Transition Design: Seeding and Catalysing Systems-Level Change

"To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete "


20 – 29 June 2022


Terry Irwin and Gideon Kossoff, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University and Cameron Tonkinwise, University of Technology, Sydney, co-originators of Transition Design


Schumacher College, Dartington Trust, South Devon


£1,495.00 (or £150 deposit, with the outstanding balance payable at the booking deadline specifed below). Short Course bursaries are available – find out more here.
Course fees include field trips, materials, teaching sessions, and all vegetarian meals from supper on the day of your arrival through until the lunchtime before your departure, as well as simple, private accommodation with a shared bathroom.


9 May 2022

About this course

You never really change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete​ – Buckminster Fuller

Transition Design is an emerging approach to seeding and catalyzing positive, systems-level change, pioneered at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, USA and has been taken up in over 20 universities around the world.

Transition Design acknowledges that we are living in “transitional times” in which communities (and entire societies) must transition toward more sustainable, equitable and desirable long-term futures. It proposes that the tools and processes of design can be used not only by designers, but also by activists and practitioners from all walks of life. It argues for the development of ‘ecologies of solutions’ to complex, ‘wicked problems’ that solve for multiple issues simultaneously.

Transition Designers work to reconceive entire societal systems (energy, waste, food, transportation, shelter, health-care and education) and the policies through which these systems are managed (governance, legislation, finance) so that everyday life and lifestyles become not only more sustainable and equitable but also more convivial and fulfilling. Transition designers focus on the need for ​cosmopolitan localism​; co-created lifestyles that are diverse, place-based and regional, yet globally aware and interdependent, and symbiotic in their exchange of information, technology and culture. Transition Design uses a living systems approach to develop an understanding of the interconnectedness of social, economic, technological, political and natural systems to conceive solutions that leverage the power of interdependency and synergy.

This course will introduce the tools and concepts of Transition Design, providing participants with a transdisciplinary body of principles and practical approaches that are applicable in a wide range of circumstances by a variety of stakeholders, including communities and municipalities, NGOs, non-profits, businesses, funding and professional organizations, and educational and research organizations.

Participants will be introduced to a broad and diverse range of readings orienting them within the four interrelated areas of the Transition Design Framework: Vision; Theories of Change; Mindset and Posture; and New Ways of Designing:

1. MINDSET AND POSTURE: Living in and through transitional times requires new ways of ‘being’ and ‘knowing’ in the world.

Fundamental societal change is often the result of a shift in mindset or worldview. Transitioning t owards more sustainable futures calls for new, ‘ecological’ ways of ‘knowing’ and ‘being’ in the world: it calls for changes in the individual and collective values, assumptions, expectations, beliefs and norms that are inherent in our dominant socio-economic, technological and political paradigms.

Mindsets and postures often go unnoticed and unacknowledged but they profoundly influence w hat is identified as a problem, how it is framed (its context), which stakeholders are engaged and how it is solved. Transition Design asks us to examine our own value system — the role that our ways of ‘knowing’ and ‘being’ plays in addressing complex problems. It argues that sustainable solutions to these wicked problems are best conceived within a more holistic worldview and mindset, the shifting of which can inform more collaborative postures amongst diverse stakeholders and can be part of  intentional processes of self-reflection and change.

2. THEORIES OF CHANGE: Never in history has the need for change been more urgent. The transition to a sustainable society will involve systems-level, ongoing societal change.

Transition Design argues that the social, economic, political and technological systems upon which society depends must urgently transition toward more sustainable futures, but that seeding and catalyzing systems level change requires a deep understanding of the dynamics of change itself — how and why change happens within complex social and natural systems.

Transition Design is therefore concerned with theories of change and argues that: 1) a theory of change is always present, and yet rarely acknowledged, within any designed/planned course of action; 2) transition to sustainable futures requires sweeping change at every level of our society; and 3) conventional, outmoded and seemingly intuitive ideas about change lie at the root of many wicked problems. Transition Design asks what are the psychological, social, economic, political and technological factors within societal systems that cause them to either remain inert or allows them to change. It also asks how can such change be influenced and intentionally directed (designed) towards more desirable and sustainable futures.

3. VISION: The transition to a sustainable society requires a vision of where we want to go.

Transition Design proposes that radically new ideas and compelling visions of sustainable and convivial futures are needed. It argues that we need to develop the ability to think rigorously and creatively about our long-term futures, proposing the reconception of entire lifestyles and addressing quality of life issues within the context of the everyday. It seeks to cultivate ways of living in which fundamental needs are satisfied in integrated, place-based ways, fostering symbiotic relationships between communities, the ecosystems within which they are situated and the planet as a whole.

Transition Design works to create planetary networks of sustainable, place-based communities at all levels of scale (households, neighbourhoods, cities and regions) which exchange knowledge, skills, technology, resources and culture — a ‘cosmopolitan localist’ society. It argues for a plurality of inclusive and co-created, compelling but flexible visions of long-term futures that we want to occupy—how things could be. Such visions can offer imaginative critiques of, and help transcend differences in, the present; they can act as magnets that motivate us to action and become a roadmap for how to move towards our desired futures.

