The other day, I penned a small diatribe against utopians who — having power at their disposal — severely damaged our world. The essay echoed around the internet and found some surprising opposition among peer-to-peer systems proponents. When my riposte met with silence, I decided to piggyback onto that thread here.

Perhaps the rant came off my keyboard too hastily: I was fuming against all those people who, certain of their “vision” and having obtained access to the corridors of power, then proceed to impose it on us all, regardless of objections, regardless of feedback, regardless, indeed, of the reality they *actually* create.

I am all for literary utopias where speculation runs rampant and new vistas open up to human imagination. What I am against is taking that speculation and trying to hoist it upon the hapless humans that happen to be within the utopian’s power orbit. Often this takes the form of policies and laws forced upon people to change their behavior. It’s been called “social engineering” in some circles, and aptly so, since it essentially pushes and manipulates people in the direction the utopian wants them to go, and through top-down methods no less. That, my friends, is not autonomy. That’s not freedom, nor is it respect. That’s not the right algorithm for getting there.

How, then, do you grow a future that works? Christopher Alexander happens to have a few things to say about it in his Process of Creating Life.

The essence of successful unfolding is that form develops step by step, and that the building as a whole then emerges, coherent, organized. The success if this process depends, always, on sequence. A building design can unfold successfully only when its features “crystallize out” in a proper order.

Instead of using plans, design, and so on, I shall argue that we must instead use generative processes. Generative processes tell us what to do, what actions to take, step by step, to make buildings and building designs unfold beautifully, rather than detailed drawings which tell us what the end-result is supposed to be.

The step-by-step approach works. The all-or-nothing approach does not work. This is the secret of biological evolution. During the course of evolution, the adaptation of the thousands and millions of variables that must occur to make one successful organism happens step-by-step, essentially one gene at a time. That is what makes evolution possible. It would be impossible for nature to “design” a system as complex as any organism all at once.

What steps do you take, in what order? The most basic instruction I can give you as a guide for a living process, is that you move with certainty. That means, you take small steps, one at a time, deciding only what you know. You try never to take a step which is a guess or a “why don’t we try this?” Large scale trial-and-error, shots in the dark, simply do not work. Rather, you move by slow, small decisions, deciding one thing, getting sure about it, and then moving on.

The crux of every design process lies in finding the generative sequence for that design, and making sure that sequence is the right one for the job.

Generative sequences emerge from the doing. When I discovered them in Alexander’s writing, I thought he was referring to some template to follow, because he mentioned a song some Oceanic culture uses to pass on the sequence for building a canoe. It begins, “First, find the right tree,” and ends, “Carve the prow in the shape of a woman.”

Not so. Generative sequences emerge from the doing, when we begin where we are, and move organically from there. Sometimes, the generative sequence that emerges is of common use, when, for example, people often make canoes. Such a generative code (which might be turned into a song or a rhyme) becomes a cultural treasure, worth passing on to successive generations. Creating a sound agricultural terrace is another example. Or placing the windows in a room being built. But in unique or novel situations, the sequence itself emerges step by step.

Here’s the actual emergence of a generative sequence for household composting. When I came to the house where I lived for a number of years, I of course had an elaborate vision in my head of a large square compost heap, preferably made of nice wooden slats that were removable on one side. You’ve seen the pictures. So I chose a spot for it, and tried to figure out if I could build it. It seemed beyond me at that time. I considered using cinder blocks, but that would have made it too big and too ugly. Buying a nice wooden structure would have meant spending a lot of money ordering by mail, since local gardening shops had nothing like it. I was reluctant to turn this project into a shopping expedition. I also developed doubts about the location of the heap. I simply began to throw weeds and rotting refuse onto the spot. But it turned out too out of the way. At that point, I more or less gave up. Much later, I hit upon a generative sequence. It went like this:

  1. Need (“felt vision”): to stop throwing food bits into the garbage; to return them to the cycle of life. To walk my walk.
  2. So. If I don’t throw them away, where do I put them (as I am holding the potato peels)?
  3. Ah. Grab a plastic container, place by the sink, put peels in it.
  4. Next morning… ok, now, what do I do with these rotting peels? I have a big old plastic flower pot way back in the garden where I throw a bit of grass refuse and weeds; why don’t I throw the peels there? Done.
  5. Ick. I don’t like going way back there in bad weather. I need a place where I can empty the container if it snows, if I am barefoot or wearing only undies. I grab the flower pot and move it by the back door. Voila!
  6. Oops, we have a problem. I keep tossing the bits in the garbage anyway… keep forgetting. I need a way to change a lifelong habit. How about making a big squiggle on the side of the garbage bin with a sharpie pen? Yes, it works.
  7. Spring comes, and the pot is beginning to stink. What now? Toss some sawdust on it? Time to experiment.
  8. A bit of soil and warmer temps cure the problem.

