Making Permaculture Stronger at IPC17 India

“I believe self criticism is essential so long as it is balanced by affirmation and recognition of self worth”  – David Holmgren


In August 2017 I arrived at Polam Farm, Telangana State, India – a wonderland of biological diversity, cultural-intersection and diverse manifestations of ‘Permaculture Design’. Four months later, Polam Farm would be the host venue for the 2017 International Permaculture Convergence. An idyllic case study of all that is strong and all that is weak within the Permaculture Movement.

I led the Agriculture Team in the cultivation of vegetable crops for the IPC and associated Permaculture courses. It was every kind of challenging and all sorts of beautiful. Despite dramatic shortages in physical and human resources, Aranya Agriculture Alternatives and the team of international volunteers defied the odds and established biological, sanitary and accomodation systems plus a variety of other facilities to host almost 1000 participants from around India and the world for five days.

Field One & Two of the Vege Patch Project at Polam Farm, IPC17 India

I was there to learn and to work and to live in service to something much bigger than myself. I was also there to speak about Making Permaculture Stronger during the Convergence. [Note: italicised quotes are taken from the transcript of my first session at IPC17]

I am here to act as a voice for a collective and share ideas that are not my own. I am here to tell a story. A beautiful story. A love story. A story of commitment and faith. A story with themes that will hopefully inspire and almost certainly challenge. It is a story that, as always, is part of a much great story – and where I pick up the story is in the land of my people – the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Some years ago I was fortunate enough to fall in with the likes of Dan Palmer, James Andrews, Louise Shaw, Pete West and Courtney Brooke (among others) on a journey around the exploration of Permaculture’s weak links.

This explorative journey was to form the foundational narrative that would act as a vehicle for my dialogue at the IPC – a means to open up a Convergence-long conversation about where and how the Permaculture Movement is falling short, and what we might all be able to do to make permaculture stronger.

But wait, wait, wait – what do we mean by stronger? Why would we need to strengthen Permaculture? This movement, so laden with potential, so utterly inspiring, so overwhelmed with momentum – surely things are ticking along just fine? Everyone who comes across Permaculture falls in love with it. Our ecologies so desperately need it. Our cultures so desperately need it. It is so potent, so ground breaking, so world changing. So beautifully functional. So functionally beautiful.

Permaculture. This loaded term. This concept so shallowly understood. This stigmatised group. This cult of personality. This unqualified ensemble. This evangelical mission, so out of touch with the status quo reality…

These are not necessarily true criticisms, but they are not uncommon. So what is it about Permaculture that lends itself to such critique from both inside and out?

Those of us engaged in the Making Permaculture Stronger project are all involved in the Permaculture world to some degree. We got into it for good reasons, and we’re still in it for good reasons.

What we all share is a deep, honest and sincere love for Permaculture. We share the deep faith that the artisan skill of refined regenerative design is a key to the future of the human race – not in the sense of endurance or mere survival, but in the sense of flourishing – of thriving in deep relationship with the rest of our world.

But our faith is not blind. No system is perfect. No culture without capacity for evolution. No movement without need of iteration. Every system has its weak links. Every system demands critique.

This story is rooted in one core underlying acknowledgement – that Permaculture is not perfect. It is not without capacity for evolution. It is not without need of iteration.

We humbly acknowledge that Permaculture, in all its beauty and vigor, struggles with all manner of weak links – some with the potential to cripple the entire movement. Weak links that must be addressed if Permaculture is to fulfill its potential and continue to facilitate a transition towards regenerative human culture.

And that is OK! It is a great thing. A brilliant thing! Nothing ever achieves a state of perfection. As we look into all natural systems, our greatest of teachers, we can witness a constant evolution – an enduring cycle of feedback that informs all growth and adaptation.

Permaculture, as a modality of thought and a system of design, demands of us a number of things. It demands that we accept feedback. It demands that we creatively respond to change…

The Making Permaculture Stronger movement is about doing something that on close inspection may actually be rather radical. It is about applying Permaculture to Permaculture itself.

In the interests of authenticity and integrity, the Making Permaculture Stronger (MPS) project exists to bring light to our shortcomings – to hold up a mirror that reflects our processes, ethical frameworks and modes of operation back at us – and to encourage the wide-spread application of Permaculture Ethics and Principles to personal and collective Permaculture practice around the globe.

It is not like MPS is unique in this regard – there are, of course, people all over the world engaging in such critical reflection. MPS is joining this conversation and striving to make it one of significant importance that is given due attention wherever possible.

Making Permaculture Stronger is a space where permaculture practitioners come together with a spirit of strengthening the design system of permaculture by clarifying its weaknesses and coordinating efforts to address them.

MPS is about slowing down, taking stock and sharing with honesty about where we are at.

This sharing happens with a positive focus on improving permaculture. We are interested in clarifying what is problematic only to the extent it will assist our subsequent efforts, or the efforts of others, to make it less problematic.

 All sharings and communication within MPS are focused on patterns, trends, gaps and so on within permaculture and are not focused on the perceived failings of particular individuals.

Throughout the MPS journey, we have identified a number of weak links. Below is a non-exhaustive list that I have been adding to over time. A number of these weak links came forward from others during our time together at the IPC. This list is by no means definitive. It may be that in your place and space, some of these weak links are not present. But the important thing to acknowledge is that in some place, or many places, they are present and are having an effect on what is now a global movement. Some of them may challenge you, so I encourage you to explore them with an open heart and to go gently on yourself:

  1.  The inadequate explanation and neglect of Design Process in literature and education: Given that the Design Process is the vehicle for actually manifesting sound regenerative solutions, Design Process is distressingly neglected in most Permaculture ‘Design’ Courses and many permaculture texts. ‘The Curriculum’ suggests little more than a few sessions focused explicitly on ‘Design Process’.
  2. Separation of Design and Implementation: Linear descriptions of Design Process in the literature tend to separate the cyclic/braided process of design into parts – in particular it is theorised that one completes a Design before moving on to Implementation. Dan Palmer is exploring the weaknesses of this pattern in this inquiry.
  3. The dominance of rational intelligence over emotional intelligence: While offered more credence within the Permaculture world than other schools of thought, emotional intelligence is still widely shunned in favor of reason and logic.
  4. The perception of Permaculture as just an agricultural technique: The true brilliance of Permaculture is the wide-scope of applicability. Today Permaculture is still widely interpreted as an advanced agricultural system, rather than a holistic system of design that can be applied to all systems – from personal lifestyle to inter-personal dynamics to societal re-design. Or to go even deeper: a holistic, integrated, biological life-way.
  5. The lack of documented evidence under ‘Permaculture’: While Permaculture has been practiced in its consolidated form for decades, there is still a considerable lack of record-keeping and cohesive scientific evidence for many of its theoretical claims. Record-keeping and out-sourcing of findings is rarely stressed as a critical component of the Design Process. Permaculture dialogue also trends toward failing to acknowledge and integrate the documented evidence of other associated fields eg. Agroecology. When it comes to changing mainstream systems, the world needs substantial evidence.
  6. The cult-atmosphere, dogma and idolotry: There are parts of the
    Permaculture Movement that veer dangerously close to idolotry. The esoteric nature of some Permaculture dialogue and the ways in which more evangelical types can discuss the concept can trend toward a cult-atmosphere. This is dangerous territory.
  7. Permaculture Design Courses: In general, Permaculture Design Courses lack enough attention on Design and trend toward being just ‘Permaculture Courses’. Design as an artisan skill needs to be fostered to a much greater degree. Generally speaking, PDCs still trend toward a land-management focus – the curriculum allocating one day to inadequately explore the potential of ecological design applied to social dynamics.
  8. The lack of post-PDC pathways: The failure to ‘Catch and Store’ the energy generated during the transformational experience of a PDC. Too often course participants leave a course ready to change the world, only to emerge into a post-PDC world typified by a lack of networked Permaculture projects, a lack of support, and few identified pathways of engagement for future development.
  9. Inaccessibility of Permaculture education and the stigma against public-education streams: Often the demographic interested in PDCs is more low-income and many are turned away by the price. On the flip side of the economic equation, Permaculture educators get paid inadequately to facilitate the courses. The economic model is unsustainable.  Additionally, a widespread stigma against engaging with public-education initiatives means no State-support to enable participants to acquire financial support, Permaculture education to be subsidised, and tutors be paid adequately.
  10. Voluntary poverty mentalities: A lack of adequate financial reciprocation sees many living in states of voluntary poverty or constantly seeking supplementary income, which in the long term inhibits capacities to apply oneself fully to the mission of regenerating human and planetary health.
  11. The norm of shoestring budgets and low-income detrimenting economic sustainability: The issues outlined in the two points above impact the sustainability and prosperity of many Permaculture initiatives. Financially inhibited, many projects struggle to achieve the kind of wide-spread impact that they desire.
  12. ‘Fair Share’ as the ambiguous third ethic: The Third Ethic – sometimes dubbed ‘Redistribution of Surplus’, sometimes ‘Equitable Distribution’, sometimes ‘Fair Share’, sometimes ‘Parity’, sometimes any other interpretation. It is the concept of Fair Share that encourages the total redesign of human social systems and seems to offer viable means for ensuring both Earth Care and People Care. ‘Fair Share’ inspires radical action, but is so often weakened by ambiguity.
  13. The inadequate exploration and embodiment of People Care: Too many Permaculture initiatives struggle due to a lack of People Care.  This may stem from inadequate exploration of People Care and social dynamics within many PDCs. Without People Care, everything falls over. To describe People Care within a PDC as one of the most critical aspects of Permaculture and to then fail to explore it in favour of a deep focus on water harvesting, Zone 1 Gardens and Food Forestry is the gravest of oversights.
  14. No ‘Self Care’ ethic: Or the lack of Self Care discussed within the People Care ethic. It is commonly said that one must begin with Zone 00 and the development of self, however it is uncommon to find self-exploration facilitated within PDC’s, discussed in Permaculture literature, or explored in forums. Zone 00 is a relative unknown in the Permaculture world, often considered fringe, with little support or direction offered to those wanting to engage in deep Zone 00 work. The interconnection of inner and outer ecologies demands more attention.
  15. The lack of networks and systems for facilitating mentorship and intergenerational sharing: It is not uncommon to find aligned groups and natural allies in close proximity to each other, with little or no knowledge of the others activity. The opportunities for collaboration and mentorship are everywhere, but are dependent on the enhancement of networks within the Permaculture movement. Networking the movement is emerging as one of the most important tasks of the immediate era.
  16. The importance of ‘spirit’ and the ‘sacred’, and the difficulty of articulating these concepts without alienating people: There is something about alive beings that many people summate using the term ‘spirit’. And there is much considered too important to be interferred with that many people summate using the term ‘sacred’. There is a necessity to refine the art of communication around these concepts so as not to alienate potential allies who may be turned off by abrupt exposure to ideas that are not part of their cultural worldview.
  17. The aversion to international organisation: Despite the global nature of the Permaculture Movement today, there appears to be a widespread resistance to international networking beyond the tri-annual International Permaculture Convergence. The focus on grassroots action tends to mean a failure to acknowledge the global nature of the movement, the responsibility that entails, and the potential of global support networks.
  18. The risks involved with a lack of standards for educators: Mollison’s idea of ‘just get out there and teach’ offers much for the dispersal of information and tools. However, without any kind of agreed standards for educators or any Code of Ethics, there are risks that include inadequate educational experiences; ambiguity around what participants are paying for; the spread of misinformation; and the potential for unsafe learning environments.
  19. ‘Technique of the Week’ mentality: The distribution of various Techniques via weekly mailouts, short YouTube videos and various PDC handouts is a high-risk pattern that can spread techniques as if they are universally applicable. By focusing more on technique and less on exercising discernment to determine appropriate technique, there is great risk of the wide-spread implementation of contextually inappropriate techniques.
  20. Not acknowledging and confronting weak links: There is an unfortunate trend away from ‘Applying Self-Regulation and Accepting Feedback’ within the Permaculture Movement – both personally and collectively. The result is that many of Permaculture’s weak links have not been adequately addressed and continue to manifest in literature and education initiatives.

Big list, isn’t it? The distressing thing is that it is by no means complete. We haven’t even touched on questions around whether culture-wide issues such as patriarchy and colonialism are being problematically perpetuated within the permaculture community.

When thinking holistically about these weak links, they begin to feel much more like symptoms. Could it be that they are the manifestations of deeper issues at the heart of ‘Permaculture’? If so, should we not be going deeper – exploring root cause and underlying patterns? If these weak links are symptoms, what is the pattern that connects them?

We’re not 100% sure about it, yet. However, myself and others in the MPS community have a growing suspicion that the underlying pattern relates to what is most unique to Permaculture: the design process.

The design process has been at the core of the Making Permaculture Stronger dialogue for the last few years and aspects of it have been explored in Dan Palmer’s Inquiry 1 and Inquiry 2. Conscious design is Permaculture’s commonly articulated ‘How’ for achieving the desired goal of ‘mimicking and harmonising with natural patterns’. However, what conscious design looks like on Permaculture-paper may not be the appropriate means for achieving those goals:

The commonly communicated Permaculture Design Process does not mimic ecological generation processes (see here). The likely implications are design outcomes that never quite achieve the desired harmonisation with ecological patterns or the aliveness of living systems. The common articulation of Permaculture Design Process can be deemed inauthentic to Permaculture’s core ecological foundations.

Additionally, whatever Design Process is being embraced is rarely applied to anything beyond the landscape. Talks are rarely Permaculture designed, communications are rarely permaculture designed, learning experiences are rarely permaculture designed, social systems are rarely permaculture designed, conferences are rarely permaculture designed, personal lives are rarely permaculture designed. The Permaculture Movement is not being permaculture designed.

Could it be that the way Permaculture Design Process is articulated, dispersed and (not) applied is having undesirable consequences? Are these weak links actually indicators of a need for deeper questioning? Is the core of Permaculture in need of iteration?

Grass turned to gold by the sun setting over Polam Farm

Day 2 of the Convergence saw me preparing nervously for my presentation. I had been overly-busy in the field preparing for the event and I was anxious about how the content of my talk would be received. How would people respond to the suggestion that Permaculture Design Process is ecologically inauthentic?

I put forward an invitation:

My invitation to you is to take up this challenge and run with it. To say “yeah, if this big, bold, beautiful thing called Permaculture is going to pull off what it is capable of pulling off, then we need to walk the talk and apply Permaculture to Permaculture.” To say, “No, actually, we haven’t got it all figured out.”

What we’ve got going on here in this global movement, this almost untouchable, unstoppable groundswell of ecological activism is so desperately needed and so brilliantly viable. We have the capacity right here in our hearts and minds and hands and relationships to bring about radical change to the way humanity participates in the systems it is a part of. We also have strong rhetoric – commonly communicated ethics, principles and modalities.

Within that rhetoric lies a code of conduct – one that is fluid, yes, and unbinding, sure. But if we are going to talk about permaculture, write about it, teach it – then we better practice it. And if we want to be practicing it authentically, then that rhetoric demands that we accept feedback and iterate accordingly.

It was an invitation taken up with gusto throughout the rest of the IPC. This session added fuel to the fire of a dynamic and exciting discourse which endured throughout the event and beyond.

My session was a high-level challenge to our community to question our weakest links. I facilitated subsequent break-out sessions that were rich, beautiful and brought together a wide diversity of participants to engage in peer-to-peer critique. The willingness to get involved in the conversation, whether it was in these sessions or around the bonfire at night, was deeply heartwarming for me and all others involved.

To be chosen to present the original session on the final day of the IPC, and for it to be attended by an even greater number than the first time around, was a great honor and to me demonstrated the timeliness of this dialogue. The climate seems ripe for these conversations. Perhaps we can move boldly forward, unified in our fallibility and our commitment to constructive development.

Saved seeds in the Village Skills area of the IPC17 India

By no means do I want to take credit for sowing the seeds of critique at the IPC because by no means was that the case. For me, the most encouraging thing about the entire IPC experience was the emergent theme of exploring specific weak links in deeper detail.

Throughout the Convergence three deeply powerful sessions focused on ‘De-colonising Permaculture’ attracted huge amounts of multi-cultural participation in a challenging, provoking and constructive dialogue around breaking down racism, colonial trends and accessibility issues.

Andy Goldring, an avid UK permaculturalist, presented at the Conference around global networking and actually changing the world. He was also an engaged participant in my sessions, offering critical insight on the characteristics of Permaculture globally. Andy is one of the driving forces behind the Permaculture CoLab – an initiative focused on strengthening the weak link of poor global networks. The CoLab facilitated a number of experiences throughout the week that were aimed at fostering engagement in the CoLab, but also at exploring social governance systems such as Sociocracy. They were attended by large numbers of people – an encouraging sign for the future of global networking and social dynamics.

One of the Conference panels saw a dozen of the most potent female change-makers – including Padma Koppula, Rosemary Morrow, Robina McCurdy, Starhawk and Vandana Shiva – speaking to the question ‘Are women leading the change?’ It was powerful, inspiring, and focused on exploring the weak links around gender equality within the movement. I am sure no person present would deny that the raising of female leaders not only within the Permaculture Movement, but all around the world, has and will do remarkable things for the strengthening of all manner of weak links – especially around People Care, Self Care, social design and emotional intelligence.

Rafter Sass Ferguson – whose work with Liberation Ecology is addressing numerous weak links including sound evidence and bridging the gap between Permaculture and related fields – facilitated a panel exploring the relationship between Permaculture and Science. One of the resounding themes was the significance of incorporating record-keeping and record-sharing as a critical component of the Design Process.

Charlie Brennan and Bridget O’Brien – brilliant design thinkers working to align Permaculture Design Process more authentically with natural generation processes and focused on reconnecting people with place – facilitated a panel around Radical Re-Design which explored the reality that designs are in place everywhere and in all systems, and that one never designs but only ever re-designs. The conversation moved from land-management through to social re-design and was a refreshing taste of what I perceive as next-generation Permaculture communication.

Eunice Neeves, who has been travelling around Australia engaging with a diverse range of pioneers in the interest of recording and collating resources for widespread distribution, hosted a session on ‘Accelerating Succession’ focused on doing everything possible to pass on information and support to the emerging understory. I was fortunate enough to join Eunice, Courtney Brooke, Robina McCurdy, Jillian Hovey, Oliver Kristevic, and Starhawk on a panel about the importance of Intergenerational Succession. It was a powerful panel that explored the highs, lows and essential nature of mentorship and intergenerational relationships.

I could not go further without mentioning the remarkable group of volunteers that came together at Polam Farm in the lead up to the event. A huge number of experienced, brilliant, well-versed Permaculturalists came to the Convergence and the conversations with them were fascinating. But the deepest, most invigorating, most enlivening conversations happened within the group of committed volunteers who poured their hearts into creating that event. We endured all kinds of adversity on that farm – we witnessed Permaculture design at its finest and its poorest. In those volunteers I found a family to weather the storms and bask in the beauty with. In them I witnessed so much of what makes Permaculture so brilliant. So much potential for our future.

Just a few of the volunteers and our local whanau at the IPC17

These examples are but a few of the wide-ranging and highly engaging conversations that took place on that dusty farm in India. The experience affirmed for me that while Permaculture struggles with its fair share of weak links it is also upheld by an abundance of strengths.

There are people all around the world deeply engaged in the strengthening of Permaculture as a whole. There are those brilliant, passionate, driven Permaculturalists out there who are not afraid to cast a critical eye over the movement they are engaged in – to not only critique the movement but also themselves and their own practice.

Just as the tender form of the seedling exists in continuous response to environmental feedback, so too must we respond to the feedback we are receiving as a movement – both from within and without. And the exciting part is not just that we must respond to feedback, but that we are.

Maybe not everyone just yet and maybe not with full force, but slowly and surely Permaculturalists around the world are heeding the call – mimicking their biological counterparts and adapting to their ever-changing world.

We talk about how one of Permaculture’s great strengths is its capacity to be applied to all kinds of systems.

 Well, we have to apply it to our own. We need to work on the Zone 00 of the Permaculture Movement.

It is not an option. We’re obligated by everything we believe in to take up the great challenges of exploring our weak links. We are duty bound by our love. It’s not just that we can, but that we must actively participate in the improvement and evolution of Permaculture as both an artisan skill and a social movement that could change the world.

In my experience as one outspoken about the urgent need to explore our fallibilities, the response has generally been one of mild confusion followed in time by enthusiastic commitment. When the mirror is held up and the obligation is put bluntly on the table, few Permaculturalists have turned away from the challenge.

I really applaud you all for initiating this and holding up the
mirror and saying ‘hey guys, look at yourselves. Look at what you’re
saying. Look at what you’re teaching. Look at what you’re doing. Is
that really the best you can do?’ And so some of us older ones in the
beginning were a little bit confronted by it, but once we embraced the
process, it’s been really exciting, and I think that it will make
permaculture stronger”

Trish Allen – Elder of Permaculture in NZ – said mid-session at IPC17 India

In India they leapt into an excited conversation around a roaring fire surrounded by an international community of regenerative practitioners – the kind of conversation that kicks sparks up into the air and dances merrily into the early hours of the morning. Some thanked me for saying all I had said. To those I said ‘thank you for not turning away’.

We’ve got all manner of weaknesses, no doubt. But we’ve also got all the nous, grit, passion, love and know-how to explore those weaknesses and understand what they are telling us. Maybe even to re-design what we hold most dear. Maybe even to re-design Permaculture.

In the quiet moments, as I looked on at the fire-lit faces of these agents of change – some of considerable renown and some totally innocuous – all moving to the beat of an impromptu band, I felt a deep stirring in my heart…



Dave Hursthouse is a New Zealand based Ecological Designer, Facilitator and Educator. He brings a critical, and revolutionary eye to all that he engages with and is resolutely committed to improving senescent human systems via wholesome processes of design. Dave is enthusiastically focused on sowing the seeds of passion and courage among those world-shakers and world-makers dedicated to developing human systems more in tune with wider ecological patterns. He is passionate about transformative learning, forest ecologies, systemic patterns, critical theory, design philosophy, design process and radically creative change-making. Dave considers the Permaculture Movement to be one of the most potential-laden social movements of all time and is determined to see that potential acted on all around the world with humility, authenticity and integrity.

Dave will be speaking about Making Permaculture Stronger and the themes explored above at the upcoming New Zealand Permaculture Hui in May 2018.

A Taste of the Fourteenth Australasian Permaculture Convergence

Last week saw the 14th Australian Permaculture Convergence happening just outside Canberra. It was a fantastic, brilliantly run event and a great privilege to be part of (go team). I personally felt during this event that – in many different ways involving many different people – permaculture got stronger.

Here is Brenna Quinlan’s illustration of Day One (of the subset of sessions she could get to, that is)…

…now zooming in on how she turned something of my session on Making Permaculture Stronger into pictures (including some sneak previews of content to appear in upcoming blog posts)…

…and here is Day Two…

…and Day Three…

I’m excited to share that Brenna will be helping to illustrate the upcoming book on Making Permaculture Stronger. This is VERY good news! Especially when combined with editorial assistance from Linnet Good, James Andrews, and, who knows, possibly even your good self (at some point there will be a call out for volunteer reviewers).

I will hope to record a video or something sharing some further reflections on the event, and the sessions were also all recorded so there’s likely a few podcasts in the pipeline too. In particular I look forward to sharing David Holmgren’s answer during his closing address to the question (never mind who asked it, that is completely irrelevant): “David what do you think is the most important question permaculture could be asking itself in the the next few years?”

Speaking of video here’s a little clip I shot and threw together on the fly…

For now I close with a happy snap with two of the people I most enjoyed hanging out with (alongside so many others, including Rachel and Morag and Costa and Miriam and Aaron and Oli and Rowe and Robyn and Matt and Silas and Monique and Travis and oh gosh I’ll never remember you all, but you all know who you are!). If you don’t recognise the one on the left then you’re probably visiting the wrong blog, and over on the right is my wonderful new friend and colleague Erin Young who brings an amazing skillset around the social aspects of permaculture and supporting people to thrive as they work toward a thriving planet.

Dan Palmer’s Journey with Permaculture Design Process and David Holmgren’s Response (E11)

This episode is a recording of a session during a four-day workshop that was run last week by David Holmgren from Holmgren Design and Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger. The workshop was entitled Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process, and this episode shares the story of Dan’s personal journey with permaculture design process, to which David responds with something of his own story.

Here is a photo of Dan sharing his story…

…and David responding…

Huge thanks to Keri Chiveralls for coming and for taking and sharing all three photos, Bec Lowe and Brenna Quinlan for supporting David and Dan during the course (and for Brenna’s amazing illustrations), Su Dennet for feeding everyone, and the other participants for coming along and making it all possible and for integrating their beautiful energies into the mix of this emerging conversation whose time has come around (once again): Andrew, Anitra, Annaliese, Anne, Ben, Daryl, Delldint, Delvin, Franky, Gavin, Jazmyn, Jenny, Ken, Kim, Ko, Linnet, Lukas, Michae,l Michelle, Pierre, Sean, Stacey, Ugo, Venetia, Wayne & Willow

Brenna Quinlan’s brilliant pictorial summary of Dan’s talk (which was then condensed into this summary of the whole day):

The course group:

Finally, for anyone who might be interested, there is a detailed six-post report of the 2017 version of this workshop here, and future iterations of this course will be listed here.

Advanced Permaculture Design Planning and Design Process 2018 – In Pictures

By way of this week’s post I share Brenna Quinlan’s fantabulous hand-drawn illustrations of days 1-3 of the four-day Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process workshop David Holmgren and I ran last week (with thirty lovely participants). I’ll add a photo or two at some point and hopefully the day four illustration will eventuate also. I set a precedent for coverage of this event last year so figure I’ll keep the tradition alive.

The event was a huge experience for me and for making permaculture stronger, to the extent of prompting a possible change of name for the whole project, amongst so many other things. All will be revealed in due course, I promise. Meantime enjoy Brenna’s extraordinary gift for capturing the message of the moment with such beautiful imagery.

And I’ll start getting ready for presenting at a national gathering of Australian permaculturalists next week…

Jascha Rohr on the Field Process Model (E10)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger speaks with Jascha Rohr from the Institute for Participatory Design which is based in Oldenburg, Germany.

With his partner Sonja Hörster, Jascha has created a fascinating and powerful way of framing design process they call the Field Process Model. The Field Process Model brings together inspiration from Bill Mollison’s core model and Christopher Alexander’s generative process against the philosophical backdrop of field theory (rather than the systems thinking backdrop permaculture usually stems from). Here it is sketched at a high level in two dimensions (get your head around this first, where reading this article is highly recommended)…

…here in more detail in three dimensions (or of course four if you include the movement or dance through time):

Here are field process model originators Jascha and Sonja during the recording, which happened on February 20, 2018.

The red squiggle indicates a certain four-volume set of books, the second volume of which just happened to also be sitting just behind Dan…

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Commentary from Anthony Briggs (Inquiry 2, Post 25)

Note from Dan: In this post Anthony Briggs from Melbourne shares his reflections on Making Permaculture Stronger, the current inquiry and in particular an alternative take on generating processes.

I’ve been reading Making Permaculture Stronger avidly since Dan first started writing it, about his reactions to the limitations of Permaculture’s big upfront design process, and how he and others have improved it by splicing in Alan Savory’s Holistic Management techniques and Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and holistic methods.

I watched a similar process play out in my field more than a decade ago. Around the mid-1990s, people started to realise that the standard software development process (usually some variant of waterfall) was pretty broken. Knowing enough detail upfront to be able to plan a successful project from beginning to end has a large cost; in complex, changing situations, mapping out every detail quickly becomes exorbitant. In response, systems like Scrum, Extreme Programming and Lean Software Development were developed, under a broad “Agile Development” banner.1

All of which maps onto Dan’s Permaculture design spectrum pretty well.2 Waterfall is the dreaded Big Design Up Front, aka. Fabrication, and most of the agile programming systems above fall pretty squarely under the Generating or Hybrid models that Dan’s described. All of them use rapid iterative cycles, deliver a small amount of stuff at a time, and accept feedback, and frequently use low-detail-but-good-enough documentation like user stories and burndown charts to get things done.

But of course, like any two human beings, Dan and I have differing opinions on some of the things he’s said here, despite agreeing on 95% of it, and so he’s suggested that I put down some of them in an article. There are also some of his ideas that I can extend or put a different spin on.

Design and Computer Science

The first cross-pollination was when I realised the overlap between some of the Permaculture design methods and Computer Science (CS).3 There’s an old adage about CS being about computers in the same way that Astronomy is about telescopes – they’re useful tools, but ultimately not what the field is about.

My favourite definition of CS is this one:

Computer Science is the study of the storage, transformation and transfer of information. The field encompasses both the theoretical study of algorithms, and the practical problems of implementing them in terms of computer software and hardware.4

If you think of design at a high level as being a search for a solution (or even just for information) given a particular set of resources, constraints, people and places (the context), then there’s a lot of CS that’s directly relevant: organising what you know and making connections between the parts, searching through that information, and then making sense of the knowledge and its connections and mapping that back onto reality.

A working definition of design that emphasises this might be something like:

The search for a workable solution to a problem in a highly complex situation.

If you’re doing something simple like making a sandwich or switching on a light there’s not much design needed, but as the complexity of your task goes up there’s more need for a structure to manage the information and communicate it as you search for a solution. Structure covers things like processes, algorithms, check lists and design documents but also more fundamental things: connections, hierarchies, trees and networks.5


Dan paints Fabricating as a terrible, horrible, awful thing to inflict on people,6 and it is a bad choice for most Permaculture projects. But depending on the situation it can be a better choice than a generating process:

  • If you have a high cost of failure – due to safety or financial concerns.
  • Your project is deployed into a very predictable situation.
  • If there are time constraints and you can’t iterate, or you only have one chance to get things right.

Sometimes this means that you have to reduce the scope of the project to just what you can accurately predict or model, or run a very specific process to make sure that things are predictable. Think of the programs running medical equipment, airplanes, cars, space probes, power plants, phone networks, banks, and so on.7

Most Permaculture projects are relatively small scale, but I can think of a few cases that might fit the bill. If you wanted to design an ecovillage or small town, you’d want to spend time making sure that you have enough water and food for everyone. If you were to run it in an agile way, you’d add people until your limits on water were reached. In Australia we have dry spells every decade or so. An agile village may start up during the good years, and grow rapidly, but then end up having to kick people out at huge personal cost when conditions change.

It’s much better in that case to map out better to map out the climate, soil types and rainfall patterns ahead of time than “just build the dam a bit bigger if you need to”. Permaculture tends to favour small and slow solutions, but sometimes you don’t have a choice.

If you’re interested in exploring these themes in more detail, then Simon Wardley has done a lot of writing on the process he uses in mapping high level IT project landscapes, and deciding which technologies and project management styles to use. A good starting point is his article Better for Less, particularly figures 235 and 236.

Continuous scale, rather than four process types

One of the tenets of Agile processes is that you should modify your process where it makes sense. You might need some extra steps around a risky task like updating a server, or you might be able to drop something (like a meeting) that doesn’t make sense. There’s a balance between how much time and money you spend upfront, and the risk that something will go wrong, and you can spend more effort if you need more control.

So I don’t really see four separate types of development as Dan’s mapped out (and Dan’s mentioned “continuum” and “hybrid” several times, so I know he doesn’t either).

Instead, there’s a more continuous scale of “How much control (or pre-knowledge, understanding or certainty) are you trying to get over the thing that you’re designing for?” One end is “lots of control”, and the other is “no control at all”. One more document or design meeting won’t tip you all the way into Big Design Up Front, but maybe just an extra 1/17th of the way.

The important point though, is that you can modify your process (more or less up front design work) based on how much information you have, or control that you want. It’s also one of the reasons that I think “Winging It” should be on the right hand side of Dan’s chart: it makes the gradient of control much clearer.

I can imagine a hybrid between any of these four types of design, except for Winging It and Fabricating.

As an example, if you’re in a situation where you don’t know enough about your current context, then it’s difficult to come up with a design until you do. So a hybrid between Winging It and Generating works: Try some things out until you can see the patterns, then fit your observations (and current “design”) into a generative process. Processes like the Lean Startup model tend to work this way – come up with a “pie-in-the-sky” business model, write down the assumptions that it’s based on, then demonstrate or invalidate them as cheaply as possible.

And sometimes, yes, once you’ve figured things out, you find that what you’ve been doing is completely wrong, and the best option is to throw away what you’ve done so far and start over with something more appropriate. You might have quite a bit of time, money or ego invested in the existing design, but it’s a sunk cost – in the long term the better design will win.8

Actual control

But the control that you’re trying to assert is a two-edged sword – it’s only *attempted* control. The more chaotic the situation, the less well your control works, and the return on investment of your planning starts to diminish. A detailed design or program specification in thick, three-ring binders isn’t going to help if the whole business model is likely to change, and most of the money and time you spent developing it will be wasted.

Though unlikely to happen in reality, if a situation is genuinely completely random,9 then any plan is as good as another, so the best option is to spend no time or effort planning at all, aka. our old friend “Winging It”.

Sometimes too, the situation changes. It might become more or less chaotic 10, and so the best methods to use change too. Better technology11 can help too, by making design cheaper or less risky. A good example is drone mapping. 50 years ago a 50cm contour map over 100 acres would’ve been too expensive to worry about, but now it’s doable with a drone for only a few thousand dollars. With better, more detailed information available, you can improve your control over the project, and make a more detailed, predictable plan for less cost.

Large -> Small patterns

As an extension to one of Dan’s diagrams, I’ve noticed that the “decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do” charts are not the whole picture. Dan also uses the Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence in guiding what to work on first. Similarly, when Dan talks about how Bill Mollison set out hybrid designs, Bill starts with large scale up front plans, then works out the smaller details as he goes.

So, the “decide-draw-do” diagrams would more properly look something like this.

Impact grows smaller as you progress through and complete a design. Choosing your site will have the largest impact, adding water and access a smaller (but still large) one, crops and animals a smaller impact still, and so on.

In an ideal design and implementation, the impact of designing and doing is large to start with, but then tapers off as you “fill in the gaps”. If you reach an impasse and need to step back and fix parts, then the impact will jump high, then taper off again.

Dan’s techniques and “Qualitative” design

Where I think Dan’s having the biggest impact is in adapting Christopher Alexander’s process to Permaculture, and fully exploring how a design might “feel” when it’s implemented and you’re in it. Our culture trains our analytical conscious mind to override these feelings, so you might not even notice them – but in the long term they have the most impact.

Dan frequently refers to “tuning in” to a situation or context, or “immersing” yourself – slowing down and taking time to see how a particular place or element of a design makes you feel. Hot? Cold? Windy? On edge? Exposed or isolated? Too close or confined? Enclosed in a nest or sanctuary? Worried about whether you’ll have enough water next summer? Dan’s design process starts with the feelings that are the strongest, which I think is hugely powerful.

I’ve been thinking of this perspective as “Qualitative Design”, as opposed to the normal“Quantitative Design” view, which mostly focuses on easy to measure yields like “How much food can I get out of this patch of land?” or “How long does it take me to do my chores each morning?” If we want to change Western culture, and we desperately need to, this (I feel) is the place to start. Another way to think about it might be as “Inner Landscape Reading”; the human-centred dual of David Homgren’s physical landscape reading.

What does this look like with a person in the middle?

As a hard core reductionist scientist type person, this was a key realisation for me on the last day of the Advanced Design Course with Dan and David – that the aesthetics of how elements are arranged (or differentiated) and how they interact with the people involved should be an integral part of the design process. People are the biggest component of a design, so it makes sense that one which facilitates happy, productive people will give much better results than just optimising yields and drawing straight line efficient paths between parts of a site..

In a comment on an early draft of this piece, Dan describes his process as:

…in a generating attitude MORE time and effort goes into upfront mapping, listening, immersing, tuning in, calculating, researching etc (not to mention honing in on and crash-testing first steps). As in much, much more, such that what actually happens is much more deeply a reflection of the real forces at play in the situation. The focus is on getting the next step right […] a generating approach is more closely focused on letting the details change as proves optimal for the context as the actual dam is being built.

…which seems pretty bang on to me in context with everything that I’ve seen Dan and VEG do. Ironically though, by taking more time and mapping out everything to do with the next step, Dan’s moving back towards what seems to be a more deliberate, Fabrication side of the scale, albeit Fabrication after trying to absorb as much information as possible, including via subliminal impressions. Perhaps this is a sign that there are two parts to the Living Design Process that might need to be differentiated: the iterative process, and the “tuning in”.

But that’s just me being contrary again, I can’t help myself.12 It’s been amazing to take both a PDC and and Advanced PDC with Dan, as well as following Making Permaculture Stronger, and watch him evolve these thoughts and put them into practice, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.


Robyn Francis on her Permaculture Journey (E09)

In this episode Dan from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a conversation with permaculture elder Robyn Francis from Djanbung Gardens.

Amongst other things Robyn shares on:

  • Her recent return to India (having in 1987 co-taught India’s first permaculture design certificate or PDC course alongside Bill Mollison)
  • What she was up to before hearing about permaculture
  • When and how she got involved in permaculture
  • Her own impressions of Bill Mollison’s character having worked alongside him
  • How she got started in permaculture design
  • Her approach to permaculture design process including the roles of
    • Visioning / strategic planning
    • Restraint overlays
  • Her work with communities including Jarlanbah Community
  • Her view on the state of the global permaculture movement
  • A taste of all the amazing projects she is currently involved in, locally, bio-regionally, and abroad (including PDCs in China)

A short video about IPC India 2017 featuring Robyn

Simultaneous Permaculture Gardening and Design Implementation (Inquiry 2, Post 24)

Author: Alexander Olsson

Note from Dan: In this post Alexander brings us back to our ongoing inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside permaculture design process.

In a previous post Dan encouraged permaculture designers to share how they “have responded to or adapted some of the outcomes of this inquiry into their own design process understandings, models, or diagrams.”

I was encouraged to write something down after hearing Ben Falk talk about good design that emerges out of necessity rather than from a surplus of money in episode 4 of the Making Permaculture Stronger podcast.

Finding myself without a job but with a love for nature and gardening, it was out of necessity that I bought a mower and a bicycle trailer and started servicing my neighbourhood with weed pulling and lawn mowing.

There aren’t a lot of jobs for Permaculture designers who are unknown, something Dan and Darren Doherty talked about in episode 5 of the podcast, and it’s very rare that a person could derive a full-time salary from only doing “the design” of a permaculture project. Most designers need to be part of the actual implementation of the project, teach PDCs or engage in other work to get enough cash to fund their professional plans (as well as their on-line seed shopping habits).

However, in contrast to the number of permaculture design jobs, there are quite a few gardening jobs. Having moved to Melbourne a little more than a year ago I find most of my jobs through the site Airtasker, which is a “sharing economy” website which is aimed at connecting people with a bit of spare-time with people who need a job around the house done. I receive search alerts in my inbox as soon as there is a gardening job available. To illustrate the difference in jobs between the two categories of gardening and designing, it is interesting to see that I have received around 1800 search alerts about gardening and/or lawn mowing within 20 km of my home in the last year, 38 search alerts including the words garden design (and variations thereof) within 100 km of my home and only 2 search alerts with the word permaculture within 100 km. Anyone can mow a lawn, but very few people would let a random guy they found online design their garden.

That’s why my necessity approach has been to take on every possible gardening job I can. For the jobs I do take on, I show my passion for permaculture and eventually after a period of ongoing gardening for a client, they have a permaculture garden without them even really noticing it. It doesn’t matter if the job description says “spray and kill all the weeds” or “clean up my garden”, I’ll be there advocating against roundup and planting vegetables. I’m a guerrilla permaculture designer, who doesn’t ask the client if they want a permaculture design, I (politely) implement one anyway. Well maybe not in such definite terms, but I at least try to encourage things to travel in that general direction…



In a few cases I can at least say that I have started with a simple mowing job and then successfully moved on to implement a permaculture design in a generative fashion. The circumstances I found myself in actually led me to develop this generative design approach, rather than a fabricating approach, without even thinking about it.

At times I made a concerted effort to sit down and draw things down on a base map. I marked out trees with exact measurements between them and I completed sector analysis on paper, but it all felt a bit superfluous. After all, both my client and I already knew where the hot afternoon sun made plants wilt and the soil baking hot. I already knew that the south-westerly wind (reminding northern hemisphere readers that southerly wind is the cold wind in the southern hemisphere) made parts of the garden freezing during early spring. I wrote things down because I wanted to be a permaculture designer – not a simple gardener – and that’s what permaculture designers do; they make maps. My clients liked receiving the maps too. People really enjoy receiving their property on a google earth map with colourful overlays. I still use maps to some extent when explaining different concepts to clients, but I have found that as I’m getting busier in the garden I also like to communicate with the client while walking around in the garden. This allows us to grab a handful of soil and feel the organic matter with our hands, or observe the sun angle in the sky at different times of the year while absorbing the real experience of the scorching rays on our skin.

When I started reading Dan’s blog posts on Making Permaculture Stronger, they strongly resonated with me. All of the sudden, there was someone saying “hey that design approach might not be so bad after all.” Where I thought I was simply trying a few things in my client’s garden while waiting for their feedback on it, I was actually designing generatively. Spending a few hours every fortnight, instead of several days in a row completing an upfront design, allowed me to take small steps in the general direction I thought the garden would benefit from, and the very same evening I would get a text message asking politely what the hell I was doing (!). This would make it possible for me to explain the benefit of using lawn clippings as mulch or of having a compost pile. Most of the time though, people actually like permaculture ideas and smart design solutions, so I can honestly say the word “hell” was rarely used.

How can I be sure that I’m not winging it, you might ask, and this is what has troubled me the most, that the generative approach sometimes feels like it borders on random implementation. I have implemented a few fabricated designs too, and many of them have been implemented within a tight time frame. Perhaps surprisingly, these fabricated designs, if not given plenty of time and flexibility for the implementation, have more elements of winging it than does the generative design approach. When I’m “just gardening”, and not drawing the design down, I can take very small steps forward, accept feedback from the client and the garden, and then watch the next step unfold. This realisation is consistent with the move away from this picture (which was introduced in this post):

which puts chaos next to the generating approach as if Dan was afraid of going too far in the process away from fabricating into the dangerous land of generating (a feeling I totally relate to), to a move towards this picture:

which recognises winging it as extremely arbitrary on the more arbitrary-less arbitrary scale. This picture was first published in an update to a previous blog post and I can recommend the discussion between Dan Palmer, Anthony Briggs and Alex Bayley in the comments section.

The gardening approach to design also helps with the expectations on a designer that they will deliver a master plan as the end result, something that was discussed in episode 4 of the podcast series. A gardener is not expected to deliver a master plan on an A2 sheet of paper, a gardener is expected to squat down to pull out weeds. If a permaculture design has been implemented after a year or two of gardening, then so be it, no one will notice until it is too late to stop it! Death of a lawn by a thousand cuts with a gardening trowel! Note also that during the interactions with the client, the garden acts as the very classroom for teaching ecological literacy. While you might hear many objections to a fabricated design which you present to a client who barely knows what permaculture is, through the gardening approach you will be able to take the client through every step and educate them on the relevant ecology as you go. So when saying “I’m a guerrilla permaculture designer”, I’m actually a “guerrilla permaculture teacher” facilitating the client’s own design process.

I know this gardening approach to design might be limited to an urban context. It would be impossible for a permaculture designer to travel 100 km to do four hours of gardening on a farm every fortnight. That being said, there are a lot of urban designs waiting to happen, and I believe this approach is a great way to start as a new permaculture designer.


To conclude this post I’d like to share a few differences between “normal” gardening and gardening/generative design:

Whereas a gardener might … a permaculture designer will …
try to patch up an ill-functioning garden address the root-cause of the problem.
benefit economically from an uneducated client educate on ecological literacy to make the client more engaged and capable in the garden.
leave the garden as it is structurally suggest restructuring or differentiating the space at given points in time when the understanding is right.
come in and CLEAN UP the garden assess what is the cause of the “mess” (both literally in the garden and in the mind of the owner)
agree on the clients will to do some winging it put the ideas of the client through a decision-making process.

With this table I’m merely reflecting on my own experience, and I’m not saying that gardeners are irresponsible in their profession and consciously act in the way suggested in the left column. However, from personal experience, what I can say is that I have worked in many gardens where I for some reason have given up my attempts on pursuing a design process and instead settle for the approach on the left. Working there is never satisfying and leaving without addressing the underlying tensions present in the garden makes me cry inside. Luckily, over time I have found more and more gardens where I love spending time and have built a good rapport with the client. This in turn has enabled me to develop confidence in my gardening/generative approach and act in accordance with the right column.

Endnote: Alexander has recently moved back from Melbourne to Sweden using a generative process to develop a property there with his partner Courtney. We look forward to progress reports and learnings!

Alexander and Courtney’s current digs (from 35 degree days in Melbourne to -15 in Sweden – brrr!)

A Second Dialogue with Dave Jacke (E08)

Dave during the chat with Dan

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys another high-energy, cut to the chase dialogue with Dave Jacke from Edible Forest Gardens.

The first episode/instalment can be found here.

This second instalment of an energy-rich conversation that is far from done includes:

  • Dan sharing his recent feeling that in framing permaculture design processes using linear-sequence-implying flow charts a (kind of big) mistake is being made
  • Dave putting flow charts and other things in a successional (but non-linear!) framing where they have their role in the learning journey
  • Dave sharing his cutting edge, hot-off-the-press, so far unwritten about approach to framing design processes as ecosystems
  • The relation between what he calls the four ecosystem ps:
    • properties
    • principles
    • patterns
    • processes
  • Why Dave avoids using the name permaculture
  • Much, much else!

Dave Jacke’s work has been referenced many times in previous posts, and was the sole focus of this one and this one.

Oh yes, the Ludwig Wittgenstein quote Dan mentions was:

One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing around the frame through which we look at (Philosophical Investigations)

and the quote Dave shared was:

Ecological communities are not as tightly linked as organisms, but neither are they simply collections of individuals. Rather, the community is a unique form of biological system in which the individuality of the parts (i.e., species and individuals) acts paradoxically to bind the system together. —DAVID PERRY, Forest Ecosystems

Finally, you can organise yourself a copy of David Holmgren’s amazing new book Retrosuburbia (which Dan quotes from at the start) right here.

We really hope you enjoy the episode, and please do leave a comment sharing any feedback or reflections below…

Dan during the chat with Dave