Discussion – 1.31.2024

Mapping Stakeholder Relations + Assignment #2

The roots of many wicked problems are connected to relations of conflict and power imbalances among stakeholder groups. These complex stakeholder relations are also barriers to societal/organizational transitions to more sustainable and desirable long-term futures. Wicked problems and socio-technical-ecological systems (the context for all wicked problems) are characterized by high degrees of social complexity that often go unseen and unaddressed by traditional problem-solving approaches. Transition Design argues that stakeholder relations are the “connective tissue” within wicked problems, and and these nuanced “systemic relations” must be ‘mapped’ and analyzed to serve as the basis for problem resolution

Stakeholder relations of conflict and opposition always require the greatest investment of time and energy to resolve, but relations of affinity, agreement and alignment (that are always present) often go unseen and acknowledged. Transition Design argues that relations of affinity and alignment are the “low hanging fruit” in a system and show us where work should begin. Relations of affinity can be immediately leveraged in the co-creation of visions, projects, initiatives and other types of interventions. These early, tangible steps can yield positive, mutually beneficial outcomes which help establish trust and bridge the divides in areas in which they disagree.

Transition Design’s Approach to Stakeholder Relations

Identifies and considers all stakeholder groups: Understanding and addressing the social roots of a wicked problem demands that all stakeholder groups are identified and their concerns integrated into the problem frame. We use the term “stakeholder” to refer to any group who is connected to or affected by a wicked problem (an additional complicating factor is that most individuals are members of multiple stakeholder groups connected to the problem). User and human-centered research and design approaches acknowledge stakeholder preferences but usually identify “key” groups and privilege the concerns of some over others (for example privileging the concerns of the group commissioning a project, a perceived target audience or those of higher socio-economic rank) and often exacerbate conflictual relations and undermine the effectiveness of solutions based upon stakeholder research.

Uneven power relations among stakeholder groups: The distribution of power (socio-economic-political) among stakeholders affected by a wicked problem is almost always unequal and systemic in nature, making power relations difficult to identify and address. In addition, the group(s) who are in the position to frame (define) the problem, will almost always (deliberately or inadvertently) privilege their own needs and concerns over that of other groups. This is why solutions often improve or resolve conditions for some groups and exacerbate the problem for others. Transition Design seeks to address these power imbalances by building capacity and empowerment for some groups, while addressing issues of privilege, entitlement, and even ignorance with others. In many cases, certain stakeholder groups (such as those who are disenfranchised for some reason or those who are non-human). These groups will require advocacy and representation in order for their perspectives and concerns to be integrated into the problem frame and ensure their needs are met and their welfare is not compromised by the interventions (solutions) that are proposed.

Identifying stakeholder beliefs, assumptions and cultural norms: Although some traditional problems-solving approaches consider user preferences and motivations, they seldom consider the ways in which individual and collective stakeholder beliefs, assumptions and cultural norms have contributed to the problem. Factors such as social practices and behaviors which are sometimes considered, are always underpinned or arise out of beliefs, assumptions and cultural norms, and these must be considered when framing the problem and formulating interventions. Identifying each stakeholder group’s attitudes, beliefs and assumptions about the problem will require a wide variety of research methodologies that will vary in place, situation and culture-specific ways.

The Need to Draw from the Social Sciences

Transition Design draws on approaches from the social sciences (in particular political, peace-keeping approaches) to place stakeholder concerns and collaboration at the heart of the problem solving process. There are many well documented approaches used to identify and resolve stakeholder relations, including Needs-Fears Mapping, Conflict Analysis Tools, and Multi-Stakeholder Processes, (MSP) to name a few.

These approaches delve more deeply into understanding stakeholder differences, mindsets and relations than do traditional design approaches (such as actor and stakeholder maps which are often determined from the consultant/ expert designer’s or client’s point of view). They offer collaborative approaches for resolving conflicts and facilitate more meaningful collaboration and understanding. What they often lack however, is a design-led component that can contribute to tangible action (projects and initiatives) through the prototyping and implementation of designed interactions, communications and artifacts that can educate, clarify and facilitate new behaviors and outcomes. Transition Design proposes that many stakeholder conflict resolution methods from the social sciences could inform a new, design-led approach that mediates stakeholder relations as a crucial step in addressing wicked problems.

Addressing stakeholder concerns and attempting to resolve conflicts is difficult, messy and a long-term process, but one whose benefits have been well documented. The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, have listed several benefits that result from successful multi-stakeholder engagement:

  • The involvement of more actors provides a broader range of expertise and perspectives. This means problems can be analyzed better, based upon several different viewpoints.
  • Such analyses can lead to a more comprehensive strategy to address complex conflict situations.
  • MSPs provide the opportunity for greater understanding of different stakeholders’ capacities, roles and limitations, thus contributing to better coordination of interventions.
  • MSPs can help organizations pool and share resources, including skills, funding, staff time, and logistical or administrative resources.
  • The involvement of multiple stakeholders can be conducive to public outreach and awareness raising at different levels simultaneously, increasing the reach from grassroots to policy mobilization. In this way, they have potential for a multiplier effect when the key messages of the process are communicated to the participants’ respective constituencies.
  • MSPs can contribute to building trust among diverse stakeholders, and enable relationships that can outlast the process itself.
  • They can provide a platform for much needed capacity building among practitioners at different levels.
  • Sharing skills and knowledge can enable participants to see problems in a new way, which is also conducive to innovation.

