communications, new policies etc., while other interventions might involve changing behaviors, practices, assumptions, cultural norms or even worldviews (non-material). For non-material interventions, how can Transition Designers disseminate new narratives and ideas that lead to change?
  • How can you imagine balancing the implementation of multiple ‘interventions’ with periods of observation and waiting? Should this process be staggered, so that transition designers are observing the results of some interventions, while implementing others? How can this process be choreographed and adjusted quickly when necessary?
  • Designing interventions within a large, Transition Design project will require transdisciplinary teams working over long periods of time in a co-design process with stakeholders themselves. How can continuity be maintained over long periods of time when actors are continually changing?
  • What kind of narratives/justifications and evaluation criteria need to be developed to create time for observation and re-orienting (if necessary) with the ‘powers that be’?

Assigned Readings

Supplemental Readings

  • Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2004. New Revolts Against the System. In Tom Mertes (ed.) A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible. Verso, London. pp. 262-273.

Assignment #5: Designing Ecologies of Systems Interventions

Assignment #5: In this assignment, teams will develop concepts for an ‘ecology of systems interventions’ aimed at addressing their wicked problem using the template in their Miro team board. Instructions for Assignment #5 can be found in the assignment section of this website. This assignment is due by end of day on May 6th as: 1) both a high-resolution PDF (exported from Miro) uploaded to their team folder in Box;  2) as a Medium post in which the assignment is analyzed and insights drawn out (with high-resolution images illustrating the article).

NOTE: the templates below are included as an analog resource for outside educators using this site. Students in this seminar should use the Miro templates.

Discussion – 4.05.2023

Material vs. Non-Material Systems Interventions

Transition Design argues that the design of “ecologies” of systems interventions is necessary to effectively address wicked problems and that these interventions will be both material and non-material in nature. Sociology distinguishes between two types of culture: the material and the non-material. Systems theorist Donella Meadows, author of the landmark paper Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System also argued that the most powerful ‘leverage points for change’ within in a system are non-material (changing the rules and goals of the system, changing mindsets, or changing the entire paradigm). Many problem-solving approaches focus on purely material solutions (interventions), while overlooking the fact that many wicked problems have non-material origins; mindsets, attitudes, cultural norms, behaviors etc. Therefore, systems interventions are likely to be more effective when material solutions are scaffolded by non-materials ones.

Material culture refers to the physical systems, infrastructure and artifacts that comprise the built world: houses and cities,  schools, factories, office buildings, stores, places of worship, vehicles and roads, power stations, farms etc., as well as our tools, technologies, means of production, goods and products, etc. These physical aspects of culture both embody and shape/influence our beliefs, perceptions, behaviors and collective norms. Winston Churchill famously said, “we shape our tools, then they shape us.”

Non‐material culture refers to the nonphysical beliefs, values, rules, norms, morals, language, organizations, rules, laws, protocols and informal “ways of doing things” that comprise our culture. Communications, symbols, narratives, frames, stories and scripted behaviors (such as service design) are also important non-material factors that can be powerful systems interventions.

The first 3 assignments: Mapping a Wicked Problem, Stakeholder Relations, and The Historic Evolution of the Problem revealed how both material and non-material elements within a socio-technical system become interrelated and interdependent over time. And, despite the fact that socio-technical systems are in a constant state of transition, they become entrenched and path-dependent (they get set in their ways, just like people do).

Mapping these systems connections reveal  leverage points of intervention where ecologies of interventions have the potential to destabilize these ‘stuck’ systems and shift transition trajectories. Transition Design argues that these systems interventions must be both material and non-material in order to address the different interconnected facets of the problem (which are themselves both material and non-material).

Discussion Prompts

  • Can you think of examples in which a material solution/intervention failed because of a non-material issue or cause that was connected to it and remained unaddressed?
  • What are some of the non-material origins of the wicked problem you team is working on?
  • Speculate upon material interventions to your wicked problem that could be scaffolded by non-material ones
  • What are some examples of material artifacts that would be part of an intervention aimed at a non-material issue/problem?
  • What are examples of non-material interventions that could be aimed at a non-material issue/problem?

Read Pior to Class

  • Chapman, Jonathan. 2021. Urban Mines. In Meaningful Stuff: Design That Lasts. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. pp. 5-14

Supplemental Readings

Lecture and Assignment Explained – 4.10.2023

Stories, Narratives & Frames

Guest Lecturer: TBD

“We live in a world shaped by stories. Stories are the threads of our lives and the fabric of human cultures. A story can unite or divide people(s), obscure issues, or spotlight new perspectives. A story can inform or deceive, enlighten or entertain, or even do all of the above. Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” — Salman Rushdie

To a much greater degree than we usually acknowledge, the world is shaped and informed by stories. According to the Center for Story Based Strategy such stories and (where there are multiple interconnected stories) narratives “show what we value; the deepest personal narratives we carry in our hearts and memories remind us who we are and where we come from.” Cognitive and social scientists argue that, for better or worse, people are far more likely to be motivated by stories and narratives that they find meaningful, than by empirical facts, data or even reasoned arguments. Such stories come in all shapes and sizes, including cosmologies,mythologies, political and economic tracts, novels, plays, movies, newscasts and social media feeds. 

