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Entanglement of Systemic Design and Sustainability Transitions

Feb 2024 | Books & Other Publications, Design for Planet, Design for Society, News & Notes, PhD Projects

PhD Thesis
University of Oslo  (uio.no)
Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences
Institute of Informatics, Sustainability Lab,  2024

The grand challenges of our time, such as Sustainability Transitions (ST) are non-linear, interdisciplinary and systemic. In such complex contexts, prescriptive or reductionist approaches are not sufficient in addressing the interconnected and emergent nature of societal transitions. This thesis argues the need for a systemic praxeology for designers engaged with ST, beyond the dominant attention given to method- and tool-development. This becomes critically important as designers and their designerly approaches are increasingly involved with systemic innovation. We now observe ambitious public-sector, and industry-wide innovation initiatives at the systems level, in which designers frequently take the role of facilitators and intermediaries. As such, systemic design practitioners must orient themselves in the vast landscape of transdisciplinary knowledge, while acknowledging the normative of transitions towards a long-term sustainable and just future.

This thesis investigates the entanglement of sustainability transitions and systemic design and to what extent current designerly practices reflect the transitions agenda by responding to two emergent trends: One observes a recruiting of designers and their approaches into the role of facilitators of complex, multi-actor initiatives with ambitions of systems change. Second, there is growing unrest within the ranks of such practitioners, questioning their capacity to engage with the grand challenges of our time. This thesis sets out to help orient systemic design practitioners engaging with sustainability transitions.

This topic was investigated through critical studies of existing practice and explorative studies into the broad theoretical base of transitions– unpacking key literature from knowledge fields such as sustainability, systems theory, design and innovation and mapping out their interrelations. A systems-oriented approach was adopted in both the structuring and synthesising of the research, incorporating multiple techniques described by the systems literature, demonstrating its propensity for dealing with the complexity of the subject matter.