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Transition Design

Intended Audience
Pittsburgh Politicians and Officials

Esther Kang
Yu Jiang

My Roles

Stakeholder Mapping
Multi-level Perspective Mapping
System Mapping
Future Visioning

In our ecology of interventions, we envision a future where a thriving intergenerational culture can become real. This is encompassed in proposing multiple dimensions, scales, and particularities to designing transitions for an equitable and sustainable future for isolated elders in the Pittsburgh area.

Published in Information Design Unbound: Key Concepts and Skills for Making Sense in a Changing World (2022)

Proposed Ecology of interventions

Empowering elders through Intergenerational change

In our ecology of interventions, we propose a first step to how the vision of a thriving intergenerational culture can become real. This is encompassed by touching on culture, infrastructure, and advocacy proposing multiple dimensions, scales, and particularities to designing transitions for an equitable and sustainable future for isolated elders in the Pittsburgh area.

How to Read our ecology

This map is prism-shaped with each systemic level outlined and each intervention in its appropriate level.

The left-most block shows the household scale and the rightmost block shows the planet-scale. Connections between interventions are indicated across scales with the gray-colored lines and text boxes. Additionally, each intervention is outlined with a particular color; the color of the outlines indicates the category each falls under: environment, infrastructure/technology, political/legal, economic/business, and social.

Ecological Interventions

Culture, Advocacy, and Infrastructure were the core principles of our proposed interventions. These principles were established to ensure that our interventions could provide the elderly with options and remove barriers that the elderly face to ultimately support their independence and give them a voice.

  1. Culture
    Our team wanted to establish a bottom-up approach, and Intergenerational councils and diverse groups including the elderly can contribute to deciding how cities distribute their budgeting and take part in the implementation process.
  2. Advocacy
    To ultimately empower the elderly we propose interventions that fall under the categories of policy and services.
  3. Infrastructure
    We propose a green and blue space creation and restoration program, to assist in increasing the number of spaces that the elderly can access, and implementation of urban restoration laws, the elderly will have access to such spaces.


Taking a transdisciplinary approach to address a ‘wicked’ problem


Incorporating new knowledge and skill-sets as way to design a resolution strategy

Our team of three – Esther Kang (PhD candidate in Transition Design), Isabel Ngan (Master's student in Human Computer Interaction and Design), and Yu Jiang (Bachelor of Arts candidate in Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology) – addressed the issue of isolation of the elderly in Pittsburgh by applying the core tenets of Transition Design – an emerging design praxis that views designers as a catalyst for sustainable, equitable systems change and places equal emphasis on the importance of material and natural worlds in design practices. The project revealed the ways in which we critically reflected upon ethics, advocacy (for the marginalized), paradigm (of design), and power dynamics as they moved through each phase.

This work was done during the Transition Design Seminar, a graduate-level elective offered through the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University.

Phase One: Understanding the Problem

Understand the inter- and intra-relational connections between different issues

Isolation of the elderly is a recurring issue across the US. In the Pittsburgh area, the elderly community (currently the baby boomer population) is the largest in the country, and it has been the case for the past two decades. Many reports underscore that the peak of the baby boomer population will occur by approximately 2030 in Pittsburgh proper. This brings to light the grave need to understand the experiences, desires, and needs of the elderly community in relation to the multiple dimensions of Pittsburgh in order to design futures in anticipation of this pending reality.

To parse this intractable problem, we determined these steps:

  1. Scope the issue
    Focus on those residing in the city of Pittsburgh and the age groups of 65+
  2. Secondary research
    Conduct secondary research encompassing academic literature, city and county generated reports, and local news reports. 
  3. Aggregate & analyze data
    Apply affinity mapping techniques, determined scale, and highlighted variants of cause and effect relationships across the categories
  4. Determine intersections & feedback loops
    Draw lines of intersections while underscoring the feedback loops that each category contained (using the STEEP analysis framework).

Our research illuminated the complexity of existing feedback loops that illustrate multiple dimensions of persistent to emergent qualities of isolation in Pittsburgh’s elderly community.

I helped to illustrate the complexity of the issue in a digestible format, our map deconstructs the issue through five lenses using the STEEP analysis framework:

  1. Social
    Mindset and cultures
  2. Technological/Infrastructure
    Key components that encompass the built environment
  3. Economical
    Historical and burgeoning markets
  4. Ecological
    The relationship between humans and the natural world
  5. Political
    The intersection of public policies, social services, and the public realm

Interconnections and Loops

Through the illustration of feedback loops, I wanted to emphasize how different issues are not only related but self-sustaining. The mapping of the wicked problem enabled us to see how the issues among Politics, Infrastructure and Technology, and Economics results in the creation and looping of Environment and Social issues.

Phase Two: Stakeholder Mapping

Understanding the perspective of stakeholders at every societal level

Through our research, we identified sets of stakeholders that profoundly shape the experiences of Pittsburghese elders.

We narrowed our scope to solely focus on the dynamics of these three stakeholders: first responders, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) senior services, and Pittsburgh’s city council.

Though these stakeholders represent micro, meso, and macro points of influence on the issue, this set illustrates the interconnected qualities that shape a niche group’s experiences and livelihoods, while underscoring the wicked nature of the issue of isolation of the elderly in Pittsburgh.

  • First Responders
    This group encompasses Emergency Medical Technicians and members of the local fire department. They are the primary point of contact between elders and potential means of assistance that extends beyond their immediate network. First responders’ technical training, level of awareness, and set of knowledge(s), arguably, determine the acuity of the initial health disparity that brings them to the fore.
  • UPMC’s senior services
    UPMC is a large-scale medical institution with facilities that comprehensively address commonly faced issues in the Pittsburgh area. It is argued that this organization has no competitor within its local region; thus, creating a duality to its role — a point of contention for grassroots on-the-ground efforts and an influential entity that proactively addresses issues that many Pittsburghese elders face.
  • Pittsburgh’s city council
    The city council drafts the city budget prior to moving through a series of actants in an arduous line of decision making. Though influential actors shape the city budget, the initial drafting of items, such as parameters, priorities, and proposals, lay the foundation of the dialogue and debate that follow it. The allocation of public funds profoundly informs how elders in Pittsburgh are perceived, prioritized, and ultimately, sustain agency as they age.

We found that each insight held a duality in that it could potentially be a point of collaboration (affinity) or tension (conflict). We further examine this by illustrating two examples marked by the dynamic between the stakeholders: Communication and Organizational Priorities.

Understanding stakeholder motives and how they are reflected in stakeholder goals, fears, and desires provided me with an idea of how they influence or relieve issues surrounding the isolation of the elderly and best ways to visualize and design a complex stakeholder map.

This process provided us a way to illuminate the nuances of how power dictates the cyclical nature of issues and reflect on the types of impacts that national power and local institutions have on the elderly and the ways they are isolated in Pittsburgh.

Phase Three: Multi-Level Perspective

Understanding how this wicked problem emerged

I helped lead and create Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) methodology and framework to understand the historical underpinnings of the issue and its multiple dimensions; this encompassed the team's understanding of the histories tied to the issue through three key lenses — landscape (large-scale events that mark or shift epochs), regime (perceived to be the status quo in that era), and niche (emergent qualities of a time and/or initially small-scale innovations that will likely spur change).

We identified seven key threads that shape the issue of elders in isolation and identified them each with their own colored line. The major trends that we identified include:

  • Family (purple)
    The impact of the rise and decay of nuclear families on elders’ personal networks
  • Christianity (light blue)
    The emphasis on individualism due to the rise of Anglo-centric Christianity
  • White supremacy (dark grey)
    The continued influence of coloniality and dominant narratives on the lives of marginalized elders
  • Beauty (peach)
    Youth-centered standardization leading to the mis and under-representation of elders
  • Ableism (navy blue)
    Discrimination against elders and the natural process of aging
  • Ageism (canary yellow)
    The marginalization of elders because of their age
  • Housing (kelly green)
    The birth of nursing homes and its impact on housing affordability and access

The map tells the story of how events began, evolved, and shaped the current iteration of the issue of isolation for the elderly in Pittsburgh.