And so it went. I did not spend a penny on the system. And since I evolved it stepwise from need to need, it is not surprising that it actually served my needs! One of these days, I will spring for a nice porcelain container with a lid to place by the sink. Now I know exactly the size and shape I need. And by the way, that spot I had originally picked for the heap? It would have been completely wrong on several counts. If I had used a plan, I would only have found out after implementation. Too late.

The emergence of new structures in nature is brought about, always, by a sequence of transformations which act on the whole, and in which each step emerges as a discernible and continuous result from the immediately preceding whole. New form comes into being. Morphogenesis occurs. New form that is, in almost every case, unpredictable from the initial state, appears smoothly via a sequence of tiny continuous changes. The sequences are not merely smooth. We have a sequence in which new structure grows organically, holistically, from the structure which is there already. One whole gives rise to another.


how nature generates a plant



You are lost in a the middle of a dark primeval forest. A moonless night breathes all around you; soft rain is falling. You long to be somewhere safe, warm, and dry. A tiny keychain flashlight illuminates the immediate space — the rest is near-impenetrable blackness. Bogs, logs and wild hogs wait to trip you up. How do you find your way?

Your senses on edge, you look, listen, sniff the breezes. A faint gurgling of a nearby brook gives you initial direction. You take a step, then examine what’s around and ahead. You take another step. It occurs to you to follow the creek downstream. The next few steps reveal an impassable steep bank. A detour leads into a huge rocky scree. “How do I get back to the water?” You peer into the darkness for the flicker of a fire or a lit window…

We too are lost in the universe. And more ominously, we are lost in a human world collectively bent on omnicide. Apart from death, we have no sure destinations. Some of us cling to the illusion of control — they think they know where we must go, and how to get there. But more and more of us have taken a good look at the disastrous centuries of ending up in the wrong places, and we finally call the quest for control a big fat lie. We gather ourselves up and resolve to abandon the control-freak led stampede to the edge of the cliff. Now we need a way to move ahead that is anchored both in the honest admission that we are not in control, and in the pattern all other creatures use as they walk the paths of their lives.

Control insists on linearity, but life is complex. Do we dare to surrender to a visionary co-adaptive journey where each step is an evolutionary state that takes its shape from steps taken before? The process I see in my mind’s eye is a dynamic dance continually responding to itself. Each step illuminates the next step. At each moment in time, new circumstances emerge. Every step brings new insights, surprises, and unforeseen consequences. Each step is part of the ongoing cycles of mutual responsiveness; it accepts feedback from the current whole and passes on feedback in its turn. One state flows into another.

Unplanning is a spiral, dynamic, unpredictable process that begins with a hunch, and evolves from there. Dreaming, doing and becoming form one seamless flow. The initial inkling of a vision does not remain static, but glows a bit stronger with each step taken. The tentative first steps merely begin the process; they do not determine it. Modifications and adjustments are made at any point, as the need becomes apparent. And each new experience undergone changes us as we come to embody the life of the path.

The unplanning process requires of us that we gradually become the kind of people who know how to inhabit this unfolding future, who are able to reach a desired place, where-ever it turns out to be. Visioning, walking, and self-changing go hand in hand; behold: a pilgrimage. Wisdom is in flux, mutually situated and actively embodied. We come to be more and more the people whose path harmonizes with that which we hope for, and that which we hope for evolves right along with our continuous becoming.

The process itself changes people — as all experiential, experimental journeys do — and people come to gradually embody that which draws them on. We don’t know where we’ll end up, trusting the process to emerge each particular end-state as a surprise.

No imaginary picture of the future controls our conception of what must be done. What must be done arises from the needs, problems and possibilities of the living present. The direction emerges gradually from the felt vision, the doing, the becoming, step by step by step.

