Transition Design Seminar 2

terry irwin
70 min readDec 21, 2015

Spring 2016, Instructors: Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff, Cameron Tonkinwise, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA .

NOTE: The Transition Design Seminar 2 for 2017 is now up on a website that can be accessed here


This site is the syllabus and course schedule for the Transition Design 2 seminar for masters and doctoral students. The course schedule will be updated on a regular basis so please check it prior to each class. Readings for each class will be uploaded to BOX 1 week ahead of time. Note: because of the amount of embedded media in this syllabus, it is best viewed in Safari on a laptop/desktop.

Course Introduction & Context

Transition Design acknowledges that we are living in ‘transitional times’ and takes as its central premise the need for societal transition (systems-level change) to more sustainable futures and the contention that design has a key role to play in these transitions. This kind of designing that is connected to long horizons of time and compelling visions of sustainable futures based upon new knowledge and skill sets.

In the past, there have been many attempts to leverage design as an agent for positive social change, but few of these have articulated how to undertake, lead and catalyze such change. Nor have they identified or incorporated the areas of knowledge and investigation required to do so. Transition Design is complementary to and borrows from myriad other design approaches (such as design for service and social innovation), but is distinct in several ways and therefore generates a corresponding body of new skill sets. All of these can deepen and enhance designing within shorter horizons of time and more mainstream contexts. Transition Design:

  • Uses living systems theory as both an approach to understanding wicked problems and designing solutions to address them.
  • Develops design solutions that protect and restore both social and natural ecosystems through the creation of mutually beneficial relationships between people, the things they make and do, and the natural environment.
  • Sees everyday life and lifestyles as the most important and fundamental context for design.
  • Designs solutions for short, medium and long horizons of time, at all levels of scale of everyday life (the household, the neighborhood, the city, the region).
  • Looks for emergent possibilities within problem contexts and amplifies grass-roots efforts and solutions that are already underway
  • Links existing solutions together so that they can function as steps in a larger transition vision.
  • Distinguishes between ‘wants’ or ‘desires’ and genuine needs and bases solutions upon maximizing the satisfiers for the widest possible range of needs.
  • Sees the designer’s own mindset and posture as an essential component of transition designing.
  • Calls for the reintegration and re-contextualization of diverse transdisciplinary knowledge.

The idea of and need for transition is central to a variety of current discourses concerned with how change manifests and how it can be initiated/directed (in ecosystems, organizations, communities/societies, economies and even individuals). These approaches inspired the term ‘Transition Design’, a new area of design focus that is informed by knowledge outside design such as science, philosophy, psychology, social science, anthropology and the humanities in order to gain a deeper understanding of how to design for change/transition in complex systems. For more information on Transition Design, see the website.


We use a heuristic model to characterize four different but interrelated and mutually influencing areas of Transition Design. These areas are 1) Vision; 2) Theories of Change; 3) Mindset & Posture; 4) New Ways of Designing.

Course Overview

This course aims to familiarize graduate and doctoral students with the concept of ‘transition’ and ‘transition theory,’ which can now be found within many fields, disciplines and grassroots movements. It also introduces a new field of design research, study and practice: Transition Design, that proposes design-led transition toward more sustainable futures.

Through a wide range of readings, supplemental materials (including topic-related videos) and follow-up discussion, students will be encouraged to explore these concepts and invited to contribute to this growing body of thought and action. They will also be encouraged to develop the ability to envision long-term, sustainable futures as a tool for informing design in the present and near future.

Course Texts

Please purchase at least two of the three recommended courses texts below. These texts set the context for the seminar and you should peruse them during the course of the semester and reference them in discussions and the three assigned essays.

  1. Jonathan Porritt, The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050. 2013, Phaidon Press Inc. New York
  2. John Thackara, How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today. 2015, Thames & Hudson, New York.
  3. Ezio Manzini, Design, When Everybody Design: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. 2015, MIT Press, London.

Supplemental Materials

Each class has a list of both required and supplemental readings. It is followed by a supplemental materials section in which topic-related videos, conceptual diagrams and links to related sites can be found. We suggest that you peruse all of these prior to engaging deeply with the readings. The videos especially provide a good overview to the class topic and readings and serve to set a broad context and ‘soft entry’ into the subject matter. Most videos are quite short but we have included a few that are longer.

Course Objectives & Learning Outcomes

By the end of the course students should demonstrate:

  • A familiarity with a range of transdisciplinary discourses regarding change/ transition within complex systems. An understanding of how knowledge, concepts and theories outside the field of design are relevant to informing new, more responsible/appropriate approaches to design.
  • A familiarity with the range of large, ‘wicked’ problems confronting society in the 21st century (climate change, pollution, growing gap between rich/poor, terror ism, loss of biodiversity, etc.). The ability to identify their roots and map/visualize their interconnections and interdependencies. Understanding of how these wicked problems form the greater context for almost all design problems and solutions.
  • An understanding of the dynamics at work within living systems (emergent properties, self-organization, network dynamics, systems level relationships etc.) and how these ‘systems dynamics’ can be leveraged in designing for and within complex social and natural systems.
  • Familiarity with a range of approaches to ‘future-casting’ and future-based scenarios. An understanding of the importance of thinking in long horizons of time in order to inform the design of short, mid and long-term solutions at multiple levels of scale.
  • Familiarity with the ways in which pre-industrial societies lived and designed relatively sustainably ‘in place’ for generations. Familiarity with global/local concepts such as cosmopolitan localism as a strategy for transition design.
  • Familiarity with the concept of everyday life and the reconception of lifestyles as a strategy for sustainable design. Understanding of Max-Neef’s theory of needs as an aspect of transition design.
  • Understanding of the concept of worldview and its influence on design and designers and an understanding of the characteristics of a holistic/ecological worldview.
  • Familiarity with a range of discourses, approaches and theories related to the acquisition of collaborative skills, more mindful approaches to design and the concept of ‘designer as catalyst for change’.
  • An ability to use existing projects, solutions and initiatives as the basis for transition design solutions that are tied to longer-term visions and use a range of approaches such as amplifying, connecting and ‘solving for pattern’ (Manzini 2015) as strategies for implementation.

Course Structure & Grading

This is a seminar class that involves a substantial amount of reading followed by in class discussions that will inform class exercises, 3 reflective essays of 1000 words and two assignments. Instructions for each of the components of the class are found below:

Your grade is based upon the following:

  1. Participation in class discussions & exercises: 20%

2. Discussion leadership (1-2x during the semester): 20%

3. Three Essays on Medium (1000 words each: 10%, 10%, 10%): 30%

4. Two assignments: 20% (#1= 5%, #2= 15%)

5. Team evaluations: 10%

1. Participation in Class Discussions & Exercises

Participation is evaluated on the basis of in-class discussions, exercises and our assessment of how prepared you are and how well you understand the material and relate it to transition designing.

The Readings: the seminar requires you to do a significant amount of outside reading. You must complete the readings prior to each class in order to participate fully in the discussions. You will note that we have divided the readings into two categories: required and supplemental. You should read the required texts thoroughly and at least skim the supplemental texts. If you are scheduled to be a discussion leader, you should read all of the texts.

How to read multiple texts for a seminar: As a graduate student it is important that you develop the ability to read multiple texts quickly and thoroughly. A good approach is to quickly skim each of the readings, then go back and read them in depth. Develop practices aimed at retention. Highlighting areas/points for discussion in class, making notes for your essay as the classes progress, and noting questions are all ways to ensure that you understand the material and come to class prepared. The readings we have selected combine recent texts from journals, blogs and publications with classic (and often out of print) texts from science, anthropology, sociology and other areas.

Why we assign diverse readings: The wide variety of texts serves two purposes: 1) it acquaints you with key historic concepts/ideas and thought leaders from varied fields and disciplines (such as environmentalist Aldo Leopold, historian/social critic Lewis Mumford and poet/dramatist/ phenomenological scientist Wolfgang von Goethe) and 2) it provides you with experience in relating ideas from other fields and disciplines to design theory and practice.

Discussing the Texts: We aim to build a culture of trust in this course in which people respect each other’s views but also feel able to engage in lively debate. Come to the discussions prepared to present your point of view, but always be willing to change your mind. Be vocal, but generous. Be aware of whether you are monopolizing the conversation and be willing to hand the discussion off to others and ask someone who hasn’t yet spoken, “what do you think?”. Build upon or challenge what others have said to keep interesting discussion threads going. Be aware of whether you’re truly listening or simply ‘waiting to talk.’ A good discussion is a dance; you’re building on what others have said (not changing the subject without acknowledging you are and saying why). You’re not being asked to deliver a lecture or monologue. If you find yourself getting perturbed or upset about what someone is saying, consider the possibility that it might be because your deeply held beliefs and assumptions are being challenged—that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Practice and hone your powers of articulation. Be brave. Be curious. Discussion is an art and ability that designers need to cultivate.

The Class Exercises: Collaboration is a key skill for transition designers. We will often culminate a discussion or lecture with brief exercises designed to help you embody the ideas that we’ve discussed. These exercises are an opportunity to bring diverse points of view and experience to a topic or problem. Here is where your collaboration skills can be honed and where you have the opportunity to learn from your colleagues. Invest yourself. Explore. Your team mates will evaluate you on your skill in this area.

2. Discussion Leadership/Documentation

For every class session we will designate two or three discussion leaders who will work with the instructors to facilitate discussion and who will be responsible for ‘capturing’ the content of the class. (In some cases Gideon, Terry or Cameron may lead the discussion or kick the class off with a brief lecture or presentation, in which case your primary responsibility will be visual notes/capture). As a team you will:

  1. Lead Class Discussions: Work with the instructors to provide a critical backdrop for each class by familiarlizing yourself with all of the assigned readings and facilitating discussions.
  2. Take Whiteboard Notes: Visually capturing the session content on white boards is important and involves more than simply taking notes. The ability to quickly take ‘diagrammatic’ notes and capture ideas for a group is an important Transition Design skill. A level to aspire to are the videos produced by the RSA, UK. (see videos for the February 3rd and 17th classes for an example of concept diagramming). Your visual ‘capture’ will include lectures, discussions and presentations. At the end of the class, photograph your white board summary to upload to your Medium site.
  3. Post the Class Notes to Medium: By the following week, the team should post a summary of the session they led. This will include photos of the white board visualizations as well as captions or a brief summary. Be sure to include the date and session title. It is OK to post the results to one team member’s Medium site as long as all team members are identified. These photos and notes will create a visual record of the course, so compose them thoughtfully with readers who have not attended the class in mind.

Tips for facilitating discussions: You should act as a facilitator and guide, not a lecturer. Your job is to ensure the discussion remains on topic/point and that it is inclusive—make sure no individual(s) is/are dominating the discussion.

As you read the assigned texts, think about where you would you like the discussion to end up and what kind of questions will get you there. Good questions tend to bring in the how and the why, and are more effective than making a statement and asking the class what they think; you’re not giving a lecture, rather you’re leading a discussion. You may want to turn a discussion on its head, or play devil’s advocate, or choose a contrary or provocative position. You might want to send provocations or questions to the class ahead of time to get people thinking about their point of view on the readings.

In this seminar, a great deal of the readings come from outside the field of design. They are intended to introduce new concepts and methodologies that can aid designers in formulating new ways of working. For that reason, the discussion leaders should always try to bring the discussion back to the central point: How/why these ideas are relevant to design/designers — speculation is fine, no one has all the answers.

How to work in teams of 2, 3 people: We will leave it to you how to divide the responsibilities; one of you might choose to capture the discussion on the white board while the other leads the discussion. Or, if there is a lecture or presentation, you might both choose to be at the white board and trade off asking questions or guiding the discussion. Each student will be a discussion leader/class documenter twice during the semester.