Phase Four: Visioning and Transitioning

Understanding the past and present to design for the future

We directed our visioning and speculative design efforts to thinking about a future that diminished or eradicated the three aforementioned characteristics: able-ism, age-ism, and individualism.

Our vision of the future illustrates a society where the isolation of elderly communities is no longer a wicked problem. This future vision underscores different cross-sections at each societal level while surfacing four core principles for our image of 2075.

  • Care
    Relationships are rooted in reciprocity, and the well-being of self and community
  • Choice
    Agency to determine the path that one wants to take than to be imposed a way of living
  • Collective-Thinking
    Embodiment of a deep understanding that all are interconnected
  • Elasticity
    Adaptability to change and ruptures; generative and iterative

Our four principles connect the vision of the future while also guiding the process of grounding the materializing of this future. These principles are the guiding lights to provide a balance of focus and flexibility.

To design for a transition, we extended the original template that parsed what to leave behind, what to keep, what innovations, and what are proposals.

I led in creating matrices that took into account three key components: the four principles concluded from our vision; the systemic levels articulated in our mapping of the future; and the aforementioned assessment of what to leave behind to what to propose.

How to Read our Map
Each principle has its own matrix; the matrices in aggregate constitute a comprehensive and detailed story of possibilities and intentions. The far-right half of the map articulates the near, mid, and long-term milestones that mark transitions. Each painting a vivid picture of complete stories concerning elders in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

Primary to the process of designing for a transition remains the key vision: the thriving of intergenerational cultures.

Phase Five: Futuring

Designing for a potential Future

Finally, we proposed material as well as immaterial interventions across different systemic levels and of different types.

In our ecology of interventions, we propose a first step to how the vision of a thriving intergenerational culture can become real. This is encompassed in proposing multiple dimensions, scales, and particularities to designing transitions for an equitable and sustainable future for isolated elders in the Pittsburgh area.

Ecology of Interventions

Culture, Advocacy, and Infrastructure were the core principles of our proposed interventions. These principles were established to ensure that our interventions could provide the elderly with options and remove barriers that the elderly face to ultimately support their independence and give them a voice.

  1. Culture
    How interventions can set the tone of a context, place, and community so that plurality may thrive and dwell together
  2. Infrastructure
    How interventions can design topographies that determine the livelihoods of members of a community
  3. Advocacy
    How interventions can elevate underrepresented, oppressed, and overlooked lived experiences, voices, and thinking
Connections Between Interventions

The Intergenerational Council addresses the elders’ desire to have a larger say in what presently takes place and may take shape in the future. The presence and proactive engagement of elders in the process of city-budgeting, developing and implementing, profoundly shift how the Pittsburgh community thinks of their elders. This addresses culture, infrastructure, and advocacy.

The Urban Restoration Laws enable a tremendous amount of change to take place, specifically in relation to the making of affordable housing much more readily available to the elderly community across socioeconomic lines. This implementation and enactment of this law would cement a pragmatic need that many were not privy to. This addresses infrastructure and advocacy.

University-level classes and affordable housing deeply connect with the Intergenerational Council and the Urban Restoration Laws. However, these services are typically contingent on funding models, public support, and legislation. All of which we address through this network. This addresses infrastructure and advocacy.

Built environment
Green and blue spaces dovetailed with restoration programs are intertwined with the Intergenerational Council and the Urban Restoration Laws. Funding and legislation profoundly shape the landscape of a region and, ultimately, its topography, which impacts whether an elder can walk down the street, access the crosswalk, and safely visit their neighbor. This addresses infrastructure and advocacy.


Considering more stakeholders and system levels

This project pushed my way of thinking. Transition design has allowed me to think more broadly and systemically, which has assisted the way I now consider my designs' future implications and how they may impact people and cultural behavior.

Takeaway 1

I enjoy thinking about complex problems and solutions as pieces of a larger solution strategy.

Thinking about the impacts of design solutions has helped me consider the future implications of products. It has reframed the way I design to consider how insights drive the design of a solution and how products may shape and alter our future.

Takeaway 2

I feel inspired by others who come from different backgrounds.

Working with team members from different backgrounds and different education levels has provided me with an openness to want to learn from people from all walks of life to help shape how we take into account the ethical implications of design as it pertains to power and systems.

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