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Transition design

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Title: Transition design  
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Subject: Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Transition town, Urban acupuncture, Urban design, Sustainable design
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Transition design

Transition design proposes design led societal transition towards more sustainable futures. It applies an understanding of the interconnectedness of social, economic, political and natural systems to address problems that exist at all levels of scale in ways that improve quality of life. Such complex and interconnected wicked problems can include poverty and economic inequality, biodiversity loss, decline of community, resource depletion, pollution and climate change.

Transition design leverages the power of interdependency and symbiosis with the aim of transforming entire lifestyles, making these more convivial and participatory, and harmonising them with the natural environment. It emphasizes the temporal element of all such design solutions — how they relate to the traditional and vernacular cultures of the past, and how they might unfold, develop and connect over short, medium and long horizons of time.

Transition design aims to intervene in social, economic, political and technological systems so as to assist people to satisfy their needs in ways that establish mutually beneficial relationships between people, the natural environment and the built and designed world. This process is informed in particular by everyday life in which fundamental needs can be satisfied in integrated, place-based ways, encouraging symbiotic relationships between communities, and between communities and their ecosystems.


  • Transition designers 1
  • Comparison with other approaches 2
  • The Transition Design Framework 3
  • Use of the term 'transition' 4
    • Transition Town Network 4.1
    • Transition Management 4.2
    • The Great Transition 4.3
    • Transition in complex and living systems 4.4
  • Cosmopolitan localism 5
  • Initial development 6
    • In everyday life 6.1
  • Transition design education 7
    • Doctoral programs 7.1
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Transition designers

Transition designers can come from all walks-of-life and backgrounds, regardless of whether they are formally trained designers. They use the tools and processes of design to re-conceive entire lifestyles, rather than focusing on problems within existing, mostly unsustainable, social, economic and political paradigms. Designers assume a similar role in transition design as they do in service design or social design: the designer is a facilitator of emergent solutions to problems rather than an expert who conceives and delivers blueprints and finished solutions. Transition designers are especially focussed on potentialities for beneficial change that exist within systems, and on making modest interventions which can ramify throughout entire systems.

Because complex wicked problems are multi-faceted, their solutions require not only the skills and knowledge of designers, but also knowledge from the spectrum of disciplinary fields (science, philosophy, psychology, social science, anthropology and the humanities etc.). Transition design is therefore a collaborative process that is informed by knowledge from outside design. It emphasizes the need for transdisciplinarity and for the reintegration of knowledge.

Transition design solutions, however, should not simply represent the collaborative efforts of groups of experts and specialists; since solutions must be place-specific and ecosystem appropriate, they must incorporate local knowledge, participation and commitment. Just as transition design solutions need not only represent the reintegration of knowledge, they should also represent its recontextualization. Just as engineering has been used as a metaphor to describe the large scale, top-down and managerial influence of social phenomena (designer, urban planner, technocrat and policy maker as social engineers) so the transition designer might be compared to a gardener. Like a good gardener, the transition designer has an intimate understanding of and feeling for a particular place and its ecosystem, of the relationships between its different parts, of what its particular needs are, of what will and will not flourish, and of how it might grow and develop over long periods of time.

Comparison with other approaches

In designing for the relationship between people, nature, and the things that people make and do; in designing for short, mid and long horizons of time and in acknowledgement of vernacular, historical and indigenous cultures; and in designing place/ecosystem specific solutions, transition design can be seen as a logical development of a trend in design over recent decades that emphasizes relationship and context. Within mainstream design this trend has included service design (or design for service), social design (or design for social innovation) and interaction design, whilst outside of mainstream design this trend has included permaculture and ecological design.

In the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), transition design is taught alongside design for service and design for social Innovation, in the expectation that designers will be able to move freely between these three areas of practice and research, according to the scope of the problem that they hope to address. Thus design for service represents moderate change within existing paradigms and systems; design for social innovation represents significant change within emerging paradigms and systems; and transition design represents radical change within future paradigms and systems.

