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.


  1. Thanks for this great interview with the inspiring leader Ben Falk.

    I would like to point in the direction of “agile” instead of “waterfall” methods in project management and product development.

    In the 1970s, the dominating idea was to plan first and then execute (a.k.a. “waterfall”). This works great in automotive industry, where every new car looks more or less like the last one. The plan was detailed, and it was implicitly assumed that all necessary knowledge was present at the outset.
    It does *not* work well when the solution space is large, many things are unclear or unknown, and there are many good solutions. In those cases, learning by iterative development is the key to getting to a good solution at a reasonable cost.

    You can read much more about this in the software field, where it is called “agile” and in the process development field, where it is often a part of the “continuous improvement” aspect of “lean”.

    I am convinced that these metaphors and ideas are useful for a permaculture site evolution. (Sometimes the focus on the word “design” implies that “here comes a clever guy who knows it all and selects the best solution beforehand”.) I think it helps to be humble about all the unknowable things when we start.

    Looking forward to hearing more episodes!

    1. Oh boy, if you’re interested in Agile/Lean and how it can be applied to permaculture design, you’re in for a real treat! Dan, the author of this blog, is a big fan of Christopher Alexander, who of course was a huge influence on Ward Cunningham and the rest of the early Agile folks. A few months ago, Dan asked the question, “If permaculturists are big fans of Alexander, why have we not benefited from his wisdom in the same way the software profession has?”

      It’s a really engaging read, a rabbit hole. It starts here:

      Here’s a podcast with software developer Alex Bayley about agile permaculture:

      And here’s Alex on her own blog talking about agile permaculture:

      Welcome to the conversation! If you have an idea for an article that further develops the concept of agile permaculture, talk to Dan; he’s looking for authors for this blog.

      (Dan has also registered the domain name, but he hasn’t yet revealed what he’s planning to do with it 🙂 )

  2. 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

    1. Yes, I think ‘coaching’ (also ‘facilitating’) is a good way to brand such a dramatic departure from the ivory tower style of professional design.

      Part of me thinks that this is the only proper way to do permaculture design (and software design, and architecture, and…) I realise that’s a sweeping statement, but I hold that it’s generally true. We bring expertise and really good people skills (e.g., knowing how to coax out deeper motivations, empower clients, balance tensions between stakeholders); the clients bring the vision and the drive.

        1. Fair enough 🙂 I’m not the hugest fan of the word myself; just trying to think of words that would click with certain clients.

          1. Will share my thoughts on permaculture “designer” vs “facilitator” vs “coach” vs “trainer” vs “counsellor” in an in-preparation post where I’ll link to these comments – thanks Anthony and Paul!

  3. Hi Dan. Thanks for the podcast.

    I was recently in conversation with someone who critiqued permaculture for being a movement of architects, not of farmers. The insights that you and Ben bring forward in this podcast are helping me work through that.

    But there’s a niggling question: If permacultures can be evolved through the daily application of common sense and skill to a piece of land in a particular context, then how can that be taught? How can one teach common sense? Can common sense be taught separately from skills, or does one need to acquire skill in a particular area (gardening, housebuilding, plumbing, fixing tractors, whatever) in order to develop the common sense necessary to develop a functional system?

    This would suggest that permaculture would have most value for those who already hold a set of relevant skills.

    Anyway, lots of thoughts to keep thinking about – and occasionally doing something about too!

  4. Great work Dan. As a farmer, designer, educator and ecosystem participant I find the points you are making in what I call Adaptive Design Systems are poignant in permaculture transformation. Thank you for pushing the edge. Great podcast and various articles on this subject.

    1. Thanks for that Cliff and what with all the various kinds of encouragement I’m getting lately I’m feeling it might be time to start pushing a little harder! I’d love to hear more about Adaptive Systems Design if you have any links to more about it, or would consider writing something – a guest post perhaps? Just took a quick look at your site and I very much liked what I saw. Be great to stay in touch as this wider conversation unfolds and evolves.

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