Exploring a Framework for Thinking about Permaculture Design in conversation with Meg McGowan (E24)

I’m excited to share here the beginnings of a (Carol Sanford inspired) framework in my second conversation with perma-powerhouse Meg McGowan (the first was here). It is a framework I feel is going to inform much of Making Permaculture Stronger’s evolution moving forward. Here is a preliminary sketch laying it out as a starting point to crash test and improve together (or download as pdf file here). Huge thanks to Meg for taking the time to help me share and start developing it. Oh yes in this episode I also share my brand new project Designing for Life that will be developing in conversation with Making Permaculture Stronger moving forward. Exciting times my friends, exciting times!

Visit Meg’s blog here, the interview on the other podcast she mentioned here (episode three), her pyramid of wisdom here (note: compare with this). You can also go listen to the mentioned chats with Carol Sanford and Joel Glanzberg and Bill Reed by clicking on their names (where you’ll find further links to their sites and work). Finally, if you would consider supporting Making Permaculture Stronger financially, then visit our support page and mega-thanks in advance for what you are making possible in terms of supporting and fast-tracking the evolution of permaculture’s wildly exciting potential in the world.


  1. Thanks John and Mel. I’m grateful to have you both exploring this stuff with me and feel resonance with both your comments. John I think you’re spot on re the trust and commitment piece.

    Now I’m curious to further clarify for myself what “linear” means and doesn’t mean in this context. A part of what a community of practice is about for me is co-evolving a clear, shared language. So humour me here. The online definition that came up for me was:

    1. arranged in or extending along a straight or nearly straight line. “linear movement”
    2. progressing from one stage to another in a single series of steps; sequential. “a linear narrative”

    Given the framework we’re talking about here is unambiguously about nested systems I can’t make the first definition fit. I see the framework in the same way I see the nested layers of cell, heart, circulatory system, organism or leaf, tree, forest, lifeshed, bioregion. If these are linear systems then I think the word linear has stopped being all that useful. Or even better perhaps is serve, rally, game, set, match in that these are more clearly activities that exist as nested layers.

    The second definition I can’t make fit either, in that while I think it makes sense to introduce the layers from smallest to biggest, there is no sense that you exit and leave behind one stage to enter the next. You go out as far as suits you but then all the layers that are part of your mix are then simultaneously present. For example I might be recommending and helping someone locate a composting toilet, while giving them some kind of basic design linking the toilet to several other things, while teaching them about design, while mentoring them in design process, all as part of inviting them into an emerging community of practice. The emphasis might be more in one layer than another in any moment, but the thing is pulsing and alive and there is no linear flow of where the emphasis will go next. Just like the cell is alive and doing its thing inside the heart inside the circulatory system inside the body.

    So I don’t see this framework as linear. To me an example of linear thinking in permaculture would be taking the machine-originated idea of a flow chat and having different boxes or bubbles linked by lines called arrows that you move through in a certain directions. Such as observe -> concept design -> detailed design -> implement -> evaluate. As I have previously discussed with Dave Jacke (which he speaks to in the first ten seconds of that episode).

    One thing I was wondering Meg was if what you meant in this context by “linear” was more around the fact the framework contains distinctions? In which case any framework, model or description is linear. There is also the fact that language is linear in that we say or write one word at a time, and of course to communicate this or any framework language is being used so there is linearity about in that sense I guess.

    Anyways that’s my two cents worth for now!

    Oh yes, I thought I’d also also share a distinction I’ve been finding helpful that I learned from Carol Sanford. It is that between a model and a framework. The idea with a model is that it is prescriptive, like the plans for a model aeroplane or something, and often is created and held and sold by some expert. A framework is more a set of questions or distinctions that is shared and held lightly in an open source of way where its job is to support the co-evolution of understanding and through this effectiveness in the world. Certainly my intention for the thing being discussed here (and which I’ll further explore with Jason Gerhardt and Morag Gamble in upcoming episodes) is that it falls into the latter category.

    1. The model v framework distinction is more useful, I think, than linear v non-linear. After all time progresses linearly, from one moment to the next, so in that sense everything we do is linear. What we are trying to avoid is prescribing in advance what must happen at some point (or points) in the future. That is ok if you desire a predictable result, but even then is problematic as it still involves the impossible task of knowing the future. Instead we need to be alive to the present and move with the flow.

