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


  1. which took ten posts and ran from May to December of 2016
  2. Or more accurately things that become parts via the integration
  3. And I would not make a statement like that lightly!

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