New Design Thinking
1. Design Science
Many of the ideas in this paper have their genesis in Buckminsters Fullers writings on design science. Fuller held that to in order to be comprehensive, problem solving should work from the whole towards the particular. The concept of design science that he promoted was an integration of disciplines. Design science is based on the idea that each individual within society will be better off when we address the needs of everyone. Fuller maintained we could provide for all, but it will take a concerted effort and initiative. He promoted the concept of 'the design initiative' which asks designers to obtain the most comprehensive perspective possible, determine what needs to be done and to set out to do it. Taking the design initiative means creating jobs that need to be done, not waiting for outside clients to create jobs (Burns et all 2006,18). It was Fuller's approach to systems, to a holistic appraisal of design problems and his encouragement of designers taking the initiative to proactively use their creativity to solve societal problems - that anticipates the pragmatic problem solving strategies in new design thinking.
2. Ecological Literacy
The first step in our endeavor to build sustainable communities must be to become ecologically literate, i.e. to understand of the principles of organization, common to all living systems, that ecosystems have evolved to sustain the web of life
This systemic understanding of life allows us to formulate a set of principles of organization that may be identified as the basic principles of ecology and used as guidelines for building sustainable human communities... Thus, ecological literacy, or ecoliteracy, must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels (Capra 2002, 201).
Ecological literacy is a powerful concept. It demands that we consider ecological systems and an awareness of how society operates within natural imperatives as an educational staple. This is a concept for patterning thoughts, organizing information and eventually behavior. It is a cognitive faculty that our educational systems have failed to instill. American educator David Orr describes this failure as a
sin of omission and commission. Not only are we failing to teach the basics about how the earth works, but we are in fact teaching a large amount of stuff that is simply wrong. By failing to include ecological perspectives in any number of subjects, students are taught that ecology is unimportant. (Orr 1992, 85)
Educators must address this issue with urgency. Ecological literacy is fundamental to support 'a rapid transition to a more restrained and elegant condition called sustainability' (Orr 2002, 79).
Ecological literacy creates a conceptual basis for integrated thinking about sustainability. Informed by ecological systems, researchers have created the tools to help designers grasp complex environmental information. Footprinting and life cycle analysis allow us to make assessments of the environmental impacts of a system, process or product. Perhaps the most powerful of all the new concepts (because it is the simplest) is the One Planet Living model (developed by WWF and BioRegional) that offers a clear vision of living within the planet's carrying capacity. One Planet Living presents a formidable challenge to a culture that currently lives off the resources of three planets (European average). Footprinting and One Planet Living are powerful conceptual tools that have the potential to clarify the meaning of 'sustainability'. The problem with the term 'sustainability' is that it has mutated beyond recognition to more than 70 different definitions (Wood 2007, 100). By developing tangible characterizations of the often mis-used term 'sustainability', footprinting tools provide indispensable mechanisms able to assess environmental impacts, thereby helping not only with the design of better products, but also providing mechanisms able to highlight misleading communications and greenwashing. Designers must embrace these tools and implement them across design disciplines with haste.
4. Transformation Design
The British Design Council's RED group has defined a new evolving discipline: transformation design. Transformation design is a radical revision of the role of design in society. While it creates a methodology for socially engaged design practice, it also challenges designers' traditional sphere of authorship, authority and influence. The key features in this new discipline as defined by the Red team are listed here (Cottam et all 2005, 20-21):
1 Defining and redefining the brief
2 Collaborating between disciplines
3 Employing participatory design techniques
4 Building capacity, not dependency
5 Designing beyond traditional solutions
6 Creating fundamental change
In their report, the RED team recognizes that transformation design cannot be done by designers alone, and that as non-designers now take up design roles - traditional designers are in an uncomfortable position. Philosophical and practical challenges facing designers encountered with transformational design are profound and will need to be addressed for the new process to be embraced widely by the design community. Meanwhile, the Transition movement can be seen as an active embodiment of transformation design by non-designers. The transformation design model creates a link between traditional design practice and the Transition movement that we will explore in the next section. This bridge between two the distinct cultures of designers and local communities, could be fruitful if we can find a way to entice designers to engage.
