Hey all. So back in April, MPS follower (and as of yesterday patron!) Finn Weddle sent me a message, in which he very kindly took the time to share that:
your podcasts have been a huge contributor to my newly gained confidence to actually design! I have done a few ‘soft’ designs, both in the sense of not being fully written up and in the sense of people social permaculture designs (one design for a community of interest hub, one for a lesson plan), but never had much of a chance to apply myself to a ‘hard’ design. One of the many factors to this has been my tendency towards analysis till paralysis, and the culmination of your inquiry as ‘generative transformation’ has really allowed me to open up my design work much more. I am only half way through, but my ‘client’/sister is bowled away by how adaptive and personalised my plan for her garden is and is singing high praise, so it’s going well. Also of note is that I’ve had a great many eureka moments for this specific project whilst listening to your podcast, so perhaps beyond all the intellectual stuff there’s a hidden truth that just listening to conversations about design process, whilst designing, is the best design process there is? Fractaaaal……
Finn went on to ask a question about what the heck I’m getting at with this concept of transformation in this chart that has unexpectedly popped out the end of Making Permaculture Stronger’s first two inquiries.
Here’s his query, which he kindly agreed to let me share here (perhaps because I implied that was the only way he’d get a decent response out of me :-)):
About the A1-C3 chart, I’m a little bit stuck though. The x-axis is crystal clear to me, and I am very confident in what you call generative design. (With my sister I’m having to use a hybrid, as she lives some 400+ miles from me, and I’m actually marketing it as the ‘least best design’ possible – it is presented as a masterplan, with 5 phases covering 3 years in the garden, and is the best I can do using the concepts and methods I have. BUT I am clear that it is only the best I can do from where I’m standing now and a version of me (or the client) in the future would make a much better design. So Phase 1 is 100% spot on, Phase 2 is very soon after so is 95% spot on, Phase 3 is not for 9 months and much could change by then, including the way in which Phase 1 and 2 were implemented, so actually around 80% spot on. After that it’s barely 50% accuracy i.e. so much could have changed from present day to the end of the project that it’s meaningless for me to go into much detail, but I can explain the concepts/patterns going forward for the client to apply themselves.) However, I’m struggling to get a clear idea of what you describe by ‘transformation’. I can see the clear difference between assembling and partitioning, and I can see that they’re both very useful for different design contexts or even different elements within a particular design, but I can’t find a clear and meaningful definition of what you call Row 3. Would it be right to summarise the y-axis as: Row 1 detail-work, Row 2 pattern-work, Row 3 the ping-pong match between patterns and details?
All the best pal,
First up I have to say I am delighted to hear that the blog and podcast have had a clarifying and opening impact on your design process experiments and adventures Finn – hooray!
Now to the query, which I so appreciate you grappling with. First I’ll say that I continue to grapple with this also. In a real sense this whole blog is me trying to figure stuff like this out in the process of writing and talking about it. So rather than having some perfect answer for you I’m grateful for this opportunity to strive for greater clarity. Given I am quite sure there is a useful distinction to be had here.
First up the answer to the specific question you end with is yes, I see it as very much something like that. To flesh it out a bit I’d say that assembly is details to patterns work, partitioning is patterns to details work, and transformation is both at the same time (the ping pong thing).
As a complement to my previously penned thoughts on this, I’ll have a go at describing it freshly and with the addition of some more recent developments. Okay, I’m taking a deep breath before I discover how this is going to come out :-)…
Assembly starts with parts and strives to achieve wholes by bringing parts together into meaningful configurations. Here the parts come first and the whole comes second. In the Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison was speaking from an assembly perspective when he said “For the final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is to make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole.” (p. 70, bold mine). I sometimes refer to assembly as partism, in the sense that the parts are primary, the whole secondary.
What I’m calling partitioning is a reaction to the limitations of assembly/partism (which is not to say it isn’t useful!). Recently I realised that what I call partitioning is what is sometimes referred to with the word holism. In this sense, holism turns partism on its head. Here the whole becomes primary, the parts secondary. We start with a whole then sort of tickle the whole into birthing the parts. It was Arthur Koestler in his phenomenally influential book The Ghost in the Machine that alerted me to this connection between partitioning and holism. Indeed, he invented the concept of a holon (part-whole) to try and resolve the conflict between partism and holism.
For me, having designed by assembly for some years, it felt like an exciting advance to move to starting with the pre-existing whole place or space or whatever and then divide, distinguish, partition it up from there. The outcomes were certainly more adapted, more integrated, and more honouring and enhancing of what was already there. I have shared a few examples of designing in this way here and here.
Enter transformation. Here, any debate between whether it is better to move from parts to whole or from whole to parts becomes completely redundant. Transformation transcends and includes partism and holism by accepting that everywhere and always we are only ever encountering and, if we deem appropriate, transforming an already existing whole-that-already-has-parts. So at the begining there is a whole-with-its-parts. After step one there is a (slightly different) whole-with-its-parts. After step two there is a (slightly different) whole-with-its-parts. And so on, forever. There is never a whole minus parts. There is never a part minus a whole. It is simply nonsense to try and treat them as if the one could somehow exist, even for a moment, without the other.1
Here is how I put it the first time I really realised this and tried to put it into words (where I have since substituted transformation for differentiation):
Thanks in large part to all the discussions and lines of thought this article has catalysed (many of them ongoing, as in the case of your comment), as well as my own experiments in applying these ideas, I’ve come to an updated understanding that works for me (for now) and resonates with much of what you say. Two key steps for me have been realising that assembly and differentiation are different logical types and that neither are committed to either the bottom-up or top-down direction of movement.
Here, I’ll put it into words (for the first time – thanks for the prompt!)
Differentiation just means to make different. Whether you use the word differentiate, transform, make different, change, modify, reconfigure, 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 spite of my having started a bout of just such arguments – oh well -you live and learn ;-)). My focus is now moving to the question of where are we aiming with these sequences of changes we make? What is the point and purpose and overall destination? How do we know if we’re on track? How do we so often get off track? And what is the most appropriate way of understanding the relation of designing and implementing inside this sequence?
Now I’m sorry Finn but I cannot resist in closing mentioning one little thing that might mess with your mind, as it continues to mess with mine. Transformation is not just ping pong. It is not just assembly then partitioning then assembly, back and forward. Patterns to details to patterns to details to patterns. Yes, this is part of it. But there is this other weird thing going on. You see we tend to think that as we move toward the parts we are moving away from the whole, and vice versa. For they are in different directions, right? Isn’t that the whole point of the distinction between wholes and parts – that one is up here and one is down there? For me, if I am honest with what I observe when I observe my self in process, it just ain’t that simple.
For me, the way I get closer to the whole is not up and away from the parts but is literally by going further into the parts. Indeed, the only place the whole can be found, if I’m honest to my experience (and not my unconsciously imbibed theories about how the world works), is in the parts! I know, I know – WTF right? Everyone knows that parts are inside wholes and that is how it is. But what I’ve been experimenting and dancing with is the irrefutable fact that it is at least as true, if not more true, that the whole is inside the parts.2 For me, even though logically it is something of a mind f%^&, this has been a beautiful realisation. So I’ll be curious to see what you and others make of it!
Over and out and I hope at least some of this was helpful Finn in feeding into your own sense-making and experience-noticing around this stuff. I believe this topic is a critical stepping stone on permaculture’s path toward a deep and shared understanding of an authentically nature-honouring creation process.
Bortoft, Henri. The Wholeness of Nature : Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Lindisfarne, 1996.
Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari, 1988.
Koestler, Arthur. The Ghost in the Machine. Penguin Group, 1967.
- As Koestler put it: “The two-term part-whole paradigm is deeply engrained in our unconscious habits of thought. It will make a great difference to our mental outlook when we succeed in breaking away from it” (p. 49)
- I have Henri Bortoft to blame/thank for putting me onto this, by the way, not to mention David Seamon for putting me onto Bortoft!