It is high time to review and wrap up Making Permaculture Stronger’s second inquiry. This has been an inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing in permaculture.
We started with the widely held understanding that designing is a prior and separate step to implementing. We ended up viewing the two as mutually defining co-partners in a dance truer to the living systems permaculture exists to enable and enhance.1
Here I’ll recap the twenty six posts it took from start to end. I’ll then catch in a simple diagram where we’ve got to.
A Review of Inquiry Two
The first post used the following table to show that nine clear, well-thought out documentations of permaculture design process all agree on at least one thing. They all agree that in a sound permaculture design process one completes a detailed design before starting the implementation of that design.
Taking the process of an acorn becoming an oak tree as an example of how nature typically rolls, the third post reflected that, in contrast to the above process prescriptions:
…the acorn does not create a detailed design of the oak tree and only then implement this design.
It literally figures the details out as it goes along. The only place a detailed design appears is in the actual unfolding reality of the tree itself.2
The fourth and fifth posts introduced Christopher Alexander’s distinction or continuum between fabricating (completing a detailed design before implementing it) and generating (where decisions are made inside and during the creating process, not before it).
The sixth post shared wise words from Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Dave Jacke, and Ben Falk. From these words I concluded that:
Evidently thousands of people are being taught an approach to permaculture design (based on what is in the books) that some of the most considerate permaculture design thinkers in the world reject on the grounds that it doesn’t work!
Posts seven & eight honed in on and reviewed the Agile movement in software development, leading me to conclude that:
In at least one important respect, many modern software designers are using design processes that are more sophisticated, more throughly researched and crash tested, more adaptive, and in some ways even more nature mimicking than the processes used (or at least publicly taught and communicated) by permaculture designers, who ostensively are all about mimicking nature!
What is up with that!?!
One might even go so far as to claim that in its insularity from design science in general, and software development process in particular, permaculture as a whole has quite simply been left behind when it comes to the best and most effective design process understandings.
The findings of this post have clear implications for our inquiry. In a twist I never would have expected, as we strive toward a fresh and more internally consistent conceptualisation of permaculture design process, we’ve realised that as counterintuitive as it may seem for people interested in real plants and animals and water and soil and sunlight, the agile movement in contemporary software programming may have a lot to teach us about getting better at what we do in our own domain.
The ninth post nudged the inquiry toward a practical on-the-ground-test of all this, and the tenth post enlarged the emerging continuum between fabricating and generating to include winging it, the culturally common pattern where you start implementing haphazardly and only chaos, mistakes and dead ends result.
Posts twelve, thirteen, fourteen,fifteen and sixteen shared a very detailed example of a hybrid approach where only a concept design was completed before implementation began, and all the details of the a garden (pictured below) emerged from within the process of implementing it.
Posts seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one shared an equally detailed example of the purely generating process used in the Mayberry Woodend project, where not even a whole-site concept design was completed before implementation began. Here’s some early footage of the emerging 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
Post twenty-two then summed up my argument that the complete-design-only-then-implement 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. I concluded 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.
Post twenty three shared how as a result of this inquiry the Very Edible Gardens permaculture design process has evolved toward at least a hybrid (complete concept design then start implementing) if not a fully fledged generating process:
Posts twenty four and twenty five respectively shared guest perspectives from Alexander Olsson and Anthony Briggs.
Which brings us to this concluding post.
Before closing I’d like to share this new take on one of the diagrams that emerged during the inquiry (click to enlarge):
We’ll come back to this diagram in a couple of posts time when something interesting will happen to it.
Here is a more recent article in which Joel writes beautifully about the necessary transformation toward life at a world-view level. Here’s a poignant excerpt:
Holding my baby son one night as he slept, I thought about how I would make his body. Having built things all my life, this seemed simple. I would begin by framing him up, joining his bones together using his muscles, tendons and ligaments. Then I’d run his arteries and veins, his nervous system, install all of his organs, sheath him in skin, fill him with blood, a bit of food and water and start him up, maybe with a spark from jumper cables. Of course he was made nothing like this, but this Frankensteinian thought experiment revealed my own mind’s mechanicalness and the difference between how we think about and make things and how the living world creates.
Everything we make is conceived and constructed before it begins to carry out the processes for which it was designed. Our cars, homes, businesses, schools, programs are all structured before they run. Like my son’s body—all of our bodies for that matter—all living structures are built by doing what they have been created to do. His body was made by metabolizing nutrients, water and oxygen and moving around, just as it is today. The river was not dug and then filled with water. The river running made the river. The branching scaffold of the tree was not built before it carried water and nutrients up into the sky and sugars back down into the roots. The tree built its body by adding layer after layer of carbon taken from the sky through photosynthesizing, from the moment it put out leaves into the air and roots into the earth.
Finally, and with particular relevance to some of the places Making Permaculture Stronger will soon be heading as a project, I recommend watching this too, where Joel speaks alongside several of his colleagues at Regenesis Group:
On April 9, 2018, during his closing address to the (magnificent) 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence, David Holmgren said he’d be happy to take a couple of “burning questions” that anyone wanted him to address to this group. One of the questions asked was:
What is the most important question you think permaculture should be asking itself over the next few years?
