Introduction: The course and its structure

What is this course?

This course is a half-semester elective, taught in the Carnegie Mellon School of Design but open to students from any degree, with permission from the instructors. The curriculum framework of the CMU School of Design describes four areas of focus: design for the built world, for service, social innovation, and transition. (For details, see

This course is designed to introduce students to key concepts and practices related to the two areas of focus that most emphasize systemic, social, and long-term work: design for social innovation and transition. The material is drawn from the professors’ studies and practice in design, organizational culture, community work, technology, theater and the arts, personal and family development, and facilitation.

For what work does this course prepare students?

We see this course and the rest of the program that is being developed in CMU Design as a conversation at the moving edge of design practice. Because of the challenges being faced and initiatives being launched by companies, institutions, governments and communities all over the world, designers increasingly find themselves involved with situations for which the commercial and industrial practices of the last few decades are insufficient by themselves. These situations…

  • deal with networks and network effects
  • involve complex systems, most often socially complex systems
  • are not best framed as problems that need solving, but as situations with a certain set of dynamics, relations and patterns, full of people who desire better dynamics, relations and patterns
  • are such that technologies, products and services succeed only to the degree to which they contribute positively to the health of the network, system, dynamics, relations, and patterns
  • can only affected indirectly (there’s no Photoshop for good relationships, no recipe for shifting social patterns), and require the full participation of the people who are living out the situation

While no single course can prepare students for such challenging work, we hope to open many doors through which students may choose to travel. And we expect many students will find themselves looking at the world, their work, and their own contributions in new ways.

Four chapters


This course is called “Foundations of practice for social innovation and transition.” These practices are much different than the practices of product, service, place, etc., because their “material” is not physical or digital. The materials — the networks of relationships and patterns of belief among people —are mostly invisible, and are in constant motion. So to understand the foundations of practice, we must first get acquainted with the characteristics of human social systems.

This chapter has three goals:

  • developing an understanding and felt sense of the nature of emergent complexity
  • framing human depth and considering its layered and surprising nature
  • discussing the implications for creative practice when effects can be achieved only indirectly through influences on systemic emergence and human becoming


Now that we’ve taken a hard stare at the complexities we face when we consider the work of social innovation and transition, we turn to an essential foundation for any work that involves “change” — the time-honored, well-traveled, deeply potent Creative Process.

Working systemically and in full recognition of human depth may indeed require new approaches and tools, but it is still creative work and still benefits from the power of the iterative way of operating. As creativity has caught on as a buzz phrase in the corporate sector, it often suffers from a glossy but shallow treatment that severely dilutes its potency and greatly underestimates the difficulties of employing it well. In these four sessions we will do our best to recover the depth of attention and effort required for the creative process to deliver on its promise.

This chapter has two goals:

  • developing a basic understanding of the core movements in the creative process
  • through practice, take steps down the (lifelong!) road to mastery of the movements: open listening, open reflection, open making, and open iteration with intention  


The work of social innovation and transition is never done alone. It is necessarily a collective activity, and requires designers to take a role of participant among participants. The good news is that people have been creating and collaborating together for millennia, so we can say a few things about the conditions that need to be in place for people to relate as equals, communicate honestly and produce creative work that truly represents the collective.

Chapter three has three goals:

  • understanding the internal and external conditions needed for people to feel safe enough to risk and create together
  • strategies to engender equality (power structure tends to replicate itself in collaborative settings, resulting in work that still represents the dominant group)
  • learn and practice the basics of nonviolent communication, as a means to overcome communication barriers that often occur during creative work


In this course we are learning about work in socially complex situations, which requires three sets of practices and tools.

Fostering healthy group work in complex situations
The first set of practices is needed to help groups of people work together in complexity. This is different than say, a barn-raising, a community clean-up day, or operating a small business. It is far less certain, more exploratory, and prone to disagreements, and it requires collaboration at a level deeper than following instructions or using a playbook. We need practices and tools that can bring people together around a common purpose they care about, help them see their own system through many points of view, reflect on what they’ve seen, and explore for ways to bring new possibilities and patterns to life.

Systemic, participatory, emergent practices
The second set is focused on the system itself. However aligned, creative, and collaborative you might be, social complexity simply cannot be shifted directly through a plan-design-implement approach. A better way of life is made of the same people who are living the current way of life. The new way must “become” into existence. And that is the set of practices we need: the practices of guided, supported, emergent becoming.

Engaging in situations with conflict or trauma
You cannot create a shiny future on the rubble of broken dreams, distrust, oppression or unresolved trauma. Some situations are so fraught with social and personal difficulty that no forward motion can happen until the wounds begin to heal, the rifts begin to close. How does one even begin in such circumstances? We will introduce approaches that have seen some success in such situations, and point to resources for learning more about them. We will also take a critical look at privilege, power and the potential harm the creative class holds. 

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