Lecture & Discussion – 3.15.2023

Designing for Transitions: Visioning + Assignment #4

Transition Design argues that we must learn to think rigorously about the sustainable, long-term futures we want to transition toward and that these futures must be ‘pluriversal’ and equitable. The Transition Design approach challenges stakeholders to transcend their differences in the present by co-creating visions of long-term futures upon which they agree. Within the past decade, there has been renewed interest in futures/visioning/foresight and there is a growing body of thought that has informed many useful frameworks and tools.

There are many different tools and frameworks that can be used in the creation of long-term future visions; Transition Design argues that such tools must:

  • Facilitate the co-creation of long-term visions by the stakeholders connected to the problem (envisioning a future in which the wicked problem in question has been resolved)
  • Transcend the siloed/disciplinary/sector based approach taken by many problem-solving (and foresighting) approaches by situating visions in everyday life and drawing on concepts like cosmopolitan localism to ensure visions are place-based and local, but global in their awareness and sharing of knowledge/technology
  • View visioning/foresighting as part of a larger process that includes visioning/backcasting/assessing the present and developing milestones (mini-visions) along a transition pathway between the problematic present and the desired, long-term future
  • View visioning/backcasting/solutioning as a cyclical, iterative process that helps us to think deeply, critically and creatively about the future as a crucial step in formulating solutions in the present

Unlike many approaches to futuring, in which visioning and backcasting/mile-stoning are standalone activities, Transition Design integrates the co-creation by stakeholders of long term future visions with backcasting, future-finding and mile-stoning, in order to develop transition pathways (plans of action) towards desired futures. Transition pathways are flexible (not predetermined), changing and developing as a result of this dynamic process. Transition Design argues that all of these steps must inform the development of systems interventions (solutions) in the present.

Future Visions & The Domains of Everyday Life

Knowledge in 21st century societies is usually structured within separate, highly specialized and decontextualized disciplines that generate fragmented and abstracted knowledge, and lead to the ‘siloization’ of industry, research and governance.  This fragmented and decontextualized  understanding of the world is often reflected in the ways we solve complex problems and think about the long-term future. Transition Design argues that it is necessary to develop visions of the future and interventions in the present that are grounded in integrated and contextualized knowledge. For this reason future visions are developed, and wicked problems addressed, in the context of everyday life, the level at which society reproduces itself from one day to the next: this is the level at which we interact with families, friends, colleagues and strangers, and at which we work, eat, sleep, bathe, shop, study, relax, travel etc, and is the level at which wicked problems affect us.

The Transition Design approach challenges stakeholders and experts working on behalf of communities, organizations and institutions to develop integrated and contextualized long-term future visions that are sustainable, equitable and desirable.It argues that this can only be done by reconceiving entire lifestyles in which people are able to meet their needs in ways that are appropriate to place, culture and era. Kossoff’s Domains of Everyday Life framework is a systems/holistic approach for doing this.. The Domains framework places an emphasis on everyday life as the context within which people satisfy their needs and therefore the context within which future visions are developed. The Domains represent the application of an ecological or relational worldview to the organization of human affairs: everyday life is envisioned as being self-organized and networked at multiple levels scale, from households through neighborhoods, cities, regions and the planet—the Domains of Everyday Life. 

These Domains are holarchic and symbiotically related at all levels of scale: within them most needs can be satisfied locally, while others remain reliant on global networks. This gives imbues everyday life with both a localised and planetary dimension.

Cosmopolitan Localism

This framework embodies what eco-sociologist Wolfgang Sachs and designer Ezio Manzini have called ‘cosmopolitan localism;’ an emergent way of thinking about societal organization (its social, economic, political, technological and cultural formations) that integrates two well established but distinct traditions — cosmopolitanism and localism. The former, cosmopolitanism, emphasizes the equal dignity, and therefore rights, of human (and other) beings and the need for global cooperation to ensure that all human (and other) beings can thrive; the latter, localism, emphasizes the need for locales to be empowered to be in control of the satisfaction of their own needs (to become semi-autonomous and self-reliant) within the limitations of their particular bioregions, and to develop their own unique ways-of-being in the world. These networked and decentralized communities across the planet share knowledge, information and technology, and the responsibility, as Sachs puts it, “for the biophysical integrity of the planet as a whole”

