Organisational structures and patterns in nature

Naomi van der Velden, International Coordinator, Permaculture Association
There are many examples of organisational systems in nature. From the self-organisation of molecules to form crystals, or entrancing displays of a murmuration of starlings, to the stigmergic communications of ants and the growth of a whole animal from just two starting cells. Can we use these ideas to improve the permaculture system? Are there simple tools that will help us to benefit more easily from interactions with other practitioners in and beyond permaculture, and so become more effective in what we do?
Swirling patterns of a flock of starlings against blue sky
A murmuration of starlings at Rigg, Gretna (Walter Baxter) / CC BY-SA 2.0
One commonality between these natural systems is that from simple rules or processes, complex and dynamic results are obtained. For systems with many individuals, clear communication rules are critical to their success. If a bee 'dances' in a particular pattern, or an ant releases a particular pheromone, then others need to know how to interpret and respond to this for the communication, and ultimately the system, to be effective.
Human communications are complex. A shrug, the twitch of an eyebrow, the nuance of vocal expression, or emphasis of a particular word can all add meaning beyond the simple words we speak. Or type. Today I was speaking with a colleague in India on a video link. As she answers me "yes" she is shaking her head.  In the UK and Canada, shaking the head means "no". In India and Nepal, it indicates agreement. I find this simple gesture leaves me uncertain as to whether she really agrees with me, until I understand the communications system she is working within.  


"Yes, that's right." via GIPHY
There are a number of great systems emerging to aid human communications and help people around the world to work together. Wikipedia is a great example of a system with simple rules that people can engage with like "this article needs additional verifications" or "this article is a stub" or disambiguation pages. From these simple directions, a wealth of content has been created which is robust and well-organised.

Organisational strutures and patterns in permaculture

Permaculture practitioners hold up topic signs to create thematic working groups.  Signs visible include "Technology" "Education and food security" "Hot dry climates" "Access to land" and "Resistance"Our strongest organisational pattern to date has been the grass-roots diffusion of knowledge that has been at the core of permaculture since its beginnings in the 1970s. This has led to an estimated 3 million permaculture practitioners worldwide in over 125 countries. However, apart from biennial international permaculture convergences (IPCs), there is currently no systematic operational process for permaculture practitioners to collaborate globally.

IPC 2011 in Jordan saw these issues hotly debated. IPC 2013 in Cuba led to an agreement that a team would be formed to investigate how we might enhance our international collaborations. That team, the Next Big Step, has spent the last two years gaining a better understanding of the needs of practitioners and organisations through workshops, interviews, surveys, and conversations.

You told us that you would like to:
  • Build communities and develop networks around common thematic and geographic areas of interest such as Education or the European permaculture network.
  • Improve access to key knowledge. Ensure that knowledge is robust (through research), and reaches those who would benefit (through education and translation to local languages).
  • Embed resilience and sustainability of practice; developing the capacity of organisations and networks in areas like fundraising, developing enterprise, building capacity, and inspiring leadership.
  • Change the world (beyond our own boundaries); be able to influence policy and decision-makers, and advocate permaculture more widely. 

There are clear areas where we could make more efficient use of our limited resources to be more effective within permaculture. There are also opportunities to link with allied organisations and groups to further enhance our activities more widely. But how should we do this in a way that is consistent with the ethics and principles of permaculture, and honours the amazing creation and spread of this diverse and passionate network?

More on this in the next post:
Creating starry skies in the permaculture ecosystem - to be published summer 2016.