Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part One)

The following diagram is a hyper-condensed summary of over two years, 80 posts and 70,000 words worth of this blog’s assorted ramblings about permaculture design. In this three-post series, I’ll try and explain the framework or set of distinctions it shares and what it might (fingers crossed!) have to do with permaculture’s future. 

For those of you who are just passing by, please at least read this one sentence summary:

For the rest of you, thanks for sticking around, and let’s commence a less rushed second pass through a significant moment (and milestone!) in the history of making permaculture stronger. I’ll set the scene with a metaphor.


One way to sum up this project would be to say it’s been an attempt at something like an acupuncture needle. As I understand it, the idea behind such needles goes something like this. First, you start by carefully observing the patient. Then,1 if you stick the right needle in the right place, in the right way, and to the right depth, you can catalyse something good. You can free up blocked or stagnating energy. You can boost the patient toward vibrance and health.

In my own clumsy, sporadic, and making-it-up-as-I-go-along way, I have been trying my hand at sticking a needle into permaculture. Does this imply I think permaculture has scope for more vibrance and health? It surely does. Furthermore, after years of observing and interacting and thinking and feeling and doing and being I’ve decided to focus my energy (and my needle) on the part of permaculture called design process.2

Please don’t switch off when you hear the word design. Part of my aim is to get across that permaculture is about so much more than design in its conventional sense of making clever drawings before we act.

To me, permaculture is an invitation back and forward into a radically retrofitted way of being and doing humanity. Yet I believe that there is one primary blockage or barrier to permaculture realising its power and potential in this broader sense: the lack of a deep and shared understanding of what it is we’re talking about when we’re talking about design process.

Hence my repeated needling of design process as it is currently understood within permaculture. While the jury is out on whether my efforts will have any lasting value, I have been encouraged by the ratio of appreciative murmurs to pained yelps from the patient :-).

This framework I’m unveiling here has come from my experience of having stuck a couple of different needles into different aspects of permaculture design process.

The diagram introduces and suggests a name for a space that I believe is permaculture’s core business, home territory or primary purpose. While no doubt the language can be improved, I’m tentatively calling this space generative transformation. As we’ll see, generative transformation is a way of going about doing or creating anything, be it a garden, farm, organisation, livelihood, or life.


The diagram and the framework it conveys is intended to be like a new and improved acupuncture needle. It is intended to be conducive to permaculture’s good health. These current posts are an attempt to stick this deeper and more comprehensive needle into permaculture and to wriggle it around a little.

Aside from explaining the diagram’s innards, I’ll be arguing that to the extent it identifies with the bottom-left part of the diagram (what I call fabricated assembly) permaculture diminishes its potential. The invitation and the challenge of this framework is actively exploring pathways toward the top-right. Toward generatively transforming whole systems in life-enhancing directions.3

In the next post, I’ll get stuck into a detailed explanation.4


  1. assuming of course that a needle is an appropriate tool
  2. With resonant sentiment from mentors including Dave Jacke who commented early on that “I think that starting the quest for improving permaculture in the realm of design process is a brilliant place to start, because so much flows from that.  So much” and David Holmgren, who when recently asked what he thought the most important thing permaculture could be asking itself replied: “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”
  3. For the record this is no small ask – it requires collaborative and deep work of unravelling and escaping from culture-wide ruts in how we are socialised to go about things – but if that sort of thing is not permaculture’s cup of tea, then, I ask you, what is!
  4. Oh yes and I thank James Andrews, Delvin Solkinson, and John Carruthers for feedback on a draft of this post


  1. Vale Dr Palmer,

    After graduating from his Psychology PhD at Monash University, Dr Palmer published in scholarly Journals before becoming deeply engaged with the Permaculture community. In this transition Dr Palmer augmented his academic rigour with practical and business acumen by starting both the Permablitz movement and co-founding the Very Edible Gardens business in Melbourne.

    Those that met Dr Palmer will know that he always brought a great passion and humanity to his practical and theoretical engagements. His concern was not just for the wellbeing our living environment, but also for us. Making Permaculture Stronger is his testament to this. His exploration of conceptual frameworks and their practical implementation was always done to gently stimulate happiness.

    Hopefully this website will find a suitable archival location if it is not continued by the Permaculture community.

    As one of his friends from the early days of his interest in Permaculture I can say that Dr Palmer will be sorely, sorely missed.

    1. Thanks for sharing more about Dans background before his Permaculture journey took off… Yes his intellect and practical nature is sorely missed.
      We first met Dan as a Woofer many years ago when he built a chook dome, baked bread and made a fab Garage Band music composition with our 4 year old. Best wishes to his family and team.

  2. Thanks Dan for your intellect and practical analysis of the Permaculture Design journey. I will keep on checking in with your amazing sharing here online.
    As Bill Mollison said “just start by putting one fat foot in front of the other”!
    Take a step in the right direction, observe and ask relevant questions along the way, its a journey – personal and practical.
    For me, Permaculture design and implementation has been a very positive action, giving me energy in my life, as well as hopefully mostly enhancing my surroundings, to last beyond my lifetime. I love your personal approach to our mindset. Thank you.

  3. Hey Dan, well done on getting to this point, can’t wait for the punchline! At Mayberry, we’ve been knee-deep in generative transformation since the beginnings of Making Permaculture Stronger and it’s been a privilege to have been part of the feedback loop of these concepts being tested on the ground.

    By honouring the existing patterns of this land and our particular context as a bunch of humans living on it, Mayberry’s parts have slowly revealed themselves to us.

    It has not been without its challenges however. It’s an easy thing to slip into a “doing” space where your context and the existing patterns of a place are rolled over. In our experience, the real trick with the design process is learning how to remain tuned into deeper underlying patterns and allow solutions to unfold and enhance existing patterns rather than break them. We’re far from perfect at it here, but after plenty of practise we’re much quicker to recognise when our design process needs to be re-aligned.

    Keep up the good work mate, looking forward to reading the next few posts.

    M Crew.

  4. Thanks so much for this Dan. I’m working my way through your website now (can’t believe I hadn’t come across your work before) and it has reinvigorated the direction I want to take my own understanding and practice of permaculture. The ‘assembly of parts’ framework for design has always sat uncomfortably with me – maybe because my background is in nursing. It has always been clear to me that people are not best understood by reducing them to their parts or, indeed, observing them outside of their lived context and their relationships with others and their environment. The same goes for any scrap of life. Everything is integral to and actively influencing the systems in which it lives whether or not that process is consciously directed.

    I had a bit of an epiphany when I first read Stuart Kauffman’s ‘At Home in the Universe’ and saw his explanation of the extraordinarily simple maths of increasing complexity and emergent properties in systems as a result of the ratio of (random) connections to components. In one of your videos your phrase ‘facilitate the unfolding’ really stuck with me because I think our job is more about allowing the connections to happen rather than defining the elements or controlling the direction of emergence. I realised that what I’m doing is seeking a way to create an approach to ‘facilitate the unfolding’ of people and communities through a combination of compassionate communication (based on Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communition) , solution focus (from the therapeutic application developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg) and permaculture design. For me they are both complementary and synergistic.

    thanks again – I look forward to what your blogs and podcasts are going to offer.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Milly it means a lot to hear this stuff is resonating and motivates me to continue seeing where it all unfolds to from here. I love the sound of what you are up to and would love to hear more about it as you proceed – maybe one thing the podcast can offer some point is a chat with you!

  5. Dan, having staggered resolutely along the path your arrow points upwards, at times with you beside me the last six months, I can declare you’re well and truly on the right track. It was several months ago, that I put down my first permaculture book, and remember, apart from feeling inspired, being troubled by illustrations of pretty plans that seemed to have been pieced together. Since doing a PDC I’ve seen plenty more. Neat maps that falsely claim to be the territory. Answers that have been prematurely orphaned from their questions. So, what you’ve started to do here is to lead a way out of that unsatisfying cul de sac. Well done. Can’t wait to read the next two installments.

  6. Great stuff as always, Dan. Just a nerdy little observation: I’m noticing an interesting relationship between the rows and columns in this diagram, where it feels like each of the letters on the vertical axis has a natural partner in one of the numbers on the horizontal.

    So when you’re assembling, it tends to lead to a fabrication approach (pre-existing parts having pre-existing characteristics whose interactions have to be predicted beforehand).

    If you’re partitioning, (say on a site map), it leads quite naturally to the hybrid approach, where you define loose bubbles of space down to some desired level of detail, then fill in the finer detail as you go.

    And if you’re transforming, that is you’re conscious that no matter what part you’re working on, it’s the whole whole that’s getting made over, then it naturally leads to a generating approach, in which each step is an action generated by the new configuration of the whole (which didn’t exist yet when you were doing the previous step, so you couldn’t have designed around it).

    So it feels like the central squares (the ones your arrow passes through) are sort of attractors, places where actually-used processes are more likely to be found. It’s harder to think of an example of A3, for example (generated assembly) than for B2 or A1. And if you look at A2 (fabricated partitioning), although you could theoretically partition down to any level of detail, it’s unlikely that a really detailed up-front design would ever come from that kind of process. In creating detailed plans for a building, you might start by partitioning it up into rooms, but at some point you’ll move into assembling construction elements to really get detailed (or do the detail as you build, in which case you’re over in B2).

    This is definitely not some grand rule and I’m sure there are real (possibly quite useful) processes in all the peripheral squares. In fact any one project will probably wander through more than one square on its journey to completion. But I think it does kind of confirm that the route indicated by your arrow is one that can actually be followed in the development of a designer, which might not be the case for an arrow that marched all the way up to C1 then took a hard right, or one that slunk over to A3 then started a steep climb.

    I guess another way of saying it would be that our understanding of wholeness (vertical axis) and the generative potential of our process (horizontal axis) have to develop together, not separately. Almost like they’re aspects of one whole or something.

    1. Thanks and quite right Alec! This is something I want to explore more in a few posts after I’ve reviewed each of the two axes – the fact that the two are not really independent. I think it could be done, but you’d have to be pretty pig-headed to be transforming without being powerfully drawn toward generating (especially if you start by fabricating), or to be generating for long without being drawn toward transforming (especially if you start by assembling). Call it wishful thinking, but if the three central squares kissed by the arrow are like attractors, it’s like we just need to turn down the magnet in A1 a notch, turn up the magnet in C3 a notch, and permaculture’s centre of gravity will get sucked up there within a year or two :-). Your other point I’ll be exploring too – that any given project will wander or jump about from square to square (and maybe at times be straddling a few).

  7. Fascinating and holistic work. When I have been sharing these ideas from Dan Palmer in Canada and USA its amazing how relieved people and permaculturalists are to hear that they have been right all along not to spend too much time fabricating a design before diving in. Wonderful to muse on an evolutionary approach to design and decision making process.

    1. Thanks so much Delvin and that is great to hear – I find a similar response in the antipodes and one related thing that makes me chuckle is that professional designers I know always are generatively transforming their own places, even those that fabricate assemblages for their clients!

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