This visioning process proposed by Transition Design provides a creative space in which stakeholders can transcend their differences in the present and co-create visions of everyday in the long-term future upon which they agree. At each level of scale of everyday life, stakeholders (or participants in a workshop who are learning the approach) develop ‘facets’ of a vision of the long-term future in which the wicked problem has been resolved. This collaborative process lays a foundation of trust (for the challenging steps of developing a transition pathway from the problematic present to the desired future) necessary for developing solutions in the present.

Discussion Prompts

  • In what way can compelling visions of desirable long-term futures be powerful motivators for action in the present?
  • What are the challenges of trying to situate future visions within the context of everyday life? Why might it be difficult to do, especially within the areas of business or industry? Despite the difficulty, would it have benefits?
  • Pre-industrial, indigenous societies often thought in terms of future generations when taking action in the present. Why has long-term thinking become ‘difficult and rare’ in our western societies?
  • What kind of mechanisms do we currently have for responsibility to future generations?
  • Considering Boulding’s concept of the 200-year present, exploring backward and forward in time, what do you think you would need to be able to do this properly?
  • Can you think of examples of powerful, future-based narratives that have inspired people to action in the present? What are the challenges and dangers connected to these visions and narratives?
  • How might ‘future visioning’ become an integral part of problem-solving approaches? What might the challenges and benefits be?
  • How can we ensure that the question “whose future?” is always a part of the visioning process? To ensure that visions are inclusive, equitable and place/culture-based and not a one-size-fits-all imposition of western, colonial, northern European/American/globalized versions of the future?

Assigned Readings

Supplemental Readings

  • Norberg-Hodge, Helena. 2020. Coming Back to Place. In P. Clayton et al (eds.) The New Possible: Visions of Our World Beyond Crisis. Cascade Books, Eugene, OR. pp. 231-239
  • Escobar, Arturo. 2019. Other Worlds are (Already) Possible. In Savyasaachi and Ravi Kumar (eds.) Social Movements: Transformative Shifts and Turning Points. Routledge India, New Delhi. pp. 289-303
  • Slaughter, Richard. 1998. Futures Beyond Dystopia. Futures, Vol. 30, No. 10, pp. 993–1002. Accessed January 2019.

Assignment #4: Designing for Transitions

Assignment #4: In this assignment, teams will develop a vision of the long-term future in which their problem has been resolved, then design a decades-long transition from the problematic present to the long-term desired future using the template in their Miro team board. Instructions for Assignment #4 can be found in the assignment section of this website. This assignment is due by end of day on April 4th 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. The template below is for a futures-based exercise using the Causal Layered Analysis tool developed by Sohail Inayatullah that we have used in this seminar in the past. We have since started using a new tool that only exists in Miro-based templates that are not available on this website. Assignment #5 corresponds to that. We are continuing to make this analog canvas available to outside educators. Students in this course will be working with a different template.

Lecture – 3.20.2023

Designing for Transitions: Backcasting, Assessing the Present, Mile-stoning

The second part of ‘designing for transitions’ involves backcasting from the future vision to the present to create a ‘transition pathway’ and then assessing what to take with us on the decades-long journey toward that desired future.

Backcasting to Create a Transition Design Pathway

Backcasting from the desired long-term future to the present creates a ‘transition pathway’ along which solutions (ecologies of systems interventions) act as steps toward the future. Transition Design uses backcasting instead of forecasting. Forecasting projects from the present into the future and in this way is an extension of current/dominant socio-economic- political paradigms. Transition Design argues that these existing paradigms are inherently unsustainable/inequitable and must be entirely reconceived if our communities, organizations and entire societies are to transition to more sustainable long-term futures. Backcasting from long-term desired visions (that are based upon new paradigms) transcends current paradigms and imagines new ones. Backcasting brings the new paradigms into the present and asks what are steps toward these new ways of living, working, playing etc. Backcasting is concerned not with what futures are likely to manifest (forecasting) but with how particular desirable futures can be attained.