Here is David’s answer:
Well in that most general sense, in the sense of what is universal – what should permaculture collectively be asking – I think it is a deeper and hopefully more shared understanding of design process. Not in the sense of a narrowing down, or agreement but a deeper exploration because that’s what we say we’re doing all the time, everywhere, in relation to everything, and it’s not the outcomes and the sources it’s what is the actual process we are using – or is that a complete mystery and it doesn’t matter?
So just reflecting on that, exploring that I think is really important because otherwise a lot of the contributions we talk about, whether it’s within regenerative agriculture, or community development, or small-scale, is once those things become adopted in society, the label permaculture falls away. Whether it’s rainwater harvesting, or sheet mulching, or whatever. Those become adopted. What do we get left with? We get left with going back out to the fringe and finding the next interesting thing, and a baggage of things that didn’t work. That society didn’t adopt.
So, the core thing that the whole society is having trouble with is design process. The design professions are in as bad a situation, you could say worse, than permaculture. We don’t really know what we are doing, and getting a closer sense of that gives us a very powerful contribution
“I believe self criticism is essential so long as it is balanced by affirmation and recognition of self worth” – David Holmgren
In August 2017 I arrived at Polam Farm, Telangana State, India – a wonderland of biological diversity, cultural-intersection and diverse manifestations of ‘Permaculture Design’. Four months later, Polam Farm would be the host venue for the 2017 International Permaculture Convergence. An idyllic case study of all that is strong and all that is weak within the Permaculture Movement.
I led the Agriculture Team in the cultivation of vegetable crops for the IPC and associated Permaculture courses. It was every kind of challenging and all sorts of beautiful. Despite dramatic shortages in physical and human resources, Aranya Agriculture Alternatives and the team of international volunteers defied the odds and established biological, sanitary and accomodation systems plus a variety of other facilities to host almost 1000 participants from around India and the world for five days.
I was there to learn and to work and to live in service to something much bigger than myself. I was also there to speak about Making Permaculture Stronger during the Convergence. [Note: italicised quotes are taken from the transcript of my first session at IPC17]
I am here to act as a voice for a collective and share ideas that are not my own. I am here to tell a story. A beautiful story. A love story. A story of commitment and faith. A story with themes that will hopefully inspire and almost certainly challenge. It is a story that, as always, is part of a much great story – and where I pick up the story is in the land of my people – the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Some years ago I was fortunate enough to fall in with the likes of Dan Palmer, James Andrews, Louise Shaw, Pete West and Courtney Brooke (among others) on a journey around the exploration of Permaculture’s weak links.
This explorative journey was to form the foundational narrative that would act as a vehicle for my dialogue at the IPC – a means to open up a Convergence-long conversation about where and how the Permaculture Movement is falling short, and what we might all be able to do to make permaculture stronger.
But wait, wait, wait – what do we mean by stronger? Why would we need to strengthen Permaculture? This movement, so laden with potential, so utterly inspiring, so overwhelmed with momentum – surely things are ticking along just fine? Everyone who comes across Permaculture falls in love with it. Our ecologies so desperately need it. Our cultures so desperately need it. It is so potent, so ground breaking, so world changing. So beautifully functional. So functionally beautiful.
Permaculture. This loaded term. This concept so shallowly understood. This stigmatised group. This cult of personality. This unqualified ensemble. This evangelical mission, so out of touch with the status quo reality…
These are not necessarily true criticisms, but they are not uncommon. So what is it about Permaculture that lends itself to such critique from both inside and out?
Those of us engaged in the Making Permaculture Stronger project are all involved in the Permaculture world to some degree. We got into it for good reasons, and we’re still in it for good reasons.
What we all share is a deep, honest and sincere love for Permaculture. We share the deep faith that the artisan skill of refined regenerative design is a key to the future of the human race – not in the sense of endurance or mere survival, but in the sense of flourishing – of thriving in deep relationship with the rest of our world.
But our faith is not blind. No system is perfect. No culture without capacity for evolution. No movement without need of iteration.Every system has its weak links. Every system demands critique.
This story is rooted in one core underlying acknowledgement – that Permaculture is not perfect. It is not without capacity for evolution. It is not without need of iteration.
We humbly acknowledge that Permaculture, in all its beauty and vigor, struggles with all manner of weak links – some with the potential to cripple the entire movement. Weak links that must be addressed if Permaculture is to fulfill its potential and continue to facilitate a transition towards regenerative human culture.
And that is OK! It is a great thing. A brilliant thing! Nothing ever achieves a state of perfection. As we look into all natural systems, our greatest of teachers, we can witness a constant evolution – an enduring cycle of feedback that informs all growth and adaptation.
Permaculture, as a modality of thought and a system of design, demands of us a number of things. It demands that we accept feedback. It demands that we creatively respond to change…
The Making Permaculture Stronger movement is about doing something that on close inspection may actually be rather radical. It is about applying Permaculture to Permaculture itself.
In the interests of authenticity and integrity, the Making Permaculture Stronger (MPS) project exists to bring light to our shortcomings – to hold up a mirror that reflects our processes, ethical frameworks and modes of operation back at us – and to encourage the wide-spread application of Permaculture Ethics and Principles to personal and collective Permaculture practice around the globe.
It is not like MPS is unique in this regard – there are, of course, people all over the world engaging in such critical reflection. MPS is joining this conversation and striving to make it one of significant importance that is given due attention wherever possible.
Making Permaculture Stronger is a space where permaculture practitioners come together with a spirit of strengthening the design system of permaculture by clarifying its weaknesses and coordinating efforts to address them.
MPS is about slowing down, taking stock and sharing with honesty about where we are at.
This sharing happens with a positive focus on improving permaculture. We are interested in clarifying what is problematic only to the extent it will assist our subsequent efforts, or the efforts of others, to make it less problematic.
All sharings and communication within MPS are focused on patterns, trends, gaps and so on within permaculture and are not focused on the perceived failings of particular individuals.
Throughout the MPS journey, we have identified a number of weak links. Below is a non-exhaustive list that I have been adding to over time. A number of these weak links came forward from others during our time together at the IPC. This list is by no means definitive. It may be that in your place and space, some of these weak links are not present. But the important thing to acknowledge is that in some place, or many places, they are present and are having an effect on what is now a global movement. Some of them may challenge you, so I encourage you to explore them with an open heart and to go gently on yourself:
The inadequate explanation and neglect of Design Process in literature and education: Given that the Design Process is the vehicle for actually manifesting sound regenerative solutions, Design Process is distressingly neglected in most Permaculture ‘Design’ Courses and many permaculture texts. ‘The Curriculum’ suggests little more than a few sessions focused explicitly on ‘Design Process’.
Separation of Design and Implementation: Linear descriptions of Design Process in the literature tend to separate the cyclic/braided process of design into parts – in particular it is theorised that one completes a Design before moving on to Implementation. Dan Palmer is exploring the weaknesses of this pattern in this inquiry.
The dominance of rational intelligence over emotional intelligence: While offered more credence within the Permaculture world than other schools of thought, emotional intelligence is still widely shunned in favor of reason and logic.
The perception of Permaculture as just an agricultural technique: The true brilliance of Permaculture is the wide-scope of applicability. Today Permaculture is still widely interpreted as an advanced agricultural system, rather than a holistic system of design that can be applied to all systems – from personal lifestyle to inter-personal dynamics to societal re-design. Or to go even deeper: a holistic, integrated, biological life-way.
The lack of documented evidence under ‘Permaculture’: While Permaculture has been practiced in its consolidated form for decades, there is still a considerable lack of record-keeping and cohesive scientific evidence for many of its theoretical claims. Record-keeping and out-sourcing of findings is rarely stressed as a critical component of the Design Process. Permaculture dialogue also trends toward failing to acknowledge and integrate the documented evidence of other associated fields eg. Agroecology. When it comes to changing mainstream systems, the world needs substantial evidence.
The cult-atmosphere, dogma and idolotry: There are parts of the
Permaculture Movement that veer dangerously close to idolotry. The esoteric nature of some Permaculture dialogue and the ways in which more evangelical types can discuss the concept can trend toward a cult-atmosphere. This is dangerous territory.
Permaculture Design Courses: In general, Permaculture Design Courses lack enough attention on Design and trend toward being just ‘Permaculture Courses’. Design as an artisan skill needs to be fostered to a much greater degree. Generally speaking, PDCs still trend toward a land-management focus – the curriculum allocating one day to inadequately explore the potential of ecological design applied to social dynamics.
The lack of post-PDC pathways: The failure to ‘Catch and Store’ the energy generated during the transformational experience of a PDC. Too often course participants leave a course ready to change the world, only to emerge into a post-PDC world typified by a lack of networked Permaculture projects, a lack of support, and few identified pathways of engagement for future development.
Inaccessibility of Permaculture education and the stigma against public-education streams: Often the demographic interested in PDCs is more low-income and many are turned away by the price. On the flip side of the economic equation, Permaculture educators get paid inadequately to facilitate the courses. The economic model is unsustainable. Additionally, a widespread stigma against engaging with public-education initiatives means no State-support to enable participants to acquire financial support, Permaculture education to be subsidised, and tutors be paid adequately.
Voluntary poverty mentalities: A lack of adequate financial reciprocation sees many living in states of voluntary poverty or constantly seeking supplementary income, which in the long term inhibits capacities to apply oneself fully to the mission of regenerating human and planetary health.
The norm of shoestring budgets and low-income detrimenting economic sustainability: The issues outlined in the two points above impact the sustainability and prosperity of many Permaculture initiatives. Financially inhibited, many projects struggle to achieve the kind of wide-spread impact that they desire.
‘Fair Share’ as the ambiguous third ethic: The Third Ethic – sometimes dubbed ‘Redistribution of Surplus’, sometimes ‘Equitable Distribution’, sometimes ‘Fair Share’, sometimes ‘Parity’, sometimes any other interpretation. It is the concept of Fair Share that encourages the total redesign of human social systems and seems to offer viable means for ensuring both Earth Care and People Care. ‘Fair Share’ inspires radical action, but is so often weakened by ambiguity.
The inadequate exploration and embodiment of People Care: Too many Permaculture initiatives struggle due to a lack of People Care. This may stem from inadequate exploration of People Care and social dynamics within many PDCs. Without People Care, everything falls over. To describe People Care within a PDC as one of the most critical aspects of Permaculture and to then fail to explore it in favour of a deep focus on water harvesting, Zone 1 Gardens and Food Forestry is the gravest of oversights.
No ‘Self Care’ ethic: Or the lack of Self Care discussed within the People Care ethic. It is commonly said that one must begin with Zone 00 and the development of self, however it is uncommon to find self-exploration facilitated within PDC’s, discussed in Permaculture literature, or explored in forums. Zone 00 is a relative unknown in the Permaculture world, often considered fringe, with little support or direction offered to those wanting to engage in deep Zone 00 work. The interconnection of inner and outer ecologies demands more attention.
The lack of networks and systems for facilitating mentorship and intergenerational sharing: It is not uncommon to find aligned groups and natural allies in close proximity to each other, with little or no knowledge of the others activity. The opportunities for collaboration and mentorship are everywhere, but are dependent on the enhancement of networks within the Permaculture movement. Networking the movement is emerging as one of the most important tasks of the immediate era.
The importance of ‘spirit’ and the ‘sacred’, and the difficulty of articulating these concepts without alienating people: There is something about alive beings that many people summate using the term ‘spirit’. And there is much considered too important to be interferred with that many people summate using the term ‘sacred’. There is a necessity to refine the art of communication around these concepts so as not to alienate potential allies who may be turned off by abrupt exposure to ideas that are not part of their cultural worldview.
The aversion to international organisation: Despite the global nature of the Permaculture Movement today, there appears to be a widespread resistance to international networking beyond the tri-annual International Permaculture Convergence. The focus on grassroots action tends to mean a failure to acknowledge the global nature of the movement, the responsibility that entails, and the potential of global support networks.
The risks involved with a lack of standards for educators: Mollison’s idea of ‘just get out there and teach’ offers much for the dispersal of information and tools. However, without any kind of agreed standards for educators or any Code of Ethics, there are risks that include inadequate educational experiences; ambiguity around what participants are paying for; the spread of misinformation; and the potential for unsafe learning environments.
‘Technique of the Week’ mentality: The distribution of various Techniques via weekly mailouts, short YouTube videos and various PDC handouts is a high-risk pattern that can spread techniques as if they are universally applicable. By focusing more on technique and less on exercising discernment to determine appropriate technique, there is great risk of the wide-spread implementation of contextually inappropriate techniques.
Not acknowledging and confronting weak links: There is an unfortunate trend away from ‘Applying Self-Regulation and Accepting Feedback’ within the Permaculture Movement – both personally and collectively. The result is that many of Permaculture’s weak links have not been adequately addressed and continue to manifest in literature and education initiatives.
Big list, isn’t it? The distressing thing is that it is by no means complete. We haven’t even touched on questions around whether culture-wide issues such as patriarchy and colonialism are being problematically perpetuated within the permaculture community.
When thinking holistically about these weak links, they begin to feel much more like symptoms. Could it be that they are the manifestations of deeper issues at the heart of ‘Permaculture’? If so, should we not be going deeper – exploring root cause and underlying patterns? If these weak links are symptoms, what is the pattern that connects them?
We’re not 100% sure about it, yet. However, myself and others in the MPS community have a growing suspicion that the underlying pattern relates to what is most unique to Permaculture: the design process.
The design process has been at the core of the Making Permaculture Stronger dialogue for the last few years and aspects of it have been explored in Dan Palmer’s Inquiry 1 and Inquiry 2. Conscious design is Permaculture’s commonly articulated ‘How’ for achieving the desired goal of ‘mimicking and harmonising with natural patterns’. However, what conscious design looks like on Permaculture-paper may not be the appropriate means for achieving those goals:
The commonly communicated Permaculture Design Process does not mimic ecological generation processes (see here). The likely implications are design outcomes that never quite achieve the desired harmonisation with ecological patterns or the aliveness of living systems. The common articulation of Permaculture Design Process can be deemed inauthentic to Permaculture’s core ecological foundations.
Additionally, whatever Design Process is being embraced is rarely applied to anything beyond the landscape. Talks are rarely Permaculture designed, communications are rarely permaculture designed, learning experiences are rarely permaculture designed, social systems are rarely permaculture designed, conferences are rarely permaculture designed, personal lives are rarely permaculture designed. The Permaculture Movement isnot being permaculture designed.
Could it be that the way Permaculture Design Process is articulated, dispersed and (not) applied is having undesirable consequences? Are these weak links actually indicators of a need for deeper questioning? Is the core of Permaculture in need of iteration?
Day 2 of the Convergence saw me preparing nervously for my presentation. I had been overly-busy in the field preparing for the event and I was anxious about how the content of my talk would be received. How would people respond to the suggestion that Permaculture Design Process is ecologically inauthentic?
I put forward an invitation:
My invitation to you is to take up this challenge and run with it. To say “yeah, if this big, bold, beautiful thing called Permaculture is going to pull off what it is capable of pulling off, then we need to walk the talk and apply Permaculture to Permaculture.” To say, “No, actually, we haven’t got it all figured out.”
What we’ve got going on here in this global movement, this almost untouchable, unstoppable groundswell of ecological activism is so desperately needed and so brilliantly viable. We have the capacity right here in our hearts and minds and hands and relationships to bring about radical change to the way humanity participates in the systems it is a part of. We also have strong rhetoric – commonly communicated ethics, principles and modalities.
Within that rhetoric lies a code of conduct – one that is fluid, yes, and unbinding, sure. But if we are going to talk about permaculture, write about it, teach it – then we better practice it. And if we want to be practicing it authentically, then that rhetoric demands that we accept feedback and iterate accordingly.
It was an invitation taken up with gusto throughout the rest of the IPC. This session added fuel to the fire of a dynamic and exciting discourse which endured throughout the event and beyond.
My session was a high-level challenge to our community to question our weakest links. I facilitated subsequent break-out sessions that were rich, beautiful and brought together a wide diversity of participants to engage in peer-to-peer critique. The willingness to get involved in the conversation, whether it was in these sessions or around the bonfire at night, was deeply heartwarming for me and all others involved.
To be chosen to present the original session on the final day of the IPC, and for it to be attended by an even greater number than the first time around, was a great honor and to me demonstrated the timeliness of this dialogue. The climate seems ripe for these conversations. Perhaps we can move boldly forward, unified in our fallibility and our commitment to constructive development.
By no means do I want to take credit for sowing the seeds of critique at the IPC because by no means was that the case. For me, the most encouraging thing about the entire IPC experience was the emergent theme of exploring specific weak links in deeper detail.
Throughout the Convergence three deeply powerful sessions focused on ‘De-colonising Permaculture’ attracted huge amounts of multi-cultural participation in a challenging, provoking and constructive dialogue around breaking down racism, colonial trends and accessibility issues.
Andy Goldring, an avid UK permaculturalist, presented at the Conference around global networking and actually changing the world. He was also an engaged participant in my sessions, offering critical insight on the characteristics of Permaculture globally. Andy is one of the driving forces behind the Permaculture CoLab – an initiative focused on strengthening the weak link of poor global networks. The CoLab facilitated a number of experiences throughout the week that were aimed at fostering engagement in the CoLab, but also at exploring social governance systems such as Sociocracy. They were attended by large numbers of people – an encouraging sign for the future of global networking and social dynamics.
One of the Conference panels saw a dozen of the most potent female change-makers – including Padma Koppula, Rosemary Morrow, Robina McCurdy, Starhawk and Vandana Shiva – speaking to the question ‘Are women leading the change?’ It was powerful, inspiring, and focused on exploring the weak links around gender equality within the movement. I am sure no person present would deny that the raising of female leaders not only within the Permaculture Movement, but all around the world, has and will do remarkable things for the strengthening of all manner of weak links – especially around People Care, Self Care, social design and emotional intelligence.
Rafter Sass Ferguson – whose work with Liberation Ecology is addressing numerous weak links including sound evidence and bridging the gap between Permaculture and related fields – facilitated a panel exploring the relationship between Permaculture and Science. One of the resounding themes was the significance of incorporating record-keeping and record-sharing as a critical component of the Design Process.
Charlie Brennan and Bridget O’Brien – brilliant design thinkers working to align Permaculture Design Process more authentically with natural generation processes and focused on reconnecting people with place – facilitated a panel around Radical Re-Design which explored the reality that designs are in place everywhere and in all systems, and that one never designs but only ever re-designs. The conversation moved from land-management through to social re-design and was a refreshing taste of what I perceive as next-generation Permaculture communication.
Eunice Neeves, who has been travelling around Australia engaging with a diverse range of pioneers in the interest of recording and collating resources for widespread distribution, hosted a session on ‘Accelerating Succession’ focused on doing everything possible to pass on information and support to the emerging understory. I was fortunate enough to join Eunice, Courtney Brooke, Robina McCurdy, Jillian Hovey, Oliver Kristevic, and Starhawk on a panel about the importance of Intergenerational Succession. It was a powerful panel that explored the highs, lows and essential nature of mentorship and intergenerational relationships.
I could not go further without mentioning the remarkable group of volunteers that came together at Polam Farm in the lead up to the event. A huge number of experienced, brilliant, well-versed Permaculturalists came to the Convergence and the conversations with them were fascinating. But the deepest, most invigorating, most enlivening conversations happened within the group of committed volunteers who poured their hearts into creating that event. We endured all kinds of adversity on that farm – we witnessed Permaculture design at its finest and its poorest. In those volunteers I found a family to weather the storms and bask in the beauty with. In them I witnessed so much of what makes Permaculture so brilliant. So much potential for our future.
These examples are but a few of the wide-ranging and highly engaging conversations that took place on that dusty farm in India. The experience affirmed for me that while Permaculture struggles with its fair share of weak links it is also upheld by an abundance of strengths.
There are people all around the world deeply engaged in the strengthening of Permaculture as a whole. There are those brilliant, passionate, driven Permaculturalists out there who are not afraid to cast a critical eye over the movement they are engaged in – to not only critique the movement but also themselves and their own practice.
Just as the tender form of the seedling exists in continuous response to environmental feedback, so too must we respond to the feedback we are receiving as a movement – both from within and without. And the exciting part is not just that we must respond to feedback, but that we are.
Maybe not everyone just yet and maybe not with full force, but slowly and surely Permaculturalists around the world are heeding the call – mimicking their biological counterparts and adapting to their ever-changing world.
We talk about how one of Permaculture’s great strengths is its capacity to be applied to all kinds of systems.
Well, we have to apply it to our own. We need to work on the Zone 00 of the Permaculture Movement.
It is not an option. We’re obligated by everything we believe in to take up the great challenges of exploring our weak links. We are duty bound by our love. It’s not just that we can, but that we must actively participate in the improvement and evolution of Permaculture as both an artisan skill and a social movement that could change the world.
In my experience as one outspoken about the urgent need to explore our fallibilities, the response has generally been one of mild confusion followed in time by enthusiastic commitment. When the mirror is held up and the obligation is put bluntly on the table, few Permaculturalists have turned away from the challenge.
I really applaud you all for initiating this and 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
Trish Allen – Elder of Permaculture in NZ – said mid-session at IPC17 India
In India they leapt into an excited conversation around a roaring fire surrounded by an international community of regenerative practitioners – the kind of conversation that kicks sparks up into the air and dances merrily into the early hours of the morning. Some thanked me for saying all I had said. To those I said ‘thank you for not turning away’.
We’ve got all manner of weaknesses, no doubt. But we’ve also got all the nous, grit, passion, love and know-how to explore those weaknesses and understand what they are telling us. Maybe even to re-design what we hold most dear. Maybe even to re-design Permaculture.
In the quiet moments, as I looked on at the fire-lit faces of these agents of change – some of considerable renown and some totally innocuous – all moving to the beat of an impromptu band, I felt a deep stirring in my heart…
Dave Hursthouse is a New Zealand based Ecological Designer, Facilitator and Educator. He brings a critical, and revolutionary eye to all that he engages with and is resolutely committed to improving senescent human systems via wholesome processes of design. Dave is enthusiastically focused on sowing the seeds of passion and courage among those world-shakers and world-makers dedicated to developing human systems more in tune with wider ecological patterns. He is passionate about transformative learning, forest ecologies, systemic patterns, critical theory, design philosophy, design process and radically creative change-making. Dave considers the Permaculture Movement to be one of the most potential-laden social movements of all time and is determined to see that potential acted on all around the world with humility, authenticity and integrity.
Last week saw the 14th Australian Permaculture Convergence happening just outside Canberra. It was a fantastic, brilliantly run event and a great privilege to be part of (go team). I personally felt during this event that – in many different ways involving many different people – permaculture got stronger.
Here is Brenna Quinlan’s illustration of Day One (of the subset of sessions she could get to, that is)…
…now zooming in on how she turned something of my session on Making Permaculture Stronger into pictures (including some sneak previews of content to appear in upcoming blog posts)…
…and here is Day Two…
…and Day Three…
I’m excited to share that Brenna will be helping to illustrate the upcoming book on Making Permaculture Stronger. This is VERY good news! Especially when combined with editorial assistance from Linnet Good, James Andrews, and, who knows, possibly even your good self (at some point there will be a call out for volunteer reviewers).
I will hope to record a video or something sharing some further reflections on the event, and the sessions were also all recorded so there’s likely a few podcasts in the pipeline too. In particular I look forward to sharing David Holmgren’s answer during his closing address to the question (never mind who asked it, that is completely irrelevant): “David what do you think is the most important question permaculture could be asking itself in the the next few years?”
Speaking of video here’s a little clip I shot and threw together on the fly…
For now I close with a happy snap with two of the people I most enjoyed hanging out with (alongside so many others, including Rachel and Morag and Costa and Miriam and Aaron and Oli and Rowe and Robyn and Matt and Silas and Monique and Travis and oh gosh I’ll never remember you all, but you all know who you are!). If you don’t recognise the one on the left then you’re probably visiting the wrong blog, and over on the right is my wonderful new friend and colleague Erin Young who brings an amazing skillset around the social aspects of permaculture and supporting people to thrive as they work toward a thriving planet.
This episode is a recording of a session during a four-day workshop that was run last week by David Holmgren from Holmgren Design and Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger. The workshop was entitled Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process, and this episode shares the story of Dan’s personal journey with permaculture design process, to which David responds with something of his own story.
Here is a photo of Dan sharing his story…
…and David responding…
Huge thanks to Keri Chiveralls for coming and for taking and sharing all three photos, Bec Lowe and Brenna Quinlan for supporting David and Dan during the course (and for Brenna’s amazing illustrations), Su Dennet for feeding everyone, and the other participants for coming along and making it all possible and for integrating their beautiful energies into the mix of this emerging conversation whose time has come around (once again): Andrew, Anitra, Annaliese, Anne, Ben, Daryl, Delldint, Delvin, Franky, Gavin, Jazmyn, Jenny, Ken, Kim, Ko, Linnet, Lukas, Michae,l Michelle, Pierre, Sean, Stacey, Ugo, Venetia, Wayne & Willow
By way of this week’s post I share Brenna Quinlan’s fantabulous hand-drawn illustrations of days 1-3 of the four-day Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process workshop David Holmgren and I ran last week (with thirty lovely participants). I’ll add a photo or two at some point and hopefully the day four illustration will eventuate also. I set a precedent for coverage of this event last year so figure I’ll keep the tradition alive.
The event was a huge experience for me and for making permaculture stronger, to the extent of prompting a possible change of name for the whole project, amongst so many other things. All will be revealed in due course, I promise. Meantime enjoy Brenna’s extraordinary gift for capturing the message of the moment with such beautiful imagery.
And I’ll start getting ready for presenting at a national gathering of Australian permaculturalists next week…
With his partner Sonja Hörster, Jascha has created a fascinating and powerful way of framing design process they call the Field Process Model. The Field Process Model brings together inspiration from Bill Mollison’s core model and Christopher Alexander’s generative process against the philosophical backdrop of field theory (rather than the systems thinking backdrop permaculture usually stems from). Here it is sketched at a high level in two dimensions (get your head around this first, where reading this article is highly recommended)…
…here in more detail in three dimensions (or of course four if you include the movement or dance through time):
Here are field process model originators Jascha and Sonja during the recording, which happened on February 20, 2018.
The red squiggle indicates a certain four-volume set of books, the second volume of which just happened to also be sitting just behind Dan…
Note from Dan: In this post Anthony Briggs from Melbourne shares his reflections on Making Permaculture Stronger, the current inquiry and in particular an alternative take on generating processes.
I’ve been reading Making Permaculture Stronger avidly since Dan first started writing it, about his reactions to the limitations of Permaculture’s big upfront design process, and how he and others have improved it by splicing in Alan Savory’s Holistic Management techniques and Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and holistic methods.
I watched a similar process play out in my field more than a decade ago. Around the mid-1990s, people started to realise that the standard software development process (usually some variant of waterfall) was pretty broken. Knowing enough detail upfront to be able to plan a successful project from beginning to end has a large cost; in complex, changing situations, mapping out every detail quickly becomes exorbitant. In response, systems like Scrum, Extreme Programming and Lean Software Development were developed, under a broad “Agile Development” banner.1
All of which maps onto Dan’s Permaculture design spectrum pretty well.2 Waterfall is the dreaded Big Design Up Front, aka. Fabrication, and most of the agile programming systems above fall pretty squarely under the Generating or Hybrid models that Dan’s described. All of them use rapid iterative cycles, deliver a small amount of stuff at a time, and accept feedback, and frequently use low-detail-but-good-enough documentation like user stories and burndown charts to get things done.
But of course, like any two human beings, Dan and I have differing opinions on some of the things he’s said here, despite agreeing on 95% of it, and so he’s suggested that I put down some of them in an article. There are also some of his ideas that I can extend or put a different spin on.
Design and Computer Science
The first cross-pollination was when I realised the overlap between some of the Permaculture design methods and Computer Science (CS).3 There’s an old adage about CS being about computers in the same way that Astronomy is about telescopes – they’re useful tools, but ultimately not what the field is about.
My favourite definition of CS is this one:
Computer Science is the study of the storage, transformation and transfer of information. The field encompasses both the theoretical study of algorithms, and the practical problems of implementing them in terms of computer software and hardware.4
If you think of design at a high level as being a search for a solution (or even just for information) given a particular set of resources, constraints, people and places (the context), then there’s a lot of CS that’s directly relevant: organising what you know and making connections between the parts, searching through that information, and then making sense of the knowledge and its connections and mapping that back onto reality.
A working definition of design that emphasises this might be something like:
The search for a workable solution to a problem in a highly complex situation.
If you’re doing something simple like making a sandwich or switching on a light there’s not much design needed, but as the complexity of your task goes up there’s more need for a structure to manage the information and communicate it as you search for a solution. Structure covers things like processes, algorithms, check lists and design documents but also more fundamental things: connections, hierarchies, trees and networks.5
Dan paints Fabricating as a terrible, horrible, awful thing to inflict on people,6 and it is a bad choice for most Permaculture projects. But depending on the situation it can be a better choice than a generating process:
If you have a high cost of failure – due to safety or financial concerns.
Your project is deployed into a very predictable situation.
If there are time constraints and you can’t iterate, or you only have one chance to get things right.
Sometimes this means that you have to reduce the scope of the project to just what you can accurately predict or model, or run a very specific process to make sure that things are predictable. Think of the programs running medical equipment, airplanes, cars, space probes, power plants, phone networks, banks, and so on.7
Most Permaculture projects are relatively small scale, but I can think of a few cases that might fit the bill. If you wanted to design an ecovillage or small town, you’d want to spend time making sure that you have enough water and food for everyone. If you were to run it in an agile way, you’d add people until your limits on water were reached. In Australia we have dry spells every decade or so. An agile village may start up during the good years, and grow rapidly, but then end up having to kick people out at huge personal cost when conditions change.
It’s much better in that case to map out better to map out the climate, soil types and rainfall patterns ahead of time than “just build the dam a bit bigger if you need to”. Permaculture tends to favour small and slow solutions, but sometimes you don’t have a choice.
If you’re interested in exploring these themes in more detail, then Simon Wardley has done a lot of writing on the process he uses in mapping high level IT project landscapes, and deciding which technologies and project management styles to use. A good starting point is his article Better for Less, particularly figures 235 and 236.
Continuous scale, rather than four process types
One of the tenets of Agile processes is that you should modify your process where it makes sense. You might need some extra steps around a risky task like updating a server, or you might be able to drop something (like a meeting) that doesn’t make sense. There’s a balance between how much time and money you spend upfront, and the risk that something will go wrong, and you can spend more effort if you need more control.
So I don’t really see four separate types of development as Dan’s mapped out (and Dan’s mentioned “continuum” and “hybrid” several times, so I know he doesn’t either).
Instead, there’s a more continuous scale of “How much control (or pre-knowledge, understanding or certainty) are you trying to get over the thing that you’re designing for?” One end is “lots of control”, and the other is “no control at all”. One more document or design meeting won’t tip you all the way into Big Design Up Front, but maybe just an extra 1/17th of the way.
The important point though, is that you can modify your process (more or less up front design work) based on how much information you have, or control that you want. It’s also one of the reasons that I think “Winging It” should be on the right hand side of Dan’s chart: it makes the gradient of control much clearer.
I can imagine a hybrid between any of these four types of design, except for Winging It and Fabricating.
As an example, if you’re in a situation where you don’t know enough about your current context, then it’s difficult to come up with a design until you do. So a hybrid between Winging It and Generating works: Try some things out until you can see the patterns, then fit your observations (and current “design”) into a generative process. Processes like the Lean Startup model tend to work this way – come up with a “pie-in-the-sky” business model, write down the assumptions that it’s based on, then demonstrate or invalidate them as cheaply as possible.
And sometimes, yes, once you’ve figured things out, you find that what you’ve been doing is completely wrong, and the best option is to throw away what you’ve done so far and start over with something more appropriate. You might have quite a bit of time, money or ego invested in the existing design, but it’s a sunk cost – in the long term the better design will win.8
But the control that you’re trying to assert is a two-edged sword – it’s only *attempted* control. The more chaotic the situation, the less well your control works, and the return on investment of your planning starts to diminish. A detailed design or program specification in thick, three-ring binders isn’t going to help if the whole business model is likely to change, and most of the money and time you spent developing it will be wasted.
Though unlikely to happen in reality, if a situation is genuinely completely random,9 then any plan is as good as another, so the best option is to spend no time or effort planning at all, aka. our old friend “Winging It”.
Sometimes too, the situation changes. It might become more or less chaotic 10, and so the best methods to use change too. Better technology11 can help too, by making design cheaper or less risky. A good example is drone mapping. 50 years ago a 50cm contour map over 100 acres would’ve been too expensive to worry about, but now it’s doable with a drone for only a few thousand dollars. With better, more detailed information available, you can improve your control over the project, and make a more detailed, predictable plan for less cost.
Large -> Small patterns
As an extension to one of Dan’s diagrams, I’ve noticed that the “decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do” charts are not the whole picture. Dan also uses the Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence in guiding what to work on first. Similarly, when Dan talks about how Bill Mollison set out hybrid designs, Bill starts with large scale up front plans, then works out the smaller details as he goes.
So, the “decide-draw-do” diagrams would more properly look something like this.
Impact grows smaller as you progress through and complete a design. Choosing your site will have the largest impact, adding water and access a smaller (but still large) one, crops and animals a smaller impact still, and so on.
In an ideal design and implementation, the impact of designing and doing is large to start with, but then tapers off as you “fill in the gaps”. If you reach an impasse and need to step back and fix parts, then the impact will jump high, then taper off again.
Dan’s techniques and “Qualitative” design
Where I think Dan’s having the biggest impact is in adapting Christopher Alexander’s process to Permaculture, and fully exploring how a design might “feel” when it’s implemented and you’re in it. Our culture trains our analytical conscious mind to override these feelings, so you might not even notice them – but in the long term they have the most impact.
Dan frequently refers to “tuning in” to a situation or context, or “immersing” yourself – slowing down and taking time to see how a particular place or element of a design makes you feel. Hot? Cold? Windy? On edge? Exposed or isolated? Too close or confined? Enclosed in a nest or sanctuary? Worried about whether you’ll have enough water next summer? Dan’s design process starts with the feelings that are the strongest, which I think is hugely powerful.
I’ve been thinking of this perspective as “Qualitative Design”, as opposed to the normal“Quantitative Design” view, which mostly focuses on easy to measure yields like “How much food can I get out of this patch of land?” or “How long does it take me to do my chores each morning?” If we want to change Western culture, and we desperately need to, this (I feel) is the place to start. Another way to think about it might be as “Inner Landscape Reading”; the human-centred dual of David Homgren’s physical landscape reading.
What does this look like with a person in the middle?
As a hard core reductionist scientist type person, this was a key realisation for me on the last day of the Advanced Design Course with Dan and David – that the aesthetics of how elements are arranged (or differentiated) and how they interact with the people involved should be an integral part of the design process. People are the biggest component of a design, so it makes sense that one which facilitates happy, productive people will give much better results than just optimising yields and drawing straight line efficient paths between parts of a site..
In a comment on an early draft of this piece, Dan describes his process as:
…in a generating attitude MORE time and effort goes into upfront mapping, listening, immersing, tuning in, calculating, researching etc (not to mention honing in on and crash-testing first steps). As in much, much more, such that what actually happens is much more deeply a reflection of the real forces at play in the situation. The focus is on getting the next step right […] a generating approach is more closely focused on letting the details change as proves optimal for the context as the actual dam is being built.
…which seems pretty bang on to me in context with everything that I’ve seen Dan and VEG do. Ironically though, by taking more time and mapping out everything to do with the next step, Dan’s moving back towards what seems to be a more deliberate, Fabrication side of the scale, albeit Fabrication after trying to absorb as much information as possible, including via subliminal impressions. Perhaps this is a sign that there are two parts to the Living Design Process that might need to be differentiated: the iterative process, and the “tuning in”.
But that’s just me being contrary again, I can’t help myself.12 It’s been amazing to take both a PDC and and Advanced PDC with Dan, as well as following Making Permaculture Stronger, and watch him evolve these thoughts and put them into practice, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.