Including/mapping stakeholder relations as part of the problem framing process will be key in devising systems interventions at all levels of scale that go beyond the more obvious material or technological solutions and aim to shift stakeholders’ beliefs, values, behaviors and practices, as key interventions and catalysts for systems transition

Discussion Prompts

  • Can you think of a situation you have been part of in which discussions, negotiations or outcomes were affected by an imbalance of power relations? 
  • What are different forms of power that might come into play among different stakeholder groups?
  • What are the ways in which it could be beneficial to identify and understand the different types of relationships that might exist between just two stakeholder groups? For instance, could two groups simultaneously be diametrically opposed or even hostile over some aspects or issues related to a particular problem and be in agreement or even alliance over others? If contradictory relations exist, what are the implications for conceiving solutions/interventions? How does temporality (time/timelines) play into this?
  • Think of examples in which conflictual relations among groups are more directly a result of opposing belief systems or cultural norms. How is this a barrier to problem resolution? How could it be a boon or advantage?
  • In complex problem resolution, is it necessary or realistic to expect different stakeholder groups to agree? If not, why? If not, what are realistic expectations that might still contribute to their ability to co-create visions of a future in which their needs are met and work in the present to achieve that future?
  • What are strategies for building different types of capacity within different stakeholder groups? Does this work need to be behind the scenes or can it be an explicit/transparent part of the work? What are existing approaches that might aid in this work? What are they lacking and how might aspects inform new approaches

Assigned Readings

Supplemental Readings

  • Macy, Joanna. 2017. The Council of All Beings. In Bron Taylor (ed.) Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Bloomsbury, London. pp. 425-429
  • Gray, Barbara and Purdy, Jill. 2018. The Rise of Partnerships: From Global to Local. In Collaborating for our Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Chapter 1
  • Gray, Barbara and Purdy, Jill. 2018. Cross-Level Dynamics. In Collaborating for our Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Chapter 10

Assignment #2: Mapping Stakeholder Relations

Assignment #2: In this assignment, teams will map the stakeholder groups connected to and affected by their wicked problem using the template in their Miro team board. Instructions for Assignment #2 can be found in the assignment section of this website. This assignment is due by end of day on March 23rd 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 – 2.05.2024

Mindset & Posture

Transition Design argues that living in and through transitional times calls for self-reflection and ‘new ways of being’ in the world in order to act as a catalyst for societal transition. This will call for self-reflection and learning which lead to new mindsets and postures

Transition Design argues that wicked problem resolution requires radical collaboration among experts from many fields and disciplines, co-designing together and alongside the stakeholder groups connected to the problem(s). It will challenge experts from outside the problem/system (designers, policy makers, government officials, NGO’s, researchers etc.) to collaborate across disciplinary divides, relinquish the habitual posture of the expert and instead bring a cooperative and speculative mindset in a posture of ‘service to the system’.

Our individual and collective mindsets reflect  the beliefs, values, assumptions, and expectations that are formed by our individual experiences, cultural norms, religious/spiritual beliefs, and the socioeconomic and political paradigms to which we subscribe. These  mindsets and postures often go unnoticed and unacknowledged but they profoundly influence what is identified as a problem and how it is framed and solved within a given context. Transition Design argues that it is important to understand the dominant worldview which underpins many wicked problems in order to envision new socio-economic- political-ecological paradigms.

The Mechanistic Worldview

Since the scientific revolution of the 17th century the dominant, western worldview or ‘way of knowing’ has been characterized by a reductionist approach to understanding and a mechanistic mental model of the universe. This worldview adheres to a belief in predictability and control, values quantity over quality and views nature as a resource or storehouse for human consumption. It is also characterized by postures of competition vs. cooperation, a tendency to think in terms of cause/effect and short horizons of time and is reflected in an economic paradigm predicated upon unbridled growth and a single-bottom-line, for-profit metric.

The mechanistic worldview influences every aspect of our society, economy, culture and values, is at the root of many of the wicked problems facing society and has affected the design-related disciplines in several ways. 1) Design’s strong relationship to the consumer-led marketplace has increasingly come to define designers’ role and potential;  2) the imperative to think and design in ever shorter horizons of time (time = money) and produce quick results encourages the de-contextualization of problems (all stakeholders are not served, social and environmental sustainability cannot be considered);  3) the emphasis on ever greater degrees of specialization can be a barrier to transdisciplinary, cross-sector collaboration on large, complex problems (experts cannot collaborate from within postures of certainty and their own disciplinary norms).

The Holistic Worldview

In contrast to the dominant, reductionist paradigm, a new ecological/holistic worldview has begun to inform the theory and practice of many fields and disciplines and has been referred to by environmentalist and  physicist and author Fritjof Capra as “The Systems View of Life”. This shift from a reductionist to a holistic way of seeing the world (from a mechanistic to organic model) has, in part, been due to discoveries of the mid- twentieth century, particularly from the fields of physics and chaos and complexity science. Most importantly it has led to a new understanding of the holarchic connection between ‘whole’ and ‘part’, that shifts the emphasis from ‘things’ to relationships and explains the anatomy and dynamics of complex systems. This new, emerging paradigm emphasizes empathy, relationship, participation and self-organization, calls for new mindsets and postures of openness, speculation, mindfulness and a willingness to collaborate. Together, these represent a new skill and value set — a new way of ‘being’ in the world — that the work of designing for transition will require.

