Lecture & Discussion – 1.28.2019

Intro to Systems

Terry Irwin

Transition Design is concerned with seeding and catalyzing intentional, systems-level change, which will involve processes that last for many years, dozens of decades, or even generations, and require a deep understanding of systems and their dynamics. In particular, Transition Design is concerned with three kinds of systems: 1) living systems (the environment);  2) socio-technical systems (tangles of people, technology and the built world) and 3) wicked problems which are systems problems. Both socio-technical systems and wicked problems exhibit characteristics of living systems: they exist at multiple levels of scale, are interconnected and interdependent, are self-organizing, display emergent properties, and their dynamics are governed by feedback loops. Therefore changes in in one area of a system, ramify throughout in unpredictable ways. 

These systems are everywhere and their ubiquity is perhaps best explained by this old joke: Two fish bump into each other and one says to the other “how’s the water?” and the other replies “what water?”. Marshall McLuhan, in his book War and Peace in the Global Village, said “one thing fish know nothing about is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”

Systems are so ubiquitous and our interactions with them so pervasive, we don’t really see them, and therefore don’t understand them very well. But these unnoticed systems produce their own patterns of behavior over time, become entrenched and intractable, and are therefore unintentionally directing our societal transitions toward unsustainable futures. Transition Design aspires to develop an approach to shift the trajectory of these systems through strategically placed, designed ‘interventions’ over short, mid and long horizons of time.

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 think it needs to also integrate social practices, human behavior and worldview into its approach, but is nonetheless a useful framework for thinking about complex societal transitions.

Social organizations, natural ecosystems and even wicked problems are all examples of complex systems that Transition Designers must design for and within. The study of the dynamics within these ‘living systems’ (such as emergence, resilience, feedback, sensitivity to initial conditions, self organization and the dynamic/temporal relationship between ‘whole’ and ‘part’) has shown that they have great relevance for design, but can often seem counter intuitive. If systems dynamics can be better understood, they can be leveraged by Transition Designers to seed, catalyze and direct systems level change. A brief lecture will introduce the concept of systems which will be followed by a discussion of the assigned texts.

See Additional Resources for this class before you begin the readings.

Discussion Prompts

  • How does a complex system differ from a ‘simple’ or ‘closed’ system?
  • How, in framing design problems within tight contexts, do we ‘deny’ the complexity of the system we are designing in and for?
  • Can you think of ways that the inherent dynamics within complex systems can be leveraged in design solutions?
  • How do the properties of chaos and  complexity change how we think about change? How we stage design interventions?
  • What are the implications of principles such as self-organization and emergence for designers?

Read Prior to Class

  • Berry, Wendell. 1981. Solving for Pattern. In The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural. New York: North Point Press.
  • Capra, Fritjof and Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. Connecting the Dots. In The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Padstow, Cornwall: Cambridge University Press. pp 362–366*

Supplemental Readings

  • Capra, Fritjof. 2005. Speaking Nature’s Language. In Michael K. Stone and Xenobia Barlow (eds.) Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp. 19-29
Lecture & Discussion – 1.30.2019

Wicked Problems & Assignment #1

Wicked problems are a class of ‘unsolvable’ problem identified by planner Horst Rittel in the 20th century. Problems such as climate change, water security, poverty, crime, loss of biodiversity, and many more, are characterized by high degrees of social complexity, involve multiple stakeholders with conflicting agendas, straddle disciplinary boundaries, require multiple interventions over long horizons of time and will necessitate sustained behavioral changes.

Traditional design approaches, characterized by linear processes and de-contextualized problem frames, whose objective is the swift realization of predictable and profitable solutions, are inadequate for addressing this type of problem. Complex, wicked problems are “systems” problems, meaning they are ill defined, exist at multiple levels of scale, are interconnected and interdependent and any intervention in one part of the system, ramifies elsewhere in unpredictable ways. Wicked problems are continually evolving and cannot be solved by a single solution from a single expert, discipline or profession. Most significantly, this type of problem took a long time to become “wicked” and will therefore take a long time to resolve; potentially dozens of years or many decades.

See Additional Resources for this class before you begin the readings. Assignment #1 will be given in the last 20 minutes of this class. Groups should bring the research they have conducted on their wicked problem to class and refer to the Assignment #1 page of this website, prior to class.

Discussion Prompts

  • Is it possible to understand and visualize the entirety of a wicked problem? If not, then why should we try?
  • In what ways do ‘wicked problems’ manifest at multiple levels of scale (systems levels)? What is the significance of this insight?
  • What are examples of global wicked problems that are interrelated and interdependent?
  • In what ways are traditional design problems/solutions related to and embedded within wicked problems?
  • How does an ability to see and understand wicked problems challenge a designer’s ability to frame a discrete problem at a lower systems level?
  • How would you characterize or distinguish between the consequences of a wicked problem and the root cause? Why is it important to make a distinction?