3. Reflective Essays: Published on Medium

During the semester, you will be asked to write three reflective essays of about 1000 words on Medium. The essays are an important part of this course and should be seen as an extension of the class discussions. These essays will also contribute to a growing body of high quality research and writing about Transition Design. You will publish your essays as ‘unlisted’ until receiving feedback and giving them a final edit. You will be asked to publish them publicly prior to the end of the course for a grade.

Essay Content: The Transition Design Framework has four key areas and several classes will be devoted to each section. You will write an essay for each of the first three areas: 1. Vision, 2. Theories of Change, 3. Mindset/ Posture. The essays should discuss points such as: the importance of the three framework areas and their relationship to each other, the relationship between the 3 framework areas and Transition Design as a whole, the relationship between topics within the sections, the relationship of all of these to design theory and practice.

Each essay is due a week after the last class within each of these sections:

  1. Vision essay first deadline: February 22
  2. Theory of change first deadline: March 28
  3. Mindset/Posture essay first deadline: April 13
  4. Final deadline for all edited/revised essays published publicly on Medium: May 4

After you turn in your essay, we will review it and provide you with feedback on how to make it better. You may submit it once more for additional feedback prior to the final public publishing deadline of May 4th.

Through these essays, you are helping to constitute a new field of study—Transition Design and are bringing together key ideas from a range of fields and disciplines to make them meaningful and actionable for designers. Speculate. Extrapolate. You may incorporate images, video, links, your own drawings or photos, etc. Help us make the aggregated course Medium site a resource for practitioners and academics worldwide. Be proud of this content and do all you can to make it useful, imaginative and ground breaking.

Here are a few links that will help you get started on writing with Medium.

  • How to start writing on Medium. It’s the very basic information that should get you started
  • On writing in Medium. This article shows some formatting tricks: bold, italic, different ways to incorporate images or embed video or tweets, and so on. You’ll also notice that you have access to stats when you use Medium, which might be interesting to you if you would like to tweet, Facebook or otherwise share your writings.
  • On reading in Medium. You’ve probably noticed little speech bubbles with plus signs in them. These are ways to comment on stories at the paragraph level, and you don’t need to make them public as an author unless you choose. (This is something I like a lot about Medium.)
  • Using images in Medium. Medium is particularly good with ways to incorporate images. This little article shows how to do full bleeds, overlays, grids of images.
  • Stock images that don’t suck. I love this: places to find royalty free images for free. It’s a little easier than going through Flickr, looking for Creative Commons images that allow for the licensing.
  • If you are grabbing images off the Internet, you need to cite your images.You might also find license-free or Creative Commons images. I used some images from Cooper-Hewitt, contextualized them, and used the citation provided by the collection in the title image above.

4. Course Assignments (team-based)

Two assignments will be given during the seminar and will require you to collaborate with 3–4 other people, undertake research outside class and present results to the class. For each assignment there will be a 360 degree review (you will review each your teammates for collaboration & performance) that will be incorporated into your individual assignment grade.

  1. Mapping a Wicked Problem: 10%
  2. Case Study of a Transition Design Solution: 15%

Details of these 3 assignments can be found within the course schedule section below. Each of these assignments addresses an important facet of Transition Design. The foundation of designing for transition, depends upon designers’ ability to see complex, wicked problems and map their interconnections and interdependencies at multiple levels of scale. Transition designers also critique and evaluate existing projects and initiatives and amplify and/or link them to transition visions for greater leverage; in this way separate/discreet projects can become steps in longer transition solutions. Developing case studies of these hypothetical transition solutions can serve as templates and guides for conceiving new projects and initiatives.

5. Team Evaluations

Transition solutions can only be conceived and implemented within diverse and multi/trans disciplinary teams. For this reason, the two assignments and several of the class exercises will be undertaken in teams. At the beginning of the semester we will conduct an exercise to demonstrate how to form teams in which a diverse set of knowledge, skills and perspectives is present. Although you may feel more comfortable working with your friends and people with whom you have much in common, in this seminar, discussions, exercises and assignments will be more successful when undertaken by groups with diverse skill sets and points of view. Learning to collaborate well with people from diverse backgrounds and understanding when to lead and when to defer to another’s area of expertise are important 21st century design skills. Course assignments and class exercises will provide you with opportunities to hone these skills.

It has been said that collaboration is like a dance, and your dance card should always be full. At the end of each assignment you will be asked ‘which of my teammates would I willingly work with again?’ ‘Which teammates would I not want to work with again…and why?’ You will evaluate your teammates on a variety of criteria. Although the team will receive a single grade for the assignment, the team evaluations will bolster or detract from your individual grades.

Our Expectations

There are two important expectations for this seminar: that you attend and that you be fully present during class:

  1. Attendance: Regular, prompt attendance is required for a passing grade. You are allowed 3 excused absences. Your letter grade will drop after 3 absences and 5 or more absences will result in a failing grade. Please notify the instructors or TA if you anticipate an absence. More than 3 tardies will equal one absence.
  2. Presence: We ask that you arrive to class fully prepared (having read all assigned texts and commented on your classmates blog posts) and fully ‘present’ during class. Please do not surf the internet, hang out on Facebook, Tweet or otherwise ‘check out’ of the class and into cyberspace. Please do not work on other assignments during this class (sounds crazy, but it happens). Please do not have iphones out during class. During class various people will be lecturing and participating in discussions — it requires your undivided attention; when it’s your turn you’ll appreciate, attentive participants — be one. Instructors and the TA will be evaluating you on the basis of your ‘presence’ (mindset and posture) and participation in class.

Academic Integrity

Please review Carnegie Mellon University’s academic integrity policy. Since you will be writing and publishing your work to a public site, please be aware of the guidelines that pertain to plagiarism:

Course Schedule: Spring 2016

The following sections contains a course schedule with assigned readings, description of the class discussion and activities and supplemental material, often in the form of videos. This section will evolve and change as the course progresses, so check the assignments the week before in case it has changed. Note that readings and discussion leaders are assigned the class prior to the one they are connected to. The supplemental materials apply to the class that they are situated within.

………………………………………………………………………………………SECTION 1: WHY TRANSITION DESIGN?………………………………………………………………………………………

Prior to the First Class:

These readings and videos will help set the context for the class. Please familiarize yourself with them:

Required Reading

Orr, David W. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect. Washington D.C.: Island Press. pp 104–111

The Worldwatch Institute 2013. Getting to One Planet Living. In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Chapter 4 online:

Supplemental Reading:

Berry, Thomas. 2011. The Great Work. In The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. New York: Crown. pp 1–11

In the video below, Professor Johan Rockstrom, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre discusses the Anthropocene and the interconnected/interdependent problems confronting society in the 21st century. In the second video he explains the concept of planetary boundaries:

Video from Stockholm Resilience Center
Video from Stockholm Resilience Center


January 11, Monday: Why Transition?

Overview: Fundamental change at every level of our society is needed to address the issues confronting us in the 21st century. Transition Design is a new area of design practice, research and study that advocates design-led societal transition toward more sustainable futures (by design-led we mean that people from all walks of life, including professional designers, can use the tools and approaches of design to intentionally seed, catalyze and direct positive societal change at multiple levels of scale). Transition Design proposes the re-conception of entire lifestyles, integrates new knowledge from many different fields and disciplines to inform new approaches to understanding complex problems and designing for their solution using new skillsets.

Key Questions: • What are some likely scenarios if society does not ‘transition’? • Is the term ‘transition’ appropriate within the context of this new kind of designing? • What role(s) can design/designers play in the transition to more sustainable futures? • How is design implicated in the large problems facing us in the 21st century?

Class Lecture: Instructors will discuss the class format and provide an overview of Transition Design and the goals of the seminar. A brief lecture on global problems, the origins of ‘transition design’ (Great Transition Initiative, Transition Network, Socio-Technical Transition Theory etc.), and the implications for design and designers will follow.

Class Exercise: Cameron will hand out a questionnaire to have you assess the severity of several of the problems that this seminar will address.

Supplemental Material: The short video below by Steve Cutts is a commentary on humans’ connection to environmental and social issues but also directly addresses designed artifacts.

Video by Steve Cutts

This was an introductory lecture on Transition Design delivered at the AIGA national convention in Minneapolis in 2013.

The Millenium Project tracks 15 global challenges confronting society in the 21st century and discusses their interconnections and interdependencies.

The Millenium Project tracks 15 global challenges in order to help develop tools and methodologies for thinking about the future. The Millennium Project website:


January 13, Wednesday: Introduction to Wicked Problems

Overview: Climate change, loss of biodiversity, depletion of natural resources and the widening gap between rich and poor are examples of the ‘wicked’ problems transition designers must address. Wicked problems are multifaceted/multi-scalar, are comprised of many stakeholders with conflicting agendas and because their ‘parts’ are interconnected and inter-dependent, there is no single solution. Understanding the anatomy and system dynamics of wicked problems is a key skill of transition designers.

Video from Sustainable Human, February 2014, edited by Steve and Chris Agnos

Key Questions: • Is it possible to understand the entirety of a wicked problem? • In what ways do ‘wicked problems’ manifest at multiple levels of scale (systems levels)? • 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 discreet problem at a lower systems level?• Is there a design equivalent to a ‘trophic cascade’?

In Class Exercise: Working in groups of 2, list as many large, global wicked problems as you can, then trace their ‘strands of consequence’ down through systems levels until you see a connection that affects you on a personal level.

ASSIGNMENT #1 Due next class 1.10.16: Working in groups of 3–4, you will be asked to visually diagram a wicked problem from a small discreet problem and trace its interconnections through systems levels to a larger, global scale. Begin by identifying small, seemingly simple problems that affect you personally. It might be your cable company or utility company’s interactions with you. Traffic jams. Urban noise. Rising cost of day care. See how many your group can come up with. Discuss which one you would best be able to trace up systems levels and connect to other problems. For instance, the need to replace our iPhones every few years could be connected to resource depletion and mining pollution half a world away. Refer to the examples provided to see ways in which complex problems have been represented visually. This exercise will require you to deeply think about/investigate the interconnected/interdependent relationships that we are embedded within in a globally connected world.

Required Reading:

  1. Capra, Fritjof and Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Padstow, Cornwall: Cambridge University Press. pp 362–366
  2. 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
  3. Doordan, Dennis P. 2013. Developing Theories for Sustainable Design. In Stuart Walker and Jaques Giard (eds), The Handbook of Design for Sustainability. London: Bloomsbury. pp 67–70

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Speth, James Gustave. 1992. The Transition to a Sustainable Society. Proceedings, National Academy of Science, USA, 89: 870–872. Available online:
  2. Escobar, Arturo. Transiciones. Unpublished article. pp 1–11
  3. Welcome to the Anthropocene. Useful resource for understanding social/environmental problems:

Discussion leaders for this class: Kakee Scott & Tracy Potter

Supplemental Material: Video below from the Complexity Academy provides a brief explanation of a Wicked Problem.

Video from Complexity Academy

The video below is an interview with a French journalist held captive by ISIS for 10 months. In it, he offers a systemic analysis of ISIS as a wicked problem that requires a counter-intuitive approach to resolution.


January 20, Wednesday: Mapping & Visualizing Wicked Problems

Wicked problems can manifest as seemingly mundane/simple problems at a local level (limited context), but in reality are often ‘fragments’ of wicked problems that exist on multiple levels; the local, regional and global. The ability to see the roots of these complex problems and visually represent their interconnections/interdependencies and therefore know where design intervention is likely to be most powerful is a key skill for the transition designer.