A New Relational Paradigm

Transition Design calls for a new relational paradigm in which ‘interdependence’ (cooperation, symbiosis, synergy, mutualism) is seen as being fundamental in all realms (the human and the more-than-human) at all levels of scale, from microcosm to macrocosm. Relationality, in its many forms, is not only ubiquitous in the natural world but is also a fundamental feature, as demonstrated by many indigenous and non-Westernized communities, of a flourishing society or culture. This emerging relational paradigm has begun to influence the natural and human sciences, many social practices and much grassroots activism.

Key Concepts

The assigned readings for this class introduce key ideas and concepts in several categories: Place; time; beauty; unity; leadership as service; and nature. In previous years the mindset and posture section of the seminar explored these areas as important to both the self-reflective work necessary in designing for transitions but also to envisioning long-term futures that are sustainable, equitable and desirable. 

PLACE: many westernized, modern societies have lost their deep understanding of and connection to place. In contrast, many indigenous communities around the world have retained their place and culture-based knowledge systems and have lived sustainably in place over many generations. Transition Design argues that we need to learn from these ancient ways of knowing in order to learn how to live more appropriately and lightly on the planet and catalyze regenerative transitions toward the futures we want.

TIME: many of the roots of wicked problems lie in our propensity to think in ever shorter horizons of time which blinds us to the mid and long-term consequences of our actions. In contrast, many indigenous North American communities based key decisions on rigorous speculations of how it would affect their people seven generations into the future. Transition Design argues that it takes wicked problems a long time to become wicked and will therefore take many decades or longer to resolve them. This will challenge transition designers to think rigorously about the future and to have the stamina and patience to work on projects and initiatives for much longer periods of time than is currently the norm.

BEAUTY: Transition Design argues that a reexamination of the role of aesthetics and beauty is crucial to envisioning the long-term futures we want. Author John Lane argues in the reading from Timeless Beauty, that we have become immune to ugliness and calls for a return to the deep concern for craft and making, beauty in what we create and the spaces we inhabit and a greater degree in mindfulness in both the creative process and our interactions with each other.

UNITY: Closely related to beauty, unity is concerned with the ‘wholeness’ of things and the connections among them (which is also related to systems-thinking). The reading by noted anthropologist, biologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson includes his famous reference to the pattern that connects and the question “what pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you? And all the six of us to the amoeba in one direction and to the backward schizophrenic in another?” This search for connection and unity is especially important when mapping wicked problems and developing ecologies of systems interventions aimed at resolving them.

LEADERSHIP AND SERVICE: Because transition designers will be working within social organizations as they work to address wicked problems, they will be in positions of both leadership and service. Transition Design argues that new mindsets and postures that challenge current notions of leadership and management are called for in doing this important work. Robert Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership discusses the need for leaders to see themselves as being ‘in service’ to the people who follow them and calls for postures of humility and a desire to facilitate the growth and empowerment of others.

NATURE: Related to the concept of place, the reading in this section introduces the concept of Gaia Theory, developed by scientist James Lovelock which argues that the earth is a complex, self-regulating system, constantly changing and adapting to maintain conditions conducive to life. Transition Design argues that understanding the Gaian system and the way in which it manifests ‘in place’ is foundational in developing visions of long-term, sustainable futures and designing interventions.

Discussion Prompts

  • What characteristics of the dominant worldview/posture are evident in the wicked problem your team is addressing? What are strategies for shifting these beliefs/assumptions/norms to a more holistic and relational paradigm?
  • In what way is the concept of worldview, mindset and posture connected to other topics in this section: Power relations, systems of oppression, pluriversality/decoloniality and polarization?
  • Identify and discuss a situation in which working in the posture of the ‘expert’ would be problematic. In what situation would it be an advantage? How would the size of the problem or problem frame related to these postures?
  • Discuss ways in which worldviews and mindsets become ‘materialized’ in the ‘built’ world, i.e. artifacts, buildings, scripted/designed behaviors and interactions, technological interfaces and all manner of communications.

Read Prior to Class (choose at least one)

  • Escobar, Arturo. 2017. In the Background of our Culture. In Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy and the Making of Worlds. Duke University Press, Durham, NC. pp. 79-104
  • Clarke, Mary. 2002. Framing the Problem. In Search of Human Nature. London: Routledge. pp 1–14

Supplemental Readings

  • Soren and Johnson, Jay T. (2017) Being-together-in-place. In Being Together in Place: Indigenous Coexistence in a More Than Human World. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. pp. 1–22
  • Orr, David. Slow Knowledge. In The Nature of Design:Ecology, Culture and Human Intention. Oxford University Press, Oxford. pp. 35-42
  • Spretnak, Charlene. 2011. Relational Revelations. In Relational Reality: New Discoveries of Interrelatedness that are Transforming the Modern World. Topsham: Green Horizon Books. pp.1-20*
  • Capra, Fritjof and Luisi, Pierre Luigi. 2014. The Newtonian World Machine. In The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 19-33*
  • Abram, David. 1996. The Mechanical and the Organic. In P. Bunyard (ed.) Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth, Edinburgh: Floris. pp. 234-242*
Discussion – 2.07.2024

Systems of Oppression

This class will focus on the way in which both wicked problems and conflictual stakeholder relations are caused, underpinned or exacerbated by systems of oppression, racism and privilege. Because Transition Design is concerned with seeding and catalyzing systems-level change, this class will focus on issues related to diversity, equity and uneven power relations from a systemic point of view rather than focusing on individual experiences and perspectives. 