Assessing the Present and Developing Milestones Toward the Future

Designing for the decades-long transition from the problematic present to the desired long-term future involves 1) assessing where we are in the present and 2) developing milestones along the transition pathway. Transition Design advocates the development of long-term visions and milestones along the transition pathway (future scenarios) not because we can predict the future and the specific steps needed to get there, but because we need to think rigorously and creatively about the process of long-term transition toward more sustainable futures.

ASSESSING THE PRESENT: beginning the intentional process of a decades-long transition is like packing for a trip and asking ourselves what we want to take with us. This step challenges stakeholders to ask: 1) What do I want to leave behind? What isn’t working anymore?; 2) What should we take with us/keep (so we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater)?;  3) What should we take with us that we don’t currently have? (what new/existing innovations, practices can disrupt ‘business as usual’ and help ignite transition?). We also need to ask “are pieces or ‘fragments’ of the vision already here in the present?” 

Transition Design argues after author William Gibson who has said “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” Aspects of our future vision may already exist in the form of new projects, initiatives, practices, policies, technologies/innovations or ideas about or concepts for any of these. Together, the answers to these questions can inform the creation of milestones along the transition pathway and can be used as the basis for systems interventions/solutioning in the present.

Example of ‘assessing the present’ for the wicked problem of COVID-19 in the U.S.

DEVELOPING MILESTONES: The Transition Design approach challenges stakeholders to think deeply and rigorously about an intentional, decades-long transition by developing a series of milestones along the transition pathway. Rather than visions for specific solutions, these milestones describe scenarios or ‘moments’ in time along the transition which describe how the situation is transforming. These milestones attempt to portray possibilities, opportunities, challenges and even potential breakdowns that might all be part of a transition; sometimes breakthroughs/radical emerges out of collapse. On actual projects, this process could unfold over weeks or months that are informed by research and stakeholder/expert interviews. In workshops and this seminar, participants and students are encouraged to work from either end of the transition pathway and develop 3 milestones: 

At the far end of the transition pathway, ask: “What would things look like 35-65 years prior to our arrival at the future vision? What would have changed, but what would need to change? At the opposite end, ask “What would the near-term future (10-20 years from now look like? What are the major changes that would be possible in this relatively short amount of time?” The mid-term milestone is more difficult and must knit the two ends together. Here is where some groups imagine a breakdown or turning point that could arise out of a collapse or breakdown of some kind (a current ‘transition question’ is whether the breakdown of COVID-19 will result in a change in our current, collective transition trajectories toward more sustainable-long term futures). Similar to the facets developed for the future vision, within the 6 domains, collectively the milestones create a future narrative about the possibilities, probabilities and challenges of the long-term transition toward the desired future.

The diagram below shows the way in which the Transition Design approach argues that visioning/back-casting and milestoning are futures-oriented activities that must always inform solutioning in the present. 

Discussion Prompts

  • In what way does backcasting from a preferred vision of the future (as opposed to forecasting out from the present) help us transcend current unsustainable socio-economic political paradigms?
  • Within the context of Transition Design, when might the use of forecasting be useful?
  • In what ways do transition pathway milestones work as ‘mini’ visions? How can/should these milestones relate to systems interventions in the present?
  • What are the current practices/infrastructures/technologies and attitudes related to your wicked problem that should NOT be taken into the future? What should be kept? What are new things that need to be integrated?
  • What ‘future fragments’ from your vision are here in the present? How might these future fragments become the basis for systems interventions in the present?

Assigned Readings

Supplemental Readings

Discussion – 3.22.2023

How the Past can Inform the Future: Commoning & Mutual Aid

Unlike most approaches to futuring and visioning, Transition Design looks to the practices of traditional, pre-industrial and indigenous societies to help develop visions of the future. Transition Design asks how such societies managed to survive and flourish over centuries, often with minimal resources in very difficult environments. It argues (with many contemporary scholars and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Helena Norberg Hodge, Arturo Escobar, Silke Helfrich and Murray Bookchin) that we need to learn from traditional societies (and defend such societies where they continue exist) and the practices through which they sustained/sustain themselves. 

