Transition Design – Cameron Tonkinwise

Cameron Tonkinwise is a Professor of Design Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. He addresses transition to a more sustainable future. In this interview, Cameron knows design is powerful when collaborative and ongoing. He invites us to see that each permaculture site is part of a wider system. And imagineer our future.

Interview with Cameron Tonkinwise on Transition Design

Cameron says “Design is often seen as the Art and Science of creating mass-produced Goods. Which is definitely part of the problem. But the understanding of the way in which people and things relate, which is required to do that designing, is a very particular skill. And as I say, an art form that we now need to transition to more sustainable ways of being on the planet.

And in particular…between being able to shepherd natural beings into a productive relation with each other. Definitely there are things that can be learned from the natural world to develop the artificial.”

Transition via principles

“If we adopt the same kinds of principles as permaculture, then you begin to create very different humans, very different built environments and very different built environment and natural environment relations.

So, even though I spend all my time teaching designers to make artificial things, to make technological products, my primary purpose has been to make sure that that is not approached [simply] in terms of mass production efficiency and convenience. But thought about in a very relational way.

Is having the user design their own space a setback for permaculture?

Cameron answered “That’s an interesting provocation. Obviously, the history of design (outside of design) is normally thought of as strong-willed individuals working alone to come up with magical forms. That, then, are mass-produced and imposed upon the population, often through some kind of persuasive marketing etc.

Perth City Farm volunteers work station, always in anonymous design transition

Anonymous design

But, in fact, most of the objects that we rely on, and depend upon, in every everyday life are the product of what’s called Anonymous design. A lot of it is silent design by people who are not designers. And the designers who work well, work collaboratively. That collaboration is not only with other designers and others on the supply side. They are trying to convince other people to make available certain materials and techniques.

So, that’s a kind of collaboration. And not even a collaboration with the users. Definitely design now is a much more collaborative activity with the people who will [and this is a terrible way to put it] but I think it it it goes to the responsibility of a designer – who will suffer what it is that somebody else designs.

social permaculture elements
components of social permaculture design are set by the members and in constant transition

Co-Design for Transition

There’s a lot of emphasis on co-design these days and making sure that the the people who will have the lived experience of working with this thing, this environment, this communication, this platform that is created – have had input into it. So, it’s a very collaborative process in that way.

Designers are all the time collaborating with materials. The designer is trying to coax materials to hold in particular, reliable forms. Designers are crafts people. They spend a lot of time coming to understand different types of materials. Every material is alive in a way. So, even if you are alone making a garden you’re not alone. You are trying to coax and curate, or choreograph many different species, many different alive and inert so-called ‘inert’ systems to come into dynamic relation. And unfold over changing conditions of weather and season etc.

Designing at Different Scales

Design forces collaboration beyond the scale. For example, on thinking about shade trees as ways of beginning to respond to the coming climate in urban environments. If you’re going to coax a tree into maturity so it can provide some assistance with how we’re going to live in a heating Planet, you cannot do that alone. It’s not just between you and the tree. It’s also between you and the tree and the neighbours – what they’re doing you know the kind of flow of water across their property breezes, shading, being able to convince them to tolerate leaf drop [if it’s deciduous] all these kinds of things.

So, even when you garden, it is also a social interaction. It has a processes of collaborating upstream and downstream, and supply side and with with users and then with the materials themselves.”

Permaculture Principle to ‘Observe’

In Permaculture we build observation. This form awareness of those ‘non-verbal collaborators’ Cameron mentioned such as the landscape itself and the organisms. And then, when we use machines, we are aware that we are forcing the landscape and the plants to be mechanized or to respond to machinery.

Creative Transition Designers

Cameron continues: ‘the kind of person who becomes a designer is the kind of person who likes to solve problems. They like to be creative. And sometimes people criticize that. I don’t mind that. I quite like that we have some people out there who are happy to take on other people’s problems.

But one of the consequences is that is that the mentality is often “oh good! I’ve done that, I’ve done a project, I’ve fixed that that’s done, what’s next? Give me another problem.. here’s another problem I’m going to spend some time, okay, done, fixed! I made a solution it’s in the market people are using it” That’s it! “

Staying with the Challenge

Cameron goes further “Donna Haraway wrote a book recently about ‘Staying with the Trouble’. Designers do not like to stay with the trouble. They do not like to to suffer the consequences of their design. They do not like to as you say, ‘observe, observe, observe’ Not just before they make a move, but also after they make a move. And watch what happens as that thing is out there in the world.

Designers don’t tend to stay with a project they tend to have what I call ‘serial monogamy’. They do a project then, that one, now do another one, do another one. I think one of the things that designers need to learn is to recognize that the designing doesn’t stop once they’ve managed to come to a solution that a bunch of people have agreed to manufacture and sell. And then a bunch of other people have agreed to use. You need to stay with it.

We need to stop thinking about tree planting as a solution to climate change. [Instead], we need to think about trees maturing. It’s no good sticking a million trees in the ground if half of them die. You want to get a million trees beyond sapling. that should be the KPI for all these groups. And I think it’s the same thing with a designer.”

