Social Tools, structuring a university permaculture project

by Tiago Silva & David Avelar


This is a brief account of using the Guardiões and “5As” social tools in shaping participation and enhancing group dynamics, and monitoring the outcomes.

The setting was a university campus with its buildings, teachers, students and traditions similar to any other in Portugal. It was during late 2009 at the Faculty of Science, University of Lisbon (FCUL) when a spontaneous idea to create a permaculture garden, went viral. Against all odds, it was well received by the management of the faculty, and in just over a week, a central patch of garden was made available.

After some collective design exercises the permaculture garden (HortaFCUL) was born, and started taking shape, fragrances and colour, it wasn’t easy though. In hindsight, there were difficulties such as unclear group membership, no plan, structure or maturity. We had a few ideas, lots of opinions, and almost no training in permaculture. As a result, the first 2 years of HortaFCUL relied on the passion and determination of individuals rather than the group.

Working as a living, breathing organism

Celebrating sustainable convergence in Lisbon universityWe needed to learn to trust ourselves and each other, but we lacked the tools. The challenge was to go beyond friendship and start working as a living, breathing organism, with different organs working together for a common goal.

Perhaps we were all pioneering "cowboys'' and the 2 years of horsing around was enough time to develop new habits, the garden to flourish and “cast its spell”. What were once monologue e-mails, all of a sudden, became an active platform and people were more engaged than ever. Communication was thriving and things were speeding up. The time for social tools had arrived and we were ready for it!

Some of us had heard about Dragon Dreaming and its amazing way to synchronize collaborative projects. We started to plan a Dragon Dream from the start of every academic year aiming to promote group intra-dependency, design incoming activities and the identification of project Guardians.

Inspired by this dynamic strategy and its group structuring ability, we devised a framework according to a non-hierarchical sociocratic model. There were weekly meetings where all decisions were made. Ideas, criticism and suggestions were seen as assets and opportunities to improve our techniques and methodologies.


Guardiões (guardians)

A Guardian oversees a given project and is responsible for its proper planning and execution. When a support group is needed (with trainees and mentors), (s)he facilitates parallel meetings to address input/output and distribute the tasks. This role is very important as it can focus on a topic without disturbing the integrity/dynamics of the group.


Weekly meetings using the “5As”

The “5As” are the five roles in meetings. They rotate on a voluntary basis to enhance the focus and productivity of meetings.

As meetings are so important, they require concentration and organisation, and some fun. They are also excellent opportunities for personal and collective growth. They are helpful in many ways:

  • preventing concentration of knowledge and power
  • sharing and delegating of responsibilities
  • encouraging personal growth

Almirante (Admiral) - is responsible for chairing/facilitating the meeting.

- Chosen at the previous meeting, usually the Atado (who writes the minutes), prepares the agenda for the next meeting.

- Before starting the meeting, the Almirante ensures the remaining four roles are chosen, the end time of the meeting is set and any new suggestions are integrated into the agenda and who will speak for each point.

- Invites the speaker to introduce the first topic on the agenda and, if there is need for feedback, decision or discussion, decides the tool to use (eg: talking stick, consent finder, voting).

- ensures a point is resolved before moving on.

Alcoviteiro (Gossiper) - is responsible for being aware of individual and collective inner behaviour (emotional) and decides what is to be said publicly or personally. E.g.: We've been assertive? Calm? Effective? Was there anyone too talkative? Sad? Personal interactions?

- In this way the group receives feedback that is otherwise rarely shared, which develops empathic listening. Generally, the sharing is not commented upon. This is important for conflict prevention.

Atado (Tied) - writes the minutes and shares them with absent members.

- Stops the meeting when necessary to clarify what was decided and where responsibilities lie, which decisions are taken, which Guardian and deadlines set.

Acolhedor (Welcomer) - makes sure the meeting flows regardless of external disturbances. (S)he’s responsible for welcoming and framing the meeting for who’s late, to minimise disruption.

Acertado (Alarmist) - Helps the Almirante keeping track of time and that the meeting ends on time.


From our experience, the 5A’s technique allows for structured and productive meetings. By tapping into the group’s collective intelligence we can access efficient solutions and feedback, involving individuals in creative and positive group dynamics. Continually nourishing personal relationships and awareness is fundamental. Beside individual growth, the revolving roles increase the resilience of the HortaFCUL culture.


Encouraging learning in group dynamics

Garden getting wildThanks to the Guardians we’ve been able to promote planning and interdependency, represented by the connections between initiatives. For example: the seed bank, greenhouse, garden-fairs & markets, banca da dádiva (stand with plants sold through gift economy framework), essential oils, compost.

We are growing as a group, redesigning ourselves and our lifestyles in a environmentally friendly way, developing a communitarian awareness and a more sustainable view. HortaFCUL is now supported by 14 Guardians with long term responsibility, developing robust interdependent relationships that make the 7 year old project more resilient.

Both of these tools, Guardians and the 5 As, have encouraged proactive learning in group dynamics, through self-organizing teams rather than a management hierarchy. As a result, HortaFCUL is sharing more information, over a larger area, with more partners, collaborators and even nationalities!

We are working with some university teachers and departments and 12 local schools. We’ve organised and participated in a number of conferences, courses, scientific talks in seminars, and permaculture research projects. Our weekly “hands on” activities are engaging many wonderful people from different scientific, personal, cultural and national backgrounds willing to help. Recently, we have received approval to start a new Permaculture Living Lab, where permaculture connects with scientific research.


Some development indicators of HortaFCUL community throughout the first 6 years.


Special thanks to all HortaFCUL Guardians, in particular Henrique Folhas, António Alexandre, Pedro Moreira, Miguel Ribeiro, Florian Ulm, Rebeca Mateus, Jorge Gonçalves and Daniel Lopes for the enriching contributions and reviews of this article.