Design for System Innovations and Transitions

For more than a decade, it is known that sustainability is not a final goal but a journey; a journey that’ll require fundamental shifts and radical changes in our socio-technical and socio-ecological systems. The accumulated knowledge on managing system innovations and transitions is now used by governments and industry to navigate these complex, long-term, multi-dimensional structural changes. OECD has recently published a synthesis report on system innovations and framed system innovations and transitions not only as an innovation challenge but also as a “deeply political project” highlighting the need for shifting away from incremental innovations and pointing to the challenge of overcoming vested interests in doing so. The report also highlights the role of technology and business in processes of system innovations and transitions.

Of course the importance of making policies to enable and steer system innovations and transitions cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, since early days of system innovations and transitions discourse, although a lot of emphasis has been put on “niche innovators” as key actors, there has not been much work on how design and innovation decisions taken by these niche innovators can be aligned with long-term, large-scale systemic transformations. Maybe it has been taken for granted that once policies are put in place, this micro-level of the system would behave in favourable ways. When we look at the broad practice of design for sustainability though, it is hard to find evidence supporting this assumption; the majority of design practice is still engaged with incremental innovation and is dangerously techno-optimisic although system innovations and transitions require technological appropriateness (not “technology development” per se, but selection and implementation of technologies appropriate for the context) AND social change to take place simultaneously.

Design is no-doubt a future-oriented activity; many designers today would also claim being “change actors” for a “better world” without being able to articulate the politics of these claims (whose future? better for who? change by what means?). Purity of intentions aside, the 250 year long history of the profession created a professional culture which has predominantly been a servant of short-term commercial interests. Therefore, the future orientation of design is still short-term compared to the temporal frames that are subject to system innovations and transitions. To cut a much longer story short, design activity and design practitioners are key elements of endeavours to create systemic shifts towards sustainability and there is a need for developing theories and practical tools to reshape the culture (and practice) of design. Not an easy task by any means but one that has started to attract attention both in design theory/practice and in theories/practice of system innovations and transitions.

An article I co-authored with Prof. Han Brezet making an initial attempt to develop a conceptual framework that can inform development of practical tools and approaches for design and business community has been published in Journal of Cleaner Production and is free to access and download until December 8th. Comments, thoughts are welcome. This is “front end” of what’s emerging as a new field: design for system innovations and transitions.

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