In our profession of architecture there is no conception, yet, of process itself as a budding, as a flowering, as an unpredictable, unquenchable unfolding through which the future grows from the present in a way that is dominated by the goodness of the moment.
— C. Alexander, The Nature of Order: the process of creating life


Utopianism has, rightly, acquired an unsavory reputation. Since my preoccupations on this blog concern the creation of a place of refuge from Babylon, as well as the opening of a crack in the system where another world is born, I thought it prudent to shine a light on it. If only so I avoid falling into that abyss.

Utopianism is underlain, as I understand it, by the hankering for social perfection and the lure of ideal worlds. It typically involves four aspects:
* privileging of ideals over messy human realities, of future over the present, of pure geometries over wabi sabi, of ideas over nature
* imposition of top-down design
* refusal of responsibility and of paying close attention to untoward consequences; “ends justify means”
* social pressure or propaganda to induce people to “like” the results

Most of the people who’ve brought ruin to the modern world have been utopians, from Lenin to Mussolini to Pol Pot, from communists to neo-liberals, from early modern architects to Brutalists to more recent ego-excesses of the various Frank Gehrys. (I am not counting among them the literary creation of new worlds. Dreamers need to safely bat ideas around, and fantasy and sci-fi novels make that possible.)

Utopians delight in arm-chair design. They fall in love with their creations. When they try to implement them and other humans balk, things get ugly.

Utopian memes have misled people into thinking that top-down design of ideal societies is the right strategy for creating a better world. Even permaculture has been infected, imposing top-down landscaping designs upon the land with predictably disappointing results. I have called the opposite of top-down design “unplanning.” Unplanning imitates nature, envisioning and applying human processes that are rooted in adaptive, feedback-responsive steps.

I think in terms of “better.” A whole lot better than THIS. And while optimal is hard and ideal is impossible, better is often very doable. And when “better” seeds new “attractors” (vortices of energy) into being, a sudden phase shift into something quite different becomes possible.

The world I am dreaming into existence cannot come into being via utopian schemes. It evolves from small beginnings. It arises through a myriad of adaptations made by millions of people. There is a vision, but the vision itself co-evolves with each step each human takes. We make the path as we walk. Following in the footsteps of Candide, we cultivate our gardens. And invite others to join us there.


Frank Gehry: ruining the world, one building at a time


I’ve thought for some time that 1) vision is what unifies us, and 2) vision is something that does not need extended formal visioning sessions… when the vision is ripe, it takes but a few minutes to formulate it.

I would like to put it to the test. If we were to formulate a vision for the world of our dreams, what would it be? Here are the simple rules of engagement:

  • keep it to one sentence
  • focus on the human world
  • what are you hoping for, in your heart of hearts?

Here is an example (albeit with a focus on technology). All those wonderful people with their flapping, bicycle-powered, or just push-off-the-hill flying contraptions towards the end of the 19th century… they had a simple and clear vision: a human-carrying flying machine. There were many groups trying many different ideas and designs, but the vision unified them, enabled them to share what they learned, and kept the machines evolving.

Similarly, we need a vision for another, possible human world. Simple yet far-reaching, and widely agreed upon. Triggered by something a friend had said, I sat down this morning, and wrote it down. This is the vision that underlies all the various posts on this blog, though I had not come to clarify it before. Does it speak to you? What is your own vision? And can we come to share them without compromising the vision in each person’s heart?

Here is mine; the tasty kernel within the butternut of my dreams:

A sane human world where wisdom rather than folly gets amplified.

To turn, to turn it will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right…
— Shakers

Ah. visions. What are they but the magic of our imagination orienting us to the tentative direction of our unplanned journey? My life is enriched by three kinds of visions these days. The first are fantasy or sci-fi type of stories that focus on a particular puzzle worked out within an interesting, well-crafted world. Reading Door into Ocean showed me that it is possible for a smallish, peaceable population to prevail over a large conquering army. Just like Verne’s captain Nemo convinced many a 19th century reader that submarines were the wave of the future.


The second kind of vision comes to me largely unbidden. Every so often, it’s in the writings of a fellow uncivver that such sweet fancy comes alive. And for the last year or two, as I’ve carried inside me the dream of living outside Babylon, vivid, unexpected reveries have enlivened my quotidian at odd times, often just before sleep. They gift me with a sliver of another, unbabylonish, world as if I were walking it already.

