Lecture & Discussion – 3.8.2021

Mapping the Historical Evolution of a Wicked Problem + Assignment #3

Transition Design argues that wicked problems must be framed within radically large spatio-temporal contexts that include the present (how the problem manifests and who it affects), the past (how the problem emerged and evolved over dozens of years or decades), and the future (what we want to transition toward). This class discusses how to map the historical evolution of a wicked problem in order to reveal insights from the past that can inform both long-term future visions and present-day systems interventions. 

Transition Design draws/builds upon Transition Management theory and the work of the Sustainability Transitions Research Network (STRN) which focus on how socio-technical systems change and transition over long periods of time. This body of research can help us ascertain when and how issues related to a wicked problem arose and, over long periods of time, began to constellate and evolve to form a wicked problem. It uses the Multi-level Perspective framework (MLP) to map the systems transition at three key levels: 

The Landscape Level: at this macro systems level the societal landscape is determined by changes in the macro economy, political culture, demography, natural environment, and worldviews and paradigms, which are usually slow moving and resistant to change. These seismic undercurrents can play an important role in speeding up or slowing down a transition, but their geology is for the most part unyielding.

The Regime: this meso systems level comprises the social norms, interests, rules, belief systems, technologies, infrastructures and built environments through which the status quo operates and reproduces itself. The regime is managed through networks of companies, organizations, and institutions as well as through politics and governance (policies and laws) at multiple levels of scale (local, national, international). Within the regime, system dynamics are determined by dominant practices, rules, and shared assumptions that are most geared towards optimizing rather than transforming systems.

The Niche: this micro systems level consists of individual actors, technologies, and local practices. Variations to and deviations from the status quo can occur as a result of new ideas and new initiatives, such as new techniques, alternative technologies, and innovative social practices. “Incubation” is a term often used to describe how innovative, risk-taking experiments are protected from regime norms and have the opportunity to take root and sometimes destabilize the Regime.

Interactions among the three levels (landscape, regime and niche) are social, technical, institutional, infrastructural and normative and involve both material and non-material factors. The networks of relationship within the regime and landscape become progressively more entrenched, inertial and resistant to change as their scale and complexity increases. Eventually large systems become “locked in” to particular trajectories or transition pathways. In other words, although socio-technical systems (and wicked problems) are constantly ‘in transition’, they get set in their ways, just like people do.

The Principles and Dynamics of Complex, Open Systems

Transition Design argues that in mapping the historical evolution of a wicked problem, we must identify the events, beliefs, attitudes, innovations and norms within the landscape, regime and niche levels, but we must also learn to understand the complex systems dynamics at work within the whole. Principles that govern dynamic, complex adaptive systems (chaos and complexity theories) include: 

Non-linearity: systems do not display linear cause and effects characteristics: because they are connected to each other via multiple feedback loops, it is impossible to predict with certainty the medium and long-term consequences of designed/external interventions. This is why so many problem-solving approaches based upon predicted outcomes fail.

Coevolution: systems change and transition together via their habitual, prolonged interactions over time. This principle also applies to problems that arise, become interconnected and interdependent and, eventually—wicked. This ‘coupling’ is part of what makes wicked problems and socio-technical systems become entrenched and ‘path dependent.’

Holarchic structure: complex systems have holarchic (nested) structures at multiple levels of scale. At the higher levels, components aggregate to form complex relationships that are inertial and more resistant to change. If properly understood, these complex dynamics help explain the problem’s origins and evolution, but can also reveal strategies for its resolution.

Emergence: within complex systems, new structures and behaviors arise out of, but cannot be reduced to, the self organizing, dynamic parts of the systems. This underscores the unpredictable nature of complex systems and systems problems (non-linearity and co-evolution) and is why deep research into the historical evolution of the problem always reveals insights that seem counter-intuitive.

Sensitivity to initial conditions/chaos theory within complex systems (and systems problems), small interventions have the potential to ramify throughout the systems and can have disproportionately and unpredictably large consequences. This principle both explains how problems can quickly get worse and how socio-technical systems can undergo unpredictable, sweeping change. Revealing how this dynamic has been at work in the historical evolution of a wicked problem can also provide clues for how to harness it to drive positive, systems-level change (wicked problem resolution and shifting systems’ transition trajectories).

