The Transition Design Framework

The Transition Design Framework provides a logic for bringing together the transdisciplinary knowledge, skillsets and practices relevant to understanding, seeding and catalyzing systems level change. It is comprised of four key mutually reinforcing and co-evolving areas of practices, knowledge and skill sets relevant to understanding, seeding and catalyzing systems-level change:

Vision: because we need to have clear visions of what we want to transition toward 

Theories of Change: because we need a variety of theories and methodologies that explain the dynamics of change within complex systems 

Mindset and Posture: because we will need to develop postures of open, collaboration and self-reflection in order to undertake this work

New Ways of Designing: which will arise out of the previous three areas 

Each of these four areas contains a variety of practices that can evolve and change, and which together, form a “palette” from which practitioners and researchers can configure situation-appropriate designed interventions. The framework serves as a theoretical counterpoint to the applied Transition Design approach which is reflected in the 5 assignments in this seminar. The diagram below provides an overview of the four sections and topics relevant to each area. There are separate pages for each area of the framework which links to topics that have not been included in this year’s seminar can be found.

Visions for Transition

Transition Design argues that entire societies (as well as our organizations, institutions and communities) must intentionally transition toward more sustainable, equitable and desirable long-term futures. And, that these co-created visions (created by the stakeholders themselves) must inform solutions in the present.

Within the past decade a wide variety of approaches aimed at thinking rigorously and creatively about the long-term future have arisen and the Transition Design approach draws on many of these. Tonkinwise argues for “motivating visions as well as visions that can serve as measures against which to evaluate design moves, but visions that are also modifiable according to the changing situation.” Dunne and Raby argue that “visioning is crucial; it creates spaces for discussion and debate about alternative futures and ways of being and it requires us to suspend disbelief and forget how things are now and wonder about how things could be.”

Scenario development, future-casting and speculative design are approaches to envision future possibilities that can be leveraged to inform solutions that ‘leapfrog’ beyond the existing contexts of unsustainable socio-economic and political paradigms. These paradigms often impede the design and development of alternative and innovative solutions. Within the past ten years, these approaches have gained traction, and designers as well as organizations within the profit and not-for-profit sectors are using ‘visioning’ to inspire and enliven problem solving in the present.

‘Transition visions’ propose the re-conception of entire lifestyles within radically different socio-economic-political paradigms, where basic needs are met locally or regionally and the economy exists to meet those needs. Everyday life is a discourse developed by social theorists such as Gardiner and Lefebvre who offer a powerful conceptual locus for the design of needs satisfaction in place-based ways. Another important concept that informs Transition Design visions is Cosmopolitan Localism—small, local, diverse and place-based communities that are global in their awareness and exchange of information and technology.

Transition visions are not conceived as blueprints for design— rather they remain open-ended and speculative. Future visions must continually change and evolve and be informed by knowledge gained from projects and initiatives in the present. Transition visioning is intended as a circular, iterative and error-friendly process that could be used to envision radically new ideas for the future that inform even small, modest designs in the present.

Theories of Change

Transition Design argues that seeding and catalyzing change within complex systems (via the resolution of wicked problems) will require a deep understanding of the nature of change itself—how it manifests and how it can be intentionally directed. In particular, how socio-technical-ecological systems change and transition over long-periods of time. Transition Design is centrally concerned with Theories of Change — how and why societal systems change or remain inert, and how such change manifests and can be catalyzed and directed towards desirable and sustainable futures. 

Theories of Change is a key area within the transition design framework for three important reasons 1) A theory of change is always present within a planned/designed course of action, whether it is explicitly acknowledged or not;  2) Transition to sustainable futures will require sweeping change at every level of our society;  3) Conventional, outmoded and seemingly intuitive ideas about change lie at the root of many wicked problems

Transition Design proposes that new problem solving approaches must be based upon a deep understanding of the dynamics of change within complex social and natural systems. Because any planned course of action (design) is based upon an assumption about the correct approach for intervention, we are almost always basing an intervention (solution) upon assumptions/predicted outcomes. Often, these assumptions/predictions are unconscious or are not clearly articulated/considered because the nature of the desired change has not been adequately understood and is not viewed as an important area for study and research.

The dominant, mechanistic paradigm views change as something that can be “managed” through centralized, top-down design processes that produce clear, predictable outcomes. This type of linear, cause-and effect thinking has influenced the design and development of societal infrastructures and policies in the developed world and has contributed to many of the global wicked problems previously mentioned. However, a new transdisciplinary body of knowledge related to the dynamics of change (especially from chaos and complexity theories) within complex systems is emerging that challenges these assumptions and has the potential to inform new approaches to design and problem solving. 

Ideas and discoveries from a diversity of fields such as physics, biology, sociology, and organizational development have revealed that change within open, complex systems (such as social organizations and ecosystems) manifests in counterintuitive ways. And, although change within such systems can be catalyzed and even gently directed, it cannot be managed or controlled, nor can outcomes be accurately predicted. Theories of Change within the Transition Design framework are proposed as a continually co-evolving body of knowledge that challenges designers to become lifelong learners who look outside the disciplines of design for new knowledge.