This night, I find myself in a world without doctors. After all, “we” (the unbabylonians) are equals – the very concept of a “doctor” jars one’s sensibility! Instead, we have healers. Some have degrees, some don’t. What matters among us is particular expertise, personal experience with the disorder, and carefully tracked reputation.

But I need to be clearer. We don’t just “have” healers. We all are healers. If you join us, someone’s sure to be asking you about your healing gifts, and plugging them into our grapevine. We are always learning from one another, sharing new discoveries, and the young people learn basic healing skills when still little tykes. Oh, we do visit a doctor in Babylon, here and there. They tend to be good with diagnosis, acute illnesses and injuries. We feel sorry for them — they are compelled to hoard their knowledge, and have no time to listen or to learn from their patients. Here, we have full access to each other’s healing skills. We practice lifelong peer-to-peer medicine. In Babylon, such behavior is illegal. To us, it’s common sense.

Athletes often visualize or otherwise sense themselves into jumping higher or twisting into a yet more complex and daring high dive. So I too invite in visions of what living outside of Babylon may be like, feel like. I can now stand on the threshold and peer in, catching a fleeting glimpse. These sensings will grow stronger over time as we walk out of Babylon, step by step. The lay of the land will grow clearer before us, the people more real, the direction more sure. What has begun as a collection of jumbled beads, of fuzzy tentative vignettes, will become a radiant necklace of stories that increasingly become our own true stories. The world we are coming to inhabit will gain color, heft, and taste as we go through the cycles of visioning, walking and changing.


And third, I am now focusing on the pattern Christopher Alexander describes and uses. This vision arises out of feeling and experience. But I’ll let him tell it. (When he talks of “life” he means places and objects that generate a deep feeling in the person who encounters them.)

Feeling must be the clue to wholeness. I once had an interesting discussion with Sim Van der Ryn. He was arguing that feeling was not enough. In his view it was too emotional. For instance, he said: “In making a sustainable fishpond that works, you just have to concentrate on the facts about fish life, water, plants, and so on, ecological facts about a healthy pond.” I told him: “It is true that these ecological facts are a necessary part of our knowledge, our understanding of how to make a pond. And it is true that many of us know too little about what it requires to make the world sustainable, harmonious in its biological and chemical detail, and so on.

But suppose, indeed, that we are trying to build a fishpond. The facts about the ecology of the pond — no matter how detailed themselves — will not tell us how to make that pond good. Even if we have theories and facts about sustainability, edge plants, fish breeding, water temperature, types of weed, types of insect, and so on — even with all of this we will not succeed in making the pond have life unless we also have a clear inner feeling — a subliminal perception, and awareness, and anticipation — of what life in the pond will be like.” That means we must have a dim awareness within us, of what a pond with life is like, as a whole and in its feeling. If we do have that feeling of life clear (for the fishpond), we can then use it to guide us. It will help us move towards a pond which does have life. But if we do not have such a feeling clear in us, no amount of knowledge about ecology and sustainability will get us to a pond that has life in the sense I am discussing. We shall just be left scrambling mentally, churning about, marshaling our facts, making experiments perhaps — but still not clarified by an inner vision of what to do. Building the pond, stocking it, putting weeds in it, placing bushes around it, we need to be guided by an inner vision of good life in this pond. We must have a feeling in us, which will reliably tell us when we are going in the right direction, and when we are going in the wrong direction. It is ultimately this inner feeling, this inner vision of feeling, which is our only reliable (and necessary) guide.

In short, we must be able to imagine the pond — not as a copy of another pond, or with detailed factual vision about dimension, depth, plants. We must be able to summon up, inside us, an inner sensation of the feeling of a healthy pond, which makes us remember or create the kind of feeling which a good fishpond has: the slow movement of the fish, the light on the water, the kinds of things that may be present at the edge — all this, not in biological or architectural detail — but as a morphological feeling which allows me, in my inner eye, with my eyes closed, to remember, breathe, the kind of soft and subtle feeling of life which such a pond requires. It is that vision of feeling which, above all, must guide me.

One of the important things Alexander stresses is the vagueness of the initial vision. In “creative visualization” exercises people are urged to focus on great many details clearly portrayed. The planning mindset assumes that the better present will emerge out of a future carefully articulated. Alexander advocates the opposite. He speaks of the “dimly held vision of emotional substance.” I find his appeal to fuzzy logic meaningful because as I have been learning more about complexity and journey-focused lifepaths, initial clarity now seems to do violence to something that needs to begin where we are: unclear, seeing as in a glass, darkly, making tentative first steps in response to a faint sound in the fog. I find Alexander’s way very intriguing at this stage in my life, because I have become convinced that it is a certain feeling that must lead us, obviating the lure of instrumental rationality that has so long held us in its thrall.


I am no longer drawn to formal visioning exercises along with the various efforts to craft vision and mission statements. Yet I recognize that all sorts of visionings work and can be of use in particular situations, as long as they are brief interludes within a larger, never-ending, spiraling creative wisdom process. Perhaps we need to use visioning tools in a more discerning fashion, looking for the right tool for a particular situation, leery of over-determined rational visions that can lead astray.

Many groups as well as budding entrepreneurs make the mistake of pouring their energies into a massive visioning/planning effort. (Been there, done that.) When they finally come to implementation, they choke and fall off a cliff. Why? Because the vision has become too big, too grandiose, too imagination-heavy, and to jump into such an ambitious implementation is far far riskier than starting with an itty bitty fuzzy vision and trying it out in itty bitty chunks.

I confess to have grown skeptical of the value of visions that project many years ahead, and then try to figure out how to get there. I don’t want to say it never works. If you live in Florida and want to live in London a year from now, such a process can come in handy. But suppose you are one of those young men with the wonderful flapping flying machines in, what? 1890s?, would it do you any good to imagine what airplanes might be like in 1920, and then back-cast? Would a toddler profit by visioning exercises showing what her walking might be like when she is an adult? Would I gain by imagining my life when I am 80 and base my decisions on that today?!

An interesting conundrum, this. If you are 30 years old, is it helpful to imagine what you want your life to be when you are 60? In some respects, it may be. Perhaps it will get you to save for retirement. But overall, it seems to me that the person you’ll be at 40, 50 and 60 deserves to make her own choices rather than follow the vision you crafted for her at 30. Nobody wants to live a pre-thought life! (Here I am invariably reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit featuring a restaurant that serves pre-chewed steak. ;))

A true vision wells up. If it’s not already in the heart, no amount of clever exercises will bring it forth. Oftentimes, the vision is already carried by those who “show up.” The young man walking up into the hills to join the partisans need not spend any time visioning. He already knows, deep inside, regardless of whether he has ever articulated it, that he is there because he wants to take the land back from the Nazis. Budding permies or Transitioners carry their own vision to the very first project or workshop. If I ever join a gathering Transition group, I would like to begin by sharing the visions each of us brings to the undertaking. Like telling stories around the fire…. letting the visions flutter in the flickering darkness and stir we-know-not-what distant whirlpools of energy that will draw us thither. And then, we move right into doing.

An Alexandrian meditation on visions wraps it up…

In the course of using this method, we shall also find, from time to time, that as we move forward, before we take an action, we can grasp the latent structure as an emotional substance, we may feel it as a vision — a dimly held feeling which describes where we are going, but is not yet concrete, in physical and geometrical terms. This means we can sense, ahead of time, the quality of the completed whole, even when we cannot yet visualize it. We then keep this quality alive in our minds and use it as the basic guiding light, which steers us towards our target. The final target, then, has the feeling which we anticipated much earlier, but often has an unexpected, unfamiliar geometry.

The feeling which steers us in this fashion is a vision — but it is not an arbitrarily invented vision. It is a vision of something we may call the emotional substance of the coming work, a feeling which arises in us, as a response to the wholeness which exists. It is therefore reasonably accurate, reliable, and stable. We can get it, and then keep on coming back to it. It evolves, as the project does, and as our concrete understanding evolves. Thus, as the geometry develops, the feeling is kept intact, but becomes more and more solid provided we do not depart from the feeling that existed in us at the beginning. So, this feeling which guides us is our response to the wholeness — first to that wholeness which existed at the beginning. Subsequently it is our response to the wholeness as it evolves and emerges from our actions. It is our knowledge of what kind of thing is needed to complete that wholeness, and make it more alive.

I have previously described wholeness in mathematical detail so that we understand the wholeness as a real structure. It is something real and substantial in the world. But even though it can be described as a mathematical structure, it is too complex to take in by purely analytical means. In order to get the whole, to grasp it, one must feel it. Its wholeness can be felt. Using our own feeling as a way of grasping the whole, we can put ourselves in a receptive mode in which we grasp, and respond to, the existing wholeness together with its latent structure. This is not an emotional move away from precision. It is, rather, a move towards precision.