The Transition Movement
The Transition movement, according to fan Richard Heinberg is 'a replicable strategy for harnessing the talent, vision, and goodwill of ordinary people'(Hopkins 2008, 9). It is a community design process based on the processes and principles of permaculture. The Transition movement is based on the assumption that we are approaching the end of the age of cheap oil, and that climate change and peak oil are twin challenges that must be addressed simultaneously. Where it differs from other environmental projects is that it maintains that within the challenge to wean our communities off fossil fuels, exists the potential for an extraordinary renaissance. Rob Hopkins references the work by Thomas Homer-Dixon who describes historical examples of the decline (or collapse) of complex civilizations who faced resource depletion as a parallel to our own situation. Homer-Dixon develops the idea of catagenesis (breakdown leading to rebirth), a term used by ecologists. He proposes that within moments of contingency there will be possibilities for profound change. Whether the outcome is turmoil or renewal in our case will depend largely on how well prepared we are and how the situation is framed. A renewal will depend on people taking the initiative to catalyze positive change. This is no small feat. Within the Transition movement the environmental crisis is acknowledged as severe, and the changes necessary are massive & systemic. The Transition movement holds that in addition to cutting carbon emissions, we must create resilient communities. Despite the big changes ahead, the Transition movement holds that the move towards localized energy efficient living could make a world that is better than our own.
Four Key Assumptions of Transition (Hopkins 2008, 134)
1. That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable.
2. That communities presently lack resilience.
3. That we have to act collectively.
4. That the collectively genius of a community can be powerful.
1. Energy Descent (Peak Oil & Climate Change)
A. Peak Oil
At the centre of Transition initiatives are our relationships with energy. The movement is a response to the powerful driver of change that is peak oil - a threat suddenly becoming more apparent as oil prices have recently climbed to record highs. Peak oil is based on significant and wide-ranging research reporting that fossil fuels supplies are hitting a peak after which time liquid fuel prices will increase dramatically as finite supplies diminish. Furthermore, our social and economic dependence on oil and gas constitutes an enormous vulnerability. Jonathon Porritt, Director of the UK charity Forum for the Future explains;
the end of cheap oil means the end of easy economic growth, and the end of that whole 'historic interlude' in which cheap oil fuelled fast growth, high living standards and the kind of - live for today, live for yourself lifestyle that has now become so destructive
. Conventional economic growth and cheap oil have marched hand in hand for the best part of 60 years; within just a few years, it will become increasingly apparent that both are on their last legs (Porritt 2007, 84).
The ultimate authoritative document on the subject is the Hirsch report commission by the US department of Energy in 2005:
the peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices volatility will increase dramatically, and without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking (Hirsh 2005, 2459).
In interview Robert Hirsch says, 'The risks to our economies and civilization are enormous - this is really an incredibly difficult and incredibly severe problem' (Hopkins 2008, 41).
The Transition movement is a response to this energy security threat. While both the Hirst report on peak oil and the Stern report on climate change illustrate the perils of these two issues in isolation, the Transition movement attempts to respond to the twin challenges simultaneously. As fossil fuels go into decline (because of availability and also carbon reduction programmes) we will see an economic contraction. Economic re-localization will be one of the inevitable impacts of the end of cheap transportation fuels. The danger is that unless we wean ourselves of fossil fuels proactively, societal support systems could crash just as the global climate gets pushed passed a tipping point (Hopkins 2008, 9). The political volatility of this stark danger means that national governments have been slow to react and few have openly acknowledged peak oil as a problem (with the Swedish and Irish governments as the exceptions). Meanwhile, the Transition movement maintains that we are as energy rich a society as we are ever likely to be, and that we must actively plan to wean our communities off fossil fuels.