Mindset & Posture

Living in and through transitional times calls for self-reflection and ‘new ways of knowing’ and ‘being’ in the world. Fundamental change is often the result of a shift in mindset or worldview that in turn leads to new modes of interaction with others. Individual and collective mindsets represent the beliefs, values, assumptions and expectations formed by our individual and collective experiences, cultural norms, religious and spiritual beliefs and the socio-economic and political paradigms to which we subscribe and are embedded within. Our mindsets and postures often go unnoticed and unexamined/critiqued, but they profoundly influence: 1) whether we ‘see’ a problem; 2) what kind of contexts we frame it within (do we include social/environmental concerns); 3) how we attempt to solve it.

Transition Design that in order to address wicked problems and work on behalf of ‘transition’, we must examine our own value system and how it influences our work. It also argues that sustainable solutions are best conceived within a more holistic worldview that informs more collaborative postures of interaction. Transition Design examines the phenomena of worldview, posture and mindset and their connection to wicked problems. It also proposes shifting our mindsets, values and postures as part of an intentional process of self-reflection and positive change.

There is an emerging body of transdisciplinary knowledge that examines the phenomenon of mindset or worldview and its role in wicked problems and their solution. In their book The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Capra and Luisi propose  “…these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most people in our modern society, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.” Du Plessis argues that a “practical understanding of the process of individual change is fundamental to work in social system change. An individual can change their beliefs by engaging in a process of personal transformation and that process can be learned, and incorporated into design practice. If we are going to educate designers who will facilitate social system change, we also need to teach them to work with the interior, invisible dimension of human experience.”

Transition Design also argues that working on wicked problems (and on behalf of stakeholders connected to and affected by them) calls for a shift in mindset and posture. Instead of coming to the work leading with one’s expertise and knowledge, one instead approaches it in the attitude of ‘service’, as written about by leadership scholar Robert Greenleaf who proposed the concept of ‘servant leadership’. Wicked problems cannot be solved by any single individual, group or discipline—their resolution requires radical collaboration over dozens of years (or dozens of decades) to resolve, so any expertise we bring to that collaboration will be extremely limited; any of us can only know ‘a lot’ about very little. 

Educator and environmentalist David Orr has said The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

New Ways of Designing

One of the primary ways that Transition Design differs from other problem-solving approaches is its emphasis on ways to ignite positive, ‘systems-level change’; a process which can take many years or even decades. Instead of thinking in terms of one-off solutions that are completed within relatively short time frames, Transition Design thinks in terms of designing ‘ecologies systems interventions’ that are implemented at multiple levels of scale, over short, mid and long time horizons. These interventions are connected to each other as well as the long-term vision and near-term milestones that are positioned along a “transition pathway” formed by backcasting from the future vision to the present.

The transition to a sustainable society will require design approaches informed by new knowledge and values sets. Transition designers see themselves as agents of change and are ambitious in their desire to transform systems and understand that it is a commitment to work iteratively, at multiple levels of scale, over longer horizons of time. Because transition designers develop visions of the ‘long now,’ they take a decidedly different approach to problem solving in the present.

Transition designers learn to see and solve for wicked problems and view single solutions as inadequate for resolving complex problems. Rather, they must be part of an ‘ecology’ of solutions that together act as a step on a transition pathway toward a co-created, long-term vision/future. Solutions might have intentionally short lifespans where obsolescence is planned; the solution serves as a step toward a longer-term goal. Other solutions might be designed to change and evolve over long periods of time. Transition design is also aimed at making connections; Transition Designers must have the skill, foresight and ability to connect different types of solutions (service design or social innovation solutions) together for greater leverage (solutions ability to co-evolve) and impact because they are connected to a longer-term objective or vision.

Transition Designers look for ‘emergent possibilities’ within problem contexts, as opposed to imposing pre-planned and resolved solutions upon a situation. This approach is highly transdiciplinary, collaborative and rooted in an understanding of how change within complex systems manifests. The amplification of the “buds and shoots of new potentialities” within a given context is a social innovation approach advocated by both Manzini and Penin. Visions of a sustainable future enlarge the problem frame to include social and environmental concerns and compel designers to design within long horizons of time.

Transition design is distinct from service design or social innovation design in its deep grounding in future-oriented visions, its transdisciplinary imperative, its objective to initiate and direct change within social and natural systems and designers’ heightened awareness of the temporality: solutions are intentionally conceived within short, mid-term or long horizons of time.

Transition Designers work in three broad areas:

  • They develop powerful narratives and visions of the future or the ‘not yet’
  • They amplify and connect grassroots efforts undertaken by local communities and organizations
  • They work in transdisciplinary teams to design new, innovative and place-based  solutions rooted in and guided by transition visions.

There will also be many roles for the Transition Design while working within complex systems as shown below and many of which are described in Reimagining Activism: A Practical Guide for the Great Transition by Narberhaus: