Talking Permaculture and Design Thinking with Gordon from Rune Soup

Thanks to Gordon White for a fascinating chat I look forward to continuing in future. As Gordon put it on his release page:

This week we welcome to the show permaculture designer and theorist, Dan Palmer. Dan is the host of the podcast, Making Permaculture Stronger, where he facilitates fascinating discussions on what’s right and what’s wrong with permaculture and where it might be headed next. And the tl;dr is that what’s wrong with permaculture is, in the main, what’s wrong with everything else.

So we have a great discussion on the theory of design in general, the shortcomings of western categorisations and their dualist implications and, somewhat improbably, merging with a chicken.

It’s a truly fantastic chat. Download the episode directly here or listen along on YouTube above.

Also some really interesting comments have shown up on that release page too. I reproduce this one from Haig only in that it is not so often that you see Alfred North Whitehead and Bruce Lee referenced in the same paragraph!

As a Processian (Processist?), I’m compelled to at least chime in with a word of approval anytime Whitehead is mentioned! Whitehead moved into philosophy and formulated his metaphysics out of the failure of trying to mechanize mathematics; he saw deep and far what the implications of that failure really meant, and the metaphysics that came out of his searches just so happens to have rediscovered so much of what ancient esoteric traditions have been telling us all along. It’s a shame contemporary science and philosophy have ignored him (and them).

From this “flow model” as you call it, we see why the design process is irreplaceable, we can’t just shut up and calculate our way into new modes of being, the edge of the process wave is pure creative potential that refuses to be tamed into a deterministic mechanism until it’s settled past the peak into the trough. This design process at the edge of reality is formless, and does not submit to a particular style, it’s what Bruce Lee aspired to, form without form, style without style, when creating his martial arts system Jeet Kune Do. I bring Lee up because he was in the same situation, birthing a system that aimed to detach itself from all the rest that came before it by pruning away the built-up detritus which was constricting potential. Jeet Kune Do never became too popular, it was more of a conceptual success than a practical one, but it did help create the mixed martial arts movement, a fighting system that has seen enormous success, mainly because it eschews theories and styles for what actually works, and that is only known through real-world feedback and interaction.

Feedback and interaction over a priori theory points us back to an intellectual movement in science which can be viewed as a parallel to Whitehead’s work in philosophy called cybernetics, but, as with Whitehead, it’s become all but forgotten except for the superficial pop culture prefix cyber. Cybernetics uses a flow-model of science (though still mostly materialistic) and prioritizes pragmatism over theorizing (except when trying to theorize pragmatism!). You really can never remove theory completely, even if it’s just a sublingual intuition, or a subconscious drive, theory is the membrane surrounding our ordered mental model, keeping it safe from the chaos of the environment. The problem with theory, like all problems of extremes, is when it is too undeveloped or too calcified, the trick is to remain balanced, to be semipermeable (as nature understands), and to have it evolve ecologically.

I guess then the proper advice, it would seem, is Bruce Lee’s admonition to “become like water my friend.”

What is Design, Anyway?

I wanted to bring together a bit of recent facebook discussion about what design is and what design might have to do with permaculture.

What is Design?

First up, this question was recently posted on the MPS facebook page:

A question. What does the word “design” connote for you? How would you answer a child who asked you what it was?

Here are the different comments folk were kind enough to contribute (gratitude!):

Linnet Good: Making deliberate decisions about how to create something.

Melissa Chambers: Got to say I don’t dislike the dictionary definition [see pic below]. But for me it is more about creativity and personality.

Ivanka AustralianaYou spend time figuring out how you want everything to look and function… use your plan to complete your mission

Marguerite de Mosa: Christopher Alexander

Renee Kelcey: Making a plan for how to do something

Greg O’Keefe: A design (noun) is a model or description of something that could be created. Design (verb) is the act of producing a design. The design (adjective) of something is its abstract form, whether or not it was created according to an explicit design (And yes, I would give that answer to a child. I’m not very good with kids)

Justine Taylor: Form + function…… or aesthetic + function: same. Sometimes function is more important (e.g office desk chair) sometimes form/aesthetic is (e.g Ghost Chair by Phillipe Stark). Either way ‘design’ is the combination of both!

Meg McGowan: I hand them an egg beater and a whisk and ask them what they think these tools could be used for. I would then have a conversation with them about why you wouldn’t just use a fork to do the same job. This would lead into a conversation about how design involves creating some kind of benefit for someone, or it solves some kind of problem. Then would ask them to look around them and see if they can find anything that someone else might have designed. They would probably start with the obvious, and ultimately realise that every single human-made thing or system has been designed by a person or a group of people.
Kids get to ‘everything human made’ faster than adults but the epiphany is just as much fun. 

Then I would have a conversation with them about what makes for a good design and what makes for a bad design

My other fun activity is to ask people to describe any system they own; the way they organise their kitchen, wardrobe, school bag, back pack, swag….
Why did they choose this particular pattern rather than another? What other patterns might they have chosen? Did they spend time intentionally designing a pattern or did they allow a pattern to evolve over time? Or do they just have a random collection with no design? What are the pros and cons of these three alternatives (while acknowledging that some people use a combination of two or three and inviting comment on other patterns). Did anyone choose a pattern based on something they have observed in nature? 

This exercise is about teaching people system design and it’s also about helping them to recognise that they are already designers. For those that struggle to identify a physical thing, like a wardrobe, their morning routine is a good standby. Why do they do things in that order and not another? What are the benefits of having an established pattern and what are the benefits of breaking it?

With very little kids I ask “Why does a toothbrush look like a toothbrush?”
They are brilliant at this.
“It needs the hairy bit to hold the toothpaste and rub my teeth”
“It needs the handle so I can get to the back of my mouth”
“It needs the scraper so I can scrape my tongue clean”
What do you think people used before they had toothbrushes?
Is a toothbrush better? Why?

Jenny Kato: An activity of thinking, imagining and testing to create something so that it is useful, practical, beautiful, economic and able to be made.

Raye Hodgson: A picture of how it looks when it is just right.

Hans E. Deern: a drawing of the Place where your deepest dreams come true

Tim Hill: A design is kind of like an imaginary friend….

Mirla Lacen de Murillo: A design is the choices you make to place everything in the most perfect place. And the more education the more perfect the design 

Stephanie Mette Harbo: In a broad sense, design connotes to me an overall scheme that pertains to evaluating and intentionally adding value to an entire project or area

With regard to Permaculture, Design involves creativity to incorporate visual interest or appeal with practical or functional accessibility; consideration of past, present and future uses; knowledge of logistics and installation, not to mention working with time or budgetary limits

Is Design Process a sensible Focus for Permaculture?

In April 2018, David Holmgren was asked “What is the most important question you think permaculture should be asking itself over the next few years?” Here is how he started his reply.
Well in that most general sense, in the sense of what is universal – what should permaculture collectively be asking – I think it is a deeper and hopefully more shared understanding of design process.
In subsequently sharing the longer reply on facebook I was fascinated by two comments which, on the face of things, expressed strong resistance to David’s suggestion. I think both are useful indications of deeper issues or themes with permaculture and in particular with its relation to design process. See what you reckon!:

Peter Brandis: It’s a pity that the answer is so limited to the design process (but so is Making Permaculture Stronger I guess, so it’s understandable). As Rafter Sass Ferguson wrote somewhere (I recall) that permaculture is a combination of a design system, best practice framework, worldview, and movement (and I know people disagree with this, incl Toby Hemenway, and others). But if permaculture is more than design, why focus on just the design aspect? Why not (for example) talk about the question of a movement (to overthrow the industrial, consumptive, degrading way of life), or the shift required in a worldview to reach a more regenerative way of life? Or why not focus on getting a definition (of permaculture) we can all agree with? After all after 40 years or so, we are no closer to having a generally agreed definition of permaculture, and we have myriad definitions. Why isn’t there a push to redesign the PDC /education process? There’s so many important “questions (the) permaculture (movement) should be asking itself over the next few years.”

Stephen Bailes: I feel that this obsession with the design process will yield very little in the way of fruit . What is really needed is a better understanding of the processes operating within the systems that we are trying to design . Observing systems and their associated functional processes can be tricky in real time which is why we want to understand patterns . Observable patterns are the current manifestation / state of the system at the moment of observation. These may change over time when observed from the same location . Designs tend to be for a designated place and its fixed boundaries and as such cannot ” follow” the pattern . So over time at a given location patterns will change . We need to know the current state of the system into which we are trying to apply our new design , not easy I would suggest . Any implementation of a new design is a in effect a pertubation within the old system which in itself may have ” moved on ” , no longer bounded by the design constraints . Have we any idea how the new combined system will react ? Does the design process reflect any of these ideas ?

