Designing for Transition: Exploring Transition Design and User Experience Design in an Era of Ecological Crisis (part 1)

Last Monday I submitted my thesis which marked the culmination of my Masters in UX and Interaction Design at TU Dublin (exciting times!!!) It was my intention to use this space to post the progress of my research as it developed, but it turns out that trying to complete a thesis alone is fairly hectic! So instead, over the next couple of weeks, I will look back on some key moments.

I suppose you should know a little bit about my current thinking and my intentions for the thesis before I dive in…

In my opinion one of the most baffling phenomena in our current era is the lack of serious action in the face of some of our most pressing crises, for example, climate change and biodiversity loss. Reactions of anxiety, inertia, pessimism and feelings of helplessness are common but most often do not result in action. I wanted to examine these common responses, interrogate their bases and attempt to design a solution that could help combat anxiety and inertia and mobilise community action.

I come from a background in User Experience Design. It is considered to be best practice within the industry for designing solutions to meet business requirements and user needs and desires. However, I found this focus too narrow for what I wanted to achieve. UX doesn’t involve systems thinking beyond the service. Consequently, it simply does not have the tools to examine the root causes of problems such as anxiety and inertia. Furthermore, utilising Lean and Agile methodologies to address market speed, it fails the evaluate the longer term consequences of a product/service. It also fails to consider impacts on stakeholders outside the target user population; those who are stakeholders by virtue only of the unintended impacts the product or service has had on them. These include not only human stakeholders but also the natural environment which in reality underpins all economic activity.

A couple of months ago I came across Transition Design, an emerging design discipline that was developed to address such intractable problems as climate change and biodiversity loss that demand societal and infrastructural transformation. As such, it is necessarily systems oriented and aims to develop a deep understanding of the nature of such problems; their interconnections and interdependencies. In contrast to UX, TD works in slow cycles seeing single design interventions as part of a larger series that, over a long period of time, can achieve transition. It also considers all affected entities involved in that transition pathway, and the term ‘stakeholder’ is used rather than ‘user’ to reflect this. So, to cut a long story short, I set out to explore the possibilities of TD in the context of anthropogenic climate change in Ireland, as well as it’s potential relationship with UX.

I first mapped the problem of social inertia in the face of climate change considering the social, environmental, political, technological and economic issues that underpin it (see previous article This enabled me to gain a holistic understanding of the problem and to identify its root causes. Upon deep reflection I decided to focus my attention on biodiversity loss in urban areas and moved onto visioning exercises. TD asks practitioners to develop everyday, place-based and sustainable long-term visions; visions that address global problems within the context of everyday life and in ways that are adapted to and rooted in local place; and visions that find news ways to satisfy people’s needs that currently contribute to the problem. I strategically selected the following TD theories ‘Domains of Everyday Life’, ‘Cosmopolitan Localism’ and ‘Max-Neef Theory of Needs and Satisfiers’ to underpin the following TD methods: ‘Future Visioning’ ‘Snapshots from 2050’, ‘Backcasting’. I decided to create a vision of a biodiverse future in Marino, Dublin; my own local area.

Place-based, Lifestyle-based Future Visions: Biodiversity in Marino, 2050

Through the lens of everyday lifestyles, I considered a variety of interventions and ideas in Marino that directly and indirectly improve not only biodiversity, but quality of life for everyone. Transporting myself to a future without any limits or barriers encouraged me to dream boldly and to understand the future as plural, dynamic and open with many possibilities lying ahead. I now believe that without a culture that fosters public imagination, we won’t reach radical transformation.

Place-based, Lifestyle-based Future Visions: At Multiple Scales (Cosmopolitan Localism)

Having, articulated a place-based and lifestyle-based vision, I considered how interventions might be applied across multiple scales, from the individual to the international. For example, I imagined how knowledge would be shared on all scales. There would be strong networks between citizens and local authorities, there would be regional and national gatherings, and each year EU cities would enter into a biodiversity partnership.

Snapshot of Lifestyles in 2050: Marino, Dublin

I developed my vision further in ‘Snapshots from 2050’ by synthesising previous research, zooming in on a specific scale, and focusing attention on needs and satisfiers.

Backcasting: Interventions Towards Urban Biodiversity in Marino, Dublin

‘Backcasting’ is the process of articulating multiple interventions that would be necessary to reach the desired future by working backwards from the previously articulated end vision to the present day. Three contextual descriptions were written which guided the thought process; the end vision, present day cultural beliefs and attitudes which were informed by the problem map, and a vision for the midpoint of the transition which was informed by both the end vision and the present day. During this process, I paid particular attention on how worsening climate change and other societal challenges might impact the local community over the next 30 years, so, the vision for 2050 was revised accordingly. For example, the IPCC predicts that sea levels will rise up to at least 1 meter by 2100. Marino, being a low-lying area could be subject to flooding over the next 30 years.

I regarded 2035 as a turning point in the transition toward urban biodiversity. Interventions mapped from 2020 to 2035 are primarily related to improving infrastructure, while interventions mapped from 2035 are primarily related to improving quality of life. Placing interventions along a pathway forced me to consider how one intervention might be a catalyst for another. For example, in 2042 a new law is introduced that entitles each household to 10×10sq. meters of their own land. While the population in Dublin is predicted to grow significantly, all new housing developments are going to be predominately apartment builds so this will have a little impact on the levels of public green space. The new law is made possible by a previous intervention which will see old car parks repurposed into gardens. This is the direct consequence of a de- paving law and the introduction of a local community car sharing platform. The de-paving law entitles residents to suggest and apply for public areas to be de- paved in collaboration with the council. One of the benefits of de-paving is reducing the risk of flooding. This is the result of many people turning their old car parking spaces into park-lets, as they no longer own personal cars. The local community car sharing platform facilitates people without personal cars. Both the community car sharing platform and the introduction of park-lets are a direct result of high quality walking and cycling infrastructure complete in 2035, making it unnecessary to own a personal vehicle. This is one example of how I envision a path towards the 2050 vision.

‘Backcasting’ was an interesting way to think about the problem from a different perspective, on both macro and micro levels. It made me compare my ideal vision of 2050 to the current reality and a possible path to get there. Starting from the ideal point of view without any constraint and working backwards gave me a different perspective on the current challenges that we are facing, such as the worsening climate change and population growth and how they will effect local communities in specific ways. This helped me to discover and stay open to many potential interventions. Rather than problem solving solely for the present day, this process also forced me to problem solve for likely problems in the future.

Next week I will post about how I selected a specific intervention, the limitations of TD, how I used a selection of UX methodologies to enhance my TD approach and I will also introduce a new method that I developed which could be useful for TD practitioners.

If you’re interested in the project or in TD, please feel free to reach me here or on my Twitter @flynnflynner

UX and Transition Designer for social impact. Twitter: @flynnflynner Contact:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store