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Understand the system; innovate in small but radical steps; be diverse and flexible; co-create; engage and support change agents, facilitate social and institutional learning. Transferable lessons from a deep dive into Transition Design.

“Our communities are separated into silos; they are a collection of institutions and programs operating near one another but not overlapping or touching. This is important to understand because it is this dividedness that makes it so difficult to create a more positive or alternative future — especially in a culture that is much more interested in individuality and independence than in interdependence. The work is to overcome this fragmentation.”― Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

Yesterday I wrote about the different kinds of change models Catalyst has and will draw inspiration from and today I’m looking deeper into another one — Transition Design.

A lot of the work the International Futures Forum does is based on transition work — from one horizon to another — and I’d recommend their book, Transformative Innovation. Transformation Design is also what Hilary Cottam and Jennie Winhall were writing about back in 2005 and in 2015 Carnegie Mellon launched their new school of Transition Design. So whilst Transition Design is not new, it wasn’t until this year, after Skype’s with Tessa and a visit to see Julia Wittmayer at DRIFT (Dutch Research Institute For Transitions) in Rotterdam in June, that I really understood the history of its academic roots and how widely it is being used in practical work around the world.

What is Transition Design?

Transition design is most suited to “Complex, long-term and ‘unknown unknowns.” The context(s) where Transition Design is most likely to be used include where there are multiple causes and consequences for the scale of change needed, challenges are all intertwined and the change needed will be at multiple scales and by galvanising multiple sectors.

What is a transition?

“Transition = Fundamental change in structure, culture and practices on a systems level in order to reach a more sustainable system (from… to…).”

And usually, what is included in each of these areas of transition are the following —

  • Structure — institutional setting, economic structure, physical structures
  • Culture — shared norms, values, ideals and paradigms
  • Practices — daily routines, rules, behaviours

The characteristics of Transition Design include the following —

  • Transitions take at least 1–2 generations (20–50 years)
  • They involve a radical and structural shift
  • They create change at a system level (region, sector, city)
  • They involve a high degree of complexity and uncertainty

DRIFT also emphasise that Transition Design is not a rigid model — “One of the most central conceptualisations in transition research is the multi-level perspective and at the core of transition theory is this idea that long-term processes of fundamental change occur as a result of a particular interaction between these levels.”

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This shows a “Multi-level perspective” for an energy transition.
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The Transition Approach

The transition approach proposes six principles for influencing transitions:

“ — Get an insight into the system: The complexity of the challenges has to be fully acknowledged. It is essential to understand the dynamics and interlinkages of multiple domains, actors, and scales. This can be done by thoroughly examining the existing situation, as well as by questioning assumptions, problem perceptions, and dominant solutions.

Aim for system innovation in small but radical steps: Recognise the difference between system optimisation and system innovation. The latter requires taking small but radical steps, guided by a long-term perspective, which can be acquired by questioning mindsets and being open to unorthodox ideas and actions.

Give room to diversity and flexibility. The future can neither be predicted nor planned. Options should therefore be kept open by exploring multiple pathways when working on strategies and actions.

— Co-create: No single actor can address complex challenges on their own. A variety of people and organisations make decisions that influence the future on a daily basis. It is important to engage multiple stakeholders beyond simply providing input — everyone can be considered a decision maker, contributing their positions and perspectives.

— Give room to change agents: Achieving ambitious targets is difficult when vested interests and positions are taken as a starting point. Therefore, actors who are already adopting new or alternative ways of thinking and doing (change agents) should be found, as they can be influential in mediating and triggering transitions. They should be actively engaged and supported with the resources and opportunities needed to realise innovations.

— Facilitate social and institutional learning: Learning is essential for societal change. Opening up to actors with different backgrounds provides better insights into the challenges of and opportunities for change. The aim is short-term action aligned with a long-term vision to learn about new practices and current constraints. Learning processes should be supported by providing time for reflection and creating a setting that supports mutual trust and openness.”

I think the most important point in that list is —

Recognise the difference between system optimisation and system innovation.

