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Origins of the Transition Concept


The concept of transition is central to a variety of contemporary discourses and initiatives concerned with how change manifests and can be catalyzed and directed in complex systems. These discourses are found within academia, non-profit and community sectors but are often unrelated to each other or to the field of design. The concept of Transition Design acknowledges and draws from all of these approaches. It aspires to act as an integrative agent among them and educate a generation of designers qualified to work in transdisciplinary teams developing transition solutions. These approaches include:

Sociotechnical Transition Management Theory & Sustainability Transitions

Originating in Northern Europe within the academic fields of Innovation Management and Technology Assessment, these theories focus on how societal transitons happen. These approaches have been used as practical tools by the Dutch  Government to manage the radical transformation of the energy systems in the early 2000s. These theories represent the convergence of sustainable development research, technology forecasting, social ecological impact analysis and the fields of social history and construction of technology. They study the coevolution of technologies and their uses in order to conceive how innovations can be introduced into society to enable new ways of living and working (Elzen et al 2005; Geels 2010; Grin et al 2010)

Transition Town Network

Transition Towns was a community-based movement founded in Totnes, UK by Rob Hopkins in 2005. It has since grown into an international network of communities working to develop local resilience and autonomy and expand their capacity to respond and ‘bounce back’ from external perturbations such as economic downturns, climate change or disruptions to energy systems. Transition Towns develop local food and energy systems, alternative currencies and support the development of local businesses (Hopkins 2008).

The Great Transition Initiative

The Great Transition was a term first used in 1964 by the economist and systems theorist Kenneth Boulding. In 1995 the Global Scenario Group began to produce a series of reports identifying multiple future-based planetary scenarios and strategies for change that could lead to the ‘Great Transition’ (improved quality of life, reduced poverty and inequity, human solidarity, enriched cultures and protection of the biosphere). In 2003 the Tellus Institute lauched the Great Transition Initiative (GTI), an international network of more than 40 scholars and activists who seek to develop and mobilize a planet-wide citizens transition movement. The concept of the Great Transition has also been adopted by several leading think tanks such as the New Economics Foundation. (Raskin et al 2002).

Transitions in Complex Systems

‘Phase transition’ is a phenomenon that describes change within complex social and natural systems that are dynamic, non-linear, self-organizing and interdependent. The term refers to the unexpected sudden ‘emergent’ changes that can occur in systems when they are subjected to outside stresses or ‘perturbations’. These changes are self-directed and cannot be predicted or controlled, yet are the source of new order (forms) and types of behavior (Goodwin 1998; Briggs & Peat 1999; Capra 1997).