Class Presentations: Groups present their visual maps and recommended points of intervention and group discusses. Be sure to clearly document your final maps and post to your Medium site along with analysis. In your presentations reflect upon what the mapping process produced; what was particularly challenging, enlightening, etc. Did it change the way you think about framing design problems in terms of problem boundaries and context?

Reading for this class:

  1. Meadows, Donella. 2009. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Solutions Journal. Available online:
  2. Coyne, Richard. 2005. Wicked Problems Revisited. Design Studies 26: 5–17
  3. Farrell, Katharine. 2011. Snow White and the Wicked Problems of the West: A Look at the Lines between Empirical Description and Normative Prescription. In Science, Technology and Human Values, 36: 334–363

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Conklin, Jeff. Wicked Problems and Social Complexity. CogNexus Institute. pp 1–25. Available online:

Discussion leaders for this class: Ahmed Ansari & Julia Petrich (facilitate presentations and lead the discussion that follows)

Supplemental Material: Two examples of visualizing a wicked problem are shown below. The first was an assignment in an information design course taught in 2001 at CCA, diagram by Chanpory Rith. The challenge was to diagram the roots of terrorism described in a 2001 essay by Fritjof Capra inspired by the attacks on 9/11 called “Trying to Understand”. Note that values and feelings are represented as causal elements within the ‘ecology’ of the problem. The second diagram maps the root problems and influencers of obesity.

Information design by Chanpory Rith; class assignment, Instructor Terry Irwin, California College of Arts, San Francisco, 2001. Based upon an essay by Fritjof Capra entitled “Trying to Understand”

This map of the wicked problem of obesity was developed by the UK government Note the various categories of influencers as well as the interconnections and interdependencies.

The diagram below resembles a wicked problem map in its representation of the complexities of the climate change agreement debated in Paris, 12.15.

Cheryl Dahle, journalist, entrepreneur and found of the non-profit Future of Fish discusses the global wicked problem of overfishing.


January 25, Monday: Part 1: Sustainable vs. Transition Design

Soon after modern ecological politics arose, in large part as a result of Rachel Carson’s famous account of pesticide contamination of ecosystems, figures like Victor Papanek made the link to the profession of design. For decades ecodesigners have been advocating ‘cleaner production’ and ‘sustainable consumption.’ Decades of environmental design research has been well aware of the difference between minimizing the ecological damage done by ‘business as usual’ and ‘systems level change’ toward more sustainable economies and societies. The most recent example was work on ‘product service systems’ that aimed to reduce societal materials intensity. Research into Transition Management emerged out of the inadequacy of previous approaches to advancing ‘sustainable design.’ This session will explain that history in order explain the ambitions of Transition Design.

Key Questions: • How should we define ‘sustainability’? • What should we be sustaining? • How do societies change? • What is the role of measurement and what should be measured? • When to use goal-driven processes, multi-stage processes, increased-variety processes?

Class Exercise: An exploration of the features that make up a sustainable house and the way these bleed into more sustainable ways of living together.

Required Reading:

  1. Tonkinwise, Cameron. 2013. It’s Just Going to be a Lotta Hard Work: Radical Sustainability Innovation. Unpublished article on Academia:
  2. Tonkinwise, Cameron. 2015. Transitions in Sociotechnical Conditions that Afford Usership. Unpublished article on Academia:

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Joore, P. and H. Brezet. 2015. A Multilevel Design Model: the mutual relationship between product-service system development and societal change processes. Journal of Cleaner Production, 97, pp.92–105.
  2. Gaziulusoy, A.I. and H. Brezet. 2015. Design for system innovations and transitions: a conceptual framework integrating insights from sustainablity science and theories of system innovations and transitions. Journal of Cleaner Production, 108, pp.558–568.

Discussion Leaders for this Class: Catherine Shen, Kaylee White & Crystal Lin

Part 2: Group Sorting Exercise

A key skill of the Transition Designer is the ability to collaborate within transdisciplinary teams and facilitate group work among stakeholders with conflicting agendas. Understanding strengths, weaknesses and different perspectives is fundamental to creating diverse teams with balanced sets of skills. And, understanding and playing to each team member’s strengths is an important part of successful collaboration.

Key Questions: • How can fostering diversity within collaborative teams be an advantage? • What are the drawbacks, disadvantages or challenges? • What are creative ways in which diverse teams can be formed with a wide range of skillsets? • What are communication style and body language/ signals that foster good team collaboration? • In which areas can you imagine being challenged when it comes to group collaboration?

Class Exercises: We will facilitate a variety of group discussions and exercises aimed at understanding our similarities and differences as the basis for sorting ourselves into 4 diverse teams. We will have you look at the Belbin Teamwork system and explore other dimensions such as gender, professional background, intellectual interests, ethnicity, nationality etc. as a basis for sorting into diverse teams.

Required Reading:

  1. Gratton, Lynda and Tamara J. Erickson. 2007. Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams. The Harvard Business Review, November. Available online:
  2. Pentland, Alex “Sandy”. 2012. The New Science of Building Great Teams. The Harvard Business Review, April. Available online:
  3. Schlitz, Marilyn Mandala and Cassandra Vieten and Elizabeth M. Miller. 2010. Worldview Transformation and the Development of Social Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 17:7–8. pp 28–29.

Supplemental Material: This video is by Matt Koschmann, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In it, he discusses the importance of collaboration and the concept ‘collabor-ation design’ — how we develop structures for productive collaboration and the process we go through to achieve it.

Video by Matt Koschmann

Professor Alex Pentland directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship program. He has studied the dynamics of human interaction in order to understand what behaviors, patterns of communication and types of body language are conducive to collaboration.

Tedx Talks, 2014

Richard Sennett is a Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, University Professor of the Humanities at New York University and author of The Craftsman and Together. In this video he talks about a key factor in collaborative teams—cooperation.

Video from The School of Life, 2013


January 27, Wednesday: The Transition Design Framework

A framework is used to help formulate and evolve the new ways of thinking, being and designing that Transition Design requires. Frameworks are conceptual maps or models that can guide, inform and shape practice, research and study. The Transition Design framework is open and dynamic and proposes four mutually influencing/co-evolving areas in which future-based narratives, knowledge, skills and action can be developed: 1) vision; 2) theories of change; 3) mindset/posture; 4) new ways of designing.

Key Questions: • What is the value of working with a framework such as this ? • What are examples of frameworks used in design and other fields that you have found helpful? When have these frameworks become a hindrance? Are the four areas of the framework the right ones? Are there other possible frameworks for thinking about transition design?

In Class: We will discuss frameworks and their value and the importance of the integration/application of transdisciplinary knowledge & ideas. Introduction to the Transition Design framework and the relationship between the four areas.

The last half of the class we will watch the film Crossroads: Labor Pains of a New Worldview that will set the context for the seminar. The film touches on many of the key themes within the four areas of the Transition Design Framework. A link to the film is below under supplemental materials, but we will show the film in its entirety during the class.

Required Reading:

  1. Maxwell, Joseph A. 2012. Conceptual Frameworks in Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Design, pp. 39–53. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. pp 39–53
  2. Kossoff, Gideon. 2011. Why a Framework is Needed/Integration of Knowledge in Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life, pp. 5–10 and pp. 25–27. Ph.D diss. University of Dundee, Scotland. pp 5–10
  3. Irwin, Terry. 2015. Transition Design: A Proposal for a New Area of Design, Practice, Study and Research. Design and Culture 7 (2): 229–246

Supplemental Materials: The Transition Design website provides more information about Transition Design and includes a 32 page monograph for download.

The film Crossroads: Labor Pains of a New Worldview provides an overview of the global situation that Transition Design aspires to help address and discusses ways in which this transition might be catalyzed.


February 1, Monday: Vision & Theories of Change

Transition Design proposes that more radically new ideas and compelling visions of sustainable futures are needed. These longterm visions are conceived through a circular, iterative, error-friendly process that can inform small, discrete design solutions in the present. The concept of change is central to Transition Design. Societal transformation will depend upon our ability to change our ideas about change itself — how it manifests and how it can be initiated and directed. Therefore Transition Design is based upon a deep understanding of the dynamics of change within complex social and natural systems.

Key Questions: • Why are designers well suited to envisioning sustainable futures? • What are the potential problems with future visioning? • Can compelling visions of the future change the way we frame projects/solutions in the present? • What are some of your current ideas/intuition about how change occurs in social systems? • Can change be predicted and controlled?

Class Lecture: Discussion of the Vision and Theories of Change sections of the Transition Design framework and their importance.

In Class Exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Eguren, Inigo Retolaza. 2011. Theory of Change: A Thinking and Action Approach to Navigate in the Complexity of Social Change Processes. Panama City: UNDP and The Hague: Hivos. pp 1–33.
  2. Brand, Stewart. 1999. The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility. New York: Basic Books. pp 8–9, 28–31, 132–136, 144–147, 160–164.
  3. Margolin, Victor. 2007. Design, the Future and the Human Spirit. Design Issues. 23 (3): 4–15. Available online:
  4. White, Damian. 2015. Critical Design and the Critical Social Sciences — or why we need to engage multiple, speculative critical design futures in a post-political and post-utopian era. Unpublished article, available online:

Discussion Leaders for this class: Hannah Rosenfeld & Lisa Otto

Supplemental Materials: Futurist Stuart Candy talks about the importance of future casting and imagining future scenarios.

TEDx Talk, 2014

In the video below, environmentalist and author of the course text, The World We Made, Jonathan Porritt talks about our everyday lives in the year 2050. (Note: sometimes the link below does not work. If you follow this link directly to the site, you’ll be able to click on the video and it will play:

The video below from Social Investment Business, UK provides an overview of what a theory of change is and why it is important in order to measure impact, particularly in the social change sector.

Video from Social Investment Business, UK


February 3, Wednesday: Mindset/Posture & New Ways of Designing

Transition Design argues that living in and through transitional times calls for self-reflection and a new way of ‘being’ in the world. This change must be based upon a new mindset/worldview and posture (internal) that leads to different ways of interacting with others (external) that informs problem solving/design. Transition Designers see themselves as agents of change, are ambitious in their desire to transform systems and lifestyles, and understand that transition calls for a commitment to work iteratively, at multiple levels of scale over long horizons of time.

Key Questions: • In what ways are we living in and through transitional times? How are our current, typical ways of being in the world problematic? • How does our worldview (both individual and collective) affect how and what we design? • What are some of the systems that must transition if we are to achieve sustainable societies? • Can lifestyles become both more sustainable and more satisfying? • Are forms of poverty and abstention inevitable?

In class reading: The Killing of the Wolf, by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). Aldo Leopold was an American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the landmark book A Sand County Almanac.

Aldo Leopold sitting on a rimrock with quiver and bow at Rio Gavilan, Mexico. Phot by Starker Leopold/Leopold Foundation.

In Class Exercise: TBD

Reading for this class:

  1. Clarke, Mary E. 2002. Framing the Problem. In Search of Human Nature. London: Routledge. pp 14–22
  2. Kuhn, Thomas S. 2012. Revolutions as Changes in Worldviews. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp 111–135
  3. McGilchrist, Iain. 2011. Recapturing the Whole: Brain Hemispheres and the Renewal of Culture. In David Lorimer (ed.), A New Renaissance: Transforming Science, Spirit and Society. Edinburgh: Floris. pp. 61–69
  4. Orr, David. 2002. Introduction: The Design of Culture and the Culture of Design and Human Ecology as a Problem of Ecology Design. In The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture and Human Intention. New York: Oxford University Press. pp 3–32

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Margolin, Victor. 2002. Design for a Sustainable World. In The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp 92–101
  2. Irwin, Terry. 2008. Worldview Concept Slides. From previous lectures. Available online:

Discussion leaders for this class: Nurie Jeong & Rachel Alberico

Supplemental Materials: The video below from the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), UK visualizes a lecture by neurologist, philosopher and author Iain McGilchrist. In it he argues that the right and left hemispheres of the brain enable us to perceive and interact with the world in fundamentally different ways: the right perceives wholes, contextualizes phenomena and tries to be aware of as much as possible; the left focuses on parts, decontextualizes phenomena, separates subject from object and strives for efficiency and control. In our era, the modus operandi of the left hemisphere has usurped that of the right, which has led to “our present predicament”.