Systems of oppression (based upon race, gender, class, language, sexual orientation, religion, culture, etc.) are both institutional (policies and practices at the organizational or sectoral level that perpetuate oppression) and structural (refers to how these effects interact and accumulate across institutions and across history).  A society’s institutions, structures, laws, beliefs/norms, and practices that are embedded in its fabric are all implicated. All of these conspire to oppress and discriminate against certain groups, while empowering and conferring privilege upon others.

The Friends of the Earth report Why Gender Justice & Dismantling Patriarchy, offers an excellent description of the way in which multiple systems of oppression are interconnected and interrelated. For example, they argue that patriarchy (as a form of systemic oppression) is interlinked with other dominant economic, social and cultural systems that mutually reinforce each other to replicate, maintain and reproduce each other’s hierarchy and power (known the “status quo” or intersectionality): “These [related] systems of oppression are capitalism, class oppression, racism, neocolonialism and heteronormativity. People also experience different forms of systemic discrimination in their daily lives, due to their special physical and mental needs, age, education level, religion, etc.”

In A Structural Analysis of Oppression, authors Sandra Hinson and Alexa Bradley argue “a person lives within structures of domination and oppression if other groups have the power to determine her actions. Individuals experience oppressive conditions because they are part of a group that is defined on the basis of shared characteristics such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, age, ability, etc. These major social groups have specific attributes, stereotypes and norms associated with them. Individual memberships in these groups are not necessarily voluntary. It is not necessarily acknowledged either.” They go on to propose five forms of oppression: 1) Exploitation; 2) Marginalization; 3) Powerlessness; 4) Cultural Dominance; 5) Violence.

In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, author Isabel Wilkerson analyzes three historical caste systems: the caste system of Nazi Germany, the millennia-long caste system in India and the race-based caste pyramid in the United States and says “Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originated from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through generations…the hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which groups do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them, and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.” (pp 17-18).

Transition Design argues that mapping both problem and stakeholder relations has the potential to reveal these hidden systems of oppression and 1) enable us to address the wicked problems that arise out of them; 2) and reveal approaches to dismantle them. The National Equity Project (NEP) is a leadership and systems-change organization committed to increasing the capacity of people to achieve thriving, self-determining, educated and just communities. They argue that systemic oppression manifests on four systems levels: The Individual, The Interpersonal, The Institutional and The Structural, and and gives examples at each level:

Individual Level: A teacher holds an unconscious mental model that her students of color are not “college material.” This belief, left unchecked, leads to lower expectations of work quality, which allows for less rigorous teaching methods, and finally produces a gap in the actual skills and preparation of these very students. Similarly, a college counselor might push lower-income students toward community colleges or job training programs while counseling more privileged students to apply to four-year universities. These scenarios are all too real and, we would argue, a result of unexamined belief systems nurtured by an oppressive system.

The Interpersonal: By interpersonal, we mean the interactions between individuals that play out, both within and across difference. These are where the individual and the systemic levels of oppression intersect. These interactions are playing out constantly, within institutions and in the private spheres of life. Much of the interpersonal level manifests through discourse—how issues and situations are framed, talked about, not talked about.

The Institutional: By institution, we mean a single school or organization with its own internal set of norms, policies, and practices. On this level, we might witness a discipline policy that correlates to a disproportionate number of African American boys being sent out of class or a master schedule that de facto tracks English Language Learners into lower-level coursework. It may be that an organization creates a culture centered on dominant culture that makes it inhospitable to people of color. Though one might argue that these policies stem from individual belief systems, the institutional lens reveals how an organization’s patterns are self-sustaining and thus more than the sum of its individual actors.

The Structural: Structural oppression involves the macro-relationship between institutions that perpetuates or even exacerbates unequal outcomes for children. Despite its title, we would posit the “No Child Left Behind” Act as a prime example of structural oppression. In her recent piece “A Nation’s Education Left Behind”, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch wrote in 2011: We have now had ten years of No Child Left Behind, and we now know that there has been very little change in the gaps between the children of the rich and the children of the poor, between black children and white children. Just this week, the federal government released the urban district test results and we could see that the gap remained as large as ever. After ten years of NCLB, the children at the bottom were still at the bottom. By critically analyzing this policy, we can see how politicians colluded with financial interests to create a hollow discourse of opportunity while in fact sowing the seeds of oppression.

