A former MSc student’s personal reflections on the Transition Design Symposium

The Transition Design Symposium at Dartington Hall was a resounding success. A wonderfully diverse group of practitioners, academics and cultural creatives gathered at Dartington, from June 17th to 19th, to explore the role of design in the societal transition towards sustainability and beyond.

Terry Irwin, herself a graduate of the MSc. in Holistic Science in 2003-04 and now the head of Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious School of Design, and Gideon Kossoff, who administered the Holistic Science Masters during its first 10 years, clearly sounded a note that attracted cultural change agents from all over the world to come together in exploration of change within and through design.

Over one hundred people gathered from as far away as Australia, Japan, India, Taiwan and Brazil to be part of what promises to turn into an impulse that will both transform design academia from within, and perhaps more importantly, help to inspire a new generation of design practitioners in service to the great transition humanity is called to make.

In the face of the converging crises of climate change, resource depletion, environmental degradation, and unacceptable economic inequality and suffering – particularly in the global South – designers everywhere are called to assume a deeper responsibility for the impacts of their work. Designers are finally stepping up to the challenge that David Orr so aptly described in The Nature of Design (link is external). We are challenged to “redesign the human presence on Earth.”

This task falls not just upon design professionals and academics, but asks all of us to become more aware of our co-creative agency and the way our actions and inactions contribute to bringing forth a word in conversation and by design. Ecological design pioneers John Todd (link is external) and Nancy Jack-Todd have told us for decades that “we are all designers”, called upon to co-create “elegant solutions carefully adapted to the uniqueness of place”.

With the outstanding leadership of Terry Irwin (link is external) at the internationally recognized Carnegie Mellon School of Design (link is external) taking these messages to the heart of the design profession, necessary changes within design academia will be greatly accelerated. Finally, designers are beginning to be educated to become active catalysts of transition. The transformative agency of design is beginning to transform design institutions, design as a discipline, and the way design impacts society at large.

Following Transition Design Up-stream

Together with the team from CMU, Schumacher College acted as a co-convener of the Transition Design Symposium – expertly co-organized by Ruth Potts and her colleagues of the MA in Ecological Design Thinking.

Yet Schumacher College had a much deeper influence on the genesis of Transition Design. The scientific and philosophical underpinnings that give Transition Design (link is external) its strength as a (r)evolutionary impulse are informed by many of the brilliant minds and hearts that have taught at Schumacher College over the last 25 years.

My personal epiphany of understanding the power and transformative agency of design occurred in 2002 when I was on the Masters in Holistic Science. Deeply inspired by Brian Goodwin, Stephan Harding, Henri Bortoft and Fritjof Capra, I was keen to see the coherent participatory worldview described by the holistic sciences put into action in society. During a short course with David Orr and John Todd and Nancy Jack-Todd I came to realize that ecological design was in fact the practice-end of holistic science.

In that moment I joined the large group of people who gained insights at Schumacher College that not only transformed their lives forever, but also enabled them to become more effective global-local agents of change. The effective alchemical cauldron that is Schumacher College has transformed so many people who have gone on to play their role in the great transition that is already unfolding within and through the more than 10,000 people fortunate enough to have had the privilege to be educated and transformed at this remarkable place.

I wrote my masters thesis, entitled ‘Exploring Participation (link is external)’, on holistic science and ecological design. It lead to Professor Seaton Baxter at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design (University of Dundee) finding me a scholarship and offering his deeply supportive mentorship to complete a PhD in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health (link is external)’ in 2006.

In subsequent years, both Terry Irwin and Gideon Kossoff undertook their PhD research with Seaton Baxter. Terry worked on developing the content for a Masters in Holistic Design Ecology, which was never implemented because she took up her post at CMU. Gideon’s 2011 doctoral thesis (link is external) can be regarded as the founding document of Transition Design.

The insights and scientific frameworks so expertly curated into the Masters in Holistic Science by Brian Goodwin and Stephan Harding, have deeply informed the roots of Transition Design and of my own work over the last 15 years. I hope that my recently published book, Designing Regenerative Cultures (link is external), will serve the growing Transition Design movement as a useful resource.

Sustainability is no longer enough. We have degenerated our planetary life support system for so long and at such a scale that to be only sustainable – what William McDonough calls “100% less bad” – does not suffice. We urgently need to transition towards a diversity of regenerative cultures elegantly adapted to the bio-cultural diversity of the places they inhabit.

The transition ahead challenges us to transform the human impact on Earth from our current degenerative practices to the widespread regeneration of healthy ecosystems, vibrant regional economies, and thriving local communities everywhere. This 90 second video (link is external) explains the transition from business as usual, to “green”, sustainable, restorative, reconciliatory and regenerative design.

