Bringing it all together in one diagram (Part Nine) – Mapping the design process centre of gravity of permaculture, culture, and even of nature herself (My turn!)

Okay, as promised, this post is my turn to complete the little exercise I invited others to complete in the last post. Mega thanks to Finn, Pete and Ryan who contributed their own take on this.

Mission 1.1: Where is Permaculture in General At?

When I do this exercise, as per the slightly disturbing above image, my little green smoothie blob lands here:1


Let me explain, taking the two axes one at a time. Let’s start with the x-axis which runs from fabricating (detailed master planning before implementing) through hybrid (concept planning before implementing) to generating (no up-front planning – concept and details emerge inside creating process).

Here I have permaculture’s centre of gravity in the fabricating space, with a little bloblet (my name for a pseudopod)) edging into hybrid. This is accurate to my previous in-depth inquiries into this very matter. In a previous post I shared this table, for instance, in which fabricating an up-front detailed master plan is very much the common theme.

As for the y axis, you’ll see from my perspective permaculture’s centre of gravity is in the assembling space but again with a little bloblet edging into partitioning. Again, I have gone deep into this previously where the idea of assembling or integrating elements into whole systems dominates most existing discussions I have seen or heard around the nuts and bolts (ha!) of permaculture design process.

Mission 1.2: Where is Permaculture’s Cutting Edge At?

Here I agree with Finn, Peter and Ryan in placing permaculture’s cutting edge up in the four spaces in the top-right of the chart.

Permaculture’s cutting edge

As shown in posts such as this, there have been and continue to be a scattering of design process innovators out in the hybrid space or even edging into the generative space.2 My friend and colleague Meg McGowan just recently wrote on how she is arriving in the hybrid or concept design space as her happy place when supporting others to develop their properties.

As for the y axis I recall comments like the late Toby Hemenway’s:

I think Alexander’s concept is much closer to how permaculturists actually design, by starting with something that is already a whole and then differentiating and integrating additional factors into it. The issue is mostly that our language has not caught up to our practice… Thinking in terms of relationships and organic wholes rather than collections of parts is foreign to our culture and not easy for anyone from Western culture to do. 

I think this is an important point. Any permaculture project that has been around for a while is in the transformation game, without exception. Regardless of what game the folk involved say they are in. You cannot get away with only assembly or partitioning without things falling over pretty quick. That said, my experience is that what is possible on the ground does shift to a different level in terms of the quality of outcomes when things are being explicitly approached through the frame of transformation. What I’m getting at is that I don’t think it is a matter of saying “oh well, if that is what we are doing anyway then who cares how we talk about it.” The way we frame things in our language matters (go listen to Carol Sanford on this point if you need convincing). So for me the cutting edge of permaculture design practice involves transformation both at the language/understanding and the practice levels.

These days I fairly regularly get emails from followers of this blog sharing their adventures in hybrid transformation and other of these top-right four spaces that are outside permaculture-in-general’s centre of gravity. Jason Gerhardt and Finn Weddle are two examples.

Mission 2: Where is Modern Culture At?

Like Finn, I see the centre of gravity of modern culture as a whole as hovering between the lower left corner and off the chart all together (or off the rails, as it were). Where things are either master planned (fabricated) as assemblies (A1) or things aren’t designed at all meaning they happen randomly, haphazardly, winging-it style.

Modern culture

Mission 3: Where is the Rest of Nature At?

What of the rest of the natural world we are inseparably embedded or enmeshed within? In which of the nine spaces does it play? For me there is nothing non-generative and nothing non-transformative in this domain. There are certainly no upfront plans,3 and it’s all the ongoing transformation of holons or whole-parts or nested wholes.

The rest of nature

That said, Finn’s take on this really hits the spot (as well as tickles my funny bone) for me:

“screw your chart, Dan!”

It’s like C3 (generative transformation) is this puny little window that nature explodes out of and blows to smithereens. Or better that C3 is this puny little window that gives us a tiny bit of insight into one tiny little aspect of nature’s modus operandi.

In contemplating Finn’s diagram this image emerged from some hidden recess in my mind. Yes it is a bit weird but it’s my blog so I’ll do what I like, you hear me?

…if you’re an optimist, you could say permaculture is an attempt to actually create a Garden of Eden” – Bill Mollison
“I’m an optimist” – Dan Palmer

The Upshot

Upshot is that Peter and Finn’s take correlates extremely highly with my own. Ryan’s to a slightly lesser extent but the gist is the same. Synchronisation exercise complete!

Pete’s take

Position Aside, what direction are we heading? And at what velocity?

As discussed in my previous posts about process signatures (and anticipated by Finn in his chartings), position in the nine spaces is one thing. But even more interesting, perhaps, is a) what direction we are heading in and b) at what velocity?

It seems clear to me, as corroborated by Peter and Finn, that permaculture-in-general’s design process centre of gravity is moving upward and toward the right in the nine-space chart. Further, my sense is that this movement is slowly accelerating.

If so, this would mean permaculture is not only moving toward its cutting edge (which makes sense) but toward greater alignment and resonance with how the rest of nature rolls (which also makes sense). Not to mention moving directly away from the mainstream cultural process signature (to which permaculture as initially proposed was a radical alternative, let us not be forgetting).

In the next post, which will be the last of this little series on the chart, I’ll explain why this excites me. To give you a hint, it excites me because I believe it represents permaculture’s coming back home.


  1. or, if I try and put it somewhere else it slides back to here
  2. incidentally, these innovators include permaculture’s two originators
  3. For the record, DNA is not a blueprint


  1. Great post, Dan! You’ve enriched my Saturday morning rituals for many weeks in a row. Thanks for your dedication. I love playing with this diagram, so will be sad to see it go. Let’s make sure our next conversation happens before this gets moved on from. There’s a ton of richness in this post for me in general.

    I had not seen the design process chart with all these great designers processes side by side. It made me dig to find a design process structure I created for my students five years ago. I feel it’s actually pretty true to how I still work, and captures a lot that you’ve been articulating (though I’m sure it differs too). Since I’m short on time this week as you know, I’m gonna paste it here, and would enjoy discussing this with you to explain it further, break it down/blow it up, poke holes in it, etc.

    Jason Gerhardt’s Permaculture Design Process:
    This is a process to follow for practicing permaculture design. It is never a linear process, as each stage reflects all others, but it can help you to get moving to look at each stage as a step. Using this process is the central function of the permaculture designer.

    1. Observing- using ones observation skills, reading the landscape, performing client/stakeholder interview(s).
    2. Analyzing- performing detailed analysis and assessment of the site/people (site and sector analysis, use frequency planning, analysis of elements (especially people), budgeting, random assembly, source to sink, ecological patterning). Further synthesizing vision expressed in client/stakeholder interviews with reality.
    3. Visioning- getting clear on what is feasible to create (based upon site/client/invisible structure observations and assessments).
    4. Planning- generating design concepts that harmonize abilities with vision, creating strategies and techniques.
    5. Communicating- creating documentation and presentation materials to effectively communicate the design, as well as WHY and HOW design decisions were arrived at (design drawings, supporting documents, project manuals, budgets, presentation tools and skills). Possible revisitation of previous steps to generate new concepts.
    6. Implementing- translating the design into reality and making careful changes to the plan as required by unforeseen/changing circumstances.
    7. Maintaining- steering the implemented design to keep it on course to achieve desired goals and vision/which can often mean evolving ones vision.
    8. Assessing- revisiting to analyze and gather feedback on the successes and failures of the design, asking oneself: What went well? How could it be even better? What went wrong? How can I remedy it? Revisit design process continually.

    A couple quick notes:
    -Every step ends with “ing” to highlight that this process is a continual motion. It’s alive!
    -Visioning comes 3rd, not first. I created this as a direct pushback to design processes I saw being taught. Starting with visioning means imposing a design so that everything else has to fit into it. That’s just not how successful life works.
    -Planning is conceptual. I want to discuss this with you in particular. My company produces very polished paper design work (we absolutely have to for the type of projects that require institutional/governmental approval, code adherence/variance, use of earth moving contractors, etc.) and I’m curious if you would view them as master plans. I call them road maps, with lots of potential detours along the way (why every implementation needs a project manager too).
    -Includes explicit recognition that detours frequently come in the implementing and assessing steps.
    -Something in here hints that there is no beginning and no end, whether implicit or explicit, I don’t know, but I think that’s important. Again, IT’S ALIVE!

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