Using the Multi-Level Perspective Framework (MLP)

Framing a wicked problem within an MLP context is useful for several reasons: 1) it aids in understanding the historical evolution of the problem, which is essential in identifying and addressing root causes (which always exist at multiple levels of scale); 2) it is useful in identifying both intractable, entrenched areas within the system and opportunities for disruption (often incubated at the niche level, but large events at the landscape level can open up opportunities at lower levels); and 3) it provides a large enough context to reveal connections and interdependencies among other wicked problems that can inform strategies for more powerful interventions aimed at exponential change (i.e., killing two birds with one stone). “Reading” the social-technical terrain with the MLP can reveal what systems theorist Donella Meadows called “places to intervene in a system.” 

Although the MLP has drawbacks (such as its lack of emphasis on social dynamics and granular practices that contribute to systems inertia) it is nevertheless a useful way of understanding the connections and dynamics among multiple wicked problems within a large spatio-temporal context, which is a crucial precursor for designing interventions at multiple levels of scale.

Discussion Prompts

  • What is the relevance of socio-technical regime theory for design and designers?
  • Speculate on how understanding historical socio-technical transitions could serve as the basis for strategic ‘systems interventions’ (design solutions, projects, initiatives).
  • Can you identify shifts and changes occurring at the landscape level that open up opportunities for projects and initiatives at the niche level? Can a seemingly negative/problematic or even catastrophic event at the landscape level open up opportunities at the niche or regime level? Does this work in reverse? Is one level of the MLP better suited than others for design interventions?
  • What experiments at the niche-level are currently in process? Which ones have the potential to positively disrupt the regime? What might the future trajectory look like? How could opportunities at the landscape level be leveraged to amplify the transition?
  • How could the MLP complement/supplement traditional problem finding/framing/solving?
  • Think of examples in which the systems principles above are playing out in current problems or events taking place.
  • How has COVID-19 impacted events/beliefs/technologies etc. at the Landscape, Regime and Niches level, apropos of your wicked problem?

Read Prior to Class

Supplemental Readings

Assignment #3: Mapping the Historical Evolution of a Wicked Problem

Assignment #3: In this assignment, teams will map the historical evolution of their wicked problem using the template in their Miro team board. Instructions for Assignment #3 can be found in the assignment section of this website. This assignment is due by end of day on March 22nd 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.

Lecture & Discussion – 3.10.2021

Types of Socio-Technical Systems Transitions

In recent decades researchers have been studying and documenting the ways in which historic socio-technical systems change and transition over long periods of time in order to catalyze sustainability transitions. Transition Design draws/builds upon this approach as strategies for wicked problem resolution and societal transitions towards more sustainable futures. This class will look more closely at the nature of how transitions happen within socio-technical systems and discuss the ‘typologies’ of socio-technical transitions in order to understand the contributing factors and events at different levels of scale (the landscape, the regime and the niche). Several types of change and the transition ‘pathways’ they give rise to will be discussed.

Types of Change within Socio-Technical Systems

Sustainability transition researchers Geels and Schot, in their paper Typology of Sociotechnical Transition Pathways describe the ways in which different types of change within socio-technical systems can trigger different types of transition pathways (responses). They describe five types of change that can lead to transition (excerpted from the paper)

Regular change corresponds to environments that regularly experience a low-intensity, gradual change. 

Hyper turbulence corresponds to environments that feature a high frequency of high-speed change in one dimension (such as hyper-competition).

Specific shock corresponds to environmental changes that are rapid and high intensity, come rarely and are relatively narrow in scope (this can disappear, returning the system to baseline or may lead to a structural stepwise change).

Disruptive change corresponds to changes that occur infrequently, develop gradually, but have a high-intensity effect in one dimension.

Avalanche change occurs very infrequently, but is of high intensity, of high speed, and simultaneously affects multiple dimensions and leads to permanent change to the environment (such as COVID-19).