Many of the stories and narratives which have shaped western culture (and now much of the rest of the world) foster and reinforce assumptions which themselves are root causes of many wicked problems. These include narratives related to gender, race and class, human nature, progress, history and economic growth and humanity’s relationship to the non-human. Stories and narratives normalize the culture, norms and values, political, social and economic institutions and political systems that form the status quo and imply there are no alternatives to it. Conversely, many stories and narratives that have validated alternatives have been suppressed, marginalized or erased. 

Stories and narratives can be important leverage points for change, and transitions towards more sustainable futures must be supported by new or the recovery of old ones: as the Center for Story Based Strategy argue, “historically, the power of stories and storytelling has been at the center of social change efforts”.  A new story (or an old story in a new context) can shift the collective imagination, displace old stories, and ignite positive, systems-level change. Similarly, old stories can become defunct or can be deconstructed, leaving a vacuum which new stories can fill. 

What is included  in a narrative, what is left out and the values it embodies are determined by what cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff refers to as ‘frames’. These cognitive structures are shaped by our personal and collective histories and allow us to conceptualize and organize what we see (and fail to see) and how we see it. The meaning of a narrative (or of an event shaped by a narrative) is contingent upon the frame through which it is understood. As Lakoff puts it if you learn a fact that doesn’t fit some conceptual frame that you have, the frame will stay and the fact will be ignored…your frames, which are really the structure of your brain, are defining what makes sense for you”. Frames are not fixed or static, but rather they are shaped by habit and reinforced by repetition — such as the ways in which language and in particular, metaphor, are used. Lakoff argues that in recent decades, conservatives have been particularly adept at triggering ‘authoritarian frames’ (through the language and metaphors adopted by politicians, media, think tanks etc) and has inhibited the development of alternative social, political and economic systems. Transition Design argues that the same principles can be used to help catalyze positive, systems level change.

Addressing wicked problems in the present, designing for transition, and co-creating visions of the future requires the strategic and pluralistic development of stories, narrative and frames. These can support ecologies of material and non-material interventions. New stories, narratives and frames may apply to specific or to multiple wicked problems.

Discussion Prompts

  • What are some of the dominant narratives and frames that are connected to wicked problems in your country, region or city? In what ways are they contributing to/exacerbating the problem or keeping it entrenched?
  • Can you think of counternarratives and frames that might destabilize the problem and help to resolve it?
  • Can you think of ways in which narratives, stories and frames might serve as bridges between polarized groups?
  • Why are frames and narratives that shape collective ideologies and behaviors often difficult to identify? What are strategies for revealing these frames and if revealed, is it helpful to do so?
  • How can new frames and narratives in the present be interventions for catalyzing transitions toward desired long-term futures? How can/should frames developed as interventions in the present relate to narratives and frames that are part of long-term future visions?

Read Prior to Class

  • Storr, Will. 2020. Creating a World. In Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Make Them Better. Harry Abrams, New York. pp. 12-28

Supplemental Readings

Lecture & Discussion – 4.12.2023

Policy & Legal Interventions

Guest Lecturer: Tomar Pierson-Brown

In his book Design for Policy, Christian Bason discusses the role that policy has to play in a more sustainable future and asks several key questions: “How often do policies succeed in becoming the actual carriers of the change intended by policymakers? How does the planning and deliberation of the policy process translate into tangible outcomes for citizens? How can policies effectively promote certain behaviors, relationships and capacities? How can policy thinking and policy “doing” be combined?”This class will explore the ways that policy and legal interventions can both address complex wicked problems and help ignite positive, systems-level change. Tomar Pierson-Brown, Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusive Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh Law School will lead the session and explore a number of key issues, including: 1) Systems of policy: litigation on behalf of the homeless; 2) Systems of legal practice: medical-legal partnerships; 3) Systems of professional identity: posture and mindsets of legal practitioners; 4) Policy/legal systems interventions.

Assigned Readings

  • Pierson-Brown, Tomar, (Systems) Thinking Like A Lawyer (March 9, 2020). 26 Clin. L. Rev. 515 (2020), U. of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2020-16, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3574837 (pp. 545-562)

Supplemental Readings

  • First Peoples of the Americas: Lessons on Democracy, Citizenship, and Politics. In Bernd Reiter (ed.) Constructing the Pluriverse: The Geopolitics of Knowledge. Duke University Press. pp. 279-297
Discussion – 4.17.2023