B. Climate Change
There should be no need to restate the urgent need to address this momentous societal level challenge. On an intellectual level, anyone who reads the paper is acquainted with the facts and realizes we must act, but this awareness has not sunk in very deep. So far we are not making it happen; evidenced by the significant gap between the proscriptive actions recommended by scientists and our collective response. After several decades of warnings we are currently struggling to even meet lenient Kyoto emission targets (5.2% by 2012). If we do not act decisively our legacy to our descendents is bound to be bleak.
Once we engage with this issue, it becomes obvious that scientists are far more worried than most of us. NASA scientist James Hansen tells us: 'We have at the most, ten years - not ten years to decide upon action, but ten year to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions' (Hopkins 2008, 30). One of the disturbing things about listening to scientists studying climate change is the fear in their voices. Intellectually, we might accept some of the facts, but if we truly acknowledge Hansen's statements; 'multiple positive feedbacks can lead to rapid non-linear collapse' (Hansen et al. 2005, 1431) - in reference to climatic tipping points triggered by feedback mechanisms such as melting ice and the Albedo effect, the Siberian permafrost melt, or ecosystem collapse in the rainforest - we would have no justification for anything other than immediate mobilization and dramatic response.
2. Resilience to Energy Shocks
Hopkins explains that 'climate change says we should change, whereas peak oil says we will be forced to change' (Hopkins 2008, 37). Either way, the sooner we start to change, the higher the likelihood of a successful transition. Responding to climate change on an adequate scale will be expensive and demand an unprecedented degree of global cooperation. The economic recession (or worse) caused by raising oil prices will make tackling climate change even more challenging.
We are a civilization completely dependent on oil for almost everything we make, eat and do. When prices of oil go up (which will be inevitable as we start our way down the slope of declining oil reserves and increasing demand from growing economies) every economic transaction will be effected. Rob Hopkins references studies claiming there are no renewable energy sources primed to completely replace fossil fuels, and builds his argument around the net energy available: 'Energy Return on Energy Invested' (EROEI) goes down dramatically with renewables (Hopkins 2008, 53). Renewable energy will not fill the energy gap.
Whether or not another energy source could replace fossil fuels to power our economy is a fact that is widely contested. One promising projects is the Euro-Supergrid. A similar idea was first proposed by Buckminster Fuller in the 1970s (Fuller 1981, xxxiii). Now it is being promoted by TREC (Trans- Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation) - an initiative of The Club of Rome as the answer to Europe's electrical energy needs. Nevertheless, weaning our economy off fossil fuels will undoubtedly be a shocking process and the sooner we start planning the better.
3. Collective Action
The Transition approach attempts to engage entire communities in the process of change. We will have to see extraordinary levels of change if we are to navigate our societies away from dependence on fossil fuels in such a way that they will be able to retain their social and ecological coherence and stability. It has been recognized by government agencies that sustainable development cannot be imposed from above. It will not take root unless people across the country are activity engaged with it. The UK Government's Sustainable Development Strategy sees public involvement as 'essential'. New methods such as citizens juries or panels, round tables, visioning, charette and new 'consensus conferences' have become necessary, and they arise from the realisation that environmental values are not preformed, but rather that they 'emerge out of debate, discussion, and challenges, as people encounter the facts, insights, and judgments contributed by others' (Owens 2000, 1145). The Transition movement addresses the need for engagement and awareness through local awareness raising processes. Transition initiatives effect policy by demonstrating what communities can do to address local problems.
4. Collective Genius of Groups
The Transition method draws from the diversity and intelligence of a group. It could be seen as a good example of Ezio Manzini's creative communities as 'groups of innovative citizens organizing themselves to solve a problem or to open a new possibility and doing so as a positive step in the learning process towards social and environmental sustainability' (Manzini 2007, 78). The Transition movement resembles the convergence of creative communities & collaborative networks that Manzini proscribes. Transition groups encourage processes such as art & story telling while collaborating on community design using processes such as open space events and using on-line wikis for energy descent planning.