The feeling we seek is a condition in which the artist, builder, or participant opens himself to the whole, allows the whole to appear within him, and allows it to act within him: It is, then, the feeling which arises from the work itself. Above all, that which is latent, the structure just below the surface that is “trying” to appear, can be felt. And this is the core of what must be observed, felt, and perceived in order to make structure-preserving transformations feasible. Thus, during a living process, feeling is being used as the surest and most reliable way for the artist or builder to receive the wholeness, nourish it, and respond to it, preserve it, and enhance it.

Reading nature’s book is what permaculture is all about.
— Toby Hemenway

If humans are ever going to live sustainably on this planet, we simply cannot continue thinking that sustainability is something we must engineer.
— Paula Hay

Permaculture has progressed from offering another way to farm and garden to providing a toolkit for those who dream of designing entire human ecologies — habitats and food production — that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. But the wonderful world of permaculture embodies one glaring omission. Imitation of nature, universally urged, is not extended far enough.

“Observe what happens in nature and then imitate it; adapt strategies that have already evolved,” writes Bill Mollison. Instead of fighting mama nature or trying to control her, we follow her lead. After all, she has a very long track record of nurturing life — 3.8 billion years, to be exact. We are surrounded by evolutionary success; the sustainable world we long for already exists all around us. Tapping into nature’s wisdom must surely underlie any efforts at embodying wisdom in human undertakings.

Let us then apply this excellent advice while reflecting on our toolkit itself. What makes natural ecosystems work in terms of design? We humans have barely scratched the surface in our effort to understand. But we know there is no designer or planner overseeing a pond, moving the tadpoles and reeds to and fro, no micromanager of the thicket, directing the blackberries here and the dog rose there. Yet permaculturists behave as though they are imitating that interventionist God insisted upon by evangelical Christians.

Does nature design ecosystems via blueprints and future-to-present impositions? Does it envision a billion years ahead, then implement? Does nature take a burnt-over meadow and shape it according to a plan? Perish the thought. Lifelong nature observation leads me to be confident in asserting that nature emerges and evolves ecosystems by paying attention to present needs and opportunities, that it works piecemeal rather than in grand designs, and that it relies on co-adaptations of all living creatures to one another in a dance whose result cannot be predicted.

“Permaculture looks for the patterns embedded in our natural world as inspirations for designing solutions to the many challenges we are presented today,” says Jan Martin Bang in his deeply informed-by-experience Eco-villages book. Is the time ripe for permaculture to shift its attention to the meta-level, and pattern its design process itself on the natural world? I would love to see us extend our admiration for and mimicry of nature’s ingenious design to her way of designing as well.

I proffer here a few thoughts regarding what some useful permadesign guiding lights might be. My own understanding of permaculture is small, local and unfinished; barely begun. So I hereby point to an inviting edge where creative forces play and wait for more of us humans to join them.

How then does nature design?