Assumptions for Challenging Systemic Oppression

The NEP goes on to list a number of assumptions that serve as the basis for addressing systemic oppression:

  • Oppression and injustice are human creations and phenomena, built into our current economic system, and therefore can be undone.
  • Oppression (e.g. racism, colonialism, class oppression, patriarchy, and homophobia) is more than just the sum of individual prejudices. Its patterns are systemic and therefore self-sustaining without dramatic interruption.
  • Systemic oppression exists at the level of institutions (harmful policies and practices) and across structures (education, health, transportation, economy, etc) that are interconnected and reinforcing over time.
  • Systemic oppression has historical antecedents. We must face our national legacy and current manifestations of racism and economic inequality in order to transform them.
  • Without rigorous examination, behavior is reproductive. By default, current practices, cultural norms and institutional arrangements foster and maintain inequitable outcomes.
  • To undo systemic oppression, we must forge multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-lingual alliances and create democratic processes that give voice to new organizing systems for humanity.
  • Addressing oppression and bias (conscious and unconscious) inevitably raises strong emotions in clients, and we must be prepared and trained to address these feelings

Discussion Prompts

Questions and discussion points from the NEP:

  • How do we understand the economic and racial forces behind the inequities we see? 
  • How might we name the “system” in which we are all sitting? 
  • What level of consciousness do colleagues, partners and affiliates possess about the forces underlying inequity? 
  • How are we talking about the problem we are trying to solve? Is the conversation digging down to root causes in a way that could lead to productive action? 
  • Who are the people affected by the current structure of oppression? Are they at the table? 
  • Who shapes the dominant narrative about those being served at any given moment? 
  • How are different constituents described? How would they tell their story? Is there a counter-narrative coming from those being served? 
  • What are the specific disparities/inequities we seek to eliminate through this collective focus and action? What barriers stand in the way of achieving more equitable outcomes? 
  • What are the population and geographic targets for our effort? Specifically, for whom and where are we trying to make a difference? 
  • What will an equitable OUTCOME look like? How will we KNOW we have made progress? 
  • When do we expect to see results? What is our time frame? 
  • Who does and does not have power in this institution, in the community? What is power based on here? 
  • How safe is it here for different people to share their truths here, and how can I foster a culture of safety and relational trust to move forward? 
  • How can I build my practice as a leader for equity, starting with who I am and how I understand my own experiences around oppression? 
  • How can I build the alliances to move forward in making decisions that interrupt reproductive practices?

Read prior to class (choose at least one)

  • Young, Iris Marion. 2011. Five Faces of Oppression. In Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. pp.39-65

Supplemental Readings

  • Wilkerson, Isabel. 2020. Toxins in the Permafrost. In Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Random House, New York, NY. pp.13-32
  • Wilkerson, Isabel. 2020. The Eight Pillars of Caste. In Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Random House, New York, NY. pp.99-164
  • Limpangog, Cirila. 2016. Matrix of Domination. In Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Wiley, Hoboken.
  • Carastathis, Anna. 2016.Interlocking Systems of Oppression. In Rodriguez, Nelson et al (eds.) Critical Concepts in Queer Studies and Education. Palgrave Macmillan, London. Pp. 161-171
  • Costanza-Chock, Sasha. 2018. Part 1: Traveling While Trans. Design Justice, A.I., and Escape from the Matrix of Domination. Medium Post, July 27.*
Discussion – 2.12.2024

Pluriversality & Decoloniality

Guest Lecturer: Ahmed Ansari

Transition Design argues that social relations form a type of ‘connective tissue’ within wicked problems and their larger systems context, and that stakeholder groups have diverse and often conflicting agendas, beliefs and needs as well as uneven power relations. Building upon the concept of systemic oppression, this class looks at two related social and political movements, Pluriversality and Decoloniality and discusses their relevance to Transition Design.

Pluriversality: In a globalized world, permeated by systems of oppression and caste, pluriversality calls for diversity and the preservation of distinct cultures, languages, spiritual traditions, and ‘ways of knowing’ among many others. Policy researchers Arora and Stirling argue in favor of ‘embracing many worlds’: 

“Despite centuries of disqualification and destruction of (formerly) colonized peoples’ lifeways, the Earth is still home to many worlds that have resisted assimilation into modernity. These represent the Earth’s pluriverse, which may be defined, to use Zapatistas’ words, as “a world in which many worlds fit.” Each of these worlds has its own ways of relating between different beings, human and nonhuman. Each world produces its own languages and techniques mediating relations between humans and with nonhumans. Through these relations, diverse knowledges and practices are produced to connect and communicate across categorical divides between nature and culture. Each world is thus composed by specific ways of living-knowing. Within this pluriverse, the globalized modern world remains underpinned by control and domination – of humans and nonhumans it mythologizes as inferior. In contrast, other plural worlds may be based on hospitality and kinship towards those considered different. They may approach animals and plants as persons with agency very similar to humans. Possible worlds of a pluriverse are contingent on the situations and contexts from which they are engaged. Depending on how reality is approached, what perspectives and tools are used, different worlds will be traversed. And no matter how comprehensive the techniques to know the Earth’s pluriverse, efforts will always be incomplete and imbalanced”.

