Transition Design draws upon multiple theories, streams of thought and movements from varied fields and disciplines:
Within the last few decades, scientists within the ecological and biological fields have proposed general principles for how all living systems work (Capra & Luisi 2014; Briggs & Peat 1999; Prigogine & Stengers 1994; Wheatley 2006). Instead of examining phenomena by attempting to break things down into components, living systems theory explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of the relationships betweeen organisms and their environments. Principles such as self-organization, emergence, resilience, symbiosis, holarchy and interdependence, among others, can serve as leverage points for initiating and catalyzing change within complex systems (Irwin 2011b).
Transition Design proposes that more radically new ideas and compelling visions of sustainable futures are needed. There are myriad approaches to developing future based narratives that come from the field of science fiction, narrative and storytelling, future-casting/futuring and speculative and critical design to name a few. Transition Design argues that design solutions in the present can be informed by longer-term visions of sustainable futures (Candy 2015; Dunne & Raby 2013; Porritt 2013; Manzini & Jegou 2003).
Indigenous pre-industrial societies lived sustainably in place for generations, informed by ‘slow knowledge’ that was place-based and embedded within local cultures (Orr 2004; Papanek 1995). Transition designers have much to learn from these approaches to designing and their symbiotic relationship with the natural environment.
Coined by German activist, author and educator Wolfgang Sachs, the term ‘cosmopolitan localism’ describes a place-based lifestyle in which solutions to global problems are designed for local circumstances and tailored to specific social and ecological contexts whilst being globally connected/networked in their exchange of information, technology and resources (Sachs 1999; Manzini 2009, 2012, 2013).
Everyday life is an important yet often overlooked context for understanding society and the forces which mold it (Lefebvre 1984, 1991; Highmore 2002; Gardiner 2000). Transition Design proposes that everyday life, and lifestyles, should be the primary context within which to design for sustainable futures and improved quality of life.
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 and outcomes are critical (Ravetz 2007).
Within the context of lifestyles and everyday life, understanding how people go about satisfying their needs is a key strategy for developing sustainable solutions. Manfred Max-Neef’s theory of ‘needs and satisfiers’ (1992) proposes that needs are finite and universal, but the ways in which people meet those needs are unique to their era, culture, geographic location, age and mindset. Transition Design argues that everyday life is more likely to be sustainable when communities are self-organizing and therefore in control of the satisfaction of their needs at multiple levels of scale: the household, the neighborhood, the city, the region etc.
Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, 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 and awareness, attitudes and values and behaviors and built environments. Heuristics from this work included ‘stages of change,’ ‘self-efficacy,’ ‘small steps lead to big steps,’ and ‘spill-over effect’ (Kasser 2011; Hargreaves et al 2012).
Social Practice theory looks at constellations of devices, skills, actions and meanings that form the slow-changing/inertial habits and habitats of everyday life. It designs immersive ethnographies to help identify opportunities for innovation in existing practices, and to facilitate the design of multiple interventions that can help create new, more sustainable forms of everyday life (Shove 2009, 2010).
The transition to sustainable futures will require the development of new kinds of equitable and integrated economic systems in which most needs can be satisfied locally while some remain reliant on global networks. Exploring alternative modes of exchange (outside the dominant economic paradigm) whose objective is the satisfaction of needs for everyone (as opposed to the generation of profit for a few) is an important cornerstone to developing transition solutions (Korten 1999, 2010; Douthwaite 1996; Mander 2012).
Living in and through transitional times requires a new way of ‘being’ in the world. Environmentalist and physicist Fritjof Capra has argued that the myriad problems confronting us in the 21st century are interconnected and interrelated and can be traced to a single root problem which is a ‘crisis in perception.’ He defines this crisis in perception as a mechanistic/reductionist worldview, inadequate for understanding the nature of complex systems. A shift to a more holistic/ecological worldview is one of the most powerful leverage points for transition to sustainable futures (Capra 1983; Capra & Luisi 2014; Clarke 2002; Toulmin 1990; Tarnas 2010; Meadows 2008).
Artist and poet Wolfgang von Goethe developed a phenomenological approach to understanding the ‘wholeness’ of natural organisms, particularly plants. This understanding focused on the temporal dynamics of growth, maturation and demise and looked at the symbiotic, holarchic relationship between part and whole. (Bortoft 1996, 2012; Amrine et al 1987; Hoffman 2007; Seamon and Zajonc 1998).