Brendan Morse: this is exactly what David means by focusing on the process. an appropriate and mature design process will ensure that this observation, in relation to local contexts, doesn’t get ignored.

Stephen Bailes: I am not sure that we are talking about the same thing here or not . This for me demonstrates fully the dilemma that we face , are we suffering from some kind of equivocation here . Are we saying that there is a direct one to one relationship between the words “design process” and ” natural process ” . For sure they are both processes and permaculture plays within the same domain as natural processes . Are we suggesting that the design process goes on in the same physical and mental space as the natural processes ? I think generally this is not the case and that designs are imposed upon a space and that the design processes goes on else where . 

Lets say though that for the sake of argument David did mean that the two ideas were one of the same we are still in difficulties . That is the number of agents involved . The designer is but one person maybe two at most . Complex systems are made up of countless numbers of agents. Do these other agents have a say in the design side of things ? If we say that they do , then their ” democratic ” agency should overwhelm the will of the the permaculture designer . This is can often be the case , the system turns wild. 

So I am not sure that we can bunch the two processes under the one roof. The designer in the permaculture sense becomes an observer of natural processes , a learner , a ” taker in-er ” . The question then remains is this what we would call design in any normal meaning of the word ? There has to be a difference and that difference has to be explicit . This takes me back to my opening line. 

Are we talking about the same thing ?

Spiced Gora: Stephen Bailes by and large, your first comment seems to discuss things that I feel would by most be considered part of design process

Regarding your second comment, much of the dialogue within the first inquiries of MPS to date has been about exploring evolving design process toward something that more authentically mimics natural creation processes – one the more wholesomely mitigates the imposition that you mention

Review and Refresh of Inquiry One

I recently concluded my second inquiry which considered the relation between designing and implementing within permaculture.

In this post I’ll revisit, review and refresh you with the outcomes of my first inquiry.1 Inquiry numero uno looked at this common idea inside (and outside) permaculture that design is primarily a process of assembling elements to form up whole systems.

For you cut-to-the-chase types, this diagram is where this post ends up, so if you only have a minute, do check it out (and ask questions in a comment below if anything is unclear or seems misguided to you):

For the rest of you, please read on, and let me retrace the steps along the journey that culminated in this diagram.

A Post-by-Post Review of Inquiry One

Post One: Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture

The first post was called Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture. This post drew attention to the fact that, by and large, the permaculture design literature defines design as a process of combining elements into whole systems. The wording changes, but the core idea remains that:

  1. the elements exist prior to their connection, and
  2. the crux of design is joining, assembling, or integrating these elements (into systems, patterns or wholes delivering on the permaculture principles).

This claim was not something I cooked up and projected, but a direct description of what I saw when I looked closely at well-known definitions and descriptions of permaculture design. I quoted Bill Mollison. I quoted Toby Hemenway. I quoted Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein.

In doing so, I showed how the permaculture design literature typically generates sentences about what design is via a simple formula: selecting an item from each of these three columns and stringing them together:

start with then them to form a
elements assemble whole
parts connect system
components integrate pattern
things relate assembly
join plan
arrange design
place relationship
create relationships between

Integrating elements into patterns, connecting components into whole systems, organising parts into relationship, and so on, are all different expressions of permaculture’s unambiguously dominant understanding of what permaculture design is.  Here it is in a simple diagram:

So far, so good. But things then started to get interesting when I shared Christopher Alexander’s contention that:

Design is often thought of as a process of synthesis, a process of putting together things, a process of combination.

According to this view, a whole is created by putting together parts. The parts come first: and the form of the whole comes second.

But it is impossible to form anything which has the character of nature by adding preformed parts (Alexander, 1979, p. 368)

I then presented Alexander’s alternative as proceeding in the 100% completely opposite direction to permaculture, where the whole precedes and unfolds or in a sense gives birth to the parts:

I then concluded by suggesting that Alexander’s view that…

The key to complex adaptation… lies in the concept of differentiation. This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts, rather than adding parts together to get a whole (Alexander, 2002b, p. 197)

…challenges a core idea in permaculture.

There were lots of comments. Perhaps my favourite came from the late, great Toby Hemenway:

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. Thanks, Dan, for the inspiration. I always enjoy revising my thinking to more accurately bring theory and practice into better congruency.

Post Two: A Conversation with David Holmgren

I had sent a draft of the first post to permaculture co-originator David Holmgren. David replied and we had an email conversation about it. David not only appreciated the distinction I had made between “differentiated wholes vs assembled parts distinction in applying the principles,” but to my delight welcomed “critique on the lack of design process” in permaculture. He also acknowledged that, in his words…

  1. there is a huge cultural bias towards details to pattern understanding and designing [i.e., parts toward wholes]
  2. nature works from pattern to details [i.e., wholes toward parts]
  3. we need most effort into creating design processes that effectively achieve this second pathway

David has since (in his latest book Retrosuburbia) put it this way:

Permaculture designer, teacher and activist Dan Palmer has drawn on Alexander’s work to critique what doesn’t work in permaculture design.

It seems even permaculture needs a retrofit for the energy descent future!

The essence of that critique is that permaculture design has attempted to create functional whole systems by assembling elements like a Lego construction. Application of design solutions in sites and situations where they are inappropriate can follow and even when the particular elements used are potentially appropriate, the assembly design process fails to create a complex system that works. In nature, complex systems that work evolve from simple ones that work. For example an embryo is a whole system from the beginning that differentiates to create the greater functional diversity and strength that becomes the newborn animal.

Importantly, coming back to our email conversation, David stressed that “it is also important not to deny any utility in what we seek to critique,” suggesting that whole-to-parts and parts-to-whole modes of design might be construed as complementary but asymmetric aspects of a broader and more holistic understanding of design process including and valuing them both. Asymmetric in the sense that the overall direction is from patterns toward details, but where at times and as appropriate there is also a movement from details toward patterns.

Post Three

This was a quick summary of progress made before we moved onto…

Post Four – The Exceptional Case of Dave Jacke

In the fourth post I looked at the design process writings of Dave Jacke and showed that:

Dave Jacke has contributed the most comprehensive, conscious and clear treatment of sound design process yet seen in the permaculture literature. His ecological design process moves primarily from patterns towards details via the sequential differentiation of wholes into parts. This resonates with and indeed was to some degree inspired by the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Interestingly, one of Dave Jacke’s responses to this post was:

You are convincing me that I am more embedded in Alexander’s perspective than I thought I was!

Posts Four & Five: Exploring these ideas in the work of Darren J. Doherty

These posts were quite long. The upshot was this suggestion of a more accurate and comprehensive way of characterising design process:

  • Starting with an existing configuration of a whole-space-comprising-a-configuration-of-already-differentiated-parts…
  • …further differentiating this whole…
  • …fluidly moving down, up, and sideways as necessary…
  • …both modifying what is there and conceiving (as potential) then introducing (as actual) new parts…
  • …that grow out of and hence harmonise with the whole…
  • …to support the evolution of that whole…
  • …as a rich network of interelated parts…
  • …toward our desired outcomes of a resilient, abundant, human-supporting ecosystem (or whichever wording floats your boat).

Amongst the various comments on these posts, Benamin Tayler’s really stood out:

I was discussing this with my partner who’s a holistic health practitioner to see how she (and another naturopaths) handle this whole/parts directional conundrum. She said their basic approach is to start with whole, then move into parts, and situate them within the whole again. When a patient/client first comes in, the whole is the first priority of the practitioner. What is their first impression? What is their skin colour like? Is their hand warm when we shake it? Do they grip firmly or kind of just flop limply? What is their posture like? How do they project their voice? etc.

Then they give time to the patient/client to talk about why it is they have come there and to learn a little about them. And only after that, does the naturopath start to look into patterns and particular bodily systems in greater detail. At the end of that process, they represent the parts graphically, draw connections between details and then take an overall sense of what is happening across the entire bodymind. From whole to parts to whole. My partner said, which I thought was pretty sage, that by starting off with the whole, it’s simplier to envelop the parts back into the whole at the end, as you’ve retain a sense of what it was like in the first place.

Another interesting point I picked up was that she – and I think most naturopaths – has a philosophy of what the whole is, to make it easier to actually envision the whole in the first place. In her field, the body has a living intelligence, the vital force, that constantly acts within the body’s systems to overcome obstacles, vitalise the body and address imbalances. Therefore, reflecting back to how these changes aid and abet the particular person’s vital force and its unique challenges, supports keeping this reference point of the whole to look back to.

This made me wonder whether there would be such a reference point for permaculture? And even if there was, would this help keeping the whole in sight or hinder it by superimposing an idea on the whole which would be better kept clear and undefined? If I had to have a swing at what that would be for permaculture it would go something like this: each landscape is constantly adapting to the unique forms, forces of play, energy and resources that is within its domain. The land is doing something based on what it has and what it is exposed to. Therefore the land has direction and has movement – could we almost say it has a plan. As permaculture designers on the land we are tuning into what the land is doing, or what happens on the land – on this unique space that is nowhere else – and working with the direction it is already taking, the forces that are already at play. We dance with the land leading. So perhaps our reference point to the whole is: are we moving with the natural intelligence and forces of this land?

Post Six

The sixth post segued into a couple of examples of trying out a design-as-moving-from-patterns-to-details approach.

Post Seven

The seventh post gave the example of the differentiation-based design process resulting in this concept plan…

…which guided this actual reworking of the landscape:

Post Eight

The eighth post gave a second example sharing the process of getting to this concept design through an explicit process of moving from the whole toward parts (from patterns to details):

Post Nine

The ninth post summed up the first inquiry (yes, much like this post is doing).

The Breakthrough

Now it was some time after I’d supposedly finished Inquiry One that the penny really dropped for me. The clue had been there in the chat with David Holmgren, the comment from Benjamin, and in other places. But it was a wonderful comment from Abraham Coetzee that prompted me to clearly articulate where I’d arrived with all this:

Differentiation just means to make different. Whether you use the word differentiatetransformmake differentchangemodifyreconfigure, etc etc, the upshot is any process of design and/or creation is a sequence of [insert your preferred word here]. Each of these changes might involve addition (I bring home an apple tree to plant), multiplication (I decide to times that by ten), subtraction (I get rid of the rose bush), division (I partition the yard into two terraces), or morphing or merging or otherwise rearranging what is already there, or any number of other change types. In all cases you have differentiated the whole you are working with. You have made it different. In most cases, each change or differentiation simultaneously involves many of these things. I divide a room in two by adding and assembling some bits of wood and screws. And so on. The take away point is that we tend in our culture to display an unconscious bias in our designing and creating toward adding/assembly, when this is not only missing most of the tool box, but it is out of alignment with the fact that in nature things tend to grow where addition/assembly is an underling of division (e.g., in order for a cell to divide various molecules etc must come in from outside the system, and, sure, if you like, be assembled). It is also going to get harder and harder to do in an energy decent future. But most importantly, it is not the whole shebang. Hopefully over time we’ll all enlarge the vocabulary with which we describe the changes going on inside permaculture design process (where a problematically strong bias toward addition/assembly has been evident).

The second part of it for me is that if we more accurately contrast assembly (or adding) with division or delineation (instead of differentiation which we’ve just seen is more general of a concept) then neither of these contain any inherent directional commitment in terms of up or down in the holarchy. You might import a whole portable house to your place then bring in and layout kitchen counters and cupboards then move to select, import and assemble your knifes and forks. You are assembling from patterns to details. You might delineate a little pond in the middle of your place, then delineate a wetland it’ll sit within, and so on. You are delineating from details to patterns. Permaculturalists agree that an overall motion from patterns toward details is a good idea. So in light of the above the idea is that you gradually and sequentially differentiate a space, using many different kinds of differentiation (including but very much not limited to assembly and I note sometimes not involving any assembly whatsoever), moving upwards, downwards, and sideways, but with an overall movement downwards, from patterns toward details.

So I think as you do any either-or argument between addition/assembly and division/delineation is not a fruitful use of time…

In other words, I’d realised that any argument about whether it was better to design by integrating elements or by partitioning up wholes was a symptom of a flawed way of framing the whole situation.

This was not an either-or situation! It is a both-and kind of thing. Hence the latest diagram.

The Latest Diagram

The idea or contention here is that whenever anyone designs or implements or creates anything, they can understand what they are doing from any one of these three spaces (consciously or unconsciously).  You can think of what you are doing as assembling, as partitioning, or as transforming. What you are actually doing, however, in every case, is transforming (or differentiating) something (be it a garden, or farm, or workshop, or day in your life, or whatever). You are making something different. There are a variety of ways of making something different. These include integrating additional parts,2 and partitioning or introducing new distinctions.

Furthermore, that something is already a whole. As a whole, it already has parts. It sounds almost silly to have to spell it out. Yet almost our entire civilisation has somehow missed this memo. Whenever do anything, including designing, implementing, and creating, we start with a whole-and-its-parts and end with a different version of that whole-and-its-parts. Period.

As David Holmgren has put it during one of the courses in which we’ve been exploring this stuff together:

what we are doing is not working with blank slate planning – we’re retrofitting something that already exists, and it’s a different paradigm when you say everything already is a whole place, it all has a history, and there’s no such thing as starting from scratch anyway…

Okay, there it is, the grand finale of Inquiry One. In the next post, I’ll be bringing the outcomes of inquiry one and the outcomes of inquiry together as aspects of a single diagram. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. I’d be curious to know whether anyone agrees, but to me all this guff contains the seeds of a potential design process revolution within permaculture.3


Where Making Permaculture Stronger came from – A talk by Dan Palmer

This video is of a short talk I gave over two years ago. It was June 2016, just as the whole Making Permaculture Stronger project was germinating and emerging into being.

Some permaculture colleagues in New Zealand had put me on the spot and requested an impromptu explanation of what the heck I was going on about.

I want to stress that my thinking and feeling and experiencing of all of this stuff has evolved dramatically over the last few years. I would phrase much of this differently today. Back then I was oblivious to many nuances which have subsequently come to light. Indeed, the ideas I shared in this clip sparked and have led to much further inquiry, experimentation, dialogue, and collaboration. Making Permaculture Stronger is a fast-moving moving target!

Nonetheless, the overall gist and the underlying volition continues to resonate with what Making Permaculture Stronger is all about for me.

I share this video in the interests of stirring up healthy, vigorous discussion, so please don’t hold back from sharing your honest impressions in the comments below. What, if anything, resonates for you? What, if anything, doesn’t?

Positive, negative and neutral design – guest post by Shane Simonsen

At its heart permaculture is a design oriented philosophy. When we go through the design process we normally take note of the local landforms and resources as if they are a blank page to which we then add the elements that we desire. In order to try and maximise our chances of getting a favourable outcome we invest time in researching and thinking about the possible elements and their organisation in order to decide what resources to invest in making the dream a reality. This top down, aspirational way of approaching design can fail to work in a multitude of different ways, or fail to be maintained for long enough to reach its full potential. This approach to design I like to think of as being positive design – the act of adding to and building up the world around us.

Goats grazing Tithonia established from unrooted cuttings less than a year ago, a relatively weak form of positive design.

Humans by our animal nature are not naturally positive influences in the landscape. Animals are best at consuming and disrupting the world around them – think how much easier and faster it is to cut down a tree compared to growing one. Plants are the builders in the ecosystem and it is only very recently in human history that we have learned to cooperate with them to co-create (and to be honest we are still not very good at it even after about five thousand years of practice). For humans at least it seems one of the most natural things for us to do is to behave in previously unnatural ways. When humans attempt to apply positive design to the landscape we find it involves enormous investments of time, energy and resources and high levels of risk. Until recently in history the vast majority of the population had to devote most of their lives to growing food by imposing positive design on the landscape and yet still live in constant fear of crop failure and famine. Fossil fuels dramatically changed this balance but their utility will run out one day.

Trees propagated in tubes then transplanted into tree guards, a more positive design approach that required more resources, with more restricted scale.

The obvious flip side to positive design is negative design. This approach is more in sync with the natural strengths of human animals and focuses more on shaping the environment by cutting out unwanted elements rather than creating wanted ones. For example negative design would involve taking a natural forest and selectively cutting down trees to create a pasture for animals. Woody plants could be left strategically to create hedges, wind breaks and shade zones. Pasture species would arise spontaneously in the disturbed spaces and would not need to be deliberately imposed by human efforts. The positive approach would be starting with relatively bare ground then introducing new pasture species to improve forage quality (often requiring added seed, minerals, possibly using machines for sowing), growing trees and hedges in pots then transplanting into tree guards with fertiliser and irrigation to support them. The former approach describes the successful spread of agriculture across the planet. The latter approach describes the mostly unprofitable behaviour of humans acting with the assistance of abundant fossil fuels. In today’s world the approach of negative design is limited by the lack of plant material to cut away to shape the landscape, while positive design is limited by the limited amount of resources available for humans to direct.

A more positive design approach where geese create a disturbed space with concentrated nutrients, allowing the maize to get a head start on the weeds. This space isn’t weeded, only harvested when ready. 

The final way of looking at how people can approach the landscape is the idea of neutral design. This is similar to Fukuoka’s principle of “do nothing”. Choosing to do nothing is an essential element of the design toolkit (usually accompanied by ongoing observation). Much of the eventual economic recovery after the fall of the Roman Empire can be linked to regrowth of forest resources and restoration of soil fertility by abandonment of fields. For example, looking around my own property that I have been planting at every opportunity for the last decade I estimate less than 5% of the plant biomass is from things I have planted myself- the ecosystem, including those parts most useful to me, grew and evolved on their own. The way that 95% of my biomass has developed has been influenced a lot by my own decisions and the actions of my livestock but most of the positive changes occurred without my deliberate intentions. Species composition has changed to increase photosynthesis as much as possible, including a shift to nominally weedy species that have nevertheless proven to be more useful than the species they replaced.

My most positively designed space that requires regular inputs of goat manure, hand weeding and resowing of seasonal crops. If I had to buy the goat manure the profitability of this venture would be marginal. The high input demand of this space greatly limits the scale of this approach.

These three design mindsets are not absolutes. Instead they exist on a continuous spectrum from extremely positive approaches to extremely negative ones. For example when growing food crops at the most positive end would be hydroponics, then greenhouse cultivation, then a vegetable patch with added irrigation and fertiliser, then hardy field crops that only need moderate disturbance such as penned livestock, and finally to wild edibles that only need broad ecosystem management (for example periodic burning on the more destructive end). For growing trees at the positive end would involve transplanting a mature tree and supporting it physically, to transplanting a small tree in a tree guard, to direct sowing, to scattering seed, to naturally seeding trees (again often needing some negative disturbance). For raising animals the extreme positive end might be lab grown meat, then a battery hen, then ranged beef provided pumped bore water and vaccinations, to managed wild bison, finally to completely wild animals maintained with controlled hunting.

To me the most successful approach lies in using the most weakly positive approaches to enhancing plant growth to maximise the effectiveness of limited resources, then applying negative design to shape the vegetation across the landscape. For example I started establishing fodder trees and shrubs on my property by growing seedlings in tube pots then transplanting them into tree guards when quite small into the exact spot that worked around my cattle rotational grazing. With some species I found I could directly plant unrooted cuttings, reducing the amount of work per plant and allowing me to establish larger pioneer plant stands. These early plantings allowed other species to be direct sowed in their shade, reducing resources for growing and transplanting and allowing more plants to be established with the available resources. I was initially concerned about some of these pioneer species spreading everywhere and getting “out of control”. I have now seen how much my goats love eating them, and realised how long it will take me to plant enough of them even by direct cuttings, so I have shifted to scattering their seed over large tracts of the property. Rather than relying on positive design to put them exactly where I want them I decided to embrace negative design, allowing them to spread more widely then using the energy saved planting them to instead remove them where I don’t want them, for example to maintain open walk ways. Seedlings are easily hand pulled up to about six months of age. The more weakly positive approaches of plant establishment has a hidden benefit- plants often want to grow in one place but not another, and just reading about their preferences in a book is never enough to figure this out in advance. By scattering seed widely you allow plants to grow where they grow best. You can then apply negative selection to balance the diversity or refine the positioning as needed. A similar benefit can be realised if direct sowing where each tiny hole you dig gets a wide range of seed planted in it, and whichever plant grows best claims the space. Similarly multiple tree tubes can be planted in one hole, though the resources invested in each tube is a lot higher.

This new mindset is allowing me to see the landscape and how I relate to it differently and hopefully make better design decisions going forward.

Shane Simonsen

Note from Dan: I happened across this post on facebook by Shane a few days back (thanks to Meg McCowan for alerting me to it). It is always a treat to find fellow permaculturalists reflecting on their practical experiences with design process and developing new distinctions therein. Thanks to Shane for permission to repost his words and photos here. I look forward to seeing your comments below.

Morag Gamble on Permaculture, Life, and Citizen Design (E13)

In this episode I speak with Morag Gamble from Our Permaculture Life, the Permaculture Education Institute, and her very active youtube channel.

I’m still getting to know Morag after meeting her recently at the fourteenth Australasian Permaculture Convergence. Morag attended sessions I lead on both Making Permaculture Stronger and Living Design Process and afterward we had the best conversation about it all. But I didn’t realise how on the same page we were, and how much longer Morag had been on that page, and just how much I have to learn from her about it, until we recorded this chat. Enjoy, and huge gratitude to Morag for taking the time, and being who she is, and doing all the incredible stuff she’s doing toward lifting up and growing and sharing what is great about permaculture.

Here are the people, books, links etc Morag refers to in this episode.

Fritjof Capra

The Reenchantment of the World by Morris Berman

Victor Papenek

Helena Norberg-Hodge

Vandana Shiva

Christopher Day (Author of Places of the Soul)

Schumacher College

Patrick Whitefield

Jan Gehl

Nick Rose Sustain book

Developing Citizen Designers (book)

Our Permaculture Life

Oh yes, and here’s a happy snap of Morag and I taken just last week at Food Connect in Brisbane:

…and I finish with a lovely youtube masterclass where Morag shares five steps to getting started with permaculture design:

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.


Joel Glanzberg on Permaculture’s Potential to Serve Life (E12)

In this episode I speak with permaculture elder Joel Glanzberg from Pattern Mind, Regenesis Group and the Tracking Project.

Early in the conversation, Joel refers to his 30 Years Greening the Desert project which you can learn about in this clip:

We also refer to Joel’s Open Letter and Plea to the Permaculture Movement.

Here is a more recent article in which Joel writes beautifully about the necessary transformation toward life at a world-view level. Here’s a poignant excerpt:

Holding my baby son one night as he slept, I thought about how I would make his body. Having built things all my life, this seemed simple. I would begin by framing him up, joining his bones together using his muscles, tendons and ligaments. Then I’d run his arteries and veins, his nervous system, install all of his organs, sheath him in skin, fill him with blood, a bit of food and water and start him up, maybe with a spark from jumper cables. Of course he was made nothing like this, but this Frankensteinian thought experiment revealed my own mind’s mechanicalness and the difference between how we think about and make things and how the living world creates.

Everything we make is conceived and constructed before it begins to carry out the processes for which it was designed. Our cars, homes, businesses, schools, programs are all structured before they run. Like my son’s body—all of our bodies for that matter—all living structures are built by doing what they have been created to do. His body was made by metabolizing nutrients, water and oxygen and moving around, just as it is today. The river was not dug and then filled with water. The river running made the river. The branching scaffold of the tree was not built before it carried water and nutrients up into the sky and sugars back down into the roots. The tree built its body by adding layer after layer of carbon taken from the sky through photosynthesizing, from the moment it put out leaves into the air and roots into the earth.

Finally, and with particular relevance to some of the places Making Permaculture Stronger will soon be heading as a project, I recommend watching this too, where Joel speaks alongside several of his colleagues at Regenesis Group:

A question asked of David Holmgren during his closing address to the 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence

On April 9, 2018, during his closing address to the (magnificent) 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence, David Holmgren said he’d be happy to take a couple of “burning questions” that anyone wanted him to address to this group. One of the questions asked was:

What is the most important question you think permaculture should be asking itself over the next few years?

Here is David’s answer:

Well in that most general sense, in the sense of what is universal – what should permaculture collectively be asking – 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 – or is that a complete mystery and it doesn’t matter?

So just reflecting on that, exploring that I think is really important because otherwise a lot of the contributions we talk about, whether it’s within regenerative agriculture, or community development, or small-scale, is once those things become adopted in society, the label permaculture falls away. Whether it’s rainwater harvesting, or sheet mulching, or whatever. Those become adopted. What do we get left with? We get left with going back out to the fringe and finding the next interesting thing, and a baggage of things that didn’t work. That society didn’t adopt.

So, the core thing that the whole society is having trouble with is design process. The design professions are in as bad a situation, you could say worse, than permaculture. We don’t really know what we are doing, and getting a closer sense of that gives us a very powerful contribution