Learning from traditional/place-based societies around the world can help ensure that visions of the future are not just projections of the Westernized present: alternatives are not only possible but have been extremely successful in many societies in different eras and places. In many ways, Cosmopolitan Localism, a vision in which decentralized, symbiotic networks of cities and regions meet most of their needs in place, is an iteration of forms of social organization that have already existed in many parts of the world.

In particular, both commoning and mutual aid have been essential to the well-being of traditional societies. Both of these have, at least until recently, been more or less ‘written out of history’, or where they survive have been marginalized or ignored by mainstream social, economic and political thinking. Transition design argues that commoning and mutual aid represent important strategies for designing interventions in the present, and will form important elements of co-created visions of the future.

Mutual Aid

Mutual aid refers to the voluntary, reciprocal exchange of resources and services among groups of people (communities, networks, societies) for mutual benefit and is one of the oldest forms of cooperation among people. People in every society in history have worked together to pool resources and cooperate in order to survive and thrive and mutual aid has been practiced extensively in marginalized communities (black communities, working class neighborhoods, migrant groups, LGBTQ communities and many others). The term mutual aid was popularized by anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin who argued that cooperation and not competition was the driving force behind human evolution.

Mutual aid has been ubiquitous in indigenous communities and examples can be found throughout history such as medieval craft guilds, American fraternity societies that existed during the Great Depression (providing health and life insurance and funeral benefits). In more recent times, mutual aid organizations, projects and initiatives have formed around the need for food, medical care and supplies as well as disaster relief (hurricane Katrina, the 2017 Puebla earthquake and most recently, COVID-19). Principles of mutual aid have the potential to inform long-term visions of sustainable societies in which communities, at all levels of scale, meet their needs through cooperative and collaborative practices. 

There are many mutual aid networks around the world that enable communities to pool resources of all kinds for mutual benefit. Pittsburgh Mutual Aid offers individuals a way to volunteer and avail themselves of resources they need.


For thousands of years, pre-industrial and indigenous communities lived sustainably in place, sharing and collectively managing all manner of commonly owned/held natural and cultural resources—the commons. This term, which derives from the English legal term related to property rights. describes land used for common purposes, such as animal grazing or wood gathering, and was available to all that owned fields in a particular area. Often, after harvest, land was temporarily declared ‘common’ while cattle were herded into the stubble where they fertilized the soil. In the spring, the fields reverted to private ownership. Analogous practices can be found in pre-industrial, pre-modern communities all over the world and had particular importance in the management of resources that cannot be privately owned or managed, such as water supplies and forests.

The enclosure of the commons (the appropriation for private use and profit of resources that had previously been collectively owned, managed and benefited from) has been one of the defining features of the industrial capitalist system and has had, and continues to have, disastrous consequences.  Enclosure in England became increasingly common from the 13th century onwards; during the eighteenth century common land began to be enclosed by hundreds of Parliamentary Acts of Enclosure, as a result of which many peasants became destitute and were forced off the land. The practice of enclosure has continued and, taking many forms, has now spread throughout the world. As with the English peasantry, enclosure has had a devastating effect on the ability of many indigenous and rural communities to meet their needs, often forcing them into plantation farming or off the land completely. As the editors of the Ecologist have argued, enclosure has always been a feature of centralized and hierarchically organized societies but it has shaped modern society more than any other: 

The creation of empires and states, business conglomerates and civic dictatorships—whether in pre-colonial times or in the modern era– has only been possible through dismantling the commons and harnessing the fragments, deprived of their old significance, to build up new economic and social patterns that are responsive to the interests of a dominant minority. The modern nation state has been built only by stripping power and control from commons regimes and creating structures of governance from which the great mass of humanity (particularly women) are excluded. Likewise, the market economy has expanded primarily by enabling state and commercial interests to gain control of territory that has traditionally been used and cherished by others, and by transforming that territory– together with the people themselves–into expendable ‘resources’ for exploitation.