These areas of design practise and research can be located on a continuum, and the movement along this continuum (from design for service, through design for social innovation to transition design) represents an expansion of the scale of time, depth of engagement, and context to include social, political, economic and environmental concerns. Transition design’s foregrounding of relationship, context and wholeness represents the incorporation into design of an ecological or holistic worldview and gives it several defining features:

  • Living systems theory is used as both an approach to understanding wicked problems and designing solutions to address them.
  • Designs solutions that protect and restore both social and natural ecosystems through the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between people, the things they do and make and the natural environment.
  • Sees everyday life and lifestyles as the most important/fundamental context for design.
  • Advocates place and ecosystem based, but globally networked solutions; seeks solutions that connect place to planet.
  • Designs solutions for short, medium and long horizons of time and all levels of scale of everyday life.
  • Looks for emergent possibilities within problem contexts and amplifies grassroots solutions already underway.
  • Links existing solutions together so that they can function as steps in a larger transition vision.
  • Distinguishes between ‘wants/desires’ and genuine needs and bases solutions on maximizing and integrating satisfiers for the widest range of needs.
  • Sees the designer’s own mindset and posture as an essential component of transition designing.
  • Calls for the reintegration and recontextualization of diverse transdisciplinary knowledge.

The Transition Design Framework

Transition design framework (Irwin, Tonkinwise & Kossoff, 2013)

Professor Terry Irwin, Head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, with Dr. Cameron Tonkinwise, Director of Design Studies and Chair of the doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon University, and Dr. Gideon Kossoff, Adjunct Professor in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, have together developed a framework which organizes transition design into four mutually influencing areas: Vision for Transition; Theories of Change; Posture/Mindset and New Ways of Designing. This framework was first disseminated at a talk given by Irwin, Kossoff, and Tonkinwise at 'Head, Heart, Hand', the 2013 national AIGA design conference in Minneapolis.

Use of the term 'transition'

Transition design acknowledges that we are living in ‘transitional times’. Its central premise is the need for societal transitions to more sustainable futures and the belief that design has a key role to play in these transitions. The use of the word ‘transition’ is suggested and reinforced by several contemporary discourses, projects and networks. In various ways these initiatives explore how change/transition manifests and can be initiated and directed, or are actively engaged in trying to bring about transition to more sustainable futures. Such initiatives have influenced transition design in several ways, and include:

Transition Town Network

resilience, and expand their capacity to respond to and 'bounce back' from external disruptions — crises such as an interruption to energy supplies, economic downturns or climate change. Transition Towns are, for example, developing locally based food and energy systems and local currencies and businesses.[1][2] By corollary, transition design involves a type of social engagement and community organizing that situates projects and initiatives within the context of long-term visions for specific places and ecosystems.

Transition Management

Socio-technical transition management, a body of theory which represents the convergence of sustainable development research, technology forecasting, social ecological impact analysis and the fields of social history and construction of technology. It studies the coevolution of technologies and their uses in order to conceive how innovations can be introduced into society to enable new ways of living and working.[3] Recently it has incorporated social practice theory and is beginning explicit use of ideas about designing. By corollary, transition design should involve a deep understanding of the social history of technology, and a post-planning approach to how the introductions of new technologies impact society and vice versa.

The Great Transition

The Great Transition, was a term first used in 1964 by the economist and systems theorist Kenneth Boulding. In 1995 the Global Scenario Group began to produce a series of reports identifying multiple future-based planetary scenarios and various strategies for change that could lead to the ‘Great Transition’ (improved quality of life, reduced poverty and inequity, human solidarity, enriched cultures and protection of the biosphere).[4] In recent years the Tellus Institute has launched the Great Transition Initiative (GTI), an international network of more than 40 scholars and activists who seek to develop and mobilize a planet-wide citizens transition movement. The concept of the ‘Great Transition’ has also been adopted by several leading think tanks, such as the New Economics Foundation. By corollary, transition design future based scenarios and the means and tools by which local communities can transition towards these within a planetary context.

Transition in complex and living systems

The concept of ‘transition’ in transition design alludes to the dynamic nature of complex, phase transition' that occurs as such systems undergo stresses or ‘perturbations’ from their environment, can lead them to display unexpected, unpredictable and ‘emergent’ new forms of behaviour and structure. By corollary, transition design incorporates living systems theory/ecoliteracy[5] in order to prepare designers for work within complex social systems, and to understand how these are embedded in natural systems. Transition design leverages the potential for self-organization, interdependence and emergence within such non-linear systems, and anticipates the possibility of rapid systemic change that can be triggered by modest interventions.