Bottle trees in Derby, Western Australia

Ongoing Design

A designer needs to not think ‘I managed to sell this product’ but to say “five to 10 years after people using this product, I will still be learning from them about what this thing could be. And I’m continuing to develop it’.

Now, this is in fact, the way digital designers have to think. A digital designer make something and literally watch the users – watching it in real time using it in real time and can make updates as we all hate. You wake up one morning and an app is a completely different configuration because some designer is staying with the trouble.

But product designers don’t do that. Fashion designers don’t do that. Even architect, spatial designers don’t tend to do that. Very few Architects, other than wanting to preserve their design exactly as is, are prepared to come back and help it modify and learn. As Stuart Brand once said, in his book ‘How Buildings Learn’ They don’t stay with their [design].

So, I think this idea that you are observing in order to see the processes unfold over time, to work out how you can then design with that flow – that is something that designers really need to learn. Most people think of design as having a frustratingly short time frame – that it it tends to be ‘what is the problem? rush to market, problem done and then don’t think about the disposal of that product in one year or 10 years. And it’s very rare for anybody to explicitly design anything deliberately to last more than a decade.

Shell etchings by patients at the old Derby Leprosarium

How do you design something to make sure it lasts a decade?

You can’t just do that by ruggedizing it and making it into a great big military thing. Because nobody’s going to use it. If I told you to make a coffee cup that’s going to be used every single day for possibly a 100 years, you can’t just make it this great big military beast. It has to be beautiful to use. That’s how you get people to use it. That means you have to design something that people are going to care for and hold. So the solution to this problem is something incredibly delicate. [That’s] the complete opposite. Something that really requires a whole system of care.

Long-Term Thinking

Transition design works on culture change. But also change over time. So, it’s not just one thing does the change. The designed changes “begin to connect up and over time. The culture shifts”. It has the potential to evolving from an “inherited, toxic ecosystem into something that could be more the basis of permaculture. It’s a series of interventions. It’s not like you can just go in one summer and there it’s all fixed from now on it’s ‘Perma’,

Design for long-term change via multiple interventional acts over decades .

Cameron Tonkinwise

Evolution of Positive Interventions

In Permaculture, we design and work for positive interventions in the landscape and in the community. To create a truly sustainable culture that the future generations would be more comfortable,

Cameron adds “I think this tension between sustainability is a permanent state and a sort of more meta understanding that sustainability. [It] is a set of relations that will be dynamic in their manifestation at [the] everyday level. That they are permanent at a meta level.

But, the actual experience is of continuing change. Sustainability is more about something being able to change so that all the entities in that system have some autonomy about the direction of change. Rather than this idea that that ‘we are suffering change’ and that we either ‘respond or die’…. ‘You just have to go with the markets – change!’…or…’You can’t predict the future!’… ‘be flexible be adaptable – you have to suffer change’… ‘change is inevitable!’ these are slogans in workplaces.

Sustainability Seeks Positive Interventions

It’s not that sustainability wants no change. It just wants versions of change that suggest ‘I can participate, make some decision, contribute to’. It’s a collective decision making or I have some autonomy with regard to how the change happens. And sustainability is the meta-framework that allows that ongoing change. Rather than being slammed by some catastrophic change which will destroy the ecosystem or a whole species or or life on a planet.”

Termite mounds at Litchfield National Park NT

Flexible, Organic, Permanence

Cameron Tonkinwise illustrates “Transition design is trying to empower people to have a vision for the future. [It’s] trying to make it again fashionable, or at least tolerable to fantasize that things could be better. And you’re allowed to,for as long as you can, convince other people ‘it would be better if we live that way’. Because that’s exactly what we’re told you can’t do right now, like ‘you can’t predict the future who knows could be fantastic could be terrible, just hang in there’. Nobody’s doing this kind of imagining anymore. If they do, they don’t great resources for doing it.

We have quite a crowded space of ideas they all just look like dystopian films or, you know, Black Mirror On television or or they tend to just look like some little agrarian fantasy from 19th century Europe and so we we just don’t have good ways of imagining what John Thackara  once called social fictions rather than science fictions.”

Contestant at 2023 SWAG Sydney Wearable Art Eco-Warrior

Learn to Dream Again

In order to achieve transition, Cameron urges us “to recover the capacity to imagine. And dream. Identify the preferable. It is much more interesting to imagine that we could design something. Not because it’s problematic now. But, because we just imagine what would be preferable. We imagine that there are other things that could be more desirable. And if you have that attractor, that kind of future attractor, that you’re trying to get towards, it’s continuous change.

It’s not going to be a one-off solution that’s going to get us there. It’s not a one-off transition. And as you work with people collaboratively on that vision and how to kind of get towards it the vision itself might modify as you go it becomes… It changes over time. You don’t have a fixed thing that you’re trying to get to.

Transition design solves the problem at hand in a way that also continues system change, seeds system change, connects to something somebody else is doing somewhere else, creates a platform that could enable change to begin. So, every problem is also an opportunity for getting out of the ‘business as usual’ and finding something different.

Designers have to be system observers and instead of just seeing a problem and thinking ‘oh great I’ve got something to do for the next six months. Let’s go solve that thing’ They’re thinking, okay I’m solving that, but I’m also mindful of this other polycrisis.”