Decoloniality: is a school of thought that focuses on decoupling knowledge production from a primarily North American/Eurocentric way of knowing and challenges the universality and superiority of Western culture. Decoloniality views the imposition of Western thought as a form of imperialism. It examines the matrix of power that evolvedin the wake of colonization and settler-colonialism and the ongoing effects this has had on non-white/non-European societies around the world. In particular decoloniality focuses on the ways in which these structures and others, such as racial capitalism (that arose out of the enslavement of black Africans), and neoliberalism have displaced other societies’ cultures and ‘ways of knowing.’ The Decolonizing Humanities Project at William and Mary University argues that: 

“Decoloniality reveals “the dark side of modernity” and how it is built “on the backs” of “others,” others that modernity racializes, erases, and/or objectifies. Therefore, decoloniality is not a singular thing. It is a method and paradigm of restoration and reparation that depends on context, historical conditions, and geography. Therefore, as a method, it aspires to restore, elevate, renew, rediscover, and acknowledge and validate the the multiplicity of lives, live-experiences, culture and knowledge of indigenous people, people of color, and colonized people as well as to decenter hetero/cis-normativity, gender hierarchies and racial privilege. Decolonial approaches, methods, and movements seek to consider differences in ideas, social practices, histories, identities and beliefs as part of a myriad of means of “production of knowledge.” But also, we understand that producing knowledge and living it are not separate. We seek to learn and make visible the connections between knowledge, social practices and social action.”

Dimeji Onafuwa was the first graduate of the doctoral program in Transition Design and teaches and conducts research in the areas of alternative economics, design-thinking and ‘the commons’. He was a founding member of the Common Cause Collective.

All Voices within the Systems Must be ‘Given Voice’

Ideas and strategies for action from both pluriversality and decoloniality are central to Transition Design’s contention that all voices within the system must be heard and the needs, aspirations and perspectives of stakeholder groups adversely affected by the problem must be integrated into the formulation of solutions aimed at resolving it. They also underscore a principle from living systems theory that states that these systems are healthy and resilient in direct proportion to their degree of diversity and symbiotic relatedness. Integrating pluriversal and decolonial perspectives into the work of transitioning organizations, communities and entire societies toward more sustainable long-term futures is also resonant with objectives set forth by Arora and Stirling who argue that the act of embracing a pluriverse is a humble practice with several interrelated, collective objectives:

  • Nurturing diverse ‘ways of knowing’ in order to make many worlds thrive by working to unshackle modernity from coloniality that “inferiorizes”, controls and destroys other worlds.
  • To respect each way of living-knowing as relying on its own webs of relations between human and nonhuman beings, which stand on their own terms (rather than as lesser versions of something else.
  • Acknowledge all ways of living-knowing as contributing their own possible directions of progress for sustainability–rather than promoting sustainable development as ‘improvement’ or assimilation through modernization.

Discussion Prompts

  • In what ways are principles from pluriversality and decolonialism relevant to Transition Design?
  • What are examples of ‘other ways of knowing’ that have been subordinated, eliminated or denigrated by Western/Eurocentric systems and beliefs? In what way(s) does this impede Transition Design objectives?
  • Are there modern day examples of regions or countries in which ‘many worlds fit?’
  • How do the concepts of pluriversality and decoloniality relate to/challenge the concept of systems of oppression? What are strategies from these two movements that can counteract the effects of systems of oppression?
  • Are there vestiges of colonialism in your community/region/country? If so, how are they connected to wicked problems?

Reading Assignments

Guest Lecturer’s Supplemental Readings and Websites to Browse

Browse these websites:

Supplemental Readings

  • Ellwood, Jimmy, Andreotti, Vanessa and Stein Sharon. 2019. Towards Braiding. Decolonialfutures.net. pp. 7-61
  • Grosfoguel, Ramon et al. 2020. Epistemic Extractivism. In Knowledges Born in the Struggle. Routledge, Abingdon. pp. 203-218
  • Harding, Sandra. 2018. One Planet, Many Sciences. In Constructing the Pluriverse: The Geopolitics of Knowledge. Duke University Press, Durham, NC. pp. 39-62
  • De Sousa Santos, Boaventura. 2018. Why the Epistemologies of the South? In The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. pp. 1-15*
Discussion – 2.14.2024

Power Dynamics & Polarization

In this class we will discuss the phenomena of power dynamics and social polarization and their relevance to wicked problems and Transition Design. Wicked problems are permeated by highly complex social relations, due to the opposing agendas, belief systems, values and needs of its many, diverse stakeholder groups and the uneven power relations among them. Transition Design calls for an extensive research phase in which stakeholder groups and their fears and concerns are identified, then relations between these groups are mapped in order to understand where entrenched oppositions and conflicts lie, as well as where there may be common ground. Understanding these ‘lines of opposition and alignment’ is central to wicked problem resolution.

Any wicked problem has myriad stakeholder groups connected to and affected by it, and the relations among them are what makes the problem wicked and keeps it stuck. The groups most adversely affected by the problem are often those who are disenfranchised in some way and have little power to resolve the problem. Other groups may actually benefit in some way from the problem, and therefore have no interest in seeing it resolved (and may actively work against any interventions aimed at resolving it). Not surprisingly, these groups often hold more power than those adversely affected by the problem. Because of these uneven power dynamics, conflicting agendas and concerns, the groups connected to a wicked problem often become polarized to such a degree that compromise becomes impossible.