Cosmopolitan localism

Transition design focuses on the need for cosmopolitan localism,[6][7][8][9] a place-based lifestyle in which solutions to global problems are designed for local circumstances and tailored to specific social and ecological contexts. Its objective is to foster a global network of mutually supportive communities (neighbourhoods, villages, towns, cities and regions) who share and exchange knowledge, ideas, skills, technology, culture and (where socially and ecologically sustainable) resources. Cosmopolitan localism fosters a creative, reciprocal relationship between the local and the global. It addresses the problem of globalisation, which tends to subsume local cultures and economies into homogenised and unsustainable global systems,[10][11][12][13] whilst avoiding the pitfalls of localisation, such as parochialism and isolationism.[14][15]

Initial development

The concept of transition design was first developed by Gideon Kossoff in a chapter called 'Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: A Framework for the Transition to a Sustainable Society' in the book, Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, edited by Stephan Harding.[16] This chapter was a summary of Kossoff’s PhD thesis, also entitled Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life (2011).[17] The term 'transition design' has since been adopted by the Carnegie Mellon School of Design and incorporated into its curriculum as one of three areas within which design is taught and researched at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels (Design for Service, Design for Social Innovation and Transition Design).

In his PhD thesis, Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life, Gideon Kossoff used the term transition design to describe the process of using design thinking and process to assist the transition to a sustainable society.[18] This early framing of transition design integrated worldview that has been articulated by Fritjof Capra, Richard Tarnas, David Abram and many others.[33][34][35][36][37][38][39] Transition design can be thought of as a way of using this ecological worldview to address many contemporary problems.

In everyday life

Transition design, in its initial development, focused on everyday life, since this is the context within which ecological, social and economic problems arise, and this is the arena within which such problems must be resolved. It therefore drew on various critiques of everyday life such as those made by Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord and Mikhail Bakhtin.[40][41][42][43]

This framing of transition design proposes that in order to be sustainable, everyday life will need to be organised according to holistic principles. Everyday life arises as people strive to satisfy their material and non-material

  • Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design
  • Transition Design Course Outline and Schedule
  • Transition Design: Re-conceptualizing Whole Lifestyles, Video Lecture
  • Cameron Tonkinwise, Transition Design, Video Lecture, Konstfack 2014
  • Transition Network
  • Sustainability Transitions Research Network
  • Commons Transition