In recent years there has been resurgence in interest in the development of the commons as a way of challenging the ever expanding marketization and privatization of contemporary society. The term ‘the commons’ has been increasingly used to refer not just to “things” or “assets” (as Silke Helfrich puts its) but more broadly to the “social practices of commoning, acting together, based on principles of sharing, stewarding and producing in common”. Commoning describes practices (in contexts which have not been privatized or jurisdicted by the state) for collectively and democratically stewarding, sharing and protecting natural resources, cultural and digital forms and housing and public spaces. There is a great deal of overlap and intersection between the concepts of commoning and mutual aid (described above): as Silke Helfrich says, commoning is based on the assumption “that one’s full personal unfolding depends on the unfolding of others and vice versa. The borders between the particular interest and the collective interest are blurred in a commons.” 

The Transition Design approach encourages researchers, stakeholders and experts working to seed and catalyze sustainability transitions to look for strategies from the distant past that can inform our visions of the distant future and guide solutions/systems interventions in the present. Commoning and Mutual Aid are just two examples from the past which can be reinterpreted for future sustainable societies. Both can inform long-term, life-style based visions of more sustainable futures as well as serve as the basis for systems interventions (solutions) in the present day. 

Above: a diagram of how common land or “the commons” was configured in English villages. Pastures, meadows and forests that bordered on privately owned fields were available for common use and were collectively managed. Common areas also varied with the seasons, as harvested fields were opened to cattle to graze and ‘manure’ as preparation for spring planting. From Tidridge.

Discussion Prompts

  • In what ways does design contribute to encourage or discourage practices of commoning?
  • What are the main differences between the dominant, ‘for profit’ paradigm and the alternative models discussed in the readings?
  • What would an economy based upon cooperation rather than competition, and a framing of prosperity based on well-being rather than growth look like? What are some of the ways in which everyday life would change? How would it change the way designers work?
  • How will the shifts from ownership to access, but also from productive to reproductive work affect society at large and design in particular? How will these shifts redefine the notion of the individual, community and society, and their respective relations?
  • How might an increased importance on ‘the commons’ affect design solutions and design methodologies?
  • What are the advantages of a local economy? Is it possible to meet most of our needs locally?
  • What is the role of the designer in drawing together matters of concerns, rather than mere matters of facts, and help articulating individual interests in such a way as to constitute common interests? What would it mean for designers to embrace differences, even conflict, as inherent to the political project that is design?
  • What types of resources, services, artifacts could transition to become part of local and city-level commons?

Assigned Readings

Supplemental Readings

  • Spade, Dean (2020) What is Mutual Aid? In Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis. Verso Books, London. pp. 9-42
  • Bollier, David (2014) The Eclipsed History of the Commons. In Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC. pp. 79-95
  • Kossoff, Gideon (2011) Mutual Aid. In Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: A Framework for Transition Towards a Sustainable Society. Phd Thesis, University of Dundee. pp. 117-124
  • Solnit, Rebecca (2009)  Prelude: Falling Together & Epilogue: The Doorway in the Ruins. In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Viking, New York, NY. pp. 1-10 & pp. 305-313
  • Morris, Brian (2004) Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Humanity Books, Amherest, NY. pp. 129-150
Discussion – 3.27.2023

Alternative Economies

The dominant economic paradigm (globalized capitalism) is predicated upon the maximization of profit and unbridled growth (of production and consumption of goods and services).Our economic system determines value and worth based upon quantities (usually monetary) rather than qualities (such as health of ecosystems and quality of life). Because economics is a highly abstract and decontextualized discipline it is unable to anticipate unpredictable systemic events such as economic breakdowns, or acknowledge the ecological limits of the planet and fundamental  human needs. The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman argues that economic theory has become “spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst.” 

