Adapting the “Scale of Permanence” for diverse design challenges 1

Neil Bertrando’s “Permaculture Education in the USA systems map”

Summary: Neil Bertrando just authored a great article, in which he adapts my adaptation of the Scale of Permanence to generate some extremely useful strategic discussion of permaculture education and research in the USA. The content of his article is worthy of it’s own discussion, but here I’m just discussing method.

Over the past few years I’ve been ‘experimenting’ with the underlying structure of Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence – trying to see what it is about it that makes it so compelling and useful for site analysis and design. My interest has been to see what concepts it might be related to in other disciplines, and how it might be applied in other domains than landscape planning. I’ve come to think of the Scale of Permanence as a form of ordered constraint analysis. At it’s most general, it involves identifying all the most pertinent factors that shape the possibilities and potentials of the design challenge, and then ordering them by malleability. Notice that I say ‘malleable’ rather than ‘changeable,’ since some of the most dynamic conditions may also be the least responsive to our efforts to influence them – e.g. climate, or floodplain hydrology (Hi, Keith Morris!). The process of identification and ordering structures the investigation of the design context – aka site analysis – and the ordered list structures the sequence of the design process. In Yeoman’s Keyline system – and thereby in permaculture, which imported Keyline wholesale – we design around the least malleable constraints first (climate, in the case of site design) and then proceed stepwise through list.

The first time the generalized take on the SoP saw the light of day was at the School for Designing a Society (where I taught a ‘liberation ecology’ course in the Fall of 2011), and then in a more realized form at Financial Permaculture, in Miami last month. Our design group in Miami used it as a way of structuring the strategic business planning process for the Earth Learning Farm at Verde Gardens – and it seemed like it worked well. (Our design team definitely kicked ass, but that was influenced by multiple factors.) Now, to my excitement, one of the design team participants has adapted the adaptation for another design context. Neil Bertrando just authored a great article, in which he uses a version of ordered constraint analysis to generate some extremely useful strategic discussion of permaculture education and research in the USA. (The content of that article is worthy of it’s own discussion, but for now I’m just focusing on method.)

Those mindmaps he created are complex, but they are worth working your way through. In the process of doing so, I came to feel like Neil was working toward something that has been on my mind a lot vis-à-vis the Scale of Permanence and its adaptation.  There’s something about the difference between designing for ecological constraints, and designing for social constraints. Using the Scale of Permanence, we design from the least-malleable toward the most-malleable. That may well be our ideal sequence for implementation: first the water systems, then the infrastructure, then the biological systems. (Whether that ideal is often realized is a different question.)

When I’m designing social interventions, I still design for the broadest vision first, and thereby for the least malleable constraints. But the prospect of intervention at that level (petro-capitalist oligarchy, I suppose) is overwhelming, disheartening, and impractical. So in social systems, the sequence for implementation is flipped on it’s head. If I work the scale of constraints in reverse, by applying myself first to the leverage points that are most responsive to my efforts, I can chart a course from constraint to constraint, and work my way from the immediate challenges and possibilities, toward the horizon of profound systems change. The real value of ordered constraint analysis, if any, may be in the way in which it lays out a strategic pathway for intervention.

Of course, a design tool does not a revolution make. But I’m excited about the potential for concepts that help us think strategically about systems change – and especially, that diminish the emotional load and cognitive shut-down that can accompany addressing the scale of the problems we face. And I’m deeply appreciative of Neil’s use and development of the ordered constraint analysis approach – and more broadly his great contribution to the conversation about how to make permaculture more effective and relevant.