Permaculture, Technological Innovation and the Value of Diversity

Sausages: A source of ideas as well as protein

Sausages: A source of ideas as well as protein

I have no experience of Permaculture. I’ve not got the qualifications or done the courses and I’m sure this will be abundantly clear to anyone who has. I do subscribe to the magazine though, perhaps that counts for something! What I am fascinated by however is what is possible when Permaculture’s principles are put into practice.

For those that may not know, Permaculture has its roots in food production (although it has expanded far beyond that since then) where seemingly utterly unproductive and inhospitable land is transformed into areas of highly productive yet sustainable and easy to manage farmland. Permaculture is founded on a set of twelve design principles which are:

1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.

3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking for a while now about how similar those principles are to good people management practices. For example the first principle ‘observe and interact’ could be translated as a call to look at the people in your team and see how they interact with each other, what areas they are particularly strong in and where they need support and then build teams from individuals that are able to support each other.

More recently though I’ve been thinking about the principles of Permaculture with respect to technology innovation. In doing this I started from the other end of the list though and worked backwards. The more I think about it though, the more I start to see the applications.

This all started for me when I began thinking about the value of diversity in the workplace. Enlightened business will always value diversity and I see that as an application of Permaculture principles 10 and 11 in particular. Diversity in staff makes a department more resilient, diversity in product range makes a business more resilient but it also has another effect too. By combining people with vastly different backgrounds and interests but with shared values, ideas start to flow. These ideas become linked in new and interesting ways and the result is fresh, innovative thinking resulting in new products and services that keep a business at the top of its game.

I then started to look at some of the other principles to see where else this might go.

Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.”

In order to create useful ideas, it’s important to understand the problems that your target audience has so that you can come up with a proposition that solves them. To do that requires us to remain mindful enough to notice the problems that potential customers have and to create inventive ways of solving them.

Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.”

Innovation must result in products and services that generate revenue obviously but there are other types of reward too. A good description of these can be found in the work of Dan Pink which is brilliantly encapsulated in an animated video. Here he talks about intrinsic motivation and how big business very often gets it completely wrong.

Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go”

I think this one works on several levels too. On the one hand we have the concept of system design, first as a vision, then as an architecture, then as a design, then as an application. I think though that it better applies as the sort of activity an analyst might carry out during the translation of a problem to a set of requirements for a solution.

There a just a few of the principles described above with my own personal take on them I’d love to hear your ideas too. While you’re thinking up your ideas though I just wanted to tell you about the weekend I just had that acted as the catalyst to writing this post.

As I posted a couple of weeks ago, I made the decision a while back to quit the corporate life and go it alone. One of the main concerns I had though was that I just couldn’t think of a new ‘big idea’ to get me motivated. I later discovered that my brother in law Joe was about to do the same thing. Now his background is almost entirely different from mine. He had a different childhood, he has different interests and a very different career. Where my passion and drive comes from finding new ways to apply technology, his comes from a deep sense of social justice and he has campaigned on a number of issues including the fight against Ecocide and for equality for the disabled. A top bloke, leaves me feeling a bit humble as it happens but he’s not technical, I bagsie that one!

When I found out that Joe was also planning to go it alone I remembered Permaculture principle number eleven.

Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”

I am convinced that real innovation comes from the collision of ideas and backgrounds and this seemed like a great opportunity. So Joe and his wife came and visited and we spent the evening in the garden with a blazing fire in the chiminea, various meat products (or “dead animal” as my wife calls it) sizzling on a grill above the fire, drinking ale and throwing ideas about. His ideas came thick and fast and as they did, so my mind jumped into software architect mode and I started to imagine how they could be realised and turned into reality. By the time they left to return to their flat in London we had an action plan in place and I’m really excited to be involved.

So here’s my proposition. If you’re looking for fresh ideas and you genuinely wish to launch into something exciting and new, one thing I might suggest is to lock a collection of the most different people you can find in a room, sit back and watch the ideas flow. Perhaps have a look at those Permaculture principles and find your own way to interpret them in your environment. One thing I would say above all else though is this:

Diversity Rocks!

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