Post-cards to “the edge”: Towards Futures of Designing for Sustainability Transitions

Note: This post is a section from a recent article in the Transition Design special issue of Cuadernos journal. The whole article and other articles in this special issue is open access and can be found here.

Here I share my thoughts on how the transition design field could further develop as short notes, with a “postcard” synopsis to place on the table some comments and questions that need to be considered in the near future by theorists and practitioners of transition design.

Postcard I – Work in consortiums

A potential support for diffusion of transition design in practice could come from completion of some post-graduate projects undertaken in non-commercial, protected and educational set-up of universities. In this regard, current masters and PhD students whose projects are building on the early work cited in previous sections could act as positive versions of “trojan horses” in the organisations they encounter throughout their studies as well as those they may work for/with after completion of their studies. In fact, as transition design projects require generation of new knowledge through integration of a wide-array of both academic and non-academic expertise and, making of new policies through involvement of large networks of stakeholders, consortiums for applied research including academic, governmental, non-governmental and private organisations could be the only feasible operational model for initiating and running transition design projects. This brings to the front the question of what effective mechanisms there are and should further be developed for funding and governing the work of such consortiums.

Postcard II – Advocate and model open innovation through open networks of learning

There is a danger for transition design becoming the new “design thinking”; being reduced to a process model and commercially exploited by “post-it design consultancies” as yet another tool of incremental change rather than pushing the boundaries of mainstream socio-ecological-technical and socio-political practices and imaginaries. Such co-option would undermine the very essence and spirit of transition design. This is not because transition design is a homogeneous, static body of theory and practice. On the contrary, evolution is an inherent characteristic of any body of knowledge area, let it be theoretical or practical. But, because transition design promotes change that has directionality towards sustainable (and just) futures achieved through the reconception of entire lifestyles (Irwin, 2015a) as well as restructuring of entire systems of production and consumption (Ryan, 2008), any project labelled as a transition design project but which does not include a radical rethinking of institutional and organisational models, redesigning of socio-technical systems and reimagining of socio-ecological relations would result in transformative opportunities being lost. For this reason, transition design theory should be developed within open learning networks and any practice-relevant insight should be made publicly available immediately in usable format. Similarly, in commercial arrangements, practitioners should readily share transition design knowledge openly with their clients or in consortiums they work in. Their practice-relevant learnings generated within these arrangements about transition design processes should also be fed back into the body of open knowledge. The practitioners should only charge for their expertise and experience of initiating and co-ordinating transition design projects and not for the knowledge of theory and methods of transition design. This brings to the front the question of how such an open network of learning and the open knowledge pool could be organised, facilitated and governed.

Postcard III – Do not lose the sight of “the small” in a meta-theory

Loorbach (2007) argued that transitions theory is an inclusive, flexible meta-theory that could integrate existing models and theories. This could be considered true also for transition design theory and the practice of transition design. Ceschin and Gaziulusoy (2016), in their analysis of the historical evolution of DfS field, presented several approaches that fall under this umbrella field as a nested hierarchy, positioning design for system innovations and transitions at the uppermost layer. Although in their observation, the focus of DfS field has evolved from being technology-centred and insular to being human-centred and systemic, they urged the readers to avoid a conclusion that the higher levels in this hierarchy has replaced or should replace the approaches in the lower levels. They emphasised that the approaches are complementary rather than contrasting:

 “Therefore, each DfS approach should be acknowledged for its associated strengths and shortcomings, and should be utilised in conjunction with complementary approaches for any given project following a systemic analysis, because addressing sustainability challenges requires an integrated set of DfS approaches spanning various innovation levels. Approaches that fall under the Socio-technical Innovation Level demonstrate this requirement well. Design for System Innovations and Transitions focuses on transforming systems by actively encouraging development of long-term visions for completely new systems and linking these visions to activities and strategic decisions of design and innovation teams. Achieving these visions will require design and innovation teams to use a combination of the approaches in lower levels and use in development of new technologies, products and services (Level 1), new business models (Level 2), new social practices (Level 3) that can be part of the envisioned future systems.” (pp. 147-148)

It would also be interesting to investigate how some emerging DfS approaches – for example, design for conviviality (Lizarralle & Tyl, 2018), design for resilience (Baek, Meroni & Manzini, 2015), and design for co-habitation (Smith, Bardzell & Bardzell, 2017) could be supported by and contribute into the theory and practice of transition design. Both the established DfS approaches mentioned in Ceschin and Gaziulusoy (2016) and the emerging approaches mentioned in this paragraph are “small” approaches in the sense that their focus is either systemically narrow or thematically limited. Nevertheless, the former set can assist with achieving of visions at different systemic scales and the latter set can inform visions of new systems as new ways of designing.

