Transition Design – thoughts

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Gideon Kossoff, in the event last Monday evening at UWS, was attempting to articulate a theoretical framework for transition design, design approaches intended to move towards resilient communities that can address peak oil and environmental, social, existential crisis. This is an important area for theoretical development as well as practical activity. I’m offering these observations from memory, so apologies for any mistakes or misunderstandings.

This project is understood to be undertaken in the context of current design theory, in particular ‘wicked problems’ and ‘user-centred design’. I have reservations about the current assumption that design, in whatever configuration, can solve all the world’s problems. It seems to me that we might offer an alternative argument along the lines that education could solve all the world’s problems. Ascribing solutions to any single discipline or practice is inherently problematic in itself. Graham Jeffrey has argued that any articulation of ‘design’ needs to have a parallel and complementary articulation around ‘performance’. This construction is likely to be more fruitful.

Kossoff framed the complex challenges that are interacting with each other, challenges that we are all familiar with – climate change, food security, existential crisis, pollution, peak oil, etc. At root he argued that, whilst the externalisation of environmental impacts may be one problem, another is the way in which our needs are met externally or within our homes, communities or regions. At the core of his argument is a critique of neo-liberal consumerism.

He set the stage for the idea of sustainability and resilience in terms of basic needs, but he defined these more broadly than work, housing and shopping. His definition included spiritual, creative, security, communality, etc.

Core to Kossoff’s theoretical framework is a developed understanding of holism which he unpacked in detail. Holism is nested and exists at the domestic, community, regional and city level, and there are historical examples of these, but holism at the global level remains something to be understood. He did differentiate between holism encompassing diversity and holism as uniformity (Nazism).

His idea of holism becomes operative when related to holistic therapies: he hinted at, but didn’t explore the role of intervention in holistic therapies – a subject that perhaps Aviva Rahmani is currently exploring in her work on Trigger Point Theory from an ecological perspective.

But the constant juxtaposition with modern and pre-modern, pre-industrial cultures, developing the contrast between mass production of bread with local production of bread, romanticised the pre-modern in ways that we know are deeply problematic.

Gavin Renwick’s work with the Dogrib in the Canadian North West Territories, in which he highlights the Elder’s rubric “strong like two people” is significantly richer and more provocative. The Elders are acknowledging the necessity of young people operating in the western culture, whilst also valuing and understanding traditional culture. This is a richer and more productive construction which does not romanticise the pre-modern, but rather values it for what if offers to life now. Renwick also highlights a correlated idea which is “being modern in your own language”, an idea which is strong in Scottish writing of the 20th Century including the likes of MacDiarmid and others.

Kossoff’s articulation lacked a strong practical articulation of ways that the ethical can be woven into the fabric of life – I’ve elsewhere talked about Eigg’s move to renewable energy and the importance of the ‘cut-outs’ built into the system ensuring that no one person can be greedy at the expense of others.

Finally in the discussion the issue of technology was raised. Our extensive dependence on digital devices is a problem for Kossoff’s construction of the ‘good life’. If holism is about the satisfaction of needs within nested structures, what is the role of the internet, mass communications, social networking, etc? I’m not sure I have an answer, but I was very struck by the argument made by James Wallbank of Access Space in Sheffield. He said that their organisation will offer anyone a free computer, but they have to come and learn to build it themselves. Buying a computer off the shelf is buying ignorance. Like the example of social justice embedded in the renewable energy system on Eigg, the example of Access Space is one which addresses resilience whilst also embedding learning and empowerment in the satisfaction of everyday needs.

I’d really like to revisit the conclusions that Kossoff offered as well at some point.

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