External links

  1. ^ Hopkins, R. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Chelsea Green, White River Junction, 2008
  2. ^ Hopkins, R. The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, 2011
  3. ^ Grin J., Rotmans J., Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change, Routledge, London, 2011
  4. ^ Global Scenario Group, Great Transition: Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead, Stockholm Environment Institute, Boston, 2002
  5. ^ Orr, D. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Post-Modern World, SUNY, Albany, 1991
  6. ^ Snyder, Gary. Practice of the Wild, Chap. 2, North Point Press, New York, 1990
  7. ^ Sachs, W., Planet Dialectics, Explorations of Environment and Development, Chap. 6, Zed Books, London, 2000
  8. ^ Morin, E. and Kern, A. Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium, Cresskill, 1999
  9. ^ Manzini, E. 'The Scenario of a Multi-Local Society: Creative Communities, Active Networks and Enabling Solutions', in Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories, A Collection of Sustainable Design Essays, ed. Chapman, J. and Gant, N., Routledge, London, 2007
  10. ^ Ritzer, G. The McDonaldization of Society, Pine Forge, Thousand Oaks, 2004
  11. ^ Korten, D. When Corporations Rule the World, Berret-Koehler, San Francisco, 2001
  12. ^ Shiva V. Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, Chap. 6 and 7, South End Press, Boston, 1999
  13. ^ Mander, G. The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2013
  14. ^ Biehl J (ed.) The Murray Bookchin Reader, Chap. 8, Cassell, London, 1999
  15. ^ Harvey, D. The Condition of Postmodernity, Chap. 6, Blackwell, Oxford, 2000
  16. ^ Kossoff, G. 'Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life' in Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, ed. S. Harding, Floris, Edinburgh, 2011
  17. ^ Kossoff, G. Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: a Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society, PhD thesis, Centre for the Study of Natural Design, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Dundee, 2011
  18. ^ Kossoff, G., Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: a Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society, Phd thesis, Centre for the Study of Natural Design, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Dundee, 2011
  19. ^ Peat, D. F. and Briggs J., Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness, Harper Perennial, New York, 1990
  20. ^ Capra, F., The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Anchor, New York, 1997
  21. ^ Wheatley, M. J. and Kellner-Rogers, M., A Simpler Way, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1998
  22. ^ Koestler, A., Janus: A Summing Up, Random House, New York, 1978
  23. ^ Meadows, D. H., Thinking in Systems, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, 2005
  24. ^ Bortoft, H., The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science, Floris, 1996, Edinburgh
  25. ^ Seamon, D., ed, Goethe’s Way of Science, State University of New York, Albany,1999
  26. ^ Hoffman N. and Dalton, P. Goethe’s Science of Living Form: The Artistic Stages, Adonis, Hillsdale, 2007
  27. ^ Biehl, J. The Murray Bookchin Reader, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1999
  28. ^ Mumford, L. The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1964
  29. ^ Kropotkin, P. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Freedom Press, London, 1987
  30. ^ Buber, M. Paths in Utopia, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1996
  31. ^ Jacobs, J. The Nature of Economies, Vintage, New York, 2001
  32. ^ Kossoff, G. Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: a Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society, Chap. 3, Phd thesis, Centre for the Study of Natural Design, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Dundee, 2011
  33. ^ Tarnas, R., The Greater Copernican Revolution and the Crisis of the Modern Worldview in A New Renaissance: Transforming Science, Spirit and Society, ed. Lorimer D. and Robinson O., Floris, Edinburgh, 2011
  34. ^ Speth, J.G, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, Chap. 10, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009
  35. ^ Abram, D., 'The Mechanical and the Organic' in Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth, ed. P. Bunyard, Floris, 1996
  36. ^ Hayward, J. Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science and Awareness in an Enchanted World, Shambhala, Boston, 1997
  37. ^ Mumford, L., The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964
  38. ^ Capra, F. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Anchor, New York, 1997
  39. ^ Goerner, S.J. After the Clockwork Universe: The Emerging Science and Culture of Integral Society, Floris, Edinburgh, 2001
  40. ^ Bakhtin, M. Toward a Philosophy of the Act , University of Texas Press, Austin, 1993
  41. ^ Debord, G. 'Perspectives for Alterations in Everyday Life' in The Everyday Life Reader, B. Highmore (ed.) Routledge, London, 2003
  42. ^ Gardiner, M. Critiques of Everyday Life, Routledge, London, 2000
  43. ^ Lefebvre, H. Critiques of Everyday Life: Foundations for Sociology of the Everyday, Verso, London, 1991
  44. ^ Max-Neef, M., et al. Human Scale Development: Conception, Application and Further Reflections, The Apex Press, New York, 1991
  45. ^ Kamenetzky, M.'The Economics of the Satisfaction of Needs' in Real Life Economics: Understanding Wealth Creation, P. Ekins and M. Max-Neef (eds.), Routledge, London, 1992
  46. ^ Illich I. Towards a History of Needs, Heyday Books, Berkeley, 1978
  47. ^ Kossoff, Gideon, Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: a Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society, Chap. 5, Phd thesis, Centre for the Study of Natural Design, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Dundee, 2011
  48. ^ Kossoff, G. 'Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life' in Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, ed. S. Harding, Floris, Edinburgh, 2011
  49. ^ Capra, F., The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Anchor, New York, 1997
  50. ^ Wheatley, M. J. and Kellner-Rogers, M., A Simpler Way, San Francisco, 1998
  51. ^ Koestler, A., Janus: A Summing Up, Random House, New York, 1978
  52. ^ Irwin T., Tonkinwise C., Kossoff G., Provocation and Briefing, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, November 2014


See also

  • DDes in Transition Design (professional doctorate): Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design
  • PhD in Transition Design: Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design

Doctoral programs

Transition design was first introduced in 2014 at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Design where it informs projects, curricula and programs at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. On March 7, 2015 a Transition Design Symposium was held at CMU's School of Design. This was structured around the position papers of twenty academics from a wide range of disciplines (e.g. anthropology, sociology, architecture, psychology, human computer interaction, philosophy, design and design studies). Each position paper was a response to a 'Provocation and Briefing' document written by Professor Terry Irwin, Dr. Cameron Tonkinwise and Dr. Gideon Kossoff.[52]

Transition design education

Any place-based initiative that promotes holism in everyday life, protecting and recovering control by communities of the process of need satisfaction, will help the transition process. It is the task of transition design to facilitate this at all levels of scale, revitalising and improving the quality of everyday life through the development of nested, networked, integrated, semi-autonomous and self-organizing households, neighbourhoods, cities and regions.

, control of need satisfaction was largely appropriated by centralized institutions. When this happens, the Domains lose their role as loci for the satisfaction of the needs of their inhabitants, and they no longer emerge as vital, integrated, semi-autonomous forms: households, neighbourhoods, cities and regions are typically hollowed and fragmented. Their decline leads to many social, ecological, economic and political problems and to the unsustainability of everyday life. There is therefore a direct relationship between sustainability, community and place-based control of need satisfaction and holism in everyday life: the transition to a sustainable society requires the reconstitution and reinvention of the Domains of Everyday Life. An additional Domain, that of the Planet, has emerged in modernity and its development could give everyday life a cosmopolitanism it lacked in pre-industrial societies. Industrial Revolution and the modernity With the arrival of [51][50][49]

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