Power Dynamics

An imbalance in power relations among stakeholders affected by wicked problems is a barrier to problem resolution. Power dynamics permeate societal systems; its structures, cultural norms, material artifacts and technologies etc; problems caused by asymmetric power relations among stakeholder groups often become wicked and entrenched in societal systems. Therefore understanding power dynamics and mapping the ways in which they manifest in a system (wicked problem) and among stakeholder groups is crucial to problem resolution.

Transition Design attempts to reveal and map power relations among stakeholder groups in order to: 1) understand which groups have what types of power in the system (sometimes a group has the power/reason to keep the problem unresolved); 2) identify which groups have little power/are disenfranchised (the work is to help build their capacity and give voice to their concerns); 3) identify which groups have no power because they are not human (and therefore ‘advocates for other’ must be appointed to represent their concerns). In order to do this, several dimensions of power must be understood. A Dutch report entitled Power Dynamics in Multi-Stakeholder Processes: A Balancing Act defines power as:

“…a multifaceted social phenomenon at the core of human relations. ‘Power over’ is the ability to influence, control people or events to achieve certain outcomes. But there is also ‘power within’, referring to self-confidence; ‘power with’, referring to the power of cooperation; and ‘power to’ relating to having agency, being able to create. Those with resources often have more power. Many social change initiatives nowadays assume that joint action by multiple stakeholders is needed for impact. In such multi-stakeholder processes (MSPs) we can see that power differences manifest themselves. It is often very difficult for less-powerful actors to influence what is going on in these MSPs, or to shift power dynamics in their favor.” This latter factor is inextricably connected to the systems of oppression discussed earlier in the class.

The authors of A New Weave of Power, People & Politics define power as “…the degree of control over material, human, intellectual and financial resources exercised by different sections of society. The control of these resources becomes a source of individual and social power. Power is dynamic and relational, rather than absolute—it is exercised in the social, economic and political relations between individuals and groups. It is also unequally distributed—some individuals and groups having greater control over the sources of power and others having little or no control. The extent of power of an individual or group is correlated to how many different kinds of resources they can access and control.” The authors further argue that underneath the problems of injustice and inequality, there are always uneven power relations. Many frameworks for identifying and evaluating power relations have been developed, such as the Power Cube model below:

The Power Cube Framework

This framework was developed by the Institute of Development Studies as an approach to understanding power relations within three dimensions; 1) levels, 2) spaces and 3) forms of power and their interrelationship.

FORMS OF POWER: focuses on how power manifests itself in different forms, which are visible, hidden and invisible.

  • VISIBLE POWER: This includes the visible/definable aspects of power; the formal rules, structures, authorities, institutions, and procedures of decision making. Examples include elections, political parties, laws, legislatures, budgets, corporate policy, by-laws, etc.
  • HIDDEN POWER: Dynamics that exclude and devalue the concerns and representation of other, less powerful groups. This can take the form of reducing visibility and legitimacy of the less powerful group, preventing them from getting fair hearings of issues among others.
  • INVISIBLE POWER: Shapes the psychological and ideological boundaries of participation. Significant problems and issues are not only kept from the decision making table, but also from the minds and consciousness of the different players involved, even those directly affected by the problem. This level of power shapes people’s beliefs, sense of self and acceptance of their own superiority or inferiority.

LEVELS OF POWER: refers to the differing layers of decision-making and authority held on a vertical scale, including the local, national and global levels. (This relates directly to Transition Design’s ‘Domains of Everyday Life’ framework used to create both long-term future visions and as a guide for situating interventions at the appropriate level of scale).

SPACES OF POWER: refers to how power affects citizen action and participation with respect to decision-making arenas and forums for action. It also refers to ‘spaces’ as opportunities, moments and channels where citizens can act to affect policies, discourses, decisions and relationships which affect their lives and interests:

  • CLOSED: Spaces are closed when decisions are made behind closed doors—often without providing opportunities for inclusion. This may include formal spaces open only to those in official positions or as formal representatives.
  • INVITED: Spaces are invited when various kinds of authorities invite people to participate in decision making processes as citizens, beneficiaries or users. Although these spaces could become opportunities for genuine collaboration, agendas are often pre-determined
  • CLAIMED: Spaces are created/claimed when less powerful people come together to create their own space and set their own agendas.

Forms of power are present in all of the topics covered in this seminar: in systems of oppression which often embody multiple social hierarchies (‘the matrix of domination’); in framing problems (the most powerful stakeholder groups usually frame the problem); in colonialism, post-colonialism and globalization through which Western norms are imposed; in the disenfranchisement which is often at the heart of social and political polarization; in asymmetrical power relations among stakeholder groups embodied in mindsets and postures which are barriers to problem resolution; and in visioning, which has often been a tool for an elite/privileged class or caste to specify and impose a vision that serves their interests.