The new masters and doctoral programmes (link is external) in Transition Design at Carnegie Mellon School of Design and Schumacher College’s MA in Ecological Design Thinking (link is external), headed by Seaton Baxter, are offering transition designers an opportunity to deepen in their thinking and their practice so they can be effective catalysts of transformative innovation. Holistic Science provides a theoretical framework that all  these programmes and my own work as an educator and consultant have in common. One could say that Transition Design is Holistic Science in action.

Living the Future Today – a historical gathering of global-local agents of change

I arrived at the Transition Design Symposium after two intensive days of work with the Dubai Futures Foundation working on the possible content for next year’s Museum of the Future exhibition.  During these days we explored shifting the proposed theme of the exhibition from floating cities and space stations to large-scale ecosystems regeneration, biomimetic design and technology, and green chemistry.

So it was surprisingly synchronistic for me that Andrew Simms opened the Transition Design Symposium by reminding us of the urgency of responding to the immanent dangers of run-away climate change and the fact that the closest Earth-like planet – Wolf 106 1C – is so distant to our fragile home planet that it would take us roughly 206,192 years to travel there. We best sort out our own behaviour on this planet rather than setting our eyes on new planets – turning into the locust of the known universe.

Terry Irwin’s opening remarks highlighted the importance of moving designers from “the design of posters and toasters to design as a driver of societal change.” This was echoed  by her colleague Cameron Tonkinwise, who called upon the academics present to “change design, so design becomes an agent of change.”

Ingrid Mulder’s, who works on participatory city making, offered an important reminder that in order to be successful in this project designers need to leave behind the hubris of being the shapers of the world that everyone else only inhabits. Designers have to shift into the role of facilitators of social transformation by enabling transdisciplinary dialogue and widespread citizens participation in the co-visioning and co-design of our collective future.

Tony Greenham – director of economy, enterprise and manufacturing at the RSA – warned everyone to accept the current economic system as an inevitable given and highlighted that “the economy is designed.” He argued that we need “more design thinking in economics” and have to regard the redesign of our economic and monetary systems “as a design challenge.”

Schumacher College’s wise elder Julie Richardson offered a deeply insightful reflection on her own life as a committed agent of positive change in economics and design.  In her personal explorations of the inner and outer dimensions of economics, she came to realize that we can “live in the future today” and affect transformative change by starting with the inner or personal transformation of reconnecting to ourselves, to our communities and to nature as a source of insight and strength.

The effervescence of writer and artist Lucy Neal´s infectious optimism as a (r)evolutionary design activist reminded us that “joy is a radical force” and that art, theater and collective non-violent direct action offer ways to stimulate the imagination of what we can do together in community. “Between what is possible and what is not, there is a field rich in possibilities.” Through theater and play we can enact the future we want in the presence and plant seeds of transformational change.

Tom Crompton of the Common Cause Foundation stressed the critical importance of both extrinsic and intrinsic values in driving the transition ahead and invited designers to make the values that inform their practice more explicit. Robin Murray of the Young Foundation cautioned the audience not to blindly follow the economists call for “scaling up” and rather replicate effective transition design by diffusion – spreading rather than scaling.

The final panel of the symposium, hosted by Terry Irwin, had a number of leading design academics reflect upon the limitations that the current economic system imposes on design schools.  The dialogue highlighted the importance of reaching out beyond established and respected institutions like CMU, the Royal College of Art, the Open University, or the RSA to create effective transdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder partnerships that transform these institutions, design education and society at large.

For design to unfold its transformative potential, design academics are called to aid their own institutions to transition to a new way of doing things. This will have to be achieved by driving change from within, as well as, through building bridges to N.G.O.s and civil society. Design academics are invited to step out of their institutions to bring the power of transition design thinking into business schools and to visionary leaders in industry, politics and civil society.

All of the well-chosen panelist brought important contributions to the nourishing dialogue of the Transition Design Symposium, and maybe – as is so often the case at such events – the most transformative conversation with lasting impacts happened in the coffee breaks and during the Open Space Technology sessions of the second day when 100 transition designers were given the opportunity to network and learn from each other, co-creating a whole that was more than the sum of its parts.

As the global community of transition designers continues to grow, the design brief for all of us is clear. It was succinctly stated by the holistic design science pioneer Buckminster Fuller when he challenged us:

“to make the World work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

Book: Designing Regenerative Cultures (link is external) is published by Triarchy Press, 2016.

Article originally published in the Schumacher College Website.

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