Video from the RSA, UK, 2011

In the video below, the founder and CEO of Interface carpets, Ray Anderson talks about his epiphany that led him to transition a multi-million dollar company to a more sustainable future.

TED Talk, 2009

The video below is a lecture given by designer, theorist, author and environmentalist Tony Fry who was formerly Professor of Design Futures at Griffith University, Queenland College of Art, Brisbane, Australia. The lecture given at UM Stamps School of Art & Design expands on his concepts of sustainment, settlement and design as politics. and the ways in which design must change. (First 13 minutes at least)

Video from UM Stamps School of Art and Design, circa 2011

The diagram below is based upon an article by R. Adams entitled Being a Professional: Three Lenses into Design Thinking, Acting and Being” that demonstrates the different postures and mindsets associated with design/design process.

Diagram by Terry Irwin. Based upon an essay by R. Adams. Design Issues 32:588–607, 2011.

………………………………………………………………………………………SECTION 2: TRANSITION TOPICS


February 8, Monday: VISION: Scenario Development

Designers are uniquely suited to develop compelling visions of sustainable futures because of their experience in areas such as scenario development, future-casting and speculative design. Transition ‘visioning’ helps transcend the limitations of the present and creates a space in which we can speculate and wonder about how things could be. These future-based visions can serve as measures against which to guide, inspire and evaluate design solutions in the present. In order for designers to contribute to the development of compelling visions and narratives for a sustainable future, they need to acquire knowledge and skills that are emerging out of several new initiatives and organizations. Stuart Candy will join us for this session and talk about his work as a futurist and reflect with us on many of these questions.

Key Questions: • What are the advantages and disadvantages of envisioning sustainable futures? • Are societal transitions possible without long-term visions? • How can we bring rigor to the task of envisioning sustainable futures? • What new skill sets and knowledge are required for this type of designing?

In class exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Porritt, Jonathon. 2013. The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050. New York: Phaidon Press Limited. pp 4–19
  2. Great Transition Initiative. 2014. Where are We Headed?, Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead. . pp 13–29, 44–45
  3. Dunne, Anthony and Fiona Raby. 2013. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. pp 1–9
  4. Wilkinson, Angela et al. 2013. How Plausibility-Based Scenario Practices are Grappling with Complexity to Appreciate and Address 21st Century Challenges. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 80: 699–710
  5. Borjeson, Lena et al. 2006. Scenario Types and Techniques: Towards a User’s Guide. Futures, 38: 723–739

Supplemental Reading:

  1. de Sousa Santos, Bonaventura. 2006. The Sociology of Emergences, In, The Rise of the Global Left: The World Social Forum and Beyond. London: Zed Books. pp 29–33
  2. Manzini, Ezio and François Jégou. 2003. Sustainable Everyday: Scenarios of Urban Life. Milan: Edizioni Ambiente srl. pp 246–255

Discussion leaders for this class: Jiyoung Ko & Sarah Foley

Supplemental materials: The Sustainable Everyday Project (Manzini & Jegou) used future casting and scenario development to show how place-based lifestyles can be more sustainable. Visualizing compelling future-based visions is a key skill of the Transition Designer.

The videos below were developed by Great Transition Initiative: Great Transition Ideas and Visions of a Sustainable World provide a good overview about the transition to sustainable futures. Additional information can be found on their website:

Video from The Great Transition Initiative, 2014
Video from Yale University, 2010

Another organization that acts as a global think tank for imagining more sustainable futures is The Millennium Project. The website has a variety of resources and publications on this topic:

The text for this seminar is based upon visions of a sustainable 2050 world, written by Jonathan Porritt, founder, Forum for the Future.

Video from Green TV, 2013


February 10, Wednesday: VISION: Connecting Visions to the Past & Present

One of the characteristics of modern society is its rapid pace and the implementation of what David Orr calls ‘fast knowledge,’ which often leads to the damage or destruction of natural and social ecosystems. By contrast, design within pre-industrial societies was informed by ‘slow knowledge’ which enabled them to live (and design) sustainably in place for generations. Such cultures, as Stuart Brand argues, had six distinct temporal layers (‘pace’ layers), each moving at a different pace in a system of checks and balances. Transition designers need to learn from such societies, thinking in long horizons of time to develop visions and solutions aimed at transforming /transitioning societal infrastructures.

Key Questions: • What are the implications of fast and slow knowledge for design/designers? • What are contemporary examples of design that has been conceived and implemented via fast knowledge? • Can you find a contemporary example of design that was conceived and implemented via slow knowledge? • What are examples of how fast knowledge can damage social and natural ecosystems? • How is Brand’s concept of temporal layers related to the concepts of slow and fast knowledge? • Within the context of Brand’s layers, at what level do contemporary designers work? • At what temporal layer did indigenous peoples design? • Is it possible to conceive transition solutions that exist at/impact multiple levels? • What do contemporary designers have to learn from pre-industrial indigenous peoples?

Class lecture: Lecture on Brand’s “Levels of a Healthy Civilization” and Orr’s concept of slow knowledge.

In class exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Brand, Stewart. 1999. The Order of Civilization, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility. New York: Basic Books. pp 34–39
  2. Orr, David W. 2004. Slow Knowledge. In The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp 35–42. Also in,%20David%20Orr.pdf
  3. Deutsche Post. 2012. Delivering Tomorrow: Logistics 2050, A Scenario Study. pp 12–16, 22–26, skim 38–105.

Discussion leaders for this class: Dixon Lo & Saumya Kharbanda

Supplemental Material: The link below will take you to a page on the Long Now website where you can listen to a podcast with Stewart Brand talking about the ‘pace’ layers of civilization and the different speeds at which they move.

Graphic by Terry Irwin, based upon Stewart Brand’s concept of temporal ‘pace’ layers of civilization


February 15, Monday: VISION: Connecting Planet, Communities & Place

Transition Design proposes the re-conception of whole lifestyles and addresses quality of life issues within the context of the everyday. It focuses on the need Cosmopolitan Localism, a lifestyle that is place-based and regional, yet global in its awareness and exchange of information and technology. Transition Design works to create multiscalar networks of resilient, sustainable communities that foster symbiotic relationships with the ecosystems in which they are situated.

Key Questions: • What constitutes a lifestyle? • How does the concept and domain of ‘everyday life’ relate to design/designers? • What does the concept of resilience mean in relation to everyday life? • Can we design for resilience? • What are the contrasts between cosmopolitan localism and globalization? • What forms of government and economics are consistent with cosmopolitan localism? • What does it mean to design for place? • How can communities foster symbiotic relationships with their ecosystems? • Can these relationships be designed, or can we only design for ‘initial conditions’?

Class lecture: Brief lecture on cosmopolitan localism

In class exercise: Where are you at? A Bioregional quiz by Charles Leonard:

Required Reading:

  1. Manzini, Ezio. 2011. SLOC: The Emerging Scenario of Small, Open, Local, Connected. In Stephan Harding (ed.), Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College. Edinburgh: Floris Books. pp 216–228. Also at:
  2. Sachs, Wolfgang. 1999. Cosmopolitan Localism, in Planet Dialectics: Exploration in Environment and Development. London: Zed Books Ltd. pp. 105–107
  3. Aberley, Doug. 2008. Building a Bioregional, Sustainable Alternative. In Judith Plant, Christopher Plant and Van Andruss (eds.) Home! A Bioregional Reader. Gabriola Island, BC: New Catalyst Books. pp 159–160
  4. Delanty, Gerard. 2003. Communities as an Idea: Loss and Recovery. In Community. London: Routledge. pp. 1–21
  5. Kossoff, Gideon. 2011. Everyday Life and the Contextual Approach to Human Experience. From Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: A Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society. Ph.D. diss., University of Dundee, Scotland. pp 142–157

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Manzini, Ezio. 2012. Resilient Systems and Cosmopolitan Localism — The Emerging Scenarios of the Small, Local, Open and Connected Space. CNS Ecologia Politica. pp 1–6. Available online:
  2. Charles, Leonard et al. 2008. Where You At? A Bioregional Quiz. In Judith Plant, Christopher Plant and Van Andruss (eds.) Home! A Bioregional Reader. Gabriola Island, BC: New Catalyst Books. p. 29
  3. Orr, David. 2005. Place and Pedagogy. In Zenobia Barlow and Michael K. Stone (eds) Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, pp. 85–95. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. pp 86–94
  4. Berg, Peter and Raymond Dasmann. 2008. Reinhabiting California. In Judith Plant, Christopher Plant and Van Andruss (eds.) Home! A Bioregional Reader. Gabriola Island, BC: New Catalyst Books. pp. 35–38
  5. Casey, Edward. 2013. Being Before Place. In, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. pp ix-xvii

Discussion leaders for this class: Calvin Ryu & Crystal Lin

Supplemental Material: the article The New Ways of The Future: Small, Local, Open and Connected by Ezio Manzini (designer, environmentalist, author and founder of the DESIS Network) gives examples of cosmopolitan/local projects:

Publication from Singapore Management University, 2011

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has developed a publication called Visions for Change that talks about the importance of understanding and transitioning to more sustainable lifestyles:

“Lifestyles define, connect and differentiate us. They are representative of how we lead our life, interact with one another in the decisions and choices we make — as individuals evolving within a global society of nearly seven billion people. Our lifestyles can have strong impacts on the environment and on communities, and can be at stake when unsustainable collective and individual choices lead to major environmental crises (e.g. climate change, resource scarcity, pollution) while failing to improve people’s well-being.

On the other hand, sustainable lifestyles, enabled both by efficient infrastructures and individual actions, can play a key role in minimizing the use of natural resources, emissions, wastes and pollution while supporting equitable socio-economic development and progress for all. Creating sustainable lifestyles means rethinking our ways of living, how we buy and what we consume but, it is not only that. It also means rethinking how we organize our daily life, altering the way we socialize, exchange, share, educate and build identities. It is about Executive Summary transforming our societies towards more equity and living in balance with our natural environment.”


February 17, Wednesday: THEORIES OF CHANGE: Dynamics of Social & Natural Systems

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 are often counter intuitive, yet if better understood, they can be leveraged by Transition Designers to create more impactful solutions.

Key Questions: • How does a complex system differ from a ‘simple’ system? • How, in framing design problems within tight contexts, do we ‘deny’ the complexity of the system we are design in and for? • Can the inherent dynamics within complex systems be leveraged in design solutions? • How?• How does complexity change how we think about change? • What are the implications of principles such as self-organization and emergence for designers?