Six Principles of Transition
Visioning, Inclusion, Awareness Raising, Resilience, Psychological Insights, Appropriate Scaled Solutions. (Hopkins 2008, 141)
Central to the Transition approach is the idea we can only pro-actively move towards something if we can imagine it. Hopkins claims that the vision we have in our mind when we set out on this work will go a long way towards determining where we end up (Hopkins 2008, 141). Creating this vision of our desired outcome is key, and the focus is placed on generating a sense of inspiration. By focusing on possibilities rather than probabilities we steer our future into greener pastures. This focus on the positive does not preclude dealing with the dangers. The Transition movement also works with visioning scenarios (adaptation / evolution / collapse) to come to terms with factors driving change.
Scenarios from the Dynamic Cities Project
Hopkins maintains that our best chance of a successful transition will not come from presenting people with the worst scenarios but the best. We stand, according to Hopkins 'on the cusp of many things, one of which could be an economic, cultural and social renaissance' (Hopkins 2008, 133) - but only if we set about with a vision to bring this vision into reality. Our best chance of dealing with climate change and peak oil will emerge from our ability to engage people in a vision of transition to a lower energy future as an adventure, something in which we can invest our hope and energy (Hopkins 2008, 49).
One particularly useful vision that Rob Hopkins uses to describe the energy descent process is the inversion of the classic peak oil graph. Hopkins plots our decent into cheap oil as a dive into a murky swamp that allowed us to seriously lose touch with reality (Hopkins 2008, 93). Drunk on cheap oil we put the entire world at risk with lifestyles entirely out of touch with our interdependence with the natural world. We can only save ourselves by bolting upward - out from the fossil fuel swamp - to the clean fresh air at the surface.
The Transition movement seeks to facilitate dialogue between different groups in order to create innovative solutions from cross-fertilization of ideas. The TM does not align itself with any political or ideological position. In order to be accessible to everyone in a community, regardless of previous commitment to environmental initiatives, traditional green rhetoric and aesthetics are avoided. Transition groups make space, events and design processes to help environmentalists dialogue with business groups, pensioners with young entrepreneurs, artists with farmers, etc. Here we find innovative solutions to our collective local problems using the collective genius of a group.
3. Awareness Raising
The Transition movement holds that the end of the age of oil is a confusing time. We are constantly exposed to and bewildered by mixed messages. The Transition movement aims to set out its case clearly by giving people key arguments (Hopkins 2008, 141). Awareness raising addresses the failures in the education system to impart basic ecological literacy. This prioritization of education and awareness raising is supported by design commentators on change. Alastair Fuad-Luke says; 'sustainability has to be a cooperative ambition, a societal ambition, it requires that a society has a universal awareness of its condition before taking the radical steps on the sustainability road' (Fuad-Luke 2007, 37). A similar idea is developed by Ezio Manzini;
Given the nature and the dimension of this change, we have to see transition towards sustainability (and in particular, towards sustainable ways of living), as a wide-reaching social learning process in which the most diversified forms of knowledge and organizational capacities must be valorised in the most open and flexible ways, Among these, a particular role will be played by local initiatives that, in some ways, can be seen as signals of new behaviour and new ways of thinking. (Manzini 2007, 78)
Resilience refers to the ability of a system (an individual, a whole economy, or a entire ecosystems) to hold together and maintain its ability to function in the face of change and shocks from the outside. The Transition movement asks: will communities, faced with the shock of fossil fuel price increase and/or mandatory carbon rationing for mitigation against climate change - retain essentially same function, structure, identity and feedbacks? According to economist David Fleming, a community that is resilient can absorb shocks, has a wide diversity of relations, and can meet needs without substantial travel. According to ecologists resilient systems are said to have the following characteristics: diversity, modularity, and tightness of feedbacks (Hopkins 2008, 55).
- Diversity relates to the number of elements that compose a particular system, be they people, species, business, institutions, or sources of food. A rise of monocultures reduces diversity.
- Modularity is the manner in which the components of a system are linked. Maximizing modularity with internal connections reduce vulnerability to any disruptions of wider networks. The over-networked natures of modern highly connected systems allow shock to travel rapidly through them.