4. NEW WAYS OF DESIGNING: Systems level change will require ways of designing that are informed by new ‘Mindsets and Postures’, ‘Theories of Change’ and ‘Visions’

Transition Design is complementary to/borrows from a myriad of other design approaches, but is distinct in its emphasis on:

1. principles from living systems (self-organization, emergence, etc) as a way of u nderstanding the dynamics within complex systems and wicked problems
2. stakeholder involvement in mapping wicked problems; resolving stakeholder c onflicts and leveraging areas of alignment
3. developing compelling long-term future visions
4. framing problems and visions within radically large, spatio-temporal contexts
5. thinking in terms of ‘systems interventions’ instead of one-off solutions
6. conceiving interventions that protect and restore both social and natural ecosystems
7. viewing solution/intervention context for conceiving solutions/interventions
8. cosmopolitan localism, a place-based lifestyle that is global in its awareness and e xchange of information and technology
9. designing and implementing interventions at multiple levels of scale, over short, mid a nd long time horizons
10. identifying emergent/grassroots solutions and amplifying them
11. linking both new and existing solutions into ‘ecologies’ of interventions that become s teps in transitions toward desirable, sustainable futures
12. basing designed interventions upon genuine ‘needs’ vs. wants/desires
13. viewing the designer’s own mindset/posture as an essential component of the design process
14. reintegrating and re-contextualization the knowledge that is necessary for doing this work.

This course is for you if:

  • You are a transition/sustainability/social/community activist seeking to incorporate design thinking and practice into your work.
  • You are a professional designer of any kind seeking to extend your practice into social and environmental fields.
  • You are working in a specialist field other than design and would like to explore how transition design can support and supplement your work, and the contribution that your field can make to transition design.
  • You are a layperson interested in learning more about how to think about developing solutions to complex social and environmental problems.
  • You are an educator who would like to incorporate transition design and systems thinking into your curriculum.
  • You would like an overview of the emerging field of transition design.
  • You wish to meet, study and network with others who are interested in transition design, systems-thinking and related fields.

Course Details

Format: The morning is comprised of a brief period of reading* on your own followed by lectures and discussions on the concepts, methodology and practical application of Transition Design. The afternoons center around team-based work applying the ideas being explored through a series of exercises focused on a complex, place-based problem. Materials are provided for this studio-based work.

*participants will be provided with an extensive Transition Design Reader in PDF form prior to arrival. We recommend bringing a computer or tablet device on which daily readings can be accessed prior to class.

Themes: Course leaders will also discuss the origins, influences and inspiration of Transition Design which include: Transition Town Network, Sustainability Transitions Network, Socio-Technical

Transition Management and the Great Transition Initiative, among others. Other topics include cosmopolitan localism; the significance of living systems theory; the influence of worldview on design; everyday life as the fundamental context for transition; the theory of needs and satisfiers as a way of assessing the well-being of communities.

Skills: visioning/backcastcasting, contextual/systems-thinking, narrative and storytelling and visualizing/mapping wicked problems, ability to develop “ecologies” of synergistic solutions, emphasis on facilitation and collaboration in stakeholder groups.

Course objectives

The course aims to provide an overview and roadmap for further study for course participants and enable them to take key ideas and concepts back into their careers and communities.

For more detailed information on Transition Design, visit


Terry Irwin

Terry Irwin

School of Design, Director, Transition Design Institute: Carnegie Mellon University

Terry has been a designer for over 40 years and has taught design at the University level since 1986. She was a founding partner and creative director of the transdisciplinary design firm MetaDesign with offices in San Francisco, Berlin, London, and Zurich. There she directed projects for clients such as Apple Computer, Nissan Motors, Berlin Transport Authority, Audi, Ernst & Young, Sony and Samsung among others.

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Gideon Kossoff

Gideon Kossoff

Faculty, School of Design, Associate Director, Transition Design Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

Gideon Kossoff is a social ecologist/social theorist whose research focuses on holism and the tradition of anti-authoritarian social and political thinking. He currently teaches Transition Design courses to undergraduates, graduates and Phd students in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Cameron Tonkinwise

Cameron Tonkinwise

Professor, Director of the Design Innovation Research Centre, University of Technology, Sydney

Cameron has a background in philosophy and his doctoral dissertation concerned the educational philosophies of Martin Heidegger. He continues to research what designers can learn from philosophies of making, material culture studies and sociologies of technology. His primary area of research is sustainable design, focusing in particular on the design of systems that lower societal materials intensity, primarily by decoupling use and ownership - in other words, systems of shared use.

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Book now

*Courses are confirmed or cancelled based on the number of bookings approximately 6 weeks before the course start date. If the minimum number of bookings is achieved we confirm the course and sales continue. Courses are cancelled if uptake is below the minimum needed to run the course. Your deposit secures your place so please book early to avoid disappointment.

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