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How to Use 12 Principles of Permaculture to Grow Sustainable Organizations

<p>How many times have you felt stymied in helping yourself and your colleagues advance toward a common goal in a sustainable way because of commitment, communication patterns or other reasons? Permaculture offers a powerful system of sustainable design that can help.</p>

How many times have you felt stymied in helping yourself and your colleagues to advance toward a common goal, and do so in a sustainable way, whether because of commitment, communication patterns or other reasons?

In looking at systems that function effectively -- whether businesses, communities, nations, or ecosystems -- what leaps out at me are several common principles.

These include:

Autonomy/Self-Sufficiency: The ability to make decisions for oneself, rely on oneself, and have the confidence to direct one's future. An example is decentralization of decision-making that empowers people to act, yet is coordinated to inform the whole.

Security: Managing against the risk of dependence on external systems and others.

Cooperation: Managing for the power of dependence on external systems and others.

Diversity: Having a host of perspectives and sources to draw upon for ideas and resources.

Resilience: Having back-up and support systems, as shown by the apparent contradiction between self-sufficiency and cooperation. It's not that you need to do one or the other -- it's that you have the capacity to do both.

Feedback: Receiving information on your effects on other system elements, no matter how you interact with them and what action(s) you choose.

An ongoing question for many of us is how to promote, enhance and create these principles, no matter what type of organization we're working in.

As a partial answer, there is a field known as permaculture that offers a powerful system of sustainable design. Permaculture is typically applied to gardens or small-scale farms rather then businesses or organizational structure. However, I think it also holds some real lessons for business.

Permaculture is basically the process of figuring out how to survive in a place -- using the powers of observation, ambient energy and water, and provision of as many resources as possible from local sources. Which starts to look a lot like the goals of many leading companies.

Permaculture is inspired by the science of indigenous peoples, observing patterns of sun, wind, water and wildlife through the landscape. So, you may also think of it as thousands of years of place-based R&D.

David Holmgren, one of the original coiners of the "permaculture" term as it is now used, has articulated 12 permaculture principles (somewhat, but not completely, separate from the principles listed earlier) to help put permaculture into practice (Holmgren, 1999). These principles are shown below in bold, with additional text (mine) to provoke further thought:

1. Observe & Interact. Very simply, observe the culture and social dynamics of an office. How do decisions get made? How do people interact with each other?

2.Catch & Store Energy.
Energy includes the solar energy which can be stored in batteries via PV panels or wind turbines, in the growth of plants, and in the thermal mass of rocks and well-designed buildings. It also includes the potential energy of water captured and stored at a relatively high elevation.

You can also apply this principle to your personal energy. Where is it leading you in this moment, and how can you harness your personal energy and inclination in this moment to best achieve your goals.

3. Obtain a Yield.
Your efforts should payoff, and provide something that you need, whether it is food, water or energy. Don't waste your personal energy and resources on something that ultimately is not going to provide value, and design systems around you so they best leverage your activity (even if it's as simple as having your Twitter feeds automatically posted to LinkedIn and JustMeans).

4. Apply Self-regulation & Accept Feedback.
Feedback is critical, whether applied to natural ecosystems, business processes, or personal relationships. It gives us the information on the effects of our actions and allows us to make better decisions based on those effects. It is fundamental to knowing and maintaining our limits and relationships with our surroundings.

5. Use & Value Renewable Resources and Services. The principle of renewables is perhaps most tangible in smart economics. We try to live off of our income, not our savings. We generally prefer to avoid debt. Whether money or energy or water, the logic of renewable "incomes" helps ensure we honor limits.

6. Produce No Waste.
Notwithstanding the note about avoiding wasted effort, the truth is that everything you produce can have value. The trick is to figure out how to best use it. The Zero Emissions Research Institute has extensive examples of how organics can cascade or cycle through a system, and provide successive levels of value, e.g. meat wastes become food for insect larva become food for fish or chicken become food for humans and meat wastes. This principle also is seen in Lean Manufacturing systems, where the concept is to eliminate excess time to market. However, where Lean is done well, it also applies to efficiency with materials, as material waste generation has real time impacts. 

7. Design From Patterns to Details.
Harness and leverage the observed patterns of sun, wind, rain and topology rather than work against them. As land use and building examples, if part of your property's pattern is that it naturally wants to be wet, don't try to fill it in and grow crops that aren't water tolerant. If you have a hill on your property, use the south face for buildings that need to be warmer, harness the shading on the north face, and capture rainwater near the top of the hill so you can gravity feed it to where it is needed. The goal is to be lazy, minimize water demands and get nature to provide heating, cooling, material transport and agricultural services for free.

This also applies to people within an organization. What are each individual's natural patterns, and how can you best work with them?

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate. Use the synergy between different elements to your advantage. Integration allows complementary qualities to support each other.

An example of non-integration is large bureaucracy, which silos functions rather than fostering cross-connections. Bureaucracy creates systemic problems and is yet another pattern that can manifest itself at multiple levels. Bureaucracy blocks feedback, stifles autonomy and is rigid rather than resilient.

When system shocks come, too often people aren't empowered to act, because action on the given shock is not their area of responsibility. More robust are management systems that decentralize decision-making to the extent that it can, train people to respond to a variety of requests and needs, and provide transparency through mechanisms like open-book accounting and collective goal-setting.

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions. Here is where our economy has its real opportunities, scaling back from the industrial-sized systems we've developed. Slow solutions allow for feedback, adaptation and corrective action of any adverse impacts. By starting small, one can see whether there is wisdom making the solution larger, before any adverse impacts are created at a large scale.

10. Use and Value Diversity.
Diversity is one characteristic that is basic to any sustainable system. Diversity represents resilience. If one species, technique or initiative doesn't work in addressing a problem, another may. It is the multimodal approach where we are able to experiment, and determine what works, particularly in complex systems.

The field of medicine is one good example -- different bodies can respond differently to stimuli, and the interconnection of systems within our bodies means that multimodal approaches that support different systems can provide real health benefits.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal.
Edges and margins are typically the most robust areas of growth. You can use edge effects to create robust growth. Edges can also represent different ideas coming together. We realize our greatest social and business innovation in the free exchange of ideas, and can harness edges for rich experimentation. Edges also reflect our diversity.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change. Given how dynamic living systems are, it is unavoidable that changes and problems may arise. As they do arise, turn them to your advantage, drawing on your personal and organizational assets to best address them. Consider how these principles might apply to departments and functions within your organization, and lead toward greater security, resilience and self-sufficiency.

Author David Jaber is an advisor to communities and companies, a LEED AP, and works in community development, performance metrics, greenhouse gas inventories, and site assessments. He may be reached at [email protected]

Image CC licensed by
April Sampson-Kelly of


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