The social, cultural and ecological fabric in many parts of the world has often been severely damaged through top down and bureaucratic interventions into socio-technical systems. The anthropologist James C. Scott, amongst others, has argued that many twentieth century social and environmental catastrophes were caused by large-scale, centralized urban and rural planning. This failed to allow for the complexity of local and regional cultures, ways of life and ecosystems. Regardless of whether they were well intended, such interventions were often damaging because they were contextually inappropriate — they were not tailored to local environmental constraints and conditions, social practices and cultural norms.
In the early decades of the twentieth century we are arguably more attuned to the need for interventions into complex issues to be contextually sensitive. This is, however, extremely difficult, since decontextualized thinking has been woven into many fields and disciplines, and has profoundly and adversely shaped all of the societal systems on which we depend — educational, political, technological and economic. Developing methods and approaches for thinking contextually is therefore an important feature of transition design. These can become the basis for tools to inform and guide transition interventions.
Transition design argues that holistic thinking is necessarily contextual, and focuses on three broad aspects of human affairs — everyday life, temporality and place — to understand and appraise the context for potential interventions. Because of the tendency towards ‘context denial’ in modernity, each of these three dimensions of context have been marginalized within academia, governance and business. Transition design, by contrast, argues for methodologies that foreground everyday life, place and temporality.
1) Everyday life is the arena in which most of our wicked problems arise, and in which they must be addressed. Immense and complex, but dysfunctional, socio-technical systems have been established to support our daily, weekly and monthly needs, practices and habits — the ways in which we work, play, socialize, educate, raise families, wash, rest, eat, travel, sleep and so on. Any yet, in the words of Guy Debord, everyday life has been rendered “a domain of ignorance”— we have little understanding of its dynamics structure and patterns, or appreciation of it potentialities.
2)Place — from which modern society has in many ways become alienated — can be understood as the emergent and unique character of particular areas that arises out of interaction between local ecosystems, histories, cultures, built environments and social practices.
Most of our socio-technical systems are highly centralized and have been developed without consideration for the unique characteristics of the particular places in which they are located. Our socio-technical systems usually cut us off from and make us unaware of the ecosystems that we are situated within, rhythms and cycles. Globalization has exacerbated this tendency of the modern era to override local social and ecological conditions and place-based lifestyles and cultures. The result is that everyday life has lost, or is losing, its ‘placefulness’; we are coming to live in a homogenized world of decontextualized lifestyles, with a one-size fits all approach to designing, manufacturing, building, growing food, supplying energy etc. Transition design argues that sustainable lifestyles must be local and place-based while cosmopolitan in their global awareness and exchange of information (cosmopolitan localism). It advocates the study and recapture of place-based ‘ways of knowing’, analogous to that of indigenous populations, that can inform the satisfaction of people’s needs at the scale of the local/regional.
3)Temporality: One of the characteristics of modern society is its unhealthy and damaging relationship with temporal phenomena and processes. It is increasingly rapidly paced and has a propensity to think in ever shorter ‘horizons’ of time; the fiscal quarter, the fashion season or annual projections. The modern world is obsessed with the measure of time and our entire society is based upon the construct of the mechanical models of clock and calendar — abstract time rather than sensory time that reflects local seasond and cycles, practices and customs. As a result the ability to think in terms of dozens of years, decades or even generations that was fundamental to indigenous cultures has been lost. The educator and environmentalist David Orr argues that contemporary society is informed by ‘fast knowledge,’ which is characterized by contracted time horizons and therefore a decontextualization of problems; a belief that there is a solution for every problem (usually a scientific one); a belief that anything important can be measured/quantified; and a belief that new knowledge is better than old knowledge. This ‘atemporality’ is at the root of many wicked problems. By contrast, design within pre-industrial societies was informed by ‘slow knowledge’, a depth of temporal experience and orientation which enabled them to live (and design) sustainably in place for generations.
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