Uprooting Transition Design’s whiteness

Sprouting a greener branch of the design ecosystem

Transition Design is a practice conceived at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design in 2012. It’s an emerging design approach grounded in the proposition that we’re living through a transitional phase characterised by complex social, economic, and environmental challenges. Its central premise: design practice has an essential role in envisioning and giving rise to a more sustainable future.

Transition Design is positioned as a next-generation alternative to traditional design thinking. It’s a critique of traditional design thinking’s tendency to take a problem out of context and produce a single solution focused on today. Applied to highly uncertain and evolving challenges like climate change, traditional design thinking produces a billion-dollar sea wall protecting New York City from the next super storm of unknown magnitude — when what we really need is a way to invoke tangible, paradigm-shifting visions of a fossil-free future and quickly design ourselves there.

Transition design: beyond green?

If Transition Design is a promising approach for climate transition, could this design practice also catalyse change in other non-ecological systems that have stubbornly resisted transformation?

Education, like other social systems, reflects dominant cultural norms and paradigms. Schools on both sides of the Atlantic have suffered through one reform effort after another. Privatisation via academies and charter schools. High-stakes testing and accountability. We’ve been furiously tinkering around the edges. In spite of all this costly effort, the fundamental interaction between teacher, student, and content that creates the basis of learning — the instructional core — largely remains untouched.

Transition Design provides an organising framework, tools and participatory approach to support a shift from an education system designed for performance and efficiency (reflecting the dominant, growth-fuelled economic model) to one designed for wellbeing, sustainability and learning (better suited for the future).

Applied to education, transition design has the potential to completely reimagine the institution of schooling. Its launching point is a collective process of reframing the past and present by developing a shared understanding of a problem and designing interventions that help us reach a shared and desirable future.

Done with care and intention, this process can be powerful. Rob Hopkins, the Transition Towns founder, sparked an international movement from a simple but profound invitation to imagine life 10 years into the future. His work touches on building future visions for education. Provocative questions like “What if schools nurtured young imaginations?” trigger a deep longing for a tomorrow where schools are no longer designed for standardisation and achievement.

Transition Design accommodates a variety of tools and methodologies that are adapted to each context. This intentionally creates space for different disciplines and stakeholders. There’s scope to convene a wide range of voices and perspectives, from children to artists and business leaders in the design process.

Transition Design acknowledges that creating a new system requires engaging at the micro and macro levels, as well as with the infrastructure, institutions and markets that sit in between. System innovation comes from complementary developments at all three levels.

From whitewashed transitions

Transition Design deliberately surfaces stakeholder’s cultural norms, beliefs, and assumptions related to the problem in focus and tends to the conflicts that emerge. It embraces conflict as a generative force.

But unless it openly faces questions of representation, power, and affluence, the approach will reinforce racial and economic oppression. Irwin’s 2018 Emerging Design Transition Approach does not explicitly acknowledge race- or class-based power asymmetry and conflict, even though communities of colour and people living in poverty are more likely to be harmed by climate change.

The workshops featured in Irwin’s paper took place in Ojai, a city in one of California’s lucrative agricultural areas. Brown faces are visibly absent from workshop photos, even though 42,000 (mostly Latino) farmworkers are the low-wage backbone of this region’s industrial, water-guzzling agriculture. How do we make room for farmworkers’ perspectives in framing the issue of water shortage and designing climate-friendly futures for Ojai, even if they might challenge White and class privilege?

Like climate activism and the Transition movement, education has a race and class problem. In England and the United States school behaviour policies and exclusions disproportionately harm black and brown children. The rate of children in England leaving school without qualifications has increased since 2015, driven by a sharp increase in the number of children who receive free school meals dropping out of school early. In order to give rise to just solutions in education, Transition Design needs to explicitly build power to counteract design’s potential to marginalise.

In a 2021 podcast about the science fiction’s overwhelming whiteness, New York Times culture writer Jenna Wortham makes a broader point about who gets to design and be designed into the future, and the danger of reinforcing marginalisation when designing future visions:

If the popular imagination cannot imagine us millennia into the future, how the hell are they going to imagine sustainable futures for us in the right here and now and tomorrow?

The same principle applies to Transition Design.

Toward just transitions

So then, how do we design transitions for education and avoid the mistakes of the emerging Transition Design practice by attending to questions of power, representation and exclusion? Here are some green shoots to nurture:

Draw on the learning from pandemic-related school interruption. COVID-19 forced schools around the world to create entirely new operating models in a matter of weeks. Those that thrived during the pandemic made schools more human — they integrated real world and project-based learning, tailored learning to children’s personal experiences and interests, and made time for relationships and play. These strategies work for all learners, but have the power to engage children least served by institutionalised schooling. The pandemic showed us how a transition to a radically different education system could look and feel. We need to build connections among people who created these alternative spaces before the learning and momentum is lost.

Create the conditions for a new system to emerge. Start by articulating a shift in the purpose of the education system — from an industrial-era inclination towards performance and efficiency to a future-leaning one focused on wellbeing, justice and learning. Also develop tangible system-shifting solutions that demonstrate the emerging system’s new operating principles — such as longer, variable blocks of time for immersive learning, as well as permeable boundaries between school and world that invite the community in and bring learning out into community spaces, field sites, and online. Finally, grow communities of practice among the usual and “unusual” actors in the wider education ecosystem — making representation and inclusion a driving force for convening.

Design for organisational endings. In order for a system to transition to a better alternative, dismantle the old system and embrace organisational death as a natural part of the change. Reframing organisational endings creates a “sense of permission” and a willingness to accept that a dominant system is no longer working. As depicted in the Berkana Two Loops Model above, this mindset makes space for the Hospice Worker role whose purpose is to make closure possible. Perhaps we need more Hospice Workers sitting at the bedside of our declining education system, helping usher an ending for industrialised schooling’s outdated, harmful, and oppressive structures.

Design for restorative justice and liberating learning. Any efforts to design transitions for education systems should draw on the rich research and practice of radical educators. Long before design thinking was an accepted tool for changing social systems, there were teachers, researchers, and activists working to transform education and fulfil its liberating potential.

These researchers and practitioners have reimagined schools as spaces for radical healing, challenging how these institutions control and punish children. Radical educators have created space, routines, and structures for restorative practices that engage children in the trauma-informed work of building justice in schools.

Radical educators have gone against the grain, dedicating themselves to the countercultural work of fundamentally changing pedagogy and relationships among school actors. Learning becomes a practice of freedom — grassroots efforts take on the energy of a movement and evolve into large- scale policiesthat shift institutional power without being co-opted. Some of the most inspiring examples are not in Finland or Singapore, but in Mexico and Colombia.

As one of the newest design practices, Transition Design responds to shortcomings of predecessors that reinforce the status quo. It has the potential to usher in more sustainable systems, but must be humble enough to make room for more critical perspectives. Even if these perspectives challenge dominant (often White-centred) institutional structures that reinforce oppression and marginalisation.

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