Class lecture: brief overview of living systems

In class exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Irwin, Terry. 2004. Living Systems Principles and Their Relevance to Design. Masters Thesis submitted as completion for an MSc degree in Holistic Science, Schumacher College/Plymouth University, UK. pp 22–66
  2. Shirky, Clay. 2008. Small World Networks. From Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin pp 214–221
  3. Wheatley, Margaret, and Myron Kellner-Rogers. 1996. A Simpler Way. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. pp 32–34, 70–71, 97–99
  4. Goerner, S.J. 1999. After the Clockwork Universe. In After the Clockwork Universe: The Emerging Science and Culture of Integral Society, Edinburgh: Floris. pp. 13–25

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Walker, Brian and David Salt. 2006. The Systems Rules. From Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington D.C: Island Press. pp 29–38
  2. Irwin, Terry. 2011. Living Systems Theory: Relevance to Design. Unpublished matrix prepared for the AIGA National Conference, Phoenix. Available online:
  3. Dubberly, Hugh. 2008. Design in the Age of Biology: Shifting From a Mechanical-Object Ethos to an Organic-Systems Ethos. Written for Interactions Magazine. Available on the author’s website:

Discussion leaders for this class: Ming Xing & Lisa Otto

Supplemental Material: In the video below The Power of Networks from the RSA, UK, Manuel Lima, senior UX design lead at Microsoft Bing, explores the power of network visualization to help navigate our complex modern world.

Video from the RSA, UK, 2012

The videos below address the different facets of systems theory and explain the dynamic relationships at work within both natural ecosystems and social systems. We have intentionally included videos that explain these ‘systems’ principles’ in scientific terms as well as those that say the same thing in narrative form concerned with quality of life issues. A common theme in all of these is the relationship between parts and wholes and the important concept of emergence (the sum is greater than the parts). These provide a good overview of the important dynamics at work in complex systems — the greater context for everything we design. Transition Designers are aware of these often subtle dynamics within the systems for and within which they work and can learn to ‘leverage’ these dynamics, much as a martial artist will leverage the momentum of his opponent.

This brief video discusses the characteristics and dynamics found within complex adaptive systems, in scientific terms. Concepts such as chaos and complexity theories, network dynamics etc. are addressed.
Excerpt from the film Mind Walk by Fritjof Capra. Here a scientist explains the inherent coherence at work within complex systems and their interdependent, interconnected structure.
Scientist James Gleick provides an overview of chaos and complexity theories that have greatly influenced our understanding of the dynamics of change (and transition).
Biologist and holistic scientist Brian Goodwin talks about the principle of emergence and the relationship between ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’.


February 22, Monday: THEORIES OF CHANGE: Multiple Systems Approaches

Transition Designers will need to understand where to intervene in complex systems in order to change/transform them. There are myriad relevant ‘change’ theories already in use with which Transition Design could engage: 1) Sociotechnical Regime Theory/Sustainable Transition Management looks at the process of change and transformation in socio-technical regimes (patterns of artifacts, institutions, rules and norms) and the role of ‘niches’ within such systems as an important loci for intervention and change; 2) The Cynefin Framework enables a problem to be analyzed from new/various viewpoints and promotes the assimilation of complex concepts to inform decision making; 3) Post Normal Science is a method of inquiry for addressing long-term issues when relatively little information is available, facts are uncertain, values are in dispute and urgent decisions/outcomes are critical. These are a few examples of ‘theories of change’ that can inform Transition Designers in framing and solving problems.

Key Questions: • How does the concept/theory of complexity inform each of these theories? • What is the relevance of sociotechnical regime theory for design and designers? • Is it possible for designers to engage with/design for large socio-technical regimes? • What relevance does the concept of the ‘niche’ have for design and designers? • What role can design and designers play in policy and governance? • How can transition designers remain aware of new and evolving theories of change? • Is there a common mindset implicit in these theories of change? • In what ways can these theories of change inform framing and solving for complex problems?

Class lecture: We’ll provide an overview of each of the theories mentioned above will be provided in a brief lecture.

Required Reading:

  1. Grin, John, Jan Rotmans and Johan Schot. 2010. Conceptual Framework for Analyzing Transitions. In Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. London. Routledge. pp 126–139
  2. Snowden, Dave. 2003. Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. pp 23–28. Available online:
  3. Ravetz, Jerome R. 2007. Post-Normal Science and the Complexity of Transitions Towards Sustainability. Ecological Complexity 3: 275–284. Available online:
  4. Kossoff, Gideon, Cameron Tonkinwise and Terry Irwin. 2015. Transition Design: The Importance of Everyday Life and Lifestyles as a Leverage Point for Sustainability Transitions. Paper delivered at the International Sustainability Transitions Conference, University of Sussex, UK. p 1–7. Available online:

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Grin, John, Jan Rotmans and Johan Schot. 2010. Introduction: Exploration of the Research Topic. In Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. London. Routledge. pp 11–17
  2. Grin, John, Jan Rotmans and Johan Schot. 2010. Theoretical Backgrounds: Science and Technology Studies, Evolutionary Economics and Sociology. In Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. London. Routledge. pp 29–53
  3. Snowden, Dave. 2005. Strategy in the Context of Uncertainty. Handbook of Business Strategy, 6 (1): 47–54.

Discussion leaders for this class: Allison Huang & Shruti Chowdhury

Supplemental Material: In the videos below, Gill Seyfang of the University of East Angia, UK explains Socio-Technical Transition Theory, Professor James Meadowcroft explains the term ‘socio-technical’ transitions and explains how they emerge and change over time. In particular he discusses how the design of policy and governance plays at critical role. It is critical that Transition Designers understand the anatomy of large socio-technical regimes in order to help seed and catalyze their transition to more sustainable states.

Video from the European Society for Ecological Economics, 2015
Video from Sustainable Prosperity Conference, 2014

In the 2 videos below, Dave Snowden introduces his Cynefin Framework for sense-making, problem analysis, decision making and project management.

Video from The Cognitive Edge, 2010
Video from the Lean, Agile & Scrum Conference, 2013

Post Normal Science is a new conception of the management of complex science-related issues that can be a useful approach to problem solving. Post Normal Science focuses on aspects of problems solving that tend to be overlooked such as: uncertainty, value loading and multiple legitimate perspectives. It is particularly useful when designing for complex systems.


February 24, Wednesday: THEORIES OF CHANGE: Globalization vs. Needs Satisfaction

Design is inextricably connected to the way in which needs are satisfied. ‘Satisfiers’ for needs, are often confused with ‘want’ and ‘desires’ and are motivated by the desire for profit and economic growth rather than human fulfillment. The consumerist/globalized economy has become the primary means through which we attempt to satisfy needs, but it is fragile and inequitable and degrades both communities and the natural environment. Transition Designers must understand the consequences of globalization including the ways in which it undermines the ability of local communities to meet their needs in sustainable, place-based ways.

Key Questions: • Is Max-Neef’s characterization of ‘needs’ different than the commonly accepted definition? • In what ways are satisfiers for needs inappropriate, misconceived or ‘counterfeit’? • How are Max-Neef’s concepts of pseudo-satisfiers and counterfeit satisfiers connected to wicked problems?• Is it possible to design integrated, place-based satisfiers? • Can design for integrated satisfiers become part of sustainable/transition design process? • Can the distinction between genuine needs/integrated satisfiers become a way of critiquing design solutions to ensure they are sustainable?

Class Lecture: Max-Neef’s Theory of Needs and its relevance for design

In Class Exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Max-Neef, Manfred and Phillip B. Smith. 2011. World on a Collision Course and the Need for a New Economics. From Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Cambridge: UIT Cambridge. pp 128–138
  2. Max-Neef, Manfred and Phillip B. Smith. 2011. A Human Economics for the Twenty-First Century. From Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Cambridge: UIT Cambridge. pp 139–154
  3. Irwin, Terry. 2011. Design for a Sustainable Future, In Hershauer, Basile, and McNall (eds), The Business of Sustainability. Santa Barbara: Praeger. 2: 41–60. Also online:
  4. Illich, Ivan. 1987. Toward a History of Needs. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books. pp 3–22

Discussion leaders for this class: Maxine Zhou & Chris Donadio

Supplemental Materials: In these clips, Manfred Max-Neef talks about his concept of Barefoot Economics and the ways in which our economies must transition.

Video from Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity, 2013
Video from Democracy Now, 2010
Video from The Alliance for Sustainability & Prosperity, 2013

This article from the World Economic Forum ranks countries by their ability to meet the basic human needs of their citizens. Look how it turns the rankings we are used to seeing upside down.


February 29, Monday: THEORIES OF CHANGE: The Domains of Everyday Life & The Satisfaction of Needs

Everyday life is the primary context for Transition Design and is more likely to be sustainable when communities are self-organizing and control the satisfaction of their needs. In many traditional societies everyday life was organized at different levels of scale: households, neighborhoods, villages, cities and regions — the ‘Domains of Everyday Life’. In modern times control of the satisfaction of needs has been ceded to centralized institutions and this is directly connected to the decline of both the ‘Domains’ and unsustainability. Transition to sustainable futures will involve the redesign/reinvention of the Domains as self-organizing, participatory, networked and nested forms within which communities regain the control of the satisfaction of their needs.

Key Questions: • Why is everyday life the primary context for transition design? • What are the ways in which everyday life is more sustainable when communities are in control of the satisfaction of their needs? • What are the advantages of thinking about everyday life as being organized at different levels of scale? • How does the character of everyday life change at each level of scale? • What are the primary institutions that control the satisfiers of of your everyday needs? • What are the wicked problems associated with the decline of the Domains of Everyday Life? • What are the ways in which design/designers can help restore the Domains of Everyday LIfe? • Can designers aid in communities regaining control of the satisfaction of their needs…how? • How are the Domains of Everyday Life related to the theories of changed discussed in previous classes? • Can the concept of the levels of everyday life serve as a guide in framing and conceiving transition solutions?

Class Lecture: The Domains of Everyday Life as the locus for action, communities and self-organization.

In Class Exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Kossoff, Gideon. 2011. Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: A Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society. In Stephan Harding (ed) Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College. Edinburgh: Floris. pp 122–140. Also available online:
  2. Ward, Colin. 1982. Spontaneous Order. From Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press. pp 31–39
  3. Escobar, Arturo. 2009. Other Worlds are (Already) Possible: Self-Organization, Complexity and Post Capitalist Cultures. In Jai Sen and Peter Waterman (eds) World Social Forum, Challenging Empires. pp 393–404 Available online:
  4. Jones, Alwyn. 1997. A Gaian Social Critique. In Peter Bunyard, Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth. Floris: Edinburgh. pp. 274–284

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Kakee Scott & Catherine Shen

Supplemental Materials: Below Gideon Kossoff discusses the Domains of Everyday Life in a lecture for the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont. The second diagram shows the nested, holarchic domains of everyday life (Kossoff) and the webs of relationship found at each level of scale. At the level of the household, relationships are fewer, but are strong/thick and long lasting. As higher levels of scale, the number of relationships increases, but they are weaker and more transient. Transition Designers must determine at which level of scale a solution is most effective and design for the web of relationships that comprise it.

Video on the Gund Institute website, University of Vermont
Diagram by Kossoff & Irwin

Former UK diplomat Carne Ross contrasts direct democracy, in which communities directly participate in the political process, and representative democracy, in which the political authority is delegated to professional politicians.. Ross argues that direct democracy, or self-government, leads to more just, egalitarian communities and well-managed communities.

Video by Ian Davis, 2013

A TED Talk given by Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School, about a 75 year study on what makes people live longer and be happier:

TEDx Talk, 2015


March 2, Wednesday: THEORIES OF CHANGE: Social Psychology Research

Social Psychology Research: Since the Rio Earth Summit, sustainability researchers have tried to establish how best to encourage people to live in more sustainable ways. Social psychology based research, drawn from work on Health Behavior Change, aimed to establish the connection between Information/Awareness, Attitudes/Values and Behaviors/Built Environ-ments. Theories of Change from this work included heuristics such as: stages of change, self-efficacy, small steps lead to big steps, spill-over effect. This work is now widely criticized for over-emphasizing individ-ualized rationality and underemphasizing structural constraints. Responses have tried to foreground values. Key theoretical contributions were George Lakoff’s ideas about conceptual Frames when communicating Sustainable Values, and Ronald Inglehart’s research into ‘postmaterialism.’

