Permaculture is a philosophy and method of sustainable design. It was coined from the combination of terms "permanent culture" and "permanent agriculture" with the intent of creating a perspective on design that could work with nature rather than against it. Permaculture was founded by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and has grown to become a worldwide movement in regenerative design and holistic thinking.
A Permaculture Perspective
There are several design principles that help guide the process in Permaculture. While these are outlined in specifics to help guide a revolution in agriculture, many of the strategies are relevant to businesses seeking a more rigorous approach to managing change and building resilience. Inhabit is a documentary that beautifully shares the lives and perspectives of permaculture farmers and designers around the world. It is a lovely introduction to permaculture – a global movement seeking to change the future of farming.
Here are five insights borrowed from permaculture, that can help build resilience strategies in business.
1. Observe and interact
A permaculture approach would not include designing a plan without first visiting the site, and observing it through every season. Thoughtful observation is a classic tool in understanding relationships and connections, and it is revered in permaculture. In business, we often make observations on the fly and promote a nimble test and learn approach. That can be valuable in lean innovation models but it is irresponsible when managing brands on the whole. It can be too easy to miss out on the greater insights, efficiencies and connections that can be yielded by slowing down to understand context, relationships and interactions first. By taking a step back to pay attention to existing patterns, you can begin to work with the dynamics that are naturally at play. This makes every effort significantly more effective because you’re partnering with a system rather than interrupting it.
2. Design for diversity
Diverse systems are resilient systems. Permaculturists are moving away from thinking of agriculture as a series of one-crop mono-fields to something infinitely more layered and diverse – like a food forest. Mutually beneficial connections can better create a stable whole. This is the very nature of an ecosystem. It is not one crop. It is many intersecting, interdependent elements. And that’s an important point. It’s not the number of elements that creates a healthy, diverse ecosystem, it’s the number of connections. In business, do you have fields of one crop? Or are you layered in experiences in product/service design? In communications, do you have a short cycle full of customers you’ll need to replace next year? Or are you growing perennial relationships? Designing for diversity means you’re cultivating an ecosystem, not an echo chamber.
3. The problem is the solution
A farmer tries to grow food, but the plants are covered in slugs. In permaculture, you don’t have a slug problem. You have a lack-of-duck problem. The traditional mode of thinking would be to get rid of the problem. You can try to eliminate it with a pesticide, or spend time with organic alternatives in an attempt to eradicate it from the site. But in permaculture, subtraction is out. Addition is in. Your slugs want to be there. So, leave them there. And add something to help balance them out, like ducks. By adding ducks to the system, you balance the slugs as the ducks eat them, and the ducks provide manure for the plants and eggs for people. You’ve taken a pest issue and turned it into two additional assets. In business and communications, don't think subtraction, think addition. Rather than trying to eliminate an issue, recognize it as an asset and add elements to help balance it within the ecosystem. This feels counterintuitive and inefficient at first until you begin to map out the potential. A weed is just a plant without a purpose, so is negative customer feedback.
4. Stack functions
A roof is shelter, but it also catches rain and channels water, and has the capacity to capture energy. A wall of boulders holds earth in place, creates an edge and also collects sun during the day and radiates that warmth at night to create a micro-climate for more tender plants to thrive near it. In permaculture, finding efficiencies is an essential strategy for resilience. Every element has the potential for many functions simultaneously. In business and communications, this is true as well. We think of communications as ‘tactics’ in ‘channels’, but what if we mapped out a content asset and stacked all its potential functions? Suddenly one piece of thought-leadership can do twelve jobs.
5. Increase your impact
Change is hard. You’re not the bad guy. Farmers aren’t the bad guys either. But in a troubled world it’s easy to see how our collective choices and actions have created global problems that are impossible to ignore. How do we do less bad? How do we get out of this downward spiral? Permaculture would say instead of reducing your individual footprint, increase your impact for the collective good. This requires optimism, creativity, bravery and most of all connection. All good things for business, and essentials for a resilient future where we all can thrive.
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