Polarization and Bridging Divides

Social polarization describes a tendency for groups at the extremities of a social hierarchy continuum to grow, while groups in the middle begin to shrink. This process of polarization is often in response to factors such as income inequality, real-estate fluctuations, underemployment and economic displacements as well as differences in values, attitudes and ideologies/beliefs. Public opinion surveys show that many societies are shifting to more extreme positions on the socio-economic-ideological spectrum and are voting for politicians that embrace these positions. These differences are exploited and exacerbated by media of all types, especially social media with its lack of censorship of misinformation. Political polarization is a subset of social polarization and both are potential factors in conflictual stakeholder relations. Therefore examining the roots of political polarization can aid in understanding and bridging the divides among stakeholder groups.

In his book Why We’re Polarized, Vox co-founder Ezra Klein argues that the increasing political polarization in the United States is, in part, a response to powerful social changes currently taking place in the country: “A majority of infants born today [in the U.S.] are nonwhite. The fastest-growing religious identity is no identity at all. Women make up majorities on college campuses. Soon, a record proportion of America’s population will be foreign born. Groups that are rising in power want their needs reflected in politics and culture, groups that feel themselves losing power want to protect the status and privileges they’ve had, and this conflict is sorting itself neatly into two parties. Obama’s presidency was an example of the younger, more diverse coalition taking power; Trump’s presidency represented the older, whiter coalition taking it back.”

Rutgers University scholar Lilliana Mason argues in a Washington Post article that both partisan and ideological identities (based upon social identity theory) drive social polarization and have three effects that occur independently of political beliefs:

  • As our partisan and ideological identities grow stronger and more aligned, prejudice against partisan opponents increases. We become biased against members of the other group and begin to stereotype them and evaluate them unfairly. The stronger our identities, the stronger our response will be to the opposing group.
  • Strong, aligned political identities motivate people to political activism such as political rallies, attempts to influence other people’s votes, volunteering for parties or candidates, wearing candidates stickers, etc. This has less to do with political ideology than with a desire to ‘see our team win’.
  • Strong and aligned political identities cause people to become more angry at the opposing party’s candidate during a presidential election which has little to do with political issues.

How Values Contribute to Social Polarization

New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion has developed a framework called “Moral Foundations Theory” in which he argues that humans have 6 moral foundations through which we view politics and policy. Each person has the same set of foundations but care about them to greater or lesser extents: Fairness/Cheating; Care/Harm; Authority/Subversion; Loyalty/Betrayal; Sanctity/Degradation; Liberty/Oppression. We become polarized from each other when our moral foundations are too different from one another.

The Common Cause Foundation is similar in its focus on understanding underlying values as a strategy for finding common ground and bridging divides between groups. They use the Value Circumplex developed in 1992 by Shalom Schwartz to explain how and why values matter and foster the intrinsic values of self-acceptance, care for others and concerns for the natural world as resolution strategies.

Transition Design aims to map and identify the nature of stakeholder relations in order to understand where relations are conflictual and ‘stuck’, as well as where alignment and common ground can be leveraged toward problem resolution. The approaches and frameworks mentioned above (and numerous others) can be used to aid in this mapping process and to aid in bridging social divides.

Discussion Prompts

  • Have you experienced situations in which there was an imbalance of power relations? If so, did you or your group own power over others or did others wield it over you?
  • What are some of the power imbalances present among stakeholder groups connected to the wicked problem you and your team are mapping?
  • In what ways are power imbalances reinforced by systems of oppression?
  • Can you think of 2-3 examples of power imbalances within the Power Cube?
  • Besides politics, in what other areas do you see evidence of social polarization creating or exacerbating wicked problems?
  • Have you ever experienced any of the group identity effects described by Lilliana Mason from Social Identity Theory?
  • How might polarization show up in mapping stakeholder relations? How is it similar or different from other relations of conflict or opposition?
  • What social changes are you seeing in your country that might be contributing to social polarization? What wicked problems is it connected to?
  • Can you think of strategies for bridging divides between polarized groups? How would culture and place affect or shape these strategies?
  • Have you experienced situations in which there was an imbalance of power relations? If so, did you or your group own power over others or did others wield it over you?
  • What are some of the power imbalances present among stakeholder groups connected to the wicked problem you and your team are mapping?
  • In what ways are power imbalances reinforced by systems of oppression?
  • Can you think of 2-3 examples of power imbalances within the Power Cube?

Read Prior to Class

Supplemental Readings

  • Coleman, Peter T. 2021. Why We Are Stuck. In The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization. Columbia University Press, New York. pp. 16-40
  • Boehnert, Joanna. 2018. Design as Symbolic Violence. In Design, Ecology and Politics: Towards the Ecocene. Bloomsbury, London. pp. 27-37
  • Boylston, Scott. The Challenge of Power Assymetry. In Designing With Society: A Capabilities Approach to Design, Systems Thinking and Social Innovation. Routledge, Abingdon. pp. 131-139
  • Gray, Barbara and Purdy, Jill. 2018. Power and Collaboration. In Collaborating for our Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp.
  • Carothers, Thomas. 2019. Comparative Experiences & Insights. In Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donahue (eds) Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Brookings Institute, Washington, D.C. pp. 257-286
Worksession – 2.19.2024

Working Session for Assignment #2

During this class, teams should work in Miro/Zoom on Assignment #2 during class time. Instructors will be present and meet with teams in their breakout rooms. Attendance will be taken for this class.