On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 25

Here I’ll share an in-depth review of the Resilio Studio Design Process Primer that I shared a wee while back. I was originally intending this as a comment but it got long so I thought what the heck, I’ll make it a fresh post (NOTE – it then got so long that I’m going to need at least two posts, if not three – yikes!).

Motivations

Let me set the scene for what follows by sharing my motivations for making the effort.1

  1. I seem to be developing a habit of publicly evaluating various design process documentations (including my own). So here I am inclined to do this kind of stuff anyway, when Finn and Gary email their primer and say “any and all feedback welcome.” This is something like waving a slug in front of a hungry duck.
  2. I’m grateful to anyone who goes to the effort to not only reflect carefully on their basic design understandings, but to publicly articulate these in a readily digestible form with a stated openness to feedback.2 This alone is a solid step toward a stronger permaculture. Giving such a work a thorough going over is the least I can do to express my gratitude.
  3. I’m passionately interested in exploring and helping create precedents for permaculture colleagues to be critically evaluating each other’s work with an attitude of raw, honest dialogue (as opposed to any kind of veiled attack/defence mentality). I love the experience of genuine dialogue where everyone comes out with new and better ideas than they entered with. I love how David Bohm talks about this in terms of the distinction between debate and dialogue, and have a soft spot for Otto Scharmer’s expansion of this two-way distinction into four different conversational contexts, culminating in what he calls3 generative dialogue. I’ve personally not been privy to much at all in the way of such dialogue in the permaculture space.4

Intention

My intention is to slowly and carefully read through the primer sharing my reflections as I go. I intend to view the work as its own thing, in a sense oblivious to who wrote it, and share how it lands for me. In detail. If anyone reads this post (now a series of posts) to the end aside from me and possibly Finn and Gary I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I’ll also mention that I not only have no idea of what is going to come up for me as I engage with this cultural artefact,5 but aside from quick glances at some of the diagrams, don’t have more than a cursory idea of what I’m going to find inside it.

For the record, I am also going to pull in relevant recent comments from others and explore tangential lines of thought as the whim takes me, maybe even get a few things off my chest. If it serves no other purpose, therefore, it will make for a nice bit of self-therapy.

Introduction

Scene-setting Quotations

On the first page two quotations are shared:

The first Introductory Quotation

Let’s take these in turn. Take it away one Mr Victor Papanek:6

Design is basic to all human activities – the placing and patterning of any act towards a desired goal constitutes a design process.

Crikey Victor – that is rather a general definition of design process! What is more, it strikes me as marking a radical departure from how design is usually defined in our culture. Let’s take a look at the google dictionary definitions of design to see if this is indeed so:

Looking this over, I gotta say, it is demoralising to see how entrenched has become this view of design as the creation of a detailed up-front diagram before implementation. It is written into our primary definitions of the word design, for crying out loud! We have got our work cut out for us here people!7

I mean it is all there in the leading definition of design: “a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made

Or as a verb, to “decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it.”

In other words, in all this work we’ve been doing trying to understand the potential for design to be this generating/generative process where the ‘designing’ and the ‘making’ are spatially and temporally inseparable aspects of one ongoing process, we’re banging our heads against a pretty solid wall. As in how the dictionaries have all but locked down the meaning of the core word we are exploring and trying to resuscitate, to breathe life back into.

I say all but locked down in that there is, as my friend James Andrews put it, a glimmer of hope in google’s tertiary definition of design as a noun and even within the primary definition of design as verb. As a noun we have:

purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact or object.

as a verb:

do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind

Hmmm, interesting, particularly this latter design as a verb definition is pretty darn close to Papenek’s definition of design process as the placing and patterning of any act towards a desired goal. Yep, in other words Papanek is saying that design = non-random human activity (i.e., goal directed activity).

Call me disingenuous but I detect in his definition a hint of my own strategy toward breaking the near deadlock the dictionaries (and thus the zeitgeist) have on design.

The first part of this strategy is to widen the referent, broaden the domain of what we designate with the word design.

For when we define design as producing a set of up-front drawings, we are kind of screwed, in that we’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole we’ll need a lot of muscle to be able to swim back upstream again.8 I recently started working out, but I’m a long way off having that much muscle!

It seems to me that Papanek has realised that we are best to start by taking this idea of design, clicking our fingers, and boom, zooming the heck out with it, getting the stuff we’re using it to point to nice and broad. Broad and fuzzy. Broad and vague. And then, coming at it afresh and making conscious decisions as we again narrow down and start to specify the particulars of what it is and isn’t.

I am pleased, therefore, that there is at least one clear dictionary definition in our above sample we can call in to our aid in getting this strategy off the ground. All is not lost!

In any case, as I just said, the critical next step in this strategy, having zoomed out, is to slowly and carefully zoom back in, in a way9 where we don’t unwittingly perpetuate this old fallacy of humans as rational masters of their destiny (and the destiny of the earth) thereby slicing the process up in such a way that its ability to create deeply adapted systems is all but lost.

Having developed the hypothesis that this is a strategy at play in Victor’s work on the basis of such scanty evidence (how dare I read into someone’s career-level strategy from the contents of one sentence!), I thought I’d better go see how on or off track I am.

So I just went and found his book Design for the Real World online which starts with this statement:

All [people] are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the inherent value, of design as the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie, choosing sides for a back-lot baseball game, and educating a child. Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order.

After this broad beginning, he continues his opening chapter, by, as per my extremely recent prediction,10 narrowing down and starting to specify the particulars of what it is and isn’t. In his words he goes on to define each of the aspects of design as a “function complex.”11

Time to Dump Design?

This juncture brings me to the suggestion that a few colleagues have made in the course of my most recent inquiry. Being that we simply dump the word design. Liberate it. Let it go.

For instance see this recent comment from Anthony Briggs on my podcast dialogue with Ben Falk:

A thought: At around 25:00 – 30:00 you and Ben are talking about Alan Savory, Holistic Management, the expense of having multiple rounds of design and leaving clients to “do the work”. Is there an opportunity for a rebrand or pivot and instead of “design”, talk about Permaculture coaching? (or counselling? 😉 ).

I’m pretty sure you’re already on this path Dan, but it might be a “culturally-legible”* pivot into (eg.) an initial consultation, then a few ongoing hours a month of checking in and feelings stuff.

* – ie. when you say “coaching”, people will pretty much instantly get it

Or, in an email from my friend and Making Permaculture Stronger follower Greg O’Keefe, who wrote me:

I still think that design is an interesting field, but isn’t really the core of permaculture or anything else for that matter.  The big question to me seems to be “how should I live” or “what should I do” rather than “how do I design”, and from your previous email, I gather you may not totally disagree.  As I’ve said before, even using the word “design” implies that it is one phase that is to be followed by implementation and then review etc., and so what I understand you to be suggesting with your “living design process” is almost a contradiction.  Indeed, maybe you should just call it a “living process” !!??

Here’s the thing though. The modern world loves design, is being steamrolled by design (as well by accident, sure). It’s is all about design, design, design.

Stop using the word design, and the relevance of this work to a world hooked on design drops to nada, zero, zilch. The designers can simply say ah, “this isn’t about design, so it is not relevant to us. For we are designers!”

Yet I believe that unless we can get into the ring or otherwise infiltrate and lovingly disrupt or transform conventional understandings of design, then we are missing something well, kind of important.

For me design is not this neutral thing we can take or leave. It is reflective of a larger story, worldview, conceptual framework in play at large and contributing enormously to the wholesale fucking up of the world. Unless we can disrupt the trajectory of what design means, then, well, I don’t know. Not good stuff will keep happening.

As my new friend Victor Papanek puts it in introducing Design for the Real World:

design has become the most powerful tool with which [we] shape our tools and environments (and, by extension, society and ourself). This demands high social and moral responsibility from the designer. It also demands greater understanding of the people by those who practise design and more insight into the design process by the public.

Hear hear!

Part of the point of all this for me is that whenever anyone tries to swim against the tide and make good shit happen on the ground, as does the beautiful giant fish12 of permaculture, it will unwittingly regurgitate culturally dominant understandings of design in way that shoots itself in the foot, or tail, anyways you get my point.

This is not conjecture, this is what I’ve spent twenty four posts showing in some detail.

As for permaculture, contrasting with Greg’s assertion that design “isn’t really the core of permaculture or anything else for that matter” Dave Jacke in our recent chat said:

It’s called permaculture DESIGN. Design is the verb of permaculture. It is THE VERB of permaculture. It’s at least half if not more of the equation of permaculture – because it is the action of permaculture – it is the fundamental action of what permaculture is… is DESIGN.

Now this is not a one view is right the other wrong situation. Greg and Anthony are right that using the word design implies a problematic linear sequence in which design and implementation are separate steps. But I think that Victor and Dave are right too. The trick to reconciling these two truths is in the strategy I alluded to earlier. The strategy of which Victor Papanek’s (not to mention Dave Jacke’s) work appears a refined manifestation. We gotta roll up our sleeves, walk into the room/field/forest, reclaim design and change what it means. “But this might take several generations!” someone might say. To which I respond “Yes, that’s probably correct…”

Furthermore, as I said in my email reply to Greg and others:13

Here’s the thing. Permaculture ain’t going to part company with its extremely deep self-identity as a design approach or discipline. Period. I have Mr Holmgren on video-record recently saying “design process is the core of permaculture.” To try and publicly disassociate permaculture from design is in my opinion a futile gesture. One would cop an awful lot of flack as one crashes and burns ;-). Even if somehow impossibly successful I think it would ultimately constitute a disservice to permaculture given that it would remove one of three key things that most permaculturalists agree on (ethics matter, principles matter, and whatever it is, its something to do with design!).

Yet, as you suggest, in its heart of hearts, its beautiful essence, permaculture is in fact almost nothing to do with design in the dictionary sense of “the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing of something before it is made.”

So what do to? Here’s the strategy I’m exploring. Take this idea of design and go into it deeper, much deeper than permaculture-in-general has yet got around to, and then go through it, dragging it and transforming and massaging it toward what I believe permaculture is really, truly about. Rather than trying to circumvent it, bury it, ignore it, instead go into and through it, clearing a path so untrodden so as at first glance to seem not even be there. Arrive in a peaceful clearing, enjoy the lush, fresh surrounds, join Christopher Alexander and the others who wait patiently to pour us a refreshing glass of kombucha in the dappled shade ;-).

For me that clearing is something around the realisation that permaculture isn’t in essence a design approach but a creation system, an alternative approach to co-creating the world, or at least some solid and extremely worthwhile preliminary fragments or reachings in that direction. And from there, I hope, to a space of taking seriously what it is we are creating (gardens, landscapes, lives, money systems, projects, conferences, days, more humans, emails, whatever), pruning out the stuff that is creating more of the same as we go about striving to start stepping in to the rest of nature’s creation tune.

Okay, time to call in this little rant. Enough is enough Dan, tone it the heck down would you!

The Second Introductory Quotation

Let’s move onto the second introductory quote on the first page of the Resilio Studio primer. This one is not about design per se but design thinking:

Design Thinking is a mindset… Thinking like a designer can transform the way you approach the world when imagining and creating new solutions for the future: it’s about being aware of the world around you, believing that you play a role in shaping that world, and taking action toward a more desirable future. Design Thinking gives you faith in your creative abilities and a process to take action through when faced with a difficult challenge.

I looked up design thinking after reading this. This page is a pretty good intro. At first glance it seems to be another instance of boiling design process down to a linear sequence of boxes and arrows (given the boxes, and the, you know, arrows) and then making extensive disclaimers like:14

It is important to note that the five stages are not always sequential — they do not have to follow any specific order and they can often occur in parallel and be repeated iteratively. As such, the stages should be understood as different modes that contribute to a project, rather than sequential steps. However, the amazing thing about the five-stage Design Thinking model is that it systematises and identifies the 5 stages/modes you would expect to carry out in a design project – and in any innovative problem solving project. Every project will involve activities specific to the product under development, but the central idea behind each stage remains the same.

And peppering some little return arrows about the diagram. More on that later, for it clear that the Resilio Primer takes much inspiration from Design Thinking. Which is new to me, so I’m grateful for Finn and Gary to be exposing me (and presumably others) to a fresh source of ideas and words and diagrams about design.

For now I want to share one pet peeve I have with the above quote. There is another but I’ll have a proper crack at that with reference to a later section in the primer.

The pet peeve I’ll air here is the unconscious bias toward defining design as to do with thinking, to do with mindset, to do with imagining (We’ll talk later about the related term ideation which means the forming of ideas or concepts). I mean it is all there in the title – design thinking.

I’m guessing that simply by pulling this bias into the foreground you can figure out the issue yourself. Can you?

Seriously, take a moment and think it over. Actually maybe ask how these emphases make you feel. That was a clue, by the way ;-).

You got it. To foreground the mind and rational processes like thinking, imagining, and perhaps even believing is to background the equally if not more critical role that the body, that emotions, that feelings and generally the vast pre-conscious majority of what we are play inside healthy design process.

Yes, the first step in the generic design thinking sequence is Empathise, but I don’t think this does much toward restoring balance, even though balance is the wrong word for it.

I love the way Dave Jacke talks about this stuff.15 He talks about engaging the whole body-mind inside design process and the sheer quantity of critical information we miss out on if we are not listening to our emotions.

Yes, it is a mistake to neglect the gifts of the rational and to only embrace emotions. But it is just if not more of an error to sway too far the other way.

Upshot is I don’t really like this phrase design thinking – to me it carries inside itself part of the problem that I think the needed transformation of design needs to resolve.16 Namely this up-front presupposition that designing is thinking and that we can think our way to the best design solutions. We can’t. Let’s hurry up and slow down and evolve our language from talking about design as a “mindset” to design as a “body-mind set” or something to that effect. Point made. Onward.

What is Design?

Given how long its taken me to get to page two of the primer, you can appreciate how long-winded this entire post (now a series of posts) is going to be. If I were you I’d either quit now, or settle in for a longish ride.

Design as Creation / Design as Conservation

This section starts with another quote:

At its pinnacle, design is ‘an interactive, imaginative process for creating something that has never existed before’ (from an author named Birkeland).

This lands as another lopsided statement for me, and I’m not this time talking about the word imaginative. I believe that while healthy design process does create stuff that didn’t previously exist, that this stuff grows out of what already does exist. In particular, it enhances or in some way improves what already exists. To emphasise one of these facets of design to the neglect of the other is to be a mist-take. A first-rate blunder. A type-one error.

In the more holistic view I’m alluding to the magic of design is its twin groundedness in both creation and conservation, as essential aspects of one and the same process.

As soon as design process is too oriented toward conservation it loses its health. As soon as design process is too oriented towards creation it loses its health.

Forgive me for quoting a certain author here, but it’s my post, and you can’t stop me:

In a living system what is to be always grows out of what is, supports it, extends its structure smoothly and continuously, elaborates new form — sometimes startlingly new form — but without ever violating the structure which exists.

When this rule is violated, as it was, far too often, in 20th-century development, chaos emerges. A kind of cancer occurs. Harm is done. All in modern society succeeded, in the last century, in creating an ethos where buildings, plans, objects…are judged only by themselves, and not by the extent to which they enhance and support the world. This means that nature has been damaged, because it is ignored and trampled upon. It means that ancient parts of towns and cities have been trampled, because the modernist view saw no need to respect them, to protect them.

But even more fundamental, it came about because the idea of creativity which became the norm assumed that it is creative to make things that are unrelated (sometimes disoriented and disconnected just in order to be new), and that this is valuable–where in fact it is merely stupid, and represents a misunderstanding, a deep misapprehension of how things are. Creativity comes about when we discover the new within a structure already latent within the present. It is our respect for what is that leads us to the most beautiful discoveries. In art as well as in architecture, our most wonderful creations come about, when we draw them out as extensions and enhancements of what exists already.

The denial of this point of view, is the chief way in which 20th-century development destroyed the surface of the earth (Christopher Alexander, 2002, p. 136)

Once again, I believe my point is made. Healthy design pulls the future (new) out of the past (old). Both matter.

The Problem with equating Design & Problem Solving

Let’s move on to, err, the second sentence of the first paragraph of the Resilio primer.

At its core, design is a process for creatively solving problems.

Now as I scan ahead the next section that jumps out at me is a few paragraphs down in a section entitled Assumptions:

A design process typically involves progressing through a sequence of phases that begin by identifying a discrepancy between the current situation and a desired (future) state. This design process involves defining and analyzing the ‘challenge’, generating concepts, evolving ideas and implementing a solution or solutions that will reduce the gap between the current situation and the desired state. By crystallising this general process down to an essential sequence of phases, it is possible…

Let me take these two statements together and share what comes up.

Actually let me start by ensuring you make the connection between my earlier observation about the inherent issues with defining the phases 17 of a design process as what strike me as purely rational operations (defining, analysing, generating concepts, evolving ideas…).

But the main thing about how these two statements land for me involves this idea that design process = problem solving.

I have in the past been very much on the same page.18

Indeed, to some extent I still am.

It is interesting to note how widespread is this idea that design is problem solving even we didn’t see it mentioned in the earlier dictionary definition of design.

The introduction to Design Thinking I linked to earlier starts by saying:

Design Thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems

That is a funny phrasing when you think about it -a “solution-based approach to solving problems”? – I’d like to see a non-solution-based approach to solving problems! I digress. Where were we?

Ah yes, the idea of design = problem solving as widespread. Ben Falk in his wonderful book The Resilient Farm and Homestead said:

it can be said that any effective design process is rooted in intense engagement with the problem at hand and the world in which that problem resides. (p. 24)

You might be wondering “Yeah, so what? What’s your point?”

My point here is that, since earlier saying the same thing, I have become aware of certain dangers (dare I say problems?) around equating design with, or defining design as problem solving.

While I think it was Allan Savory who loosened the lid for me,19 Carol Sanford blasted it clean off. In fact I think she took the hammer of her penetrating intellect and smashed the jar open20 In a representative post entitled It’s Not about Better Problem Solving! Carol says things like:

When you start well-intended efforts by identifying a “problem,” you are trapped into thinking that you have to fix it. This leads you on a search for the causes and results in efforts to try out many solutions. It pulls all of your energy toward an endless effort that is based on the mindset that got people into the rut in the first place. Einstein warned us about that.

no matter how well intended the effort, focusing on problems doesn’t eliminate them, only makes room for them to become chronic

I know, I know. If you are a problem-solving design type you just had a WTF moment – am I right? Welcome to Carol Sanford people. Proceed with caution.

As I tried to explain during this podcast, my take on this now is that if we think of design process as exclusively being about solving problems, shrinking discrepancies, resolving tensions, making misfits or clashes go away, we can unwittingly end up distracting ourselves from the the real point of what we’re trying to do in the first place (or at least what, deep down, we really want to be doing).

What is the the real point? For Carol, and I must say I’m with her on this, it is about moving from solving problems to enabling potential:

The same is true for engaging with people. For example, when we pay attention, we see loads of potential in the children around us. We see their shortfalls as well; there is no end of shortfalls to fix. But if you start with who a child really is, deep inside, what makes them unique, and you help them realize more and more of that, to become closer and closer to their own singularity, then they thrive. Who wants to make a child “less bad”? Don’t we instead want to support them in their quest to realize their unique potential? And don’t we feel the same about each new business and each watershed? No two living systems are the same; each is pursuing a unique potential. Find that and you become a great business leader or a great biologist.

Seeing true potential requires us to go back to the DNA of our intentions, conscious and unconscious, back to first base, where the uniqueness of the opportunity exists. What is screaming to be directly realized directly?

Regeneration is always about going back to base material and regenerating from what is at the core.

In other words when we move our frame from problem solving to asking what is possible here, and we focus fully on the potential for supporting a given system21 in activating or expressing its essence or approbiaching its own singularity or distinctiveness. I can’t begin to explain the deep joy I have felt as my own style of design process facilitation started dancing to this tune. Not to mention the corresponding depth in what came out of it.

Now there are two points I want to make now that, similarly to many of my earlier points, are about realising that this is not an either-or situation. It is not about seeing design as problem solving or seeing design as activating essence / enabling potential. Both are true, in at least two ways.

First, to talk about enabling potential is, you could argue, a sort of meta-problem solving in the sense you could say that to fathom and enable a system’s potential is to work toward reducing the discrepancy between a current state (unrealised potential) and a desired future state (realised potential). So here it is about going deep enough and in a sense asking “what is the real problem here?” Sure. But I’m also sure you can appreciate the dangers of falling into cycles of subsidiary problem solving that become self-perpetuating and in their focus on getting away from something lose sight of what the point really is.

Second, and I believe there is no way around this, any process that authentically activates essence or enables potential will solve problems along the way, almost as an incidental by-product. One of the most obvious reasons for this is that there is almost always problems or tensions, as in conflicting forces or tendencies at play inside any situation, that are veiling or confusing any movement toward potential. So here the two frames, problem-solving and potential-realising, are both valid and useful but of a different logical type. The former sits at a lower and subsidiary level to the latter.

Yet my point is that to emphasis problems over potential is yet another trap along the long (lost?) path toward clearer, better, stronger design process understandings better able to serve tomorrow’s permaculture.

Recap and Conclusion

Yes I’ve taken my sweet time about it but the nutshell version is that I’m so far enjoying the Resilio Primer and finding it most stimulating in terms of helping me clear up some of my own thoughts (and feelings!) about the fundamentals of what sound, permaculture-worthy design process is and isn’t.

I have found at least three simple cases of phrasings in the space of defining design process (mostly in quotes from others) that I find lopsided (or, if you prefer, true but partial):

  • Healthy design involves rational, conscious operations. Yes, surely. But it also involves a sound dose of the pre or sub or non-conscious/non-rational (including the emotional). Both matter.
  • Healthy design is about creating new stuff. Yes, it usually is. But it is also about conserving and enhancing old stuff. Both matter, as flipsides of the same coin.
  • Healthy design solves problems.  Yes, but only in service of the deeper problem (or, if you insist, meta-problem) of activating essence / enabling potential. Both matter.

Rightio, I’ll wrap up now, look forward to any comments, and continue with my review in the next post, when we’ll get into the more topical topic of the how the Resilio Studio Primer approaches the relation between designing and implementing. Cheerio, catch you then and heck, while I have you I wish you a fabulous 2018.

References

Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002.

Falk, B. (2013). The Resilient Farm & Homestead.

Papanek, Victor (1971). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, New York, Pantheon Books

Endnotes

David Hursthouse’s Presentation at the International Permaculture Convergence in India

Today’s post shares one of David (‘Phoenix’) Hursthouse’s recent (Nov 28, 2018) presentations on the topic of Making Permaculture Stronger at the International Permaculture Convergence in Telangana, India.

As he reported in an email after the event:

So the whirlwind madness of the IPC has just wrapped up, and it all
came together spectacularly. The session on MPS went extremely well,
was then followed up by a couple of discussion groups and catalysed
significant conversation. It then got the most votes as a highly
important talk to be repeated – so I did it again on the last day.22 It
was remarkable and inspiring and exciting how well it was all
received, picked up and talked about over the course of the week. Met
a number of wonderful people, including Bridget O’Brien and Charlie
Brennan – was great for us all to meet over common interests and
mutual friends. All in all, it couldn’t have gone much better, it’s
great for us (involved with MPS) and even greater for permaculture as
a whole. The talk was videod, so I will make sure you get to see it as
soon as possible.

A few weeks later,23 David managed to upload a video of his first presentation.

He’ll also write up the larger experience of the discussions his session led to, along with some better-quality recordings. But in the meantime, check this out:

Comments welcome below. I really like the comment from Trish Allen sharing her experience of the emergence of Making Permaculture Stronger as a theme within the New Zealand permaculture movement. In her words, it was like having someone:

…holding up the mirror and saying ‘hey guys, look at yourselves. Look at what you’re saying. Look at what you’re teaching. Look at what you’re doing. Is that really the best you can do?’ And so some of us older ones in the beginning were a little bit confronted by it, but once we embraced the process, it’s been really exciting, and I think that it will make permaculture stronger

and to wrap this up here’s a few things David says:

But if we’re going talk about permaculture, and we’re going to write about it, and we’re going to teach it, then we better actually practice it. And if we want to be practicing it authentically, then… that demands we apply self-regulation and accept feedback

So my invitation to you is to take up that challenge and run with it, and to say yeah, if this big bold beautiful thing called permaculture is going to fulfil its potential, and its going to maybe change the world, then we need to walk the talk and apply permaculture to permaculture. We need to say hey we haven’t got it all figured out, and that’s all good. It’s okay that we haven’t got it all figured out, we’re never going to have it all figured out, so we can get used to it. And then, once you’ve said all that go and do something about it. And if you’re not sure what to do then maybe do what we’re doing, find a cheap place, get some people together, and then start talking about it, design together and then do something about it

Endnotes

A Delightful Day of Designing with Dave Jacke

Greetings all. Today, given I’m currently amidst recording and releasing some podcast conversations with Dave Jacke (starting here), I thought I’d dust off and finish a post I drafted over a year ago. I hope you enjoy!

As permaculture designers striving to continually lift our game, us VEGers are quite partial to professional development opportunities. Such opportunities don’t get juicier than getting to tag along on the design consultancies of more experienced practitioners. So when Michael and Lisa from Yandoit Farm invited me to join them for a day of designing with Dave Jacke, I said yes. Yes please I said.

For those that aren’t aware, Dave Jacke is a world class ecological designer, writer, and teacher. Lead author of the acclaimed two-volume Edible Forest Gardens books, I have long respected Dave’s sophisticated and comprehensive grasp of design process. While he prefers the phrase ecological design process24 over permaculture design process, he unquestionably has helped / is helping permaculture lift its game in terms of a design process that not only starts by deeply tuning into people and place, but embodies the principle of starting with patterns and ending up with details (as shown here).

One sweet read

As for Yandoit Farm, not only are owners Michael and Lisa amongst the most lovely human beings one could hope to get to hang out with, I’ve had the honour of participating in the journey of their evolving partnership with this landscape since they first discovered and decided to follow a permaculture-flavoured pathway. My main role in addition to regularly arriving, eating their food, sleeping in their bed (as in their spare bed – we’re not that close), sharing my opinion freely then leaving has been to connect them with the right people at the right time.

First up it was Darren J. Doherty, who lead the keyline inspired whole-farm water, access, tree system and paddock design and a round of road and dam-building earthworks that changed Yandoit Farm forever, as I explain in this little clip (see also this post and this podcast episode):

With his Regrarians platform, Darren has evolved a farm-scale design process that cuts-to-the-chase and efficiently reveals a mainframe farm layout equally conducive to ecological regeneration and financial viable farm-scale production. Check it out if you haven’t already. It’s a hot potato.

Then it was David Holmgren, who, shortly prior to the first round of earthworks, lead Michael and I on a seven-hour reading-the-landscape walk that left my spinal cord quivering with information overload for several days afterward. David’s ability to read landscape, particularly in his native habitat (he lives just around the corner), is body-mind blowing and takes you from the tiniest gum nut or stone right here and now to the massive basalt plateau that flowed down over the sedimentary base layer 4 million years ago all within a couple of minutes. It is like one second, you’re looking through a magnifying glass, now from a hot air ballon 1000 metres up, now you’re lying on an ancestral gold-line riverbed 40 feet underground, and now you’re 400 million years in the past under a kilometre deep ocean watching the future sedimentary soils get laid down as floods seasonally spew materials out from the river ends. I better move on. My spinal cord in starting to quiver again.

Actually here, why should my and Michael’s spinal cords suffer in silence? Watch this and tell me if you don’t get a few quivers too.25

Anyways, Michael had just completed Dave Jacke’s nine-day edible forest garden intensive organised by Steve Burns just out of Ballarat. Michael recently shared that:

I can say without any doubt that Dave’s course gave me a deeper understanding of forest ecology which radically changed my thinking of all life, the way I see nature, all of nature, and most importantly our place in the scheme of everything. Its drawn me into a much deeper understanding of the human condition and limits and helped provide meaningful answers to the two big questions of human existence, ‘What is the meaning of Life?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ all it takes is some perspective beyond individual human timescales. We’re all fertiliser in the end, the trick is to feel good about that.

Dave Jacke and Michael Jackson during the course

Understandingly, therefore, Michael was keen to invite Dave Jacke’s input on the planned next phase of development at Yandoit Farm. This was a large area within the main homestead envelope earmarked for fruit and nut production. Luckily Dave said yes, and luckily I was there as Dave, Steve, Yonke and Bridget (these last three who had also completed the course and tagged along to observe) arrived.

What I want to do here is document my reflections and impressions from the day, which started about 9:30am and finished eleven hours later at 8:30pm. Lisa got some great photos, which I mix up below with several of my own and a couple from Steve Burns.

Arrival, Introductions, General Objective and Roles

So arrived April 6, 2016.

After the team arrived, everyone was introduced, and cups of teas were in hand, Michael suggested a short meditation, which I understand was an aspect of Dave’s just-finished course that was much appreciated and enjoyed.

So Dave led a lovely short meditation which marked the transition into the day’s focus, and let us all become more present and centred. Not something I’d suggest to every client, but in this case it was invited by the client and totally hit the spot for everyone.

As we sipped our tea Michael then outlined his broad objectives for the day, which centred on getting to a solid scheme or layout for the valley area above the new house dam:

Yandoit Caldera

Dave then prompted a quick chat about roles, given this was what he calls an open consultancy. The way he explained it was that if a consultancy and a workshop got together and had a baby, an open consultancy would be the baby. Michael and Lisa’s role was clients. Dave’s role was designer. Steve, Yonke and Bridget’s role was observers (though they all ended up having valuable input into into the design too). My role was mostly observer but with a tiny bit of client (or client representative) and a tiny bit of designer (as a project manager of the larger design and development of the site – though really these days I’m really just more a supportive friend of the project) mixed in. Something like that anyway. I mostly was intending to keep my mouth shut, watch, and learn. But Dave ended up being so inclusive (which is also Michael and Lisa’s middle name) such that the process evolved into a really pleasant conversation between us all.

Dave’s Process

Like the forest, the design process is complex and multilayered, yet both have structure. Certain principles and “archetypal” activities undergird every effective design process, yet each trip through it is unique.26

Now it was time for Dave to enter his design process proper, which in his terminology goes a little something like this:

  • First impressions
  • Goals articulation
  • Site analysis & assessment
  • Design proper
    • Concept design
    • Schematic design
    • Detailed / patch design

Keep in mind that Dave was in a foreign landscape, was between two almost back-to-back workshops, and had a single day to try and get some design done of a large and complex site with multiple objectives. A tough gig, to say the least! It was utterly impossible to apply the process in an ideal and comprehensive way, given this would have taken many days and ideally many months. As a result, part of what I observed Dave doing during the day was mixing things up in a way focused on giving Michael and Lisa the most bang for buck by the end of the day. That said, he did an extremely impressive job of it, got to a really solid design, where and all steps in the process were still present to some degree. Let me step through them now, while the day (I wrote most of this the day after) is still fresh in my mind.

First Impressions

When doing professional design, it is good to observe undirectedly first thing, before you know much about a client’s site or goals. You can have such valuable first impressions only once!

First Michael clarified the boundaries of the focus area inside… 

From left: Bridget, Yonke, Steve, Michael, Dave

and outside…

DaveMichaelPoints

Then Dave and all of us scattered and took a leisurely stroll around the space. Viewing it from all different places and generally soaking it up. I want to share a few of Lisa’s photos here to get across the fact that this step is really important in Dave’s process. It is not to be rushed, and as I understand it is not thematic/themed, but about inviting the space to start revealing itself to you.

DaveDam DaveNotes DaveWalnut

Here and there Dave would ask a question, or a few of us would chat about something, but mostly we were simply soaking up the site.

One aspect of what Dave did that I noticed, in addition to making a few notes and quietly contemplating the space, was tuning into his gut feelings about different areas, the way a fence cut through one ridge, and so on.

As someone who increasingly appreciates the power of human feeling to detect subtle but critical aspects of a site, I was stoked to see someone else acknowledging the value of this source of information as equally if not more important than what the analysing intellect can detect. As my currently favourite design writer, Christopher Alexander, has put it, the intellect is too crude of a net to catch the whole.

Goals Articulation

 Design your forest garden in the context of clear self-understanding concerning what you seek to create…

We now headed back inside to enter the goals articulation phase. Michael and Lisa had carefully prepared a two-page statement under the titles or subareas Dave uses:

  • Value statement
  • Goals
  • Opportunities
  • Criteria

Which as you can see move from the general to the specific.

Something Dave said about here stayed with me as another indicator of someone who has been in the game for a while. I paraphrase, but it was something like “We can develop an inspiring vision for this forest garden but without spending time on the labour, maintenance and implementation I would be doing you a disservice.”

Another major point that came up was about scale. Dave observed after taking in Michael and Lisa’s value statement that “you could achieve this value statement in a much smaller space.”

A final note before we move on is to do with the word “articulation.” Dave uses this word at the top level for this whole bit of the process rather than “statement” or something else and I had been aware that a reason for this was that the word “articulate” somehow brings more of the whole body-mind into the process. “Statement” on the other hand feels like in can flow straight from the conscious mind, thereby missing a very important source (i.e., gut/heart feeling).

But in chatting with Dave later in the day I mentioned the way in which, thanks to Christopher Alexander, I have been using “articulate” lately, which is in the sense of making a design more nuanced and detailed. He then explained that this meaning of articulate is equally integral to his sense of goals articulation, where part of what you are doing is not just tapping into the whole body-mind (what do the clients really want, deep down), but working with what comes out to refine and clarify its structure and organisation. Not just running with what comes out on the first pass but probing it, removing redundancy, sorting the wheat from the chaff (or the apples from the coddling moth larvae, as the case may be).

An example of this articulation work was when Dave started unpacking the value statement and goals, again tuning into his feeling (in his words using his whole body-mind) as a way of finding inconsistencies or conflicts. Here’s one exercise we started – a process for refining the goals by putting like with like, and clarifying relations. For instance sometimes one goal is high level and implies or includes others.

IMG_0125

Now we headed back out, for a sort of dance between site analysis and high-level concept design. I felt the phase of the process that took the biggest hit due to the extreme time constraints was themed and rigorous site analysis and assessment (again carefully chosen language from Dave here – analysing and assessing are different but complementary), though that said the fact that Michael and I had been observing the space closely over several years as well as the eyes of locals Yonke and Steve as well as the experience at this stuff of Dave and Bridget meant we did pretty darn well given the circumstances. One thing I didn’t ask Dave was how long he would have had in an ideal world, but I reckon it would have been at least a few days or a week just for site analysis and assessment.

Concept Design

Resolve the basic patterns and large-scale issues first.

For Dave the concept design is kind of the first glimmer that arises of a high-level whole-site pattern or layout. As I recall it Dave actually first shared his first hint of this earlier on at the end of the first impressions walk (in which site analysis and assessment was happening also).

I had myself a bit of a moment, as, sitting atop the little dam wall and surveying the space, Dave articulated what was arising for him at that moment as regards the first vague hints of a concept design arising in this space for these clients. The reason I was blissing out as he shared it was it was identical in every important detail to what had been arising in me over some time and years of interacting with the space.

I can’t remember his exact wording but it centred on more extensive and management-friendly camp-underable nut groves in the bulk of the valley base including an open glade in there somewhere and more intensive fruit-focused edible forest gardening styles on the footslopes.

BridgetDave

I was really impressed that in about an hour Dave was able to arrive at a place that was crystallising for me only after several years of contact with the site and clients!

It is also deeply affirming when more experienced designers come up with similar ideas to oneself in terms of feeling more confident in whatever process you used to get there.

Schematic Design

Schematic design expands the seed of the design concept to see how it manifests in somewhat greater detail… (Edible Forest Gardens, VII, p. 233)

I’m inserting a bit of an arbitrary boundary between concept and schematic design here, as we were well and truly free-forming by this stage, but I want to convey a feel for the directions the conversation/consultancy now headed as we headed from patterns to details. Really, as opposed to saying this is what we were doing and then doing the opposite, as all too much permaculture design continues to do.

Design is fundamentally messy. We learn useful things when we take it apart and put order to it, but we also risk fooling ourselves into thinking that the process is clean, linear, and organized.

So in addition to refining the points of distinction between the main areas in the concept design (camping, nut grove, clearing, edible forest garden/s) we started tuning into a couple of critical high-level decisions/distinctions as to the way that the future driveway will wrap through the space, and the location of the planned future teaching building.

We spent a lot of time on these two things, rightly, given that they together were a big part of defining the context of all the rest. We walked, we sat, we felt, we talked.

One aspect of this bit I want to share was that Dave/we did a very good job of not locking anything in prematurely. Here’s how he explains why:

the worst design mistakes are ALWAYS made at the schematic level.  Getting the rough relationships right there is critical.  This is the stage where Type 1 errors are made, and no amount of fiddling at the detailed level will fix them.  Particularly in the short time I had, I wanted to make sure the patterns were good.  The details would evolve a lot over time anyway.

For example we got to a point where there where three main spots the teaching building felt like it could sit. We visited them all and discussed pros and cons as well as how it felt to each of us. Slowly we converged on one tentative area that felt best.

With the road it was even better. I really liked how Dave demonstrated mental freedom and flexibility to cast the net of ideas widely before filtering them against the goals and site and how they felt.

For instance we went inside and Dave pulled out his old-school drafting tools. Pencils and stencils and stuff came out of his bag – it was cool. I also appreciated the time and care he took to get the scales and stuff really close to right. I am generally a hell of a lot more slap-dash but I liked the vibe of let’s take our time here and make a nice job of this, even if it be a draft we might throw out in ten minutes.

DaveSketching

So he laid out the drive in one configuration and then the tree and other systems to harmonise with it, discussing as we went, rubbing out and modifying as we went.

I like how though he was drawing it really felt like the ideas were crystallising communally and collaboratively before and as he sketched them in.

Then he suddenly said okay and cast that sketch aside and tried a completely different way of wrapping the drive in. And another. And another. I love this stuff and I do this all the time. Where the overarching volition is “let’s assume that we might not have got it right or best yet and poke and prod and try alternatives before we get all attached to anything.”

I want to see this attitude grow and infuse, permeate permaculture design as it is taught and practiced everywhere. For I know, without a shadow of doubt, that being biased toward ideas we come up with just because we came up with them and unconsciously assuming they are right is to healthy design as herbicide is to a herb. Kills it dead. I want to see design process live and assuming we are wrong and taking steps to reduce the wrongness before moving on is one critical key step toward such.

Sorry, getting off topic here. Let’s get back to the storyline.

Limiting Factors

Oh yes, this I also wanted to mention. I know from experience that every client-site ensemble has one or three primary limiting factors that each step of the design process has to take into consideration. So I was really happy to find Dave spending plenty of time and focus on things like wind, frost, & maintenance.

(Sort of but not really) Detailed Design

We next dove into more detail and passed through each area of the emerging configuration numbering and specifying plant details.

BarnSketch

Here is where the design diagram got to:

As you’ll see it’s not a detailed design in the sense of Dave’s book…

This diagram is from Edible Forest Gardens, Volume II by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier (October 2005) and is reprinted with permission from ChelseaGreen Publishing.

…but really a schematic (or what some people might call a concept-level) design laying out key areas and then listing possible plant species to include in each. So, just for the record, what Dave delivered for Yandoit Farm was more akin to what in the below diagram I’ve been calling the hybrid approach rather than fabricating (or at least is consistent with it). Tick! I really like how it is in pencil and feels fluid and unfinished. I’m also looking forward to exploring these topics in my next podcast interview with Dave.

By this stage, as is clear in this photo, I was getting tired. I mean by now we’d been at it for 11 hours!

Conclusion

So, there you go. I’m sure you can appreciate why I called the day delicious, and I hope this has been interesting/helpful to you. If so, why not leave a comment below sharing any thoughts or reflections it brings up for you. I close with a pic of Dave with the day’s design (which he generously had all of us co-sign)…

DavesDesign

Endnotes

In Dialogue with Dave Jacke (E06)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a high-energy, cut to the chase dialogue with Dave Jacke from Edible Forest Gardens. Dave and Dan explore:

  • Dave’s 38+ year journey with design process and permaculture including:
    • his first design project at Simon’s Rock College
    • his initial contact with permaculture and then Bill Mollison
    • his initial contact with the writings of Christopher Alexander (especially Alexander’s 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form)
    • his experience studying at the Conway School of Landscape Design
    • his relationship to permaculture
    • his ecological design process
  • Permaculture’s design process enigma (has a lot to say about ecological design but not a lot to say about ecological design process)
  • The relation between the designer, the designing, and the designed
  • Problems with the expert/hero approach to design
  • The relation between rationality and feeling/emotion inside ecological design process
  • So much else…

Dave Jacke’s work has been referenced many times in previous posts, and was the sole focus of this one.

We really hope you enjoy the episode, which is feeling like beginning of a longer conversation, and please do leave a comment sharing any feedback or reflections below…

Dave doing site analysis at Yandoit Farm, Victoria, Australia, 2016

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 24

About six months back my friends and permaculture design colleagues Finn Mackesy and Gary Marshall got in touch. They were keen for peer feedback on a beautifully presented short document laying out the design process framework underlying their work as part of Resilio Studio (Auckland, NZ).

You can download and view the entire (21 page) document in PDF format here or here. Here is a taste:

Now at first glance, this is yet another variation on the linear fabricating approach I found standard across all permaculture design process descriptions I could find in my earlier literature review:

Here, design process is conceptualised and written down or diagrammatically summarised as a linear sequence of steps in which a design is put together to a relatively complete level and only then implemented. A bunch of arrows is then added to try and do justice to the fact that in reality the different steps tend to get all mixed up with other (in space and time).27

However, flipping through the document the above image sits within, I was pleasantly surprised to notice mention of generative processes – which apart from by myself and these legends I had never before seen mentioned in the permaculture literature.28

The document explicitly differentiates what they call sequential processes (or implementation strategies):

from a particular take on generative ones:

Gary confirmed my suspicion that this inclusion was at least in part a result of his keeping an eye on goings-on here at Making Permaculture Stronger.29

I immediately realised that their document would serve as a fantastic example of how others have incorporated some of the discoveries of this latest inquiry into their basic understandings of sound design process. Indeed, in the very last post of this inquiry I shared how the permaculture design company I run alongside Adam Grubb has gone about this.

In this post I thank Finn, Gary and the rest of the Resilio Studio team for giving  me permission to share their process here (be sure also to check out their projects page including this example of them applying their process in a real-world context).

As Gary put it when he originally shared this with me:

this is a ‘live document’ we are keen to get input from a wide range of people to feed into the next iteration.  With no expectation, if you have the time, energy and inclination, it would be great to get your feedback – any and all feedback welcome.

What a great attitude – I’m honoured to count Gary & Finn as colleagues in the space of clarifying and sharing their evolving understandings in the genuine interest of strengthening them.30

Okay, more than enough from me. I’ll now hand over to Gary to introduce the Resilio Studio Design Primer, and I will share my feedback in the comments below.

We designed the primer as a high level, loose fit guide to the design process for the purpose of applying it to a wide range of design challenges and contexts. We designed it for ourselves as design practitioners trying to work across a range of fields and as a resource for our design education and training work.

The primer describes both agile/iterative/generative processes as well as sequential/waterfall/fabricated processes. In our experience design processes and implementation strategies need to match the design context. Depending on the project, we find that sometimes an iterative approach is most appropriate and at other times more sequential processes are better suited. For larger and/or more complex projects there is usually elements of both.

As an emerging design practice we have applied this design process and the sequential, generative as well as hybrid implementation strategies to a range of projects. These include purely social interventions through to physical infrastructure as well as ‘placemaking’ projects that involve both community development as well as built outcomes.

Gary Marshall
Auckland, New Zealand.

Endnotes

Darren J. Doherty on Design Process, the Regrarians Approach, and Making Permaculture Stronger (E05)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a wide-ranging conversation with Darren J. Doherty from Regrarians.org. Darren and Dan explore:

  • Darren’s 25-year journey with design process including:
    • how he got started
    • key influences along the way
    • key realisations along the way
  • The Regrarians Works Pattern and the Regrarians Platform
  • The current state and trajectory of permaculture including why good people so often seem to leave
  • The relationship of Darren and the Regrarians approach to permaculture
  • much else, including the new 10 week REX® Online Farm Planning Program (that Dan is looking forward to participating in as a student)

We really hope you enjoy the episode, and please do leave a comment sharing any feedback or reflections below…

Dan and Darren recording this episode last week in Bendigo, Australia

Oh yes, one more thing – during the closing comments at the episode’s end, Dan refers to this video clip:

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 23

Two posts back I summarised the key discoveries of an inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside healthy permaculture design process (starting here).

In the last post I shared a podcast with Ben Falk in which we chatted about this relation (as well as a bunch of other stuff).

In the next couple of posts I want to share a few examples of how a couple of different permaculture designers have responded to or adapted some of the outcomes of this inquiry into their own design process understandings, models, or diagrams.

I would love to hear from others about this too. The way I see it, either you already had something quite different to what is available in the existing permaculture design literature, or, if the conclusions of this inquiry have any validity, a wee bit of revision is in order!

In this post I’ll share an example from the permaculture design firm I run with my friend Adam Grubb. We call it VEG or Very Edible Gardens. In the next post I’ll share an example from some colleagues who run Resilio Studio over in New Zealand. Then, if you’d care to submit something, perhaps in the next post I’ll share your take.

VEG’s Design Process Diagram

Okay, let’s look at VEG’s example.

After many years of trying to diagrammatically summarise the design process we were using and evolving we ended up with this1

…which we were most proud of, and used to train quite a few workshop participants. Yet in the terms of the foregoing inquiry, just like all the other examples I have reviewed, this is a clean example of fabricating, in which designing up to a detailed level precedes implementation.

As the results of this inquiry started to illuminate crippling deficiencies with fabricating as an appropriate approach to permaculture design, I realised that things had to change. The above diagram just didn’t sit right no more. It felt like I was misleading people if I suggested this was the most effective way to go about organising one’s process. Furthermore, it was losing its correlation with my own processes of designing and developing, both personally and professionally.

So in a spare minute before a course I changed it2

…so that it at least now reflects what I’ve been calling a hybrid process (if not going as far as fully fledged generating). In a hybrid process, you get as far as a concept design before launching into implementation and let all the detail emerge from an iterative dance between reflecting, acting, and evaluating. Head, hand, and heart, all moving forward together. See an example here.

Personally I’m only just edging into the territory of feeling comfortable of bringing fresh designers straight into a fully generative process.3 I’m there with my own process, but in terms of an on-ramp for others, the above diagram is about as far as I’ve pushed it. But I can feel a completely fresh diagram emerging, starting from scratch rather than trying to retrofit what started out as yet another linear fabricating sequence, with the addition of more and more little feedback arrows trying helplessly to hold it all together. More on that in due course, no doubt.

Anyways, that’s it folks – one example of translating the outcomes of this inquiry into our work as designers and design educators.

In the next post I’ll share another example. Meantime, a good day to you.

ps. Again, if you also care to share your current best effort at a diagrammatic summary of your take on sound permaculture design process, then right about now is a particularly good time to give me a nudge. I mean I’ve just shown you mine, right? Surely a little reciprocation is in order?

More broadly, I’d be thrilled if this site became some kind of sharing place where permaculture design educators from around the world could share and co-evolve design process understandings. Permaculture’s lone wolf era is over, people, let’s catch up with the times here! Any ideas on how this might be facilitated (and in particular anyone with energy to help make it so) are welcome!

Endnotes

In Dialogue with Ben Falk (E04)


In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a rich dialogue with Ben Falk from Whole Systems Design. Dan and Ben explore issues and themes around:

  • heathy living processes of design and creation
  • working with clients
  • the relation of necessity to beauty
  • part of what it might mean to enjoy an authentic, healthy, connected life.

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 22

Okay, we are on the home straight here in what is the twenty-second post in an inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside permaculture design process. It is time to somehow sum all these adventures up and bring home the key discoveries. Here goes.

The Standard Permaculture Approach

I started this inquiry by showing that differences aside, every description of a coherent permaculture design process I could find (including my own) treats design and implementation as two separate phases. I mean two separate phases in the sense that you complete the entire design, typically to a high degree of detail, and only then implement it. After Christopher Alexander, we’ve been calling this widespread view of design1 process a fabricating approach.

Here it is diagrammatically (click here for the key to this and the similarly formatted diagrams below):

Design happens first. Implementation happens second. You come up with the design. You actualise the design.

In a fabricating process the rhythm is decide-draw-decide-draw-decide-draw before moving on to a big chunk of (post-design) DOING

Implementation brings up new information that feeds back into the design, yes. Some writers emphasise this fact less, others more. None deny that such iteration happens. That the design evolves based on what happens as it is sequentially actualised. But this feedback-driven evolution kicks in only after the design has been completed.

Issues with this Standard Approach

In this inquiry I’ve shared some compelling arguments2 that this fabricating approach cannot fail to compromise the quality of our design work, and of the gardens or whatever else coming out of that design work.

Indeed, drawing on the work of Christopher Alexander, I’ve tried to show how any attempt to complete a detailed design before implementation involves so much premature and hence arbitrary guesswork and imposition that the quality of the design process is almost necessarily crippled. Though Alexander was mostly interested in buildings, his point applies equally to everything permaculturists design and create. In Alexander’s approach to making things:

…it is theoretically impossible for a successful [thing] to be built from a set of drawings which specify every detail, because that would cripple the capacity of feedback to help shape the elements as they are built (Christopher Alexander 2005, p. 485)

Indeed, as we gleaned from a brief chat with an acorn, the idea of a separate up-front detailed design before implementation flies in the face of how living systems themselves come into being and grow. This is a little bit embarrassing for a design approach supposedly committed to mimicking natural systems!3

These are not the sort of issues to be downplayed, ignored, swept under the rug. They are issues worthy of shining a spotlight on, of bringing out onto the table. Of sorting out.

So where to from here?

Unsatisfactory ways of Resolving these Issues

One approach is to try and patch things up.

We can add more arrows. We can continue propagating idealised linear sequences requiring multiple disclaimers about how non-idealised, how messy, iterative, interrelated the reality of using them is.

I don’t find that approach satisfactory.

Neither is the alternative of what I’ve been calling winging it. While one might use phrases such as “going with the flow”, “being organic” and so on, in this context such phrases are euphemisms for doing shit semi-randomly and generally steering oneself directly into chaos.

The upshot is that we have found both winging it and fabricating to be fundamentally flawed ways of understanding the essence of a sound permaculture design process. Hence the big red crosses. Thumbs down, dude.

Two Promising Leads

The bulk of this inquiry has been an investigation of two alternative framings of permaculture design process. Framings which avoid the issues inherent in both fabricating and winging it. I have been calling these two alternatives the hybrid and the generating approaches, as shown to the right of this diagram:

In exploring this space, in addition to the voices shared below, I owe a debt of gratitude to the action-centric and specifically the agile movements in software development, inside which much development in these directions has been going on for decades.4

The Hybrid Approach

In the hybrid approach, which I happened onto thanks to a nudge from Bill Mollison, you complete a concept-level design only before commencing implementation. The detailed design then emerges from within the implementation. As Bill put it in the Designer’s Manual:5

Break up the job into small, easily achievable, basic stages and complete these one at a time. Never draw up long lists of tasks, just the next stage. It is only in the design phase that we plan the system as a whole, so that our smaller nucleus plans are always in relation to a larger plan.

In the below diagram the hybrid approach entails a little run of decide-draw-decide-draw up front and then jumps across to decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do for the bulk of the journey (The idea being that you do just enough fabricating to make sure you’re not about to get yourself in trouble, and then it’s generating time):

I shared an example of a hybrid approach starting here.

In this example, we only got as far as this concept design before commencing implementation:

Guess what? It worked a treat. Nothing went wrong. In fact a lot more went right than my hundreds of past experiences trying to make a fabricating approach work. The outcome fits its context beautifully, and really feels like it belongs:

It was also just really nice, to the point of being relaxing, to not have to worry about making detailed decisions ahead of time with a pencil. By making them inside the moment of implementing them, we instead used the bobcat, shovel and rake. This way, each detailed decision was so fully informed by the actual 100% real reality of where the system was at, that it was unquestionably better than we could ever have predicted up front.

Needless to say, I left the experience all but convinced that the way designing and implementing are related is absolutely crucial to the quality of the outcome.

I also left with the question of what would it feel like to start implementing before even a whole site or area concept plan was done.

The Generating Approach

In a generating process, such as that shared here, not even a whole-site concept plan is drawn up before implementation begins.

Here, even more differently to the standard permaculture mantra of:

  • observe (people and place or whatever)
  • concept design
  • detailed design
  • implement
  • evaluate/tweak

The process, as exemplified in this practical example, is instead something like:

  • Immerse in the overall context of the design
  • Decide on what high-level features or aspects to tackle first
  • Rapidly generate then iteratively test or prototype a first step until something feels solid and relatively certain
  • Adaptively implement that step
  • Re-immerse in the new reality of the just-transformed whole

Furthermore, all these things end up overlapping in time, with the idea of a linear sequence losing all relevance.6

This is the process as used to generate the emerging Mayberry Woodend landscape:

Here the rhythm is decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do such that the designing and drawing only get ahead of doing by a decision or two:

In a generating process, apart from the first decision, all key decisions are directly prompted by the just-updated reality of the actual real situation.

Christopher Alexander equates a generating process with an unfolding process, arguing that:

The more one understands the idea of unfolding, and the more one understands the key role which sequence plays in the unfolding process, the more it becomes clear that the process of design and the process of construction are inseparable” (2002, p. 322)7

Generative Whisperings from Within Permaculture

Because a generating approach appears at first glance to be the most radical departure from what the permaculture books say, I want to share here some fascinating statements from well-known and respected permaculture design authors in which a generating approach is clearly (to me at least) being hinted at, if not explicitly spelled out as such:

David Holmgren

Master planning, (where detailed plans are implemented producing a final fixed state which is a copy of what is on paper) has been discredited in the planning profession due to its failure to deal with complex evolving systems such as cities. Many attempts at farm planning by consultants, including soil conservation officers and landscape architects, have tended to be master plans which encourage the notion of a final state for the landscape and farm. It might be noted that the final state for everything is death.

In strategic planning, the emphasis is on processes of development which are on-going and respond to changing circumstances. It recognises that complex systems can never be completely described, predicted or controlled but that forces can be identified and worked with to develop a more balanced and productive system. Most importantly, strategy planning can help pinpoint the initial step to get the desired processes moving without later having to undo what has already been done. (1994, p. 21)

The living, evolving system which we call permaculture can only come about as a result of the continuous interaction between the client as designer/practitioner and the elements of climate, soil, plants, animals, buildings and people (p. iii) Melliodora: Hepburn Permaculture Gardens (1995, republished as ebook 2005)

Ben Falk in The Resilient Farm and Homestead

Early in his design process and site establishment chapter, Ben shares a simple diagram showing the planning and design process as an endless cyclic interplay between analysis (see, observe, study), interpretation (consider, decide, affect, apply, mimic) and action (disturb, construct, implement, manage). The diagram blurb reads:

site planning should be continuously fed by a never-ending process of analysing, interpreting, and acting.

In a 2013 podcast with interviewer Scott Man, Ben said:

More and more every year I rely on the planning process as identifying general steps and starting points and trying to visualise … an idealisation of what a place might be in 10 -20 – 50 years, but really using the planning process to identify starting points and letting those starting points then organically drive the actions following those starting points.

If this is not a generating process, I don’t know what is!8

Note: See also this more recent podcast in which Ben and I probe these issues directly and deeply.

Toby Hemenway

Although in his book The Permaculture City Toby recommends a fabricating approach, I was struck with this statement which to me is as, if not more, consistent with a generating process:

The point of any design is to move toward some desired outcome-a productive garden, a rewarding business-with as much certainty as possible, some sureness that we’re taking the right steps. … The design process, then, is a program for articulating that purpose and for giving us a sure set of procedures for choosing steps toward it (pp. 25-26)

Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster (The Field-Process Model)

It would be an unforgivable oversight not to pay respects here to Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster who in this important article not only make the distinction between fabricating (or what they call procedures) and generating processes but explore the characteristics of generating processes in much more detail than I have got to here. Hopefully some day the rest of permaculture will catch up to these exciting thinkers and design practitioners!

Summary

Here is the upshot. In terms of a sound approach to permaculture design process capable of reliably achieving the adapted, nature-mimicking systems permaculture aspires toward, winging it and fabricating get a big thumbs down.

The hybrid and generating approaches get a thumbs up (or big red tick, as the case may be).

In future discussions about permaculture design process, I would love to start seeing the hybrid and generating approaches at the very least being offered as equally viable approaches to permaculture design process.

It is my firm conclusion, however, that the hybrid and generating approaches are not only more viable. They simply are viable, whereas the fabricating approach is unviable as far as reliably realising permaculture’s promise in the world.

I sincerely hope that this effort contributes, even if it is a tiny little nudge, toward a stronger permaculture.

Postscript

I would love to hear what you make of all this, either as a comment below, as an email through the contact form, or, even better, as a guest post which I invite anyone to submit.

References

Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002.
Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Three: A Vision of a Living World. Vol. 3. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2005.
Falk, Ben. The Resilient Farm & Homestead, 2013.
Hemenway, Toby. The Permaculture City. Chelsea Green, 2015.
Holmgren, David. Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for the Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. Holmgren Design Services, 1994.
Holmgren, David. Melliodora: Hepburn Permaculture Gardens. Holmgren Design Services, 1995.
Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari, 1988.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to James Andrews and Alexander Olsson for their feedback on a draft of this post.

Endnotes

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 21

I’ll here keep sharing an example of permaculture design and development as a generating process. In the last post we saw the first round of reflection and action.9 Here I share the second.

Reflection

Having made the first move the process now really kicked into a generative rhythm or dance between designing (or thinking and feeling into the best next move) implementing (or making it), and evaluating where things were at now.

We moved our focus to what now felt like the right next step – a configuration of perimeter tree plantings towards addressing tensions around exposure generally and wind specifically.

As with the earthworks planning, the process here was led by being out on the site, marking out and tweaking from many angles.

We (the four clients, the tree planting contractor, and myself) started with some very high-level musings on a whiteboard…

Which was spontaneously made a little tiny bit more real by having some little paint pots pretend to be trees. We fiddling and jiggled before…

…heading outside (into a rare snow fall happening at that moment) to walk and look for issues. The next session we marked and stringed out the edge of the proposed main shelter belt planting around the entire ten-acres. Here Anna captures part of that process:

Here during another session Adam Grubb and I play with possible high-level configurations:

Here I talk through what had been happening (referring also to how we went about differentiating the whole space into treed and non-treed parts ah la our first inquiry):

Eventually we got a sketch of what was emerging onto a computer. Here is version one (each ‘m’ is a request for the Mayberry crew to measure from the fence to the stake-and-tape line so I could update the image based on the real design sketch which was drawn out 1:1 across the whole site with pigtail stakes and fencing tape):

and two:

Action

The first round of trees now went in (this shot from the south-western corner of the property), thanks to local tree-establishment legend David Griffiths:

Leaving the site looking like this:

Earthworks Round Two

A bit later, in March 2017, machines came back to finish what they had started, including cutting the new entrance driveway (the location of which in the meantime had been further finessed).

Leaving the site (during a post-machine phase of evaluating and soaking up what had happened, exactly) looking like this…

…or from the other direction:

The development process at Mayberry continues today. It is not finished and of course really never will be. But I hope this has been enough of a chunk of it to achieve its purpose.

Summary

This concludes what is hopefully a clear example of an attempt at a generating process. Not even a whole-site concept plan was devised or drawn before implementation began. The patterns (both concept and detailed) emerged or unfolded out of the whole process rather than being predicted on a piece of paper up front.

This is not to say that pieces of paper were not involved, but that they were very much secondary in importance to the process of laying out and making changes on the ground.

So we have, I hope you’ll agree, just turned this question mark…

…into a tick.

Boom!

Acknowledgements

Thanks heaps to the Mayberry crew (Anna, LJ, Tom, Menno, Rhys and Ren) for taking and sharing most of the above footage and photos – very much appreciated.

Endnote