Building on the last post this post goes deeper into the beef of both an acorn and Christopher Alexander with the culturally (and, as we’ve seen, permaculturally) ingrained practice of completing a detailed design before implementing it.1
Imagine you’ve drawn up a detailed permaculture design on-paper (or on-computer) such as the example here (one of my earliest professional designs).
Imagine choosing an object. A garden bed, an apple tree, a path, whatever. Now consider Alexander’s observation that:
When we examine an object, we may see that each element in the object (part, line, edge, position, color, size) represents a decision. In very rough terms, we may that each line represents a different decision. We may also say that each line has created space on either side of it and near it, and therefore typically represents some four or five decisions about space (through size, convexity, adjacency, organization).…Each element has the possibility of being wrong. By that I mean the element as placed, sized, and oriented, may be well-adapted to its neighbours, to the space around it, to the conditions which exist, and to the conditions arising from the structure of the surrounding elements – or it may be badly adapted to the neighbours, conditions, space, trees, arising from surrounding elements.We are going to count the number of possible mistakes, and try to estimate how many of these mistakes have been avoided, and how many have been committed, in different types of plan. It is here, that we shall see the vast superiority of generated plans. They avoid mistakes. A fabricated plan cannot avoid mistakes, and in all fabricated plans, the overwhelming majority of possible mistakes, are actually committed (2002, p. 186).
Here Alexander makes a distinction between what he calls generated and fabricated plans. The details of a fabricated plan arise in the process of creating the plan prior to implementing or creating it. The details of a generated plan, in contrast, unfold or emerge through time inside (rather than outside and up front of) the very process of implementing or creating it:
Consider the hundred or so permaculture design examples here, examples I personally had a hand in. Consider the example of permaculture designs given in youtube videos like this or this or this. In terms of the current analysis, these designs constitute the aggregation of hundreds or even thousands of decisions, all, it seems, made on a piece of paper before any implementation.
If Alexander is right, many of these decisions are likely to be mistakes, or at least not as on-track as they would be if they were made at a more appropriate moment in the actual unfolding of the garden or space being designed and created.
Towards getting as clear as possible on what the difference between fabricating and generating might look like in a permaculture design context, see what you make of this diagram (you can also click to enlarge or download it here as a PDF if hard to see):
As is hopefully decipherable from the diagram, in both approaches you start with a decision that needs making (such as where the new driveway will go). Then, in both approaches, you survey your options (or different ways of making that decision, such as the driveway could go like this, or like that, or what about around here like this? etc). You then, in whatever way, test the options and select one. The type of testing is not relevant here – it might involve thinking, doodling, marking out on site, consulting experts, whatever. The point is that one way or another you make a decision – you select an option. Now, again in both approaches, you draw in that decision on your plan (for example you might draw in where you’ve decided is the best spot for the new driveway).
Here is where the paths diverge. In the fabricating approach the just-drawn-in decision prompts another decision, and you re-enter another round of the same sequence you’ve just completed. In the generating approach, you go out and actually implement that decision on the ground. The actual reality of the implemented decision (for example the actual driveway itself once installed) now prompts and provides a context for making the next decision.
In the fabricating process the rhythm is therefore decide-draw-decide-draw-decide-draw before moving on to a big chunk of (post-design) DOING. In the generating process the rhythm is decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do such that the designing and drawing only get ahead of doing by a decision or two.
Perhaps the key to it is that in a generating process, apart from the first decision, all key decisions are directly prompted by the just-updated reality of the site. In a fabricating process, by contrast, apart from the first decision, all key decisions are directly prompted only by the just-updated reality of a drawing of the site.
Alexander claims (and I obviously think he has a point) that if you are making your design decisions based on what you’ve just drawn, you just don’t have access to enough key information to avoid making a shitload of mistakes. You are engaging in some degree of fantasy,2 and you will get off track.
Christopher Alexander makes a strong case that the process of completing a detailed design before implementing it (fabricating in his language) is inherently flawed. If we wish to create systems more akin to the rest of nature, Alexander agues we must us a generating process, where decisions are made inside and during the creating process, not before it.
For Alexander, in a healthy process able to generate nature-mimicking systems:
Each … decision,3 is made in sequence and in context. It is worked and reworked right then and there until it is mistake-free, i.e., it takes into account all the connecting relationships. This must be done in sequence and in context because the necessary information for a successful decision is not available prior to that step in the unfolding. (2002, p. 201)
In the posts to follow we’ll explore some resonant voices both inside and outside permaculture, we’ll further firm up how this might play out in practice, then we’ll get outside and see what (if any) difference it makes on the ground (the only place it matters).
Big thanks to James Andrews for feedback on this and all other posts in this inquiry. Thanks also to those of you starting to comment – it is fantastic to get your thoughts during the inquiry so they can inform and influence what happens next.