Manfred Max-Neef’s Theory of Needs

Transition design focuses on everyday life in place as the primary context for intervening in wicked problems. Everyday life can be understood as an emergent property of people going about the activity of satisfying their needs. Understanding how people define their needs, and go about satisfying them (or failing to do so) is a key strategy for developing sustainable solutions and effective systems interventions.Many economists and philosophers have argued that the range of human needs is infinite, and most economists remain focussed on tangible, material needs, while ignoring our many intangible and non-material needs. These assumptions have been used to justify continuous economic growth, which is assessed solely in quantitative (rather than qualitative) terms. It is now widely recognised that this type of growth is unsustainable: it not only fails to meet our needs but it often undermines our capacity to do so.By contrast, the Chilean development economist Manfred Max-Neef’s (with colleagues) proposed a theory of ‘needs and satisfiers’ that distinguishes between needs and the ways in which people satisfy them. They argue that needs are few, finite and universal, but the ways in which they are satisfied are limitless. They identify ten material and non-material needs that are the same regardless of culture, era, geography, ethnicity (subsistence, freedom, participation, protection, affection, understanding, leisure, creation, identity, transcendence). However, the ways in which these needs are satisfied (what we eat, how we build, how families are raised, how livelihoods are earned, how communities are managed, how spiritual and religious practices are arranged, how leisure time is spent etc) are limitless: highly contextualized, are unique to culture, era, geography, ethnicity. In other words, needs are satisfied, or should be satisfied, in place and ecosystem specific ways. 

Conventional economics only acknowledges material needs. Therefore it only acknowledges poverty caused by lack of material “goods” (to use Max-Neef’s term). This theory expands the definition to recognize a specific type of poverty associated with each unmet need (material and non-material, quantitative and qualitative). In Westernized societies, subsistence/material needs may be adequately satisfied but our non-material needs often go unaddressed resulting in unacknowledged pathologies that are the source of many wicked problems. 

In the modern era, the satisfiers for needs have often been appropriated by large centralized organizations such as the nation-state or multinational corporations. Such satisfiers are decontextualized — they are not unique to place and culture and their ownership, management and control is not embedded in the communities who depend on them. Satisfiers for needs are also often commodified — whereas once many satisfiers would have been freely available or collectively owned, under industrial capitalism, and particularly under globalization, such satisfiers are made available only through market transactions contributing to wicked problems such as wealth inequities and poverty, and many others

Satisfiers that are centrally created and therefore decontextualized are often designed to satisfy a single need in a simplistic way. Max-Neef argues that such satisfiers are often inadequate or even damaging, and categorizes these along a spectrum of ‘singular’ ‘inhibiting’ ‘pseudo’,  or ‘destroyer’ satisfiers. By contrast, place based satisfiers, embedded in community are likely to satisfy multiple needs simultaneously, and are referred to as ‘synergistic satisfiers’. ‘One size fits all’ satisfiers that are centrally created undermine social and cultural diversity and have likely to have a homogenizing effect on everyday life; satisfiers that are decentralized and are developed from within communities, reinforce diverse, place based forms of everyday life, culture and society. 

Concepts such as Max-Neef’s theory of needs and satisfiers can inform long-term visions of sustainable futures as well as present day systems interventions. Both of which can help communities regain control, management and ownership of the satisfiers for their material and non-material needs.

Discussion Prompts

  • How is  Max-Neef’s theory of ‘needs’ different than more well known theories such as Maslow’s theory? How is the difference significant? What possibilities for design does it open up?
  • What are some examples of needs satisfiers that are inappropriate, misconceived or ‘pseudo’?
  • How can the distinction between genuine needs and wants/desires be relevant to designers and design process?
  • How might design problems be framed differently if the primary context was everyday life? Discuss how the same problem, framed first using traditional design approaches and secondly using everyday life as the primary context, lead to different solutions?
  • Does framing problems and solutions within the context of everyday life and lifestyles have implications for user-centered design and research?
  • Discuss what is meant by the argument that everyday life is an emergent property of people meeting their needs? Speculate on the relationship between needs satisfaction and everyday life.
  • How are Max-Neef’s concepts of pseudo-satisfiers and counterfeit satisfiers connected to wicked problems?
  • In what ways can design for integrated satisfiers become part of sustainable/transition design process or strategy? Is designing for integrated satisfiers inherently more sustainable?
  • Can the distinction between genuine needs/integrated satisfiers become a way of critiquing design solutions to ensure they are sustainable?

Read Prior to Class

  • Max-Neef, Manfred. 1992. Development and Human Needs. In Manfred Max-Need & Paul Ekins (ed.) Real-Life Economics: Understanding Wealth Creation. Routledge, London. pp. 197-213

Supplemental Readings

  • Max-Neef, Manfred, Elizalde, Antonio and Hopenhayne, Martin. 1991. Human Scale Development. London: The Apex Press.
Worksession – 4.19.2023

Worksession: Assignment #5

This class will be a work session for Assignment #5, designing systems interventions. Teams should come prepared to work on their Miro template and instructors will join each group in the Zoom breakout room to provide feedback and answer questions. Attendance will be taken for this class.

Preparing for Final Presentations

The final two classes of the course (April 24th and 26th) will be devoted to final presentations. Teams should plan for a 15 minute presentation of their project work. They may structure this in any way they like; some teams might choose to touch on highlights and insights from each of the 5 assignments, while others might choose to focus on the final interventions and describe how insights from the previous 4 assignments informed them. The objective is to demonstrate a thorough understanding the of wicked problem and propose an ecology of systems interventions that effectively address it, have the potential to ignite positive, systems-level change, and that are clearly informed by the long-term vision and milestones. Final PDF’s and Medium posts will be due May 6th.