Read Prior to Class

  • Irwin, Terry. 2011. Wicked Problems and the Relationship Triad. In Stephan Harding (ed.), Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College. Edinburgh: Floris Books. pp 232–257

Supplemental Readings

Assignment #1: Mapping Wicked Problems

Assignment 1: Mapping Wicked Problems will be introduced in the last 20 minutes of class. Teams should bring the research they have been conducting on their wicked problem to class and after a brief introduction, will begin to ‘map’ the wicked problem. Large project ‘canvases’ will be provided as the basis for the assignments and students will use post-its to map the problem in 5 key areas: 1) Social issues; 2) Environmental issues; 3) Economic issues; 4) Political issues; 5) Infrastructural/technological issues. A complete description of  this assignment can be found on the Assignment 1 page of this website.

Discussion – 2.04.2019


Wicked problems are systems problems, permeated by social dynamics. Wicked problems are characterized by their high number of stakeholders with conflicting agendas, each of whom has a different view of the problem (and therefore a different idea of how to solve it). We use the term stakeholder to refer to anyone who has a ‘stake’ or interest in an issue related to the problem or is affected by the problem. The emerging Transition Design approach emphasizes the need to identify all stakeholder groups (including the environment and members of the ecosystem) and apply a range of methods to understand their fears/concerns and hopes/desires. Transition design differs from other design-led approaches in its emphasis on understanding the assumptions, beliefs and cultural norms related to the problem, for each stakeholder group.

Understanding stakeholders’ deepest feelings about the problem and the way in which their individual and collective belief systems (worldviews) affect their view of the problem is fundamental to resolving differences, for example by transcending differences in the present through the co-creation of visions of desirable futures. Often, the barrier to addressing a wicked problem isn’t that people can’t agree on what solution to implement—they can’t agree on what the problem even is.

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, 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 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:

1.     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.

2.     Such analyses can lead to a more comprehensive strategy to address complex conflict situations.

3.     MSPs provide the opportunity for greater understanding of different stakeholders’ capacities, roles and limitations, thus contributing to better coordination of interventions.

4.     MSPs can help organizations pool and share resources, including skills, funding, staff time, and logistical or administrative resources.

5.     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 multiplier effect when the key messages of the process are communicated to the participants respective constituencies.

6.     MPS can contribute to building trust among diverse stakeholders, and enable relationships that can outlast the process itself.

7.     They can provide a platform for much needed capacity building among practitioners at different levels.

8.     Sharing skills and knowledge can enable participants to see problems in a new way, which is also conducive to innovation.

In this class we will discuss a variety of approaches for understanding stakeholders and discuss ways in which design-led research can reveal insights and patterns within and among stakeholder groups. These insights can inform both the futuring/visioning process as well as interventions at multiple levels of scale.

See Additional Resources for this class before you begin the readings. Assignment #2 will be given in the last 20 minutes of this class. Groups should bring the research they have conducted on their wicked problem to class and refer to the Assignment #2 page of this website, prior to class.

Read Prior to Class

Supplemental Readings

Assignment #2: Mapping Stakeholder Relations

Assignment 2: Mapping Stakeholder Relations will be introduced in the last 20 minutes of class. Teams should bring the research they have been conducting on their wicked problem to class and after a brief introduction, will begin to list as many stakeholder groups related to their problem as possible. Large project ‘canvases’ will be provided as the basis for the assignments and students will use post-its to conduct an initial brainstorm. A complete description of  this assignment can be found on the Assignment 2 page of this website.

Presentations – 2.6.2019

Assignment #1a and 1b Presentations

This class will be comprised of group presentations followed by a class discussion. Teams may present their wicked problem and stakeholder relations maps either in analog form, using the project canvases provided, or they may create a digital presentation of their results. The presentations should explain the process, articulate the primary characteristics of the problem, discuss 2-3 interconnections/interdependencies that were revealed, show stakeholder groups and speculate on where there potential conflicts and alignments might be. Also be prepared to discuss difficulties, challenges and any surprising conclusions or ‘clues’ that the assignment revealed. Teams should keep their presentations to 20 minutes. A brief Q&A will follow. Documentation of assignments 1 & 2 should be in the form of the Team’s first Medium post. Make sure that the process is documented visually with high-quality photos. Remember to write the Medium post so that it can be viewed by an outside audience who will not only learn about the problem and its stakeholders, but also the emerging approach itself. What is working, what could be improved? If you had the time and budget for research, what would you undertake first?