Key Questions: • Are you motivated by knowledge, values, capacity, life-stage or community? • What types of behavior/psychology inhibit change/transition toward sustainability? • What ideas about society and humans are reinforced by promoting particular models of change? • Why is it not enough to appeal to people’s ‘better nature’ when advocating sustainability/transition measures?

Class Lecture: The recent history of disputes about the role of knowledge and values in Sustainable Consumption change strategies.

In Class Exercise: 1) Completing Inglehart’s Postmaterialism survey and Schwartz’s Social Values survey. 2) Interrogating Sustainability communications in terms of frames and then reframing them. 3) Designing a Behavior Change experiment.

Required Reading:

  1. Kasser, Tim. 2011. Ecological Challenges, Materialistic Value and Social Change. In Robert Biswas-Diener (ed) Positive Psychology as Social Change. New York: Springer. pp 89–105
  2. Power, Kate and Oksana Mont. 2010. Dispelling the Myths About Consumption Behaviour. Knowledge, Collaboration and Learning for Sustainable Innovation ERSCP-EMSU Conference. Delft. pp 1–21. Available online:

Supplemental Reading

  1. Thorgersen, John and Tom Crompton. 2009. Simple and Painless? The Limitations of Spillover in Environmental Campaigning. Journal of Consumer Policy. 32: 141–163. Available online in a slightly different version from World Wildlife Foundation UK. London:
  2. Maniates, M.F., 2001. Individualization: Plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world?. Global environmental politics, 1(3), pp.31–52

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Tracy Potter & Min Kim

Supplemental Material: The first two videos show Tim Kasser discussing social psychology research and its connection to shifting to sustainable behaviors.

Video from IIT Sustainability, 2014
Video from Andrews University, 2015


March 7–14th Spring Break/Doctoral Workshops


March 14, Monday: Part One: Social Practice Theory, Part 2: Case Study Assignment

Transition Designers have a deep understanding of the dynamics of change within complex social systems. Social Practice Theory looks at constellations of devices, skills and meanings that form slow-moving habits and habitats. Practice Theory informed design involves immersive ethnographies of everyday life to identify innovation opportunities in existing practices in order to design multiple interventions that can help them coalesce into new conventions.

Key Questions: • Why are social practices considered inertial? • How can designers leverage an understanding of social practices in developing transition solutions? • What kinds of practices should ethnographers of everyday life explore as points of design intervention? • What is the relationship between social practices and the satisfaction of needs? • How are social practices related to user-centered design?

Class Lecture: Social Practice Theory: the convergence of trends in Social Research and Interaction Design.

In Class Exercise: 1) Mapping a Social Practice’s product ecology, timespace, teleoaffective qualities and adjacent practices? 2) Stories of the Rise and Fall of Practices in a) Society, b) Personal Life.

Required Reading:

  1. Scott, Kakee et al. 2011. Designing Change by Living Change. Design Studies 33 (3): 279–297. Also request online:
  2. Strengers, Yolande. 2010. Conceptualizing Everyday Practices: Composition, Reproduction and Change. Melbourne: Centre for Design, RMIT University and University of South Australia. pp 3–18. Available online:

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Hargreaves, Tom et al. 2012. Understanding Sustainability Innovations: Points of Intersection Between the Multi-Level Perspective and Social Practice Theory. Norwich: UEA Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group. pp 3–20. Available online:
  2. Shove, Elizabeth. 2010. Beyond the ABC: Climate Change Policy and Theories of Social Change. Environment and Planning, 42 (6): 1273–1285. Available online:

Discussion Leaders for this Class: Kakee Scott & Shruti Chowdhury

Supplemental Material: The first video is of Dr. Stanley Blue from Bristol University explaining what a social practice is and why studying how changes occur is important. The last video show Elizabeth Shove of Lancaster University, UK discussing the relationship of Social Practice Theory to Design.

Video from The School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, UK, 2015
Video from Fondazione Giannino Bassetti, The 5th STS Italia Conference, 2014

Part 2: Assignment #2: Developing a Transition Design Case Study

ASSIGNMENT #2 Due at the end of the semester: An important skill set of Transition Designers is to identify and critique existing solutions within the context of Transition Design and reframe them as steps within larger ‘transitions’. Building a database of projects in order to identify the characteristics of transition designs/initiatives will be an important in creating a Transition Design pedagogy and process.

We have developed a two part Transition Design Case Study Template (below) that will serve as the basis for your final capstone project. Step One is a critique of an existing project or initiative to which you will apply several ‘filters’ in order to ascertain whether or not the project could become the basis for a Transition Design solution. Part two of the case study asks you to envision a solution applying the principles of Transition Design.

In Class Exercise: We will break you into groups of 3–4 and then ask you to discuss possible project topics or areas for exploration. Begin to map a timeline for the project (presentations will be April 20 and 25th) as well as a division of duties. We are assigning this early in the semester to ensure that you have adequate time to find an appropriate existing project, applying what you are learning through the semester and envision/design a transition solution connected to it.

Reference for working on the assignment: Please visit the following two websites to familiarize yourself with the concept of case studies:

  1. DESIS:
  2. UK Design Council:

Case Study Templates: Two templates have been developed for the case study. You may recreate them in another program if it is easier for you to work with, but try to maintain the same layout and text as these. The link below will take you to the Word templates.


March 16, Wednesday: THEORIES OF CHANGE: Alternative Economics

The transition to a cosmopolitan localist society will require the development of a new kind of equitable and integrated economic system in which most needs can be satisfied locally, while some remain reliant on global networks. Many grassroots groups have advocated organizing economies along these lines e.g. the Transition Town Movement, the New Economics Foundation, advocates of the Circular Economy, various sharing and P2P networks and ‘alternative economics’ theorists. In recent years new networking technologies and flexible manufacturing systems have made ‘cosmopolitan localist’ economies a much stronger possibility and Transition Design can play an important role in helping to facilitate their emergence.

Key Questions: • In what ways is our current/dominant economic paradigm unsustainable? • What is the difference between self-reliance and self-sufficiency and which is preferable in a cosmopolitan local society? • How can we use the Domains of Everyday Life to define ‘local’ in a cosmopolitan localist community? • In what ways would cosmopolitan localist communities be more collaborative and why? • In what ways might needs (at various levels of scale) be satisfied more effectively? • In what ways do new technologies have an important role to play in developing new kinds of economies? • What are the different types of networks on which cosmopolitan localist economies will depend?

Class Lecture: TBD

In Class Exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Hopkins, Rob. 2008. The Transition Concept. From The Transition Town Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company. pp 134–136
  2. Ellen McArthur Foundation. 2013. Executive Summary. From Toward the Circular Economy: Opportunities for the Consumer Goods Sector. Cowes: Ellen MacArthur Foundation. pp 2–8. Available online:
  3. Shirky, Clay. 2008. Extracts from Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin. Extracts from pp 21–106 (approx. 15 pgs. seminar participants will be sent a compiled pdf)
  4. Benkler, Yochai. 2007. Peer Production and Sharing. From The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp 59–63

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Jones, Van. 2008. Reality Check. From The Green Collar Economy. New York: Harper One. pp 9–17
  2. Tapscott, Don and Anthony D. Williams. 2010. Wikinomics: The Art and Science of Peer Production. From Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. London: Atlantic Books. pp 10–30

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Hannah Rosenfeld & Min Kim & Catherine Oldershaw

Homework for Next Class: Before the next class begin to think about a complex problem that you might use as the basis for developing or applying a Theory of Change in order to solve. Bring your ideas to class and you will discuss these in your group and select one for the basis of an in-class exercise.

Supplemental Materials: Videos below provide an overview of capitalism (our existing economic paradigm that many argue is inherently unsustainable) and provide an overview of concepts such as ‘The Circular Economy’, how social media networking/sharing is opening up possibilities for alternative economies and modes of sharing,

Video from, 2014
Video from The School of Life, 2015
Video by Daniel Binns for the Ellen McArthur Foundation, circa 2013
Video from RSA, UK 2011

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody talks about the disruptive power of collaboration.

Video from McKinsey & Co., 2014

Business strategist Don Tapscott outlines ways in businesses specifically and the economy in general need to transform in a 21st century networked global society.

Video from Don Tapscott Group, 2014

Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler discusses the challenges of the shared and ‘on-demand’ economy.

Video from the World Economic Forum, 2015

Venture capitalist partner Peter Dempster talks about the new paradigm of the ‘collaborative consumption’ and its disruptive effect upon existing economic models/paradigms.

Video from VLab Videos, 2013

Rob Hopkins, founder of the international Transition Town Network movement, discusses the transition to a green economy.

Video from Transition Bournemouth, Bournemouth University, 2015

Anne Leonard lays out strategies for changing the unsustainable economic paradigm that we are embedded within:


March 21, Monday: THEORIES OF CHANGE: How to Build a Theory of Change

You have now been exposed to a wide variety of ‘theories of change’ and discussed how they can be leveraged to seed/catalyze change in social systems. This class will be devoted to the exercise below in which you propose or try to develop a theory of change.

In class exercise: Working in your group, and using the DIY Theory of Change Tool from the NESTA site (below) work in your project group to identify a problem and build a theory of change that can become the basis for a Transition Design solution. Groups should represent their theory of change within the TOC tool/matrix and supplement it with other diagrams/visuals if needed. Presentations will be made at the end of class and the results should be uploaded to your Medium site with additional reflection and supplemental material.

Required Reading: Prior to class, review the website from The National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts in the UK (NESTA) has developed a useful tool for building a theory of change when planning a project or initiative. This will be the basis for the in class exercise.

Supplemental Material: The video below discusses how to create a theory of change.

Vido by NESTA, UK


March 23, Wednesday: MINDSET/POSTURE: The Mechanistic Worldview

Fritjof Capra’s film MindWalk introduces the section on mindset and posture. The film outlines the characteristics of the mechanistic worldview and its implication in many of the problems confronting us today. It also lays out the premise for a new understanding of the the world and the complex interconnected/interdependent dynamics that underpin it. We will view Mindwalk as a class and the discussion leaders will lead a brief discussion/critique before moving on to the topic for the March 23rd session.

Key Questions: • What are the essential differences between the mechanistic/reductionist and holistic/systemic worldviews? • In what ways can it be said that many of our global problems have their roots in an outdated worldview? • How does the dominant/mechanistic worldview influence the way designers, see and solve problems? • How would a shift to a more systems-oriented, holistic, ecological worldview underpin a more sustainable way of designing? • What are examples of design solutions that have arisen out of a mechanistic worldview? • What are examples of design solutions that have arisen out of a holistic worldview? • How is a reductionist worldview related to Max-Neef’s theory of needs? • In what ways might a reductionist worldview be at odds with the concept of a cosmopolitan localist society?

Required Reading:

  1. Drengson, Alan. 1995. Shifting Paradigms: From Technocrat to Planetary Person. In Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue (eds) The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. pp 85–97
  2. Mathews, Freya. 2013. Post-Materialism. In Stuart Walker and Jaques Giard (eds) The Handbook of Design for Sustainability. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 27–42

Supplemental Material: In an interview, physicist and environmentalist Fritjof Capra talks about the characteristics of the mechanistic worldview in contrast to a new, more holistic and ecological worldview.