Instead of raising living standards and improving human well being and happiness, economic growth has become a root cause of many wicked problems. These innumerable forms of environmental degradation, inequitable wealth distribution, the loss of community and the deterioration of mental and physical health, to name a few. While certain kinds of focused economic growth are necessary to address wicked problems (such as the alternative energy sector) economists, politicians, business and the media generally assume that growth of all kinds is a panacea for most problems. Challenges to this assumption are usually dismissed as uniformed or naive. And yet there is a compelling body of thought that critiques the dominant economic paradigm and proposes compelling alternatives. Environmentalist Michael Lockhart identifies four damaging forms of economic growth: jobless growth, where the economy grows, but employment doesn’t; ruthless growth, where economic growth benefits the rich; rootless growth, where economic growth starves people’s cultural roots; and futureless growth, where the present generation squanders resources needed by future generations” .

In recent decades there have been many initiatives to develop alternatives. Some of these have been aimed at encouraging corporations to behave more responsibly within the constraints of the existing paradigm. The circular economy, industrial ecology and the triple bottom line framework, and more environmentally friendly forms of production such as large-scale organic farming, are examples of approaches that have been taken to mitigate the social and ecological impact of the global economy within the context of globalisation. Similarly, the proposed Green New Deal (as it is currently framed) while ecologically and socially beneficial, leaves unchallenged many underlying economic assumptions. 

Other efforts are aimed at constituting new economic paradigms that are alternatives to the globalized, growth driven economic system as a whole. These focus on the development of new kinds of decentralized, equitable, integrated and convivial economic systems which would be woven into the social and ecological fabric of the cities and regions to which they belong. Most material and non-material needs would be satisfied locally, while others would through regional and global networks. 

Many communities have already begun to experiment with new forms of currency and banking systems, are founding socially and environmentally responsible businesses (which are often cooperatively owned) and are developing new forms of housing, and localised agriculture, energy and manufacturing systems. More systemic approaches at local and regional levels include municipal/collective ownership and management of aspects of the economy (such as utilities, energy and communication networks); the transferal of assets from private ownership to the commons (such as land and urban spaces); and import substitution, the substitution of locally produced goods and services for those that were previously created/imported from other places (which would create and rejuvenate local and regional economies).Approaches such as the circular economy and the Green New Deal have potential to be employed at multiple systems level, from the global to the local., also have great potential at local and regional levels. 

In this class we will discuss in detail some of these approaches to alternative economies, the ways in which the dominant for-profit paradigm impedes the ability of societies to transition to more sustainable, place-based lifestyles, and how transition designers integrate these initiatives and proposals into both long term future visions and present systems interventions. into both long term future visions and present day systems interventions.

Discussion Prompts

  • Why are industrialized economies predominately linear; how did it get this way?
  • How has design deepened our attachment to wasteful, linear modes of production and consumption?
  • Do you agree with the proposed alternatives to globalization, and if not why not?
  • Globalization defines wealth in terms of monetary measures, discuss what an alternative definition of wealth might be.
  • If growth is the indicator for economic health what would the indicator(s) be for an alternative economic system?
  • Might a circular economy afford new ways of collaborating, sharing and commoning resources?
  • What would everyday life be like within a truly circular economy?
  • What are some of the design challenges in transitioning from a linear economy to a circular economy?
  • How might a circular economy enable a reconnection with a local economy?
  • Is it possible to have a thriving economy based upon cooperation and sharing rather than competition? What are some of the ways in which everyday life would change? How would it change the way designers work?
  • What are the advantages of a local economy? Is it possible to meet most of our needs locally?

Assigned Readings

  • Kallis, Giorgos. 2018.The Utopia of Degrowth. In Degrowth. Agenda Publishing, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. pp. 112-136

Supplemental Readings

  • Walsh, Catherine. 2018. Development as Buen Vivr. in Bernd Reiter (ed.) Constructing the Pluriverse: The Geopolitics of Knowledge. pp. 184-194
  • Korten, David. 2021. A Living Economy for a Living Earth. In Kathleen Courrier and James Speth (eds.) The New Systems Reader. Routledge, Abingdon. pp. 88-104
Working Session – 3.29.2023

Working Session: Assignment #4

This will be a working session (attendance will be taken) for Assignment #3. 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.

Class Cancelled for 2023

This class has been eliminated due to the abbreviated 2022 spring semester