Postcard IV – Expand theoretical foundations and discuss implications on practice of such expansion

The foundational theories that underlie early contributions in transition design cover complex adaptive systems theories, sustainability science, system innovations and transitions theories, social practice theory and environmental ethics. These are essential theories for informing futures of design practice that can play a role in sustainability transitions. Nevertheless, this emerging field can and should also learn from other theories that are currently informing design and penetrating its zone of comfort. For example, design in general should shake the dominance of human-centredness in theory and practice as it is a necessary foundation but too anthropocentric to lead design practice into the future on its own. Transition design should develop ways to give voice to voiceless both in its epistemology and methodology as the essential aim should cover creating just futures as well as sustainable ones. For this purpose, design in general and transition design specifically can learn from feminist theory, animal studies, post-humanist ethnography, political ecology and literature on decolonising methodology. Some of these literatures have been integrated into design though contributions of pioneering work in the recent years (for example, Avila, 2017; Jönsson & Lenskjold, 2014; Schalk, Kristiansson & Mazé, 2017; Tlastanova, 2017). There is urgency to further explore implications of these literatures in design and derive insights and lessons for development of transition design theory and practice.

Postcard V – Post-transition design: Prepare for “What if not?” and “What is after?” 

Transition design implicitly is a project of hope; a hope that is based on the assumption that society can achieve a major transformation towards sustainability in a timely manner and over a smooth path. Nevertheless, in the broader context of academic and public sustainability discourse, hope and despair go hand in hand. This is particularly amplified in regards to climate change. For example, on one hand, record renewable energy deployment was observed globally in 2016 (International Energy Agency, 2017). On the other hand, emission reduction targets that are required to reduce the risk of severe climate change are still not being met and the window to limit average global temperature rise between 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade compared to preindustrial levels is closing (Raftery et al., 2017, UNEP, 2017). The observable impacts of an already changed climate include migration of animal species to higher altitudes, shrinking glaciers, loss of sea ice, more intense heat waves and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. This calls for daring to ask the question: What if transitions do not happen timely or smoothly? Some transitions may happen faster than some others depending on contextual dynamics. In some cases, they may be induced by crises and in some other cases there may be systemic collapses. So, there is not a single type of transition and transition design expand its theoretical base as well as tools meant for practice by learning from several transitions typologies proposed (Berkhout, Smith & Stirling, 2004; de Haan & Rotmans, 2007; Smith, Stirling & Berkhout, 2005; Geels & Schot, 2007). Another question that comes to mind is what is after transitions, when new dynamic equilibriums start to emerge? What forms transition design can take in and how it can contribute into post-transition contexts?


Avila, M. (2017). Ecologizing, Decolonizing: An Artefactual Perspective. Paper presented at the NORDES 2017: Design + Power, Oslo.

Baek, J. S., Meroni, A., & Manzini, E. (2015). A socio-technical approach to design for community resilience: A framework for analysis and design goal forming. Design Studies, 40(Supplement C), 60-84. doi:

Berkhout, F., Smith, A., & Stirling, A. (2004). Socio-technical regimes and transition contexts. In B. Elzen, F. W. Geels, & K. Green (Eds.), System innovation and the transition to sustainability: theory, evidence and policy, (pp. 48-75). Cheltenham, UK ; Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Ceschin, F., & Gaziulusoy, I. (2016). Evolution of design for sustainability: From product design to design for system innovations and transitions. Design Studies, 47, 118-163. doi:

de Haan, H., & Rotmans, J. (2007). Pillars of change: a theoretical framework for transition models. Paper presented at the 7th International Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE), 5-8 June 2007, Leipzig, Germany.

Geels, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36(3), 399-417.

International Energy Agency. (2017). Renewables 2017: Analysis and Forecasts to 2022. International Energy Agency.

Irwin, T. (2015a). Transition Design: A Proposal for a New Area of Design Practice, Study, and Research. Design and Culture, 7(2), 229-246. doi:10.1080/17547075.2015.1051829

Jönsson, L., & Lenskjold, T. U. (2014). A Foray Into Not-Quite Companion Species: Design Experiments With Urban-Animals as Significant Others. Artifact, 3(2), 1-7.

Lizarralde, I., & Tyl, B. (2018). A framework for the integration of the conviviality concept in the design process. Journal of Cleaner Production.

Loorbach, D. (2007). Transition Management: New Mode of Governance for Sustainable Development. Utrecht, Netherlands: International Books.

Raftery, A. E., Zimmer, A., Frierson, D. M. W., Startz, R., & Liu, P. (2017). Less than 2°C warming by 2100 unlikely. Nature Climate Change, 7(9), 637-641. doi:10.1038/nclimate3352

Ryan, C. (2008). The Melbourne 2032 Project: Design visions as a mechanism for (sustainable) paradigm change. Paper presented at the Changing the Change: Design Visions and Proposals Conference, 10-12 July 2008, Turin, Italy.

Schalk, M., Kristiansson, T., & Mazé, R. (2017). Feminist futures of spatial practice: materialism, activism, dialogues, pedagogies, projections. Braunach: Spurbuchverlag.

Smith, N., Bardzell, S., & Bardzell, J. (2017). Designing for Cohabitation: Naturecultures, Hybrids, and Decentering the Human in Design. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Denver, Colorado, USA.

Smith, A., Stirling, A., & Berkhout, F. (2005). The governance of sustainable socio-technical transitions. Research Policy, 34(10), 1491-1510.

Tlostanova, M. (2017). On decolonizing design. Design Philosophy Papers, 15(1), 51-61. doi:10.1080/14487136.2017.1301017

UNEP. (2017). Emissions Gap Report 2017: A UN Environment Synthesis Report. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).