- Feedbacks - tightness of feedbacks refers to how quickly and strongly the consequences of a change in one part of the system are felt and responded to in another part. Centralization weakens feedbacks by increased risk of crossing a threshold without detecting it in time.
Rob Hopkins explains that there are two transitions at work in the world today; the main transition is far larger, more powerful, and better resourced. This transition is rapidly dismantling what resilience remains under the guise of economic globalization and growth. The Transition movement is the building blocks of a new vision, a regeneration of the complex, diverse and resilient economies of a pre-cheap oil world (Hopkins 2008, 59).
5. Psychological Insights
The Transition movement recognizes that engagement with the issues and especially confronting the environmental crisis can be an overwhelming process. With the understanding that key barriers to participation are the presence of powerlessness, isolation, and despair, Transition initiatives draws on insights from psychology. In order to address emotional resistance to confronting depressing and de-motivating information, the Transition approach attempts to use psychological tools to engage groups in the process of change. This process of making space to psychologically process disturbing information is powerful. The Transition movement provides a framework to build the psychological strength that provides the basis for healthy engagement with change. Psychologists Winder and Kroger explain that;
healthy functioning requires that we have faith in the future, without this confidence; our trust in the world is damaged. Damaged trust can lead to many neurotic reactions, narcissism, depression, paranoia, and compulsion. (Hopkins 2008, 49)
This is a situation Hopkins has labelled as 'post- petroleum stress disorder'. Unprecedented levels of mental illness indicate that this 'disorder' could well be a common syndrome.
Within the Transition movement denial is accepted as a natural response, but one that must not be over-indulged. Understanding the psychology of change, TM accepts denial as normal, but maintains the need to remain vigilant to it (Hopkins 2008, 82). Much of these insights are drawn from the body of work on addiction treatment. The Transition movement uses tools like the FRAMES Model (feedbacks, responsibility, advice, empathy, self-efficacy) that breaks down the process of weaning an addict off a substance by mapping the change in stages: from pre-contemplation to action (Hopkins 2008, 89).
6. Credible and Appropriate Scale Solutions
A major flaw with most environmental initiatives is the lack of solutions on a scale that could realistically address the crisis. While media often glosses over the nuts and bolts of change on the sort of level that could meet emission levels recommended by scientists. The Transition movement enables people to explore solutions on a credible scale. Part of the reason TM is able to do this is that it looks at change at the level where basic energy use occurs in communities. Many people see only two scales of response, individual and government. The Transition model explores the ground in between. Certainly macro level solutions to climate change and peak oil are essential - but in democracies these can only happen with the support of the people. Sustainable development demands that people engage with change; it cannot be delivered 'top down' to the masses because people need to engage with the issues to understand the solutions.
The Basis of Transition: Permaculture
The Transition movement is inspired by permaculture, a design philosophy based on ecological principles and ethics for working with Nature in building systems to support human existence (Hopkins 2008, 137). The Transition movement attempts to mainstream permaculturist principles. Permaculture has a number of guiding principles that help it take account of existing systems and plan in complexity. It encourages strategies that contribute resilience and stability to ecosystems and other systems alike. The most important lesson, however, from permaculture is that it emphasizes the interdependence between human settlements and the natural world. With this awareness of natural processes and acknowledgement that every design affects the system as a whole, permaculture weaves ethics into its methodology. This brings us to the crux of the problem for designers. Ethics are a fundamental ingredient in any design problem, but have been conspicuously absent from design practice and discourse. The original environmentalist, Ralph Emerson, explained; 'methodology without principles are useless or worse'. It is time for designers to end their vain attempt to separate ethics from design. Any designed item is part of a larger system and every design has ecological, social, and economic impacts. Ethics must inform all design disciplines for the sake of all living systems.
Inherent within the Transition movement are the all the characteristics of transformation design except the designers themselves. The movement redefines community design processes, creates zones for collaboration and builds the capacity of ordinary people to create fundamental change. The movement is a sign of the radical democratization of design with everyday people designing energy descent in their own communities. Many of the challenges to designers described by the Red team in regards to transformation design apply here, as non-designers are actively designing processes and systems in their own communities to face the epic challenges ahead. Traditional designers will have to adapt to find their role in this process.