The Types of Transitions Triggered by these Changes

The changes described above, under different circumstances, have the potential to trigger the following different types of transition pathways:

Reproduction pathway is when there is no landscape pressure, so the regime (status quo) remains dynamically stable and continues to reproduce itself.

Transformation pathway is the result of moderate landscape pressure (from disruptive change) at a moment when niche-innovations have not yet been sufficiently developed. In such a case, regime actors respond by modifying the direction of development paths and innovation activities.

Dealignment and realignment pathways result if landscape change is divergent, large and sudden (avalanche change). In combination with increasing regime-level problems, actors at this level may lose faith, leading to  dealignment and erosion of the existing regime. If niche-innovations are not sufficiently developed, then there is no clear substitute, which creates space for multiple niche-level innovations that coexist and vie for attention and resources. Eventually, one niche-innovation becomes dominant, forming the core for realignment of a new regime.

Technological substitution pathway results from substantial landscape pressure (specific shock, avalanche or disruptive change) at a moment when niche-innovations have developed sufficiently, the latter will break through and replace the existing regime.

Reconfiguration pathway results from symbiotic innovations which develop in niches and are initially adopted at the regime levels to solve local problems. These symbiotic relationships subsequently trigger further adjustments in the basic architecture of the regime.

Multiple, sequential pathways result of landscape pressure takes the form of ‘disruptive change.’ This begins with transformation, then leads to reconfiguration and is potentially followed by substitution or dealignment and realignment.

Other Factors that Influence Transitions

The type of transition pathway that these different types of changes trigger also depends upon these additional factors: 1) the frequency of the change; 2) the magnitude of the change; 3) the speed or rate of the change/disturbance; 4) the scope of the change (the number of conditions affected simultaneously). But it also depends upon the timing of interactions within the overall system (such as the timing of landscape pressure on regimes, relative to niche-developments) and the nature of the interactions (for instance, do niche innovations and landscape developments have reinforcing relationships with the regime or disruptive relationships due to pressure or competition?)

These complex tensions, relationships and interactions are described in more detail in the paper above, but developing a deep understanding of these complex systems dynamics is crucial in understanding how wicked problems manifest, how they evolved over long periods of time and how to resolve them with ‘ecologies’ of systems interventions.

Discussion Prompts

  • Can you think of examples of change in each of the five categories proposed by Geels and Schot?
  • As you map the historical evolution of your team’s wicked problem, can you identify the different types of path dependencies that arose during the transitions?
  • What are landscape level events taking place now that are stimulating niche-level innovation? Speculate on what type of transition it might trigger on the basis of whether the niche-level development is mature or still developing.

Read Prior to Class

Supplemental Readings

Working Session – 3.15.2021

Work Session: Assignment #3

For the spring 2021 semester, in order to give students more time to complete assignment #3, this will be a working session (attendance will be taken). Instructors will begin the session with a discussion about the assignment and the ways in which the texts are relevant. Teams will then enter their breakout rooms in Zoom and work on their assignment template in Miro.

Discussion – 3.17.2021

Historical Context

Transition Design argues that we must understand the historical roots of wicked problems in order to address them more appropriately in the present, and ensure we don’t repeat the past as we transition toward more sustainable, equitable and desirable long-term futures. In this class we will discuss the time horizons critical to Transition Design and in particular, the need for historical context.

Writing in the journal History Today, lecturer Robert Crowcroft recounts an argument from the historian R.G. Collingwood about the particular type of insights trained historians can offer. He likened the difference between a historian and layperson to “‘the trained woodsman’ and ‘the ignorant travel’ in a forest. While the latter marches along unaware of their surroundings, thinking ‘nothing here but trees and grass’, the woodsman sees what lurks ahead. ‘Look’, he will say ‘there is a tiger in that grass.’” Both Crowcroft and Collingwood argue that historians have a unique perspective on human behavior, and an understanding of the complexities of socio-political-economic-ecological processes over long periods of time, that have relevance to present day situations.