Video from Thinking Aloud TV, 2010


March 28, Monday: MINDSET/POSTURE: Design & the Mechanistic Worldview

Since the scientific revolution of the 17th century the dominant, western worldview or ‘way of knowing’ has been characterized by a mechanistic/ reductionist approach to understanding, which entails a belief in predictability and control, values quantity over quality and views nature only as a resource for human consumption. This worldview influences every aspect our society, economy and culture and values and lies behind many of the wicked problems that we face today. Transition Designers should understand how design has been adversely affected by the mechanistic worldview, and how it implicates design in all of the above problems.

Key Questions: • What are examples of how design itself has been ‘McDonaldized’? • In what ways does design process favor ‘quantity’ over ‘quality’…or does it? • In what ways is design itself embedded within the dominant/unsustainable/mechanistic socio-economic paradigm? • How is design implicated in many of the wicked problems the authors of the readings discuss?

Class Lecture: The Characteristics of the mechanistic worldview and the way in which it has manifested in modern society. Overview of the McDonalization of Design

In Class Exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Ritzer, George. 2011. Extracts from The McDonaldization of Society 6. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. Extracts pp. 1–162 (approx 9 pages; seminar participants will be sent a compiled pdf)
  2. Fleming, David. 2013. Form Follows Worldview. In Design Education for a Sustainable Future. London: Routledge. pp. 1–8
  3. Ehrenfeld, John R. 2013. The Roots of Unsustainability. In Stuart Walker and Jaques Giard (eds) The Handbook of Design for Sustainability. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 15–26
  4. Mumford, Lewis. 1974. Enter Leviathan on Wheels. In The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine vol. 2. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. pp. 98–102
  5. Scott, James C. 1999. Conclusion. In Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 342–349
  6. Shiva, Vandana. 1999. Peace With Diversity. In Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Gabriola Island: South End Press. pp. 101–106

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Allison Huang & Ahmed Ansari & Kaylee White

Supplemental Material: The videos below (both humorous and serious) demonstrate different facets of mechanistic/reductionist thinking and the basis for George Ritzer’s concept of McDonaldization.

From: “I Love Lucy”, the episode in which Lucy and Ethel work in an overly mechanized chocolate factory
Video from Sociology Live!, 2015

Chipotle restaurants developed an advertising campaign based upon the concepts of the McDonaldization of Society. Are there inherent contradictions?

Video from Chipotle Mexican Grill, 2011

George Ritzer’s concept of the McDonaldization of Society was informed by the work of sociologist Max Webber who first demonstrated how the principles of rationalization had been applied to social organization, leading to overly bureaucratic forms of government.

Video from The School of Life, 2015

And now for something completely different:

John Cleese, “The Scientists”, 2008


March 30, Wednesday: MINDSET/POSTURE: The Ecological/Holistic Worldview

A new ecological/holistic worldview has begun to inform the theory and practice of many fields and disciplines. This new paradigm emphasizes empathy, relationship, participation and self organization, and calls for a mindset/ posture of openness, speculation, mindfulness and a willingness to collaborate. Together, these represent a new skill and value set — a new way of ‘being’ in the world — that the transition designer will need to embrace.

Key Questions: • How does this new mindset and posture contrast with the dominant one? • How does the mindset and posture of dominance, control and hierarchy manifest in design and design solutions? • What are the differences in value sets between the existing dominant paradigm and a new one based upon relationship and cooperation? • How would a new paradigm change design practice and process? • How do concepts of empathy and empathetic relations relate to user-centered design approaches? • Can a better understanding of empathy inform design process and research….how?

Class Lecture: The characteristics of an holistic/ecological worldview and the implications for design.

In Class Exercise: Newspaper and language of dominant mindset.

Required Reading:

  1. Capra, Fritjof. 1997. Deep Ecology: A New Paradigm. In The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books. pp. 3–13
  2. Rifkin, Jeremy. 2010. The Empathetic Civilization. An address before The British Royal Society for the Arts. Available online:
  3. Morin, Edgar and Kern, Anne Brigitte. 1999. Reform in Thinking. In Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium, New York: Hampton Press. pp. 123–132
  4. Speth, James Gustave. 2008. A New Consciousness. In The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp 199–216

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Goerner, S.J. 1999. Contrast in Scientific and Cultural Visions. In After the Clockwork Universe: The Emerging Science and Culture of Integral Society, Edinburgh: Floris. pp. 444–451

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Nurie Jeong & Sarah Foley & Tracy Potter

Supplemental Material: Ecologist and author Satish Kumar talks about a ‘new story’ for humanity, based upon a more ecological, holistic worldview.

Video from Findhorn New Story Community, 2014

Philosopher and author Roman Krznaric in this RSA video entitled The Power of Outtrospection argues that we can help drive social change by stepping outside ourselves, and that we need to learn “to expand our empathic imaginations forwards through time as well as across space”.

Video from the RSA, UK, 2012

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess developed the concept of Deep Ecology. In this film he talks about his connection with nature and the years he spent in hut on the mountain, Hallingskarvet.

Video by Rerun Boekel, 2009

Dr. Stephan Harding, ecologist/scientist, coordinator of the MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College and author of Animate Earth talks about science, intuition and Gaia and the characteristics of a new worldview. The interview takes place on the grounds of Schumacher College, an international center for ecological studies in Devon, UK.

Video from A Forest Garden Year, 2009

Celebrated scientist, environmentalist and futurist James Lovelock developed the idea of Gaia Theory in the 1960s. The theory proposes that the earth is a large, self-regulating organism that maintains conditions conducive to life.

Video from Naked Science, 2009

In this video, educator and physicist Arthur Zajonc and other physicists engage in a discussion with the Dalai Lama about the similarities between quantum mechanics, relativity theory and Buddhist thought.

Video from The Mind and Life Conference XXVI, 2013


April 4, Monday: MINDSET/POSTURE: Working With (and in) Systems

Within an ecological paradigm, designers themselves are part of an ecosystem. Yet, within this context they cannot impose their will on the system. Learning to work with the system’s inherent intelligence is key to creating any sustainable shift. Through the use of improvisation exercises and discussions, this class will focus on four key skills a transition designer needs to cultivate. They are 1) being present; 2) being open and accepting; 3) working with emergence and; 4) reflecting and learning. Wear comfortable clothes/flat shoes.

Key Questions: • Why do we say it is impossible to impose a solution upon a complex (social) system? • How can designers attune themselves to the inherent intelligence within a social system? • How does wearing flat shoes help you become a transition designer?

In Class Exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Issacs, William. 1999. Dialogue: Why We Think Alone and What We Can Do About It. In The Art of Thinking Together. New York: Doubleday. pp. 2–11
  2. Madson, Patricia Ryan. 2005. Make Mistakes Please. In Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. New York: Bell Tower. pp. 103–113
  3. Jenkins, John C. and Jenkins, Maureen R. 2006. Sense of Wonder: Maintaining the Capacity to be Surprised. In The 9 Disciplines of a Facilitator.: Leading Groups by Transforming Yourself. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 194–209.

Supplemental Material: TBD


April 6, Wednesday: MINDSET/POSTURE: Understanding Wholeness

Transition Designers need to learn to think, see, design and solve problems holistically (design contextually and for what Alexander has called ‘right-fit’). To do this, they must be able understand the relationships between parts and the wholes to which they belong, and the dynamics of these relationships over time. Goethe’s phenomenological approach to understanding the ‘wholeness’ of natural organisms is a key methodology in this process, and gives important insights into the meaning of ‘beauty’ and ‘form’.

Key Questions: • How does Goethe’s concept of the temporal aspect of wholeness relate to design and design process? • How is the concept of wabi sabi related to the Goethean understanding of wholeness • How does Goethe’s concept of ‘schooled’ (rigorous) imagination relate or differ from designers’ conceptualization processes? • How do ‘wholeness’, beauty and craft relate to design and transition? • How are the concepts of wholeness, slow knowledge and a holistic worldview related to each other and the concept of design for transition? • In what ways could a better understanding of Goethe’s ideas about wholeness aid in designing more responsibly and appropriately? • In what ways has our culture become immune to ugliness as John Lane argues?

Class Lecture: On Goethe’s ideas about wholeness, in particular the idea of temporal wholes.

In Class Exercise: TBD

Required Reading:

  1. Irwin, Terry and Baxter, Seaton. 2008. The Dynamical View of Natural Form. In C.A Brebbia (ed) Design and Nature IV. Southampton: Wessex Institute of Technology. pp. 129–138
  2. Lane, John. 2003. Timeless Beauty in the Arts and Everyday Life. Cambridge: UIT Cambridge. pp 15–20, 119–136
  3. Seamon, David. 2007. Christopher Alexander and a Phenomenology of Wholeness. Environmental Design Association, Sacramento: CA. pp 1–13. Available online:

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Hoffmann, Nigel. 2007. The Question of Method. From Goethe’s Science of Living Form: The Artistic Stages. Hillsdale: Adonis Books. pp 5–25
  2. Waddington, C.H. 1968. The Character of Biological Form. In Lancelot Law Whyte (ed) Aspects of Form. London: Lund Humphries. pp. 43–56

Discussion Leaders this Class: Julia Petrich & Maxine Zhou & Jiyoung Ko

Supplemental Material: The video below provides a brief overview of Goethe’s approach to understanding the wholeness of natural phenomena, such as color.

Video from Ama Bodie, 2015

In the Video below, Goethean scientist Craig Holdrege of The Nature Institute and Physicist/Educator Arthur Zajonc give an excellent and succinct description of Goethe’s approach to understanding wholeness and the importance of ‘slow’ and ‘deep’ perception.

Video posted to YouTube by Axel Ewald

The link below is to The Nature Institute a center founded in 1998 that is an international forum for research and education to revision science and technology. Several useful articles about the Goethean approach to understanding the wholeness of natural organisms and phenomena can be found here.

Janus Head, the journal of continental philosophy devoted an entire issue in 2005 to Goethean Science. This is an excellent resource for those wanting to understand more about Goethe’s phenomenological approach to understanding wholeness.

The Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi derives from Buddhist teaching and refers to an aesthetic, an appreciation of the beauty found in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Some characteristics include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and an appreciation of the integrity of natural objects. We believe this also relates to the concept of wholeness which is also inherently temporal.

Video from School of Life, 2015

John Lane’s book Timeless Beauty acknowledges the importance of beauty and argues that our modern culture has become immune to ugliness. An important text for designers in all areas of sub discipline:

The Architect Christopher Alexander has written extensively on his ideas about wholeness and design. In his early work, A Pattern Language he outlines aspects of wholeness and ‘life’ found in the things we design. Below is a brief interview in which he discusses these concepts.

Video from NPR, 2005

Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn also laid out the way in which buildings change over time in response to how they are used/lived in. His views are also relevant to understanding the concept of wholeness. In this video he calls ‘time’ the main architect of buildings.

Video from Stewart Brand and James Muncie, 1997

Physicist and philosopher David Bohm discusses wholeness and fragmentation, aspects of his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order.

Video from Krishnamurti and More, extract from Art Meets Science and Spirituality in a Changing Economy, 1990


April 11, Monday: NEW WAYS OF DESIGNING: Indigenous Design

Indigenous cultures lived and designed sustainably in place for generations. Their designs typically integrated functionality and beauty and were grounded in what James C. Scott in his book Seeing Like a State, describes metis, as a “wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence necessary in a constantly changing environment and situations”. Transition Designers will need to rediscover what it means to design in place, and develop a new form of ‘metis’ through deepening their knowledge and connection to their local environment with a regional and global exchange of technology and knowledge.

