Summary and Conclusion to our Inquiry into the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture (Inquiry 2, Post 26)

It is high time to review and wrap up Making Permaculture Stronger’s second inquiry. This has been an inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing in permaculture.

We started with the widely held understanding that designing is a prior and separate step to implementing. We ended up viewing the two as mutually defining co-partners in a dance truer to the living systems permaculture exists to enable and enhance.1

Here I’ll recap the twenty six posts it took from start to end. I’ll then catch in a simple diagram where we’ve got to.

A Review of Inquiry Two

The first post used the following table to show that nine clear, well-thought out documentations of permaculture design process all agree on at least one thing. They all agree that in a sound permaculture design process one completes a detailed design before starting the implementation of that design.

The second post drilled deeper into each of the nine.

Taking the process of an acorn becoming an oak tree as an example of how nature typically rolls, the third post reflected that, in contrast to the above process prescriptions:

…the acorn does not create a detailed design of the oak tree and only then implement this design.

It literally figures the details out as it goes along. The only place a detailed design appears is in the actual unfolding reality of the tree itself.2

The fourth and fifth posts introduced Christopher Alexander’s distinction or continuum between fabricating (completing a detailed design before implementing it) and generating (where decisions are made inside and during the creating process, not before it).

The sixth post shared wise words from Bill MollisonDavid HolmgrenDave Jacke, and Ben Falk. From these words I concluded that:

Evidently thousands of people are being taught an approach to permaculture design (based on what is in the books) that some of the most considerate permaculture design thinkers in the world reject on the grounds that it doesn’t work!

Posts seven & eight honed in on and reviewed the Agile movement in software development, leading me to conclude that:

In at least one important respect, many modern software designers are using design processes that are more sophisticated, more throughly researched and crash tested, more adaptive, and in some ways even more nature mimicking than the processes used (or at least publicly taught and communicated) by permaculture designers, who ostensively are all about mimicking nature!

What is up with that!?!

One might even go so far as to claim that in its insularity from design science in general, and software development process in particular, permaculture as a whole has quite simply been left behind when it comes to the best and most effective design process understandings.

The findings of this post have clear implications for our inquiry. In a twist I never would have expected, as we strive toward a fresh and more internally consistent conceptualisation of permaculture design process, we’ve realised that as counterintuitive as it may seem for people interested in real plants and animals and water and soil and sunlight, the agile movement in contemporary software programming may have a lot to teach us about getting better at what we do in our own domain.

There were lots of great comments on post eight.

The ninth post nudged the inquiry toward a practical on-the-ground-test of all this, and the tenth post enlarged the emerging continuum between fabricating and generating to include winging it, the culturally common pattern where you start implementing haphazardly and only chaos, mistakes and dead ends result.

Post eleven shared a quick progress review.

Posts twelvethirteenfourteen, fifteen and sixteen shared a very detailed example of a hybrid approach where only a concept design was completed before implementation began, and all the details of the a garden (pictured below) emerged from within the process of implementing it.

Posts seventeeneighteennineteentwenty, and twenty-one shared an equally detailed example of the purely generating process used in the Mayberry Woodend project, where not even a whole-site concept design was completed before implementation began. Here’s some early footage of the emerging design:

Here, in striking contrast to the standard permaculture mantra of:

  • observe (people and place or whatever)
  • concept design
  • detailed design
  • implement
  • evaluate/tweak

The process was instead:

  • Immerse in the overall context of the design
  • Decide on what high-level features or aspects to tackle first
  • Rapidly generate then iteratively test or prototype a first step until something feels solid and relatively certain
  • Adaptively implement that step
  • Re-immerse in the new reality of the just-transformed whole

Post twenty-two then summed up my argument that the complete-design-only-then-implement fabricating approach cannot fail to compromise the quality of our design work, and of the gardens or whatever else coming out of that design work. I concluded that:

the hybrid and generating approaches are not only more viable. They simply are viable, whereas the fabricating approach is unviable as far as reliably realising permaculture’s promise in the world.

Post twenty three shared how as a result of this inquiry the Very Edible Gardens permaculture design process has evolved toward at least a hybrid (complete concept design then start implementing) if not a fully fledged generating process:

Posts twenty four and twenty five respectively shared guest perspectives from Alexander Olsson and Anthony Briggs.

Which brings us to this concluding post.

Latest Diagram

Before closing I’d like to share this new take on one of the diagrams that emerged during the inquiry (click to enlarge):

We’ll come back to this diagram in a couple of posts time when something interesting will happen to it.

Before that, however, in the next post I’ll return to and refresh the findings of my earlier and first inquiry which was looking into problems with defining design as a process of assembling elements.

Catch you then and as always thanks for your interest and support.


  1. where humans are humble participants rather than tyrannical overlords.
  2. That post continued to say: “The acorn contains something we might say is akin to a goal, in the form of genetically encoded rules constraining or directing the kind and sequence of transformations that take place. This ‘goal’ contains parameters that are different from the parameters encoded in the DNA of a eucalyptus seed, or an elephant embryo.

    But there is no specific layout. No detailed design. No blueprint. No master plan. There is no picture to aim toward.”


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