ICS Seminar Series - Cameron Tonkinwise

Date: Thursday 20 April 2017
Time: 11.30am–1pm
Venue: EB.G.35, Western Sydney University, Parramatta South campus

Cameron Tonkinwise


Theory of Change: The Big and Little Sociotechnics of Transition Design


This presentation concerns the Theory of Transition Design. 

Transition Design is an attempt to develop principles, perspectives and processes by which designers could access greater agency, developing the capacity to effect large-scale societal changes over longer time frames in response to current complex social problems. What is particular about the approach is that it takes seriously the pervasive but distributed power of designers with respect to the way people habitually interact with human-scale products and environments. Designers can and do make use of the animistic forces of artefacts to effect lasting changes.

In addition to explaining the ambitions of Transition Design and some of the frameworks it attempts to mobilise, this presentation will also examine the wider theoretical context of which Transition Design is a part. Many disciplines have suffered a post-Theory turn. The critical theory project of what used to be called the hermeneutics of suspicion has often been replaced by instrumental talk of 'theories of change.' As one might expect of such pragmatism, 'theory' here refers more to models or even just recipes. Nevertheless, contrary to a certain prevalent post-politics or micro-politics, Transition Design is part of other attempts to reassert ambitions for bolder forms of praxis. Despite apparent dangers, the least of which is reproducing the hubris of modernist determinism, there is, this presentation will argue, much value to expecting that theories be able to articulate how they believe they are effecting change.


Cameron Tonkinwise is Professor of Design at UNSW Art and Design. He is a Design Studies scholar whose research focuses on clarifying the agency of design with respect to structural societal change toward more sustainable futures. He has a background in continental philosophy and continues to examine what the practice of research-led designing can learn from material culture studies and sociology of technology studies. Cameron has been a leader in advancing practice-based design research, publishing a range of epistemological defences as well as founding a practice-based design research doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon University, USA. He has long been a proponent of design-led change toward more sustainable futures – from his position as Executive Officer of the EcoDesign Foundation in the early 2000s to his position as Associate Dean Sustainability at Parsons the New School for Design in the early 2010s. Cameron's research has in the past focused on lowering our societies' unsustainable materials intensity by decoupling use and ownership – i.e., shifting from retail product-centred economies to service economies and sharing systems. Currently, his focus is Transition Design – resituating the practice of service and social design within strategies for multi-level, multi-phase structural change toward more sustainable futures. Cameron is the founding member of international network of Transition Design researchers and educators.