  2. Oh and just to clarify, I agree that there’s nothing wrong with a linear model and some things, like building a bridge, should definitely follow a linear pattern. We’ve talked about this before. It was not my intention to be dismissive but constructive. I think what you’ve come up with is hugely useful and only questioned the pattern, not the content.
    I agree with John’s comments above, even though he seems to have misunderstood both my intent and my meaning. I also made the point that we don’t need to start at the lowest level and ascend. In fact it was the main point of my concerns with a linear pattern of description. I like his observations about trust and commitment. Both need to be built over time.
    I suspect that one of the traps of a design mind is that we become enchanted with patterns and models and can spend hours playing with them. Finding just the right analogy or model is exciting. The risk is that we can also forget why we were trying to define the patterns in the first place. If they help us to deepen our understanding and improve our practice they are useful. I do admit to sometimes finding myself playing with the mental models for their own sake, entranced by the seductive lure of an epiphany. Ultimately the test for me is how useful these models are to others. Do they improve their understanding and, more importantly, their practice of permaculture? Or are they just a more complicated (if beautiful) way of explaining something much simpler? I believe that I have managed both over the years. De Bono’s ‘Simplicity’ made me want to go back and redesign just about everything I’d ever done.
    I like how this model, once described by a non-linear pattern, has the potential to give new designers a scaffold for client interaction that allows them to achieve the greatest return on energy invested. I’m thinking it would be useful to our coaches and we’ll talk about it as the basis for designing different approaches based on where people are within that pattern. Thank you.

  3. At first glance your framework seems pretty useful, Dan. It’s simple to understand and practical. Dismissing it off the cuff as “linear” seems unhelpfully premature! A more productive critique would be to ask: “In what kind of contexts could this framework be useful? And, in what other ways could it be improved to be more ubiquitously useful?” In answer to the first, well, it’s certainly VERY useful if you’re a practitioner wrestling with the everyday challenging choices around profiling a client’s readiness and supplying services, amidst the commonplace phenomenon of clients looking for certainty and tangible outputs rather than some sometimes more valuable but intangible outcomes, like fearless dialogue. Does that mean that every client-consultant dialogue need start at the lowest level and ascend to more sophisticated services. No, of course not. Dan, Bill and Joel on this podcast have already suggested optimistically otherwise. Not every client or consultant on any given assignment is ready to skip the more prosaic steps. (Although optimism leads me to assert that we all have the latent potential to do so with time.) Why? Because there are other things going on behind the framework that we’d be wise to pay attention to. Let me posit two: trust and commitment. Together they’re like a double-helix that helps propel collaboration; imagine for a moment trust and commitment (in equal measure from client and consultant) overlaid onto Dan’s model. Together these two attributes are necessary (and mostly) sufficient to support a range of service delivery scenarios proposed by Dan. Maybe the trust and commitment are both relatively low (and assymetrically so for the client). Then endeavouring to skip the early stages will be pointless (until something changes). Or perhaps one of the attributes is high but imbalanced between the collaborators. This is easiest imagined by flattening the helix into x-y axes and examining the combinations. What is most important here is that equal consideration be given to client, consultant and context. If the “chemistry” isn’t right to get to the upper deck of rich dialogue, why not? What’s missing? What can be done about it? What can be done to change it…I’ve got some elaborated thoughts, Dan, but I’ll save them for when we catch up next ..One passing thought: there’s nothing inherently wrong with linear frameworks or Cartesian co-ordinates per se, provided we don’t accept them as the ONLY or end frame and IF they cause us to think harder and ask better questions.

  4. Oh our pyramids are almost identical!
    Mine was influenced by Milkwood’s which I’m guessing was influenced by yours (or vice versa?) so I guess that’s no surprise.
    I loved your confessions of a recovering academic. I have no such affliction which might explain my plain speaking.
    Thank you again, Dan, for the opportunity to speak with you. It always informs and energises my thinking. I am deeply honoured to be in the company of Carol Sanford, Joel Glanzberg and Bill Reed, even if I do feel a bit like a wandered into the wrong room by accident 😀

    PS: I meant to tell you when we spoke that the captcha function on this page is glitchy. When I go to post a comment it sends me back to this page. I just click ‘post comment’ again and somehow I am now an acceptable human. It might mean you’re not getting as many comments as you would otherwise.

    Very best wishes with your continuing adventures in making permaculture stronger. Onwards!

    1. Thanks Meg. I just reverted the recaptcha thingo to a checkbox which hopefully doesn’t glitch – please (you and anyone out there) let me know if any issue remain. Onwards indeed!

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