Surprised! By Henri Rousseau, 1891

Historical context can refer to the social, religious, cultural, economic, political,technological and ecological conditions that exist in a certain time and place and the ways in which these elements interact and mutually influence each other. Most importantly history enables us to identify long-forgotten connections and origins of problems and events which can deepen our understanding of our situation in the present. This can help address one of the characteristics of 20th and 21st century societies:the ever increasing pace in which we live our lives and the corresponding decreasing timeframe within which we think. The result is we often fail to grasp the historically deep roots of many contemporary problems.

Temporality and the Pace of Change

In his book The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand proposed the idea of extending our concept of the present in both directions. “to make the present longer. Civilizations with ‘long nows’ look after things better….In those places you feel a very strong but flexible structure which is built to absorb shocks and in fact incorporate them.” And, in a 1978 paper, sociologist Elise Boulding argued that society was suffering from a type of “temporal exhaustion in which…one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imaging the future.” And, little time left to reflect upon and understand the past. Boulding’s proposal was to expand our idea of the present to two hundred years; a hundred years into the future, and a hundred years into the past. Transition Design argues that wicked problems must be considered within this expanded concept of the present.

Brand has also proposed a framework that encompasses what he describes as ‘six levels of a healthy civilization, each of these ‘pace layers’—Fashion/art; commerce; infrastructure; governance; culture and nature— operates on a different  time scale and each is an essential element in  structure of an adaptable and robust civilization Brand argues that “In a healthy society, each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, safely sustained by the slower levels below and kept invigorated by the livelier levels above…each layer must respect the different pace of the others…” Each layer makes a distinct contribution to the whole society, and there are inherent checks and balances among the layers that bring stability to the whole society. The top layer of fashion/art moves quickly and innovates, while the bottom layer of nature is powerful, vast, inexorable and slow; but once disturbed or disrupted is equally slow to rebound.

Transition Design argues that to address wicked problems we need to be cognizant of the different pace layers and times scales that are that are implicated in their development, and in order to intentionally transition our societies toward sustainable long-term futures, we must recover the ability to think in long horizons of time and situate our problems in the present within the long context of history.

Professor and historian Heather Cox Richardson, who contributed some of the most important, insightful national commentary during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and connection to and implications for American politics has said, Historians are not denigrating the nation when they uncover sordid parts of our past. Historians study how and why societies change. As we dig into the past we see patterns that never entirely foreshadow the present, but that give us ideas about how people have dealt with circumstances in the past that look similar to circumstances today. With luck, seeing those patterns will help us make better decisions about our own lives, our communities, and our nation in the present. As they say, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Discussion Prompts

  • Can you think of examples in which historical narratives about the distant past have shifted significantly because of changes in the present (for instance new historical interpretations of colonialism and systems of oppression)? What are strategies for challenging current historical narratives that may be connected to systems of oppression and coloniality?
  • How might non-Euro-centric histories provide insight on the historical evolution of wicked problems? How might they suggest strategies for resolution?
  • Can you think of historical origins/roots of a wicked problem affecting you currently?
  • In researching the historic roots of a wicked problem, how can we ensure that the insights and narratives are not biased and are informed by a diversity of perspectives?
  • How can insights about the historical roots of wicked problems contribute to long-term future visions in which the problem has been resolved?
  • Discuss Elise Boulding’s concept of a 200 year present. How might a 200 year view be a transition strategy? How can we ‘act’ within a 200 year time horizon that includes 100 years into the past and 100 into the future?

Read Prior to Class

Brand, Stuart. 1999. Kairos & Chronos, The Long Now, The Order of Civilization, The Order of Civilization, Uses of the Past, The Long View & The Infinite Game. In the Clock of the Long Now. Basic Books. New York, NY. Extracts.

Crowcroft, Robert. 2018. The Case for Applied History: Can the Study of the Past Really Help us to Understand the Present? History Today. Vol 68: 9. London. Accessed March 2021.

Guldi, Jo & Armitage, David. 2014. Going Forward by Looking Back: The Rise of the Long Duree. In The History Manifesto. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 14-36

Gaddis, John Lewis. 2004. Chaos & Complexity & Causation, Contigency & Counterfactuals. In The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford University Press, Oxford. pp. 71-100

Supplemental Readings

TBD