Designers are needed in the Transition process. The skills to build cohesion, focus and to communicate new agendas are needed in the Transition movement and design has the skill set to do this. Unfortunately, according to Alastair Fuad-Luke, only 1% of 'iconic' designers are even engaged with sustainability (Fuad-Luke 2007, 25). Thus, the question that must be examined is: do designers themselves see enough of the bigger picture to want to engage in a process of change?
Design education has a responsibility to address the shortcomings in its current methodology. Designers could be of great value to the transition - if they decide to chart new territory. David Orr rightly claims that a well-educated person will make him/herself relevant to the crisis of our age (Orr 1992, 108). Educators must build awareness and methodologies in design to address social & environmental problems holistically - rather than the 'patchwork solutions on a larger pattern of disorder' (Orr 2002, 11) that dominates so much of the industry presently.
In order to be relevant in a changing world, designers need to engage with the powerful drivers of change that are peak oil and climate change. As explored in Part One, design science has mapped out the territory of systems design and the design initiative. Ecological literacy provides the cognitive framework to understand our basic systemic challenges. Footprinting tools allow designers to make and communicate realistic assessments of the value of systems, designs, and processes. Transformation design completely re-visions the role of the designer in a social context and allows designers to use their creativity to address urgent social, economic and ecological problems. Meanwhile all these approaches/tools/ideas are incorporated in the Transition movement that is a truly holistic, inclusive and comprehensive methodology for designing transition in localised communities.
This paper has shown how the community design process of the Transition movement can inform the design industry in its attempt to confront the issues of sustainability. John Thackara calls on designers to become part of the solution, as
global hunter-gatherers of models, processes, and ways of living that already exist, or used to
a big part of sustainable design is about sharing information about pre-existing solutions that have been proven to work. Creative design practice these days is about adapting solutions found in one context for use in another. (Thackara 2007, xvii)
This borrowing and adapting is exactly what the Transition movement does - and what this paper is doing. Thackara claims that most of the elements of a sustainable world already exist and the majority are social practices. The Transition movement is a synthesis of diverse practices and fields of study in order to address the pressing ecological problems of our age.
This paper first described several concepts within a designer's toolkit enabling her to confront the ecological crisis, then mapped out a vision and an approach to systemic change as defined by the Transition movement, and presented a potential synthesis. The Transition movement could be an inspiration for professional designers. What we require is the will to put the change in motion. We are at the precipice of an unprecedented ecological crisis. Strangely, as noted by Thomas Homer-Dixon and Rob Hopkins, within this upheaval is the potential for profound renewal. According to Hopkins, energy descent will be a journey towards sanity and wholeness;
Any response that is sufficient to the scale of the challenge is about coming home, about being aware that we are part of the networks around us, and that we need to nurture and rebuild them rather than imaging that we can survive independently of them. (Hopkins 2008, 81)
The Transition Movement provides us with 'scalable microcosms of hope' that offer a collection of insights and processes to help communities navigate the transition ahead.
The design industry needs to recognize that a societal level challenge to avoid climatic tipping points is different from other issues that compete for industry attention. The design industry needs to realize that it functions at a strategic leverage point; it has the capacity to instigate radical change and influence many industries, cultures and communities. The speed, scope, and scale of the challenge are critical. This industry needs to respond to the unanimous call by the world's climate scientists. We possibly have ten years to do this work before we pass tipping points in the climate systems (Hanson 2007).
Helping to embed ecological awareness into the cultural mindset is a formidable task. Helping to reconfigure infrastructures is an awesome feat. Designers will no longer be capable of feigning innocence in an era with a challenge as great as climate change and energy shocks. Design motivates action and our actions have implications; designers are implicit. Design is still part of the problem, but it is capable of becoming part of the solution. It is up to us - now, to make it happen.
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This paper was presented at Changing the Change conference by Jody Boehnert in July 2008. Over 100 conference papers are available on-line and also in book form. A slide show for presentation can be found here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales