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An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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27 Oct 2010

Ingredients of Transition: Thinking Like a Designer

Permaculture students at Kinsale FEC make final changes to their permaculture design for the college grounds in advance of presenting it to the rest of the students (May 2005).


The ability to embed good design thinking in Transition is a key tool for its success. Permaculture design offers the clearest and most practical tool for doing so, and it offers an approach that ought to underpin PRACTICAL MANIFESTATIONS, as well as the ENERGY DESCENT ACTION PLAN process, and also the core thinking processes of the wider initiative. Although many people associate permaculture design purely with LOCAL FOOD INITIATIVES, it ought to be seen as central to the larger process of STRATEGIC THINKING which the initiative is building up to.

(We are collecting and discussing these Transition ingredients on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The challenge:

A community group that comes together to redesign itself so as to be more resilient and more able to function in a post oil world needs to have, at its fingertips, the thinking tools in order to understand how to apply systems thinking, integrated design, how to see systems as intertwined and connected. It needs, as it were, a grounding in being able to see possibilities rather than probabilities, and the ability, without the need for extensive retraining, to be able to think like designers and to think holistically.

The Core Text

Permaculture is a tricky thing to explain to people in a quick snappy soundbite without also producing a flipchart and drawing pictures of chickens and greenhouses with lots of arrows joining things up (believe me I’ve tried!). There are as many definitions of permaculture as there are permaculture practitioners, so I’ll give you mine as an opener…

For me, permaculture is like glue, a ‘design glue’ if you like, which is used to stick together all the elements that will make up a truly sustainable and resilient culture. If you think of the ingredients that such a culture will depend on, such as local food production, energy generation, skilful management of water, meaningful employment as well as many other elements, what permaculture brings is the ability to assemble those things in the most skilful and beneficial way possible. It has also been described by someone else far more succinct than me as “the art of maximising beneficial relationships”. I rather like that.

Permaculture began during the times of the first oil shocks of the 1970s with a purely agricultural focus, as a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture1. It was, as first set out, an approach for the design, implementation and maintenance of agricultural systems modelled on natural systems, particularly taking climax forests as the model. If forests are able to function for thousands of years in a way that is highly diverse, highly productive in terms of biomass, yet requiring no fertiliser, no watering, no weeding and so on, then perhaps that might prove a better model for an agricultural system than monoculture.

Since then, permaculture has evolved to be seen as a contraction of ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’, that is it goes beyond agriculture, arguing that food production needs to be seen in its place as part of a wider culture of permanence, the creating of a culture with the capacity to endure. It is now seen as a design system which draws from observations of how natural systems function as well as insights from systems thinking and applies them to how we consciously and intentionally design the world around us.

The Ark Permaculture Project in Clones, Co. Monaghan, Ireland in about 1997, a good example of the house/pond/garden combination referred to in this 'Ingredient'.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to design a landscape which includes a house, a pond and a vegetable garden. You could, of course, position them randomly in the landscape based purely on aesthetics. They would do what they do well enough, but with some sensible linking up, our three elements can do far more. Let’s say we put the pond on the south side of the house with the vegetable garden between the two. Having the pond in front of the garden, and the heat sink the pond provides, means that the garden’s temperature is now 1-2° warmer than it would otherwise have been. The pond in front of the house means winter sun is reflected into the house, reducing its need for lighting. The garden being immediately in front of the house means that it is far less labour intensive to maintain. The silt from the pond can be used to fertilise the garden, and watering it becomes much easier. All of these additional benefits are only possible because of the conscious design of these elements. Imagine applying that kind of ‘joined-up thinking’ to a range of other challenges and you’ve got permaculture.

Permaculture is usually taught in two ways, either as a 2 day Introductory course, or as a 72 hour Permaculture Design Course, which is taught in a variety of forms, from 2 week intensives to evening classes that run over a year. There is an established network of permaculture teachers, local groups and also some excellent and well-established demonstration projects2. In my experience, having at least one person in a Transition group who is steeped in permaculture can make a huge difference to the group. There are many potential overlaps between Transition and permaculture, and hopefully your initiative can be a part of deepening this relationship.

The solution:

Permaculture design is an excellent way of taking a crash course in designing for resilience. It has evolved over 40 years as a design system for the design of sustainable human settlements, and its principles and ethics form an excellent and easily understandable foundation for the design work that your initiative will undertake. Make sure that some members of your core group have done a Permaculture Design course, and try, where possible, to weave permaculture training and principles through the work of your Transition group.

Connections to other patterns:

Permaculture training ought to be a key aspect of your GREAT RESKILLING work. It can also be a key part of your work ENGAGING SCHOOLS and will greatly inform any VISIONING work that you do. There is plenty of room in permaculture for ARTS AND CREATIVITY, such as in the creation of MEANINGFUL MAPS. It is important though that permaculture design work is based on good CRITICAL THINKING, ensuring it is based on good research where it is available.


1. As set out in the first permaculture book, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s ‘Permaculture One’ (Tagari Publishing).
2. The Permaculture Association (Britain)’s excellent website can be found at and has a very thorough resources section.

(Please leave comments here).