Key Questions: • What are examples of sustainable design from pre-industrial societies that might be relevant today? • What are examples of designs that would no longer make sense? • What does it mean to ‘design for place’? • In an era of mass production, is it possible/desirable to ‘design for place’? • How does Brand’s concept of ‘long horizons of time’ relate to the way indigenous people designed? • How does ‘design for place’ relate to the concepts of ‘needs satisfaction’ and the Domains of Everyday Life? • What new design skills will designing for place require? • How does designing for long horizons of time relate to the concept of worldview? • What role can new technology play in ‘place based’ design?

Class Lecture: The importance of understanding how indigenous people designed sustainably, ‘for place’.

Required Reading:

  1. Brown, Azby. 2013. Field and Forest: The Farmer from Kai Province. In Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle. pp. 19–42, 68–81
  2. Papanek, Victor. 1995. The Best Designers in the World? In The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 223–234
  3. Scott, James C. 1999. Metis: The Contours of Practical Knowledge. In Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 311–339
  4. Alexander, Christopher. 1974. The Unselfconscious and the Self Conscious Process. In Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 46–70.

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Ingold, Tim. 2011. On Weaving a Basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 339–348. Available online:

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Dixon Lo & Catherine Oldershaw

Supplemental Material: Azby Brown, author of Just Enough, discusses how environmental problems were solved in Edo (Tokyo) Japan (1603- 1868) through ecological design.

Video from International Society for Ecology and Culture, 2012

The design of the traditional Blackhouse in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland is an example of place-based design. The house was a residence for both animals and humans, built of local materials for local conditions.

Architect Kunle Adeyemi is designing structures on water in response to changing environmental conditions.

Video from The Louisiana Channel

The people of Cherrapunji, India have been ‘growing’ bridges across rivers for more than 500 years using the roots of trees:

Navajo master weaver Clara Sherman demonstrates the traditional way of carding wool and spinning it into yarn for weaving.

Video from Wolf Creek Productions, 2009

Djabugay Eldber Rhonda Brim talks about how she is carrying on the indigenous wisdom of basket weaving.

Video from Simpsonmarketing, 2013

The Mbuti pygmies of Congo’s Wildlife Reserve talk about their place-based way of life. Note the variety of ‘designed’ tools and artifacts that are a part of everyday life.

Video from The Tribal Trust Foundation

Bernard Rudofsky’s classic book Architecture without Architects offers many examples of design for place. The characteristics of these dwellings also have many of the characteristics of ‘wholeness’ mentioned previously in the seminar.


April 13, Wednesday: NEW WAYS OF DESIGNING: A Survey

In the last few decades many sustainable design methodologies/processes have emerged (eg. biomimicry, permaculture, cradle to cradle, LEED, lifecycle analysis etc.). Most recently a new area in which designers are working is policy design. Evolving out of service and user-centered/ participatory design approaches in which all stakeholders and constituents are involved in the design process, policy design helps define the a problem space, develop concepts and ideas for policy and articulate policy in tangible ways. Transition Designers access/use relevant aspects of these and other approaches to develop transition solutions at multiple levels of scale within short, mid-term and long horizons of time. From this inclusive perspective, many design processes can contribute to a Transition Design solution, particularly in the areas of service, social innovation and policy. New ways of designing, must be underpinned however with a more ecological/holistic worldview and place-based knowledge and ‘ecoliteracy’.

Key Questions: • What distinguishes transition design from other areas of design focus such as design for service and design for social innovation? • In what way can a service design or social innovation solution become a transition solution? • Is it possible to design for multiple levels of scale and longer horizons of time? • How can design projects and initiatives be framed and implemented so that they are ‘steps’ in longer transition solutions?

Class Lecture: Overview of the Winterhouse Social Design Matrix.

Required Reading:

  1. Shedroff, Nathan. 2009. What are the Approaches to Sustainability? in Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. New York: Rosenfeld Media. pp. 45–103 (skim only)
  2. Bason, Christian. 2014. The Frontiers of Design for Policy. In: Bason, Christian ed., Cooper, Rachel, series ed., Design forPolicy. Farnham (UK): Gower Publishing Limited. pp 225–235.
  3. Junginger, Sabine. 2014. Towards Policymaking as Designing: Policymaking Beyond Problem- solving and Decision-making. In: Bason, Christian ed., Cooper, Rachel, series ed., Design for Policy. Farnham (UK): Gower Publishing Limited. pp. 57–69
  4. Lockton, Dan. 2014. As We May Understand: A Constructionist Approach to ‘Behaviour Change’ and the Internet of Things. Medium article:
  5. Irwin, Terry, Gideon Kossoff and Cameron Tonkinwise. 2015. Transition Design: An Educational Framework for Advancing the Study and Design of Sustainable Transitions. Paper delivered at the International Sustainability Transitions Conference, University of Sussex, UK. p 8 Available online:

Supplemental Reading:

  1. Mellick, Abby Lopes. 2012. Designing Sustainable Sanitation: Involving Design in Innovative, Transdisciplinary Research. Design Studies 33: 298–317. Available online:
  2. Irwin, Terry et al. 2005. Design and Sustainability: A Scoping Report for the Sustainable Design Forum. London: Department for Environment, Food and Human Affairs. pp. 3–18. Available online:
  3. Bason, Christian. 2014. Introduction: The Design for Policy Nexus. In: Bason, Christian ed., Cooper, Rachel, series ed., Design forPolicy. Farnham (UK): Gower Publishing Limited. pp 1–7. Available online:
  4. Lockton, Dan. 2015. Let’s See What We Can Do: Designing Agency. Medium article:
  5. Fuad-Luke, Alastair. 2007. Re-defining the Purpose of (Sustainable) Design: Enter the Design Enablers, Catalysts in Co-design. In Jonathan Chapman and Nick Gant (eds) Designers, Visionaries, and Other Stories: A Collection of Sustainable Design Essays. London: Earthscan. pp. 19–47

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Calvin Ryu & Saumya Kharbanda

Supplemental Materials: An important new area for design and designers is Design for Policy. In this video from the UK Design Council, Dr. Andrea Siodmok, Head of Policy Lab for the UK Cabinet Office, Christian Bason, CEO of the Danish Design Center and other explain what Design for Policy is:

Video from The UK Design Council, 2014

In this video Andrea Siodmok of Policy Lab , UK provides more details about the approaches/processes of Design for Policy and the types of projects being worked on:

Video from RSA, UK, 2015

Educator and environmentalist David Orr discusses education, eco literacy, systems thinking during a class at Schumacher College.

Video from Schumacher College, 2011

Anne Leonard’s short video provides a good overview of what ‘closed loop’ cradle to cradle design is about and how it differs from current design/ production processes.

The Winterhouse Social Design Pathways Matrix is a useful tool for framing and critiquing design initiatives and understanding their scope and requisite skillsets.

The TED Talk Sustainable by Design Channel contains 12 relevant talks. The following 2 are particularly relevant to Transition Design: Product designer Eben Bayer discusses a recipe for a new class of organic packaging materials made from fungus/mushrooms. Rachel Armstrong discusses the design and development of architecture that grows and repairs itself, coupling with the environment.


April 18, Monday: NEW WAYS OF DESIGNING: From Service Design to Transition Design

Transformative Service Design: Part of the Transition late capitalist societies are undergoing concerns the shift from Industrial to Postindustrial Economies. The rise of Service Design is part of this Transition, whether those services concern Service Work (the less-skilled but nevertheless physical, emotional and aesthetic labor of retail, hospitality or domestic workers), Knowledge Work (expert professional services) or Information Systems (communication and information technologies and software), or Platform Dynamics (social media where the user is the product and the advertiser or data aggregator the customer). Because Service Design changes how people work, all Service Design involves Change Management. This is why Service Design plays a crucial role in Transition Design, and vice versa.

Key Questions: • What is the future of work? • How do Service Designers facilitate organization change? • In sustainable economies, what should be the mix between paid and unpaid labor? • How can design facilitate social embedded economic interactions?

In Class Exercise: Redesigning systems of Resourcing by changing the mix of ‘customers as employees and employees as customers.’

Required Reading:

  1. Sangiorgi, D. 2011. Transformative services and transformation design. International Journal of Design, 5(2), pp.29–40
  2. Cipolla, C. and Ezio Manzini. 2009. Relational services. Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 22(1), pp.45–50.
  3. Tonkinwise, Cameron. Medium. Transition Design as Post Industrial Interaction Design.

Supplemental Reading: Ahmed Ansari & Rachel Alberico

  1. Abrams, R. (Turnstone Consulting) Let’s Get to Work: an Inquiry into Technology and the Future of Work. Available online:
  2. Jegou, F. and Manzini, E., 2008. Collaborative services: Social innovation and design for sustainability. Available online:

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Rachel Alberico & Ahmed Ansari

Supplemental Material:



April 20, Wednesday: NEW WAYS OF DESIGNING: Characteristics of Transition Design

Although Transition Design is complementary to/borrows from a myriad of other design approaches, it is distinct in its emphasis on: 1) uses living systems theory as an approach to understanding/addressing wicked problems; 2) solutions that protect and restore both social and natural ecosystems; 3) everyday life/lifestyles as the most fundamental context for design; 4) place-based, globally networked solutions; 5) solutions that are designed for varying horizons of time and multiple levels of scale; 6) linking existing solutions so that that they become steps in a larger transition vision; 7) identifying emergent/grassroots solutions in order to amplify them; 8) basing solutions upon genuine ‘needs’ vs. wants/desires; 9) the designer’s own mindset/posture is seen as an essential component of the design process; 10) transition design calls for the reintegration and re-context-ualization of knowledge.

After the discussion we’ll use the session to answer questions about the case studies that will be presented on April 20, 25 and 27th.

Key Questions: •What do we mean by ‘amplifying’ grassroot efforts to become transition solutions? • What do we mean when we say that transition designers connect existing solutions to visions of transition? • How can a future vision inform connecting, amplifying and informing solutions in the present? • What type of transition solution could be undertaken by a single designer? • What type of solutions require larger teams and why?

Required Reading:

  1. Berry, Wendell. 2005. Solving for Pattern. In Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (eds.) Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp. 31–40
  2. Thackara, John. 2015. Commoning: From Social Money to the Art of Hosting and Knowing: From Ways of Seeing to Ways of Acting. In How to Thrive in the New Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today. New York: Thames and Hudson. pp 135–168
  3. Manzini, Ezio and Jegou, Francois. 2003. Introduction. In Sustainable Everyday: Scenarios of Urban Life. Milan: Edizioni Ambiente srl. pp. 13–19. Available online:
  4. Manzini, 2015. Design When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp 1–6, 203–204

Discussion Leaders for This Class: Ming Xing & Chris Donadio

Supplemental Material:

Designer, educator and environmentalist Ezio Manzini discusses his new book Design, When Everybody Designs that offers new approaches for designing more appropriately and sustainably.

Video from MICA Social Design, 2015

Journalist, environmentalist, author and design critic John Thackara gave a lecture on his new book “How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today”, hosted by Allan Chocinov and The Products of Design program at SVA, NYC, November 2015. In it, Thackara discusses a new kind of designing that will be necessary in the 21st century.

From a lecture at SVA, New York, November, 2015

………………………………………………………………………………………SECTION 3: TRANSITION SOLUTIONS


April 25, Monday: Group Presentations of Case Studies

Capstone project presentations: groups TBD


April 27, Wednesday: Group Presentations of Case Studies & Wrap up Discussion

Capstone project presentations: groups TBD and discussion/feedback for how to make the course more successful next time. We will also hand out a team evaluation form in which you will rate the people with whom you collaborated during the semester, either as discussion co-leaders or teammates in the two group assignments.




terry irwin

Professor & Head, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University