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The Process at a glance.
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The 6 principles are operationalised in four types of interventions: orienting, agenda-setting, activating and reflecting (see the image above) —

  • Orienting includes analysing and positioning oneself, and other societal actors in the past, present and future. “This includes building analytical capacity for transitions.”
  • Agenda-setting includes broadening the network and creating a shared sense of ownership and ambition for a sustainable future, and in a way that the whole network can integrate it with their own agendas and practices — “This includes building networking capacity for transitions.”
  • Activating includes putting the shared direction into action through setting up projects and learning from them — “Doing so sharpens the orientation and enhances action.”
  • Reflecting includes fostering a culture of reflexivity and learning and includes — “learning-by-doing and doing-by-learning, learning from others, and from one’s own experiments.”

The table below broadly outlines the process structure, distinguishing between seven (partly overlapping) phases that can guide the implementation of the process —

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Zooming in on parts of the process

There is a lot to read on Transition Design, so I have pulled out some aspects of the practice that I find especially interesting.

Guiding questions

The first are this set of guiding questions for the work, which I think are useful to ask in any large-scale change work — and in an ongoing way too — not just at the outset.

1.Where are we going?

2. Whose conception of change are we talking about?

3. Whose (un-)sustainability are we talking about?

4. Is there a radical break with the current structures, culture and practices of the status quo (regime)? Or are we reproducing or strengthening them?

5. Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?

6. Is this development desirable?

7. What, if anything, should we do about it?


This is a method to collectively create pathways to an envisioned future — taking the future as a starting point and going step-by-step back in time. To develop transition pathways it’s essential to start from the envisioned future to be able to imagine future-oriented strategies that go beyond business-as-usual-solutions and that are not constrained by vested interests.

Typical questions for the elaboration of pathways are —

What changes were needed to bring about the vision? (e.g. What has become normal in 2050 that was exceptional in 2010, and vice versa

What changed fundamentally in institutions, habits, techniques, infrastructures…?)

What were milestones starting from 2050 (e.g. in 2030, 2019, …)?

What corresponding interventions and actions were needed?

What drivers and stepping-stones have been supportive for realising these changes, and what barriers have been encountered?

Which actors were important for reaching these milestones?

The use of narrative

The sense of direction is expressed in the transition narrative, but the process of creating this narrative is as important.

What I especially love about this part of the process is the recognition of how important strategic narrative is — or in this case a transition narrative.

The transition agenda — however elaborated and full of good ideas — remains a temporary snapshot; it can always be rewritten, revised and improved. It encompasses a strategic perspective — a transition narrative — that can be used as an anchor point for new initiatives and policy and as a means of attracting the engagement of others — of instigating new activities, networks and collaborations.

Through participating in this aspect of the process people learn to think in terms of long-term change dynamics and interaction between multiple domains and a shared problem or opportunity perception can create a sense of urgency and commitment, both individually and as a group.

Reconnecting long term and short term

Alongside the backcasting activity, there are also envisioning activities (which you can read more about in the links below) — but the challenge then is bridging the vision of the future with the present. The envisioning exercise enables the imagining of a sustainable future, the backcasting exercise helps the arena participants to imagine the achievability of such a future, and how. This is where transition experiments come in — developing transition experiments is a balancing act between radicality and feasibility. The projects should be ‘business as unusual’ and challenging the status quo, and at the same time viable and visible.

Through these experiments participants can discern opportunities for themselves and their networks to contribute to reaching the desired future. The transition agenda thus serves as a compass for future strategies and actions.

The diagrams of Transition Design also remind me of the Berkana Two Loop model that I’ve written about before.

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It can sound complicated, especially with images that look like the above, and with all the different steps and principles, but there are some easy to follow slides here and a report with really practical examples in here — where Transition Design has been applied in places like Ghent and Aberdeen!

For this blog post I primarily drew on the work of DRIFT but I would recommend the other practitioners of Transition Design that I mentioned at the beginning of the post too. I love the quote below, from Carnegie Mellon’s Transition Design course.

“Transition designers are temporally aware and design for the ‘long now’. They draw on knowledge and wisdom from the past to conceive solutions in the present with future generations in mind. They study how large sociotechnical transitions have manifested throughout history and draw on the wisdom of pre-industrial indigenous societies who lived and designed sustainably in-place for generations . The transition to sustainable futures calls for new ways of designing that are based upon a deep understanding of how to design for change and transition within complex systems.” —

Lastly, if you are interested in Transition Design, The Point People are hosting an event on it in early October so watch this space for more information. Someone from DRIFT will be attending, and earlier in the day we will be doing a closed workshop for designers who want to explore their practice in relation to transition work.

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale