A Summary of Progress Made and Where to from Here

Two posts back we clarified and documented permaculture’s core understanding of design as a process of assembling elements into wholes.

We also shared Christopher Alexander’s critique of this understanding, based on the observation that natural systems result from natural processes where the whole exists before the parts and forms the substrate only within or from which the parts emerge or unfold.

This lead into Alexander’s argument that genuinely organic or nature-mimicking design is more accurately defined as a process of differentiating wholes into parts.

Here are the diagrams we used to illustrate the difference:



The post ended by construing Alexander’s critique, along with his alternative understanding of design, as a challenge to permaculture designers, myself included.

The following and most recent post then shared excerpts from an email conversation with David Holmgren where, among other things, David agreed:1

1. there is a huge cultural bias towards details to pattern understanding and designing2

2. nature works from pattern to details3

3. we need [to put] most effort into creating design processes that effectively achieve this second pathway4

In this statement, one of permaculture’s co-originators and most highly regarded thought leaders endorses the validity, relevance and importance of Christopher Alexander’s neglected challenge to permaculture.

Assuming we’d like to accept this challenge, what would some sensible next steps look like? Here are some thoughts, in this order:

  • We hunt down, snare, and share any clear examples of differentiation-based approaches to design that already exist in the permaculture literature (whether in books or in other media)
  • We come back to clarify the details of this differentiation-based approach. Go a bit deeper into what it is and what it isn’t
  • We then make a first attempt at articulating the core or essence of what all sound permaculture design process has in common.5 We will start by asking what the distinct design approaches reviewed have in common. But my larger goal will be to push whatever we come up with all the way – to fathom what, if anything, all sound permaculture design process shares.
  • At this point we will summarise any progress, and having completed Making Permaculture Stronger‘s first ever full inquiry circuit, we’ll be ready to commence inquiries into other weak links (such as permaculture’s underpinnings in things like ethics, systems thinking & design principles).6 But let us see how things unfold. This is a big, juicy undertaking, and there is no reason to rush things.

This whole thing is about working towards a stronger permaculture by collaboratively identifying and addressing weak links.  It has been argued previously that a prime place to start the weak-link auditing process is with permaculture’s neglect of design process. We then discovered and are now focusing on issues with permaculture’s element-assembly view of design process. But all the while, as that specific journey unfolds, toward a currently unknown destination, we are are firming up some rules of play anyone can subsequently choose to use in tackling any of permaculture’s weak links they like.

Right then. More than enough of a segue. Without further ado, let us give a big warm welcome to the wonderful work of Dave Jacke.


  1. while also stressing it is “important not to deny any utility in what we seek to critique” – in other words none of this is to deny that the element-assembly approach continues to have a job. It is not getting fired. It’s just getting a bit of a demotion.
  2. i.e., assembling-elements-into-wholes
  3. i.e.,  moving-from-wholes-toward-parts-via-differentiation
  4. bold text added by Dan Palmer
  5. Where I have a hunch that the answer is not going to be nothing
  6. at which point my intention is to formally invite applications from others wanting to get involved, having shown one example of the kind of inquiry this project (Making Permaculture Stronger) exists to encourage, support and share

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