  • Nature focuses on the never-ending journey, rather than on the destination. She does not set goals, but rather goes forth in iterative steps. Experiencing the journey itself is part of what guides the process.
  • Nature works in “trial & error” spirals, loops, zero-waste cycles. The quintessential spiral herb garden serves as a reminder of the spiral cycles underlying creation. When we humans create in the presence of uncertainty, it is these flowing and ongoingly-unfolding spirals that lead us from within.
  • Nature unfolds the future from the present, from what is-here-now. It is from this very moment that future arises, not from projections and plans. The present moment holds within it the seed of emergence.
  • Nature self-organizes from initial conditions. Self-organization is a term bandied about a great deal nowadays, but few people seem to know what it means. Software designers build in snippets of evolving adaptations into “God’s view” designs and call it self-organization. Leaving it to the “artificial life” crowd seems fraught with risk; only when we grow the understanding and practice of self-organization within real life, our life, we make it our own.
  • Nature moves from wholeness to wholeness. To cherish the land means cherishing it now, as it is, despite its woundedness. After all, even land that has been abused pulses with its own life, its own living logic, its tenacious wholeness, its integrity. To go in with blueprints, chainsaws and bulldozers, ripping up wholesale ‘what is’, to be replaced by our willful design… — isn’t that yet another wound, this one in the name of healing? Nature teaches that “wholeness is always formed by a special process in which new structure emerges directly out of existing structures, in a way which preserves the old structure, and therefore makes the new harmonious.
  • Nature uses the small and slow — gradual, tiny increments, not comprehensive designs. As Christopher Alexander has observed, “living structures always arise slowly, by successive transformations of what exists, gradually, gradually….” From many small steps, surprising new structures emerge. Might growing a very local and slowly maturing relationship with the land serve life better than installing a comprehensive design, no matter how seemingly benign?
  • Nature exhibits entropy-defying directionality. Mysterious, it is, this directionality that does not project the ideal future first, but somehow arises in tandem with the very first steps taken.
  • Nature plants seeds, then lets them grow to see what happens.
  • Nature oscillates between periods of stability where organisms get a chance to evolve and come into their own, and periods of high stress when less resilient organisms get weeded out or diminished.
  • In nature, everybody’s a designer — the hedgehog or the possum, the apple and the oak tree, the mallow and the slime mold, along with the human who lives nearby. Animals, plants, and microbes have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. An ecosystem is a community of co-designers, colleagues. There is no master designer telling the others what to do.
  • Nature’s designers all evolve in response to each other; co-adaptation is one of the aspects of self-organization and proceeds via cycles of mutual responsiveness. “Design is adaptive only when it is done in steps, and each step accepts feedback from the existing structure.
  • Nature’s designers mimic each other’s evolved patterns. As moths mimic the eyes of a bird for protection from predators, so humans mimic the sophistication of a leaf when inventing a better solar cell. And life’s principles show the way: build from the bottom up, self-assemble, optimize rather than maximize, use free energy, cross-pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, use life-friendly materials and processes, engage in symbiotic relationships, and enhance the biosphere. What surrounds us is the secret to survival.

I am resisting at this point the urge to speculate further or to sally forth with pithy, half-baked advice. That would surely go against the spirit of what I have written so far. The next steps will emerge from a community of collaborators, people who are animated by the need to extend permadesign in a more processual direction, using bottom-up, biological metaphors. So I will restrain myself! and tell a story instead. Let it illuminate the words I have summoned to express what is a-borning inside me.

There was once a woman who invited permies to her urban yard for a class. They presented the family with several attractive designs, and she chose one to implement at considerable effort and expense. When all was said and done, she discovered that the reality in her garden was completely out of touch with the reality of her small children who tripped over vegetable beds and crushed the hapless cabbages. Eventually, most of the garden was ripped out to bring back the lawn. Will the family give permaculture designers another chance? Will the land?

Once again, I end with the words of Christopher Alexander. [To see the larger passage containing this quote, go to this German forum and scroll down.]

The 20th-century mainstream view of building was goal-oriented and mechanistic, aimed mainly at end-results, not on the inner good of processes. Building was viewed as a necessary way to achieve a certain end-result. The design drawn by the architect – the master plan drawn by the planner – was the purpose, these were the goals of the art. The process of getting to the goal was thought to be of little importance in itself, except insofar as it attained (or failed to attain) the desired goal.

The mechanistic view of architecture we have learned to accept in our era is crippled by this overly-simple, goal-oriented approach. In the mechanistic view of architecture we think mainly of design as the desired end-state of a building, and far too little of the way or process of making a building as something inherently beautiful in itself. But, most important of all, the background underpinning of this goal-oriented view – a static world almost without process – just is not a truthful picture. As a conception of the world, it roundly fails to describe things as they are. It exerts a crippling effect on our view of architecture and planning because it fails to be true to ordinary, everyday fact. For in fact, everything is constantly changing, growing, evolving. The human body is changing. Trees bear leaves, and the leaves fall. The road cracks. People’s lives change from week to week. The building moves with wind and rain and movement of the earth. Buildings and streets and gardens are modified constantly while they are inhabited, sometimes improved, sometimes destroyed. Towns are created as a cooperative flow caused by hundreds, even millions, of people over time.

Why is this process-view essential? Because the ideals of “design,” the … drawing of the imaginary future, the … watercolor perspective of the future end-state, control our conception of what must be done – yet they bear no relation to the actual nature, or problems, or possibilities, of a living environment. And they are socially backward, since they necessarily diminish people’s involvement in the continuous creation of their world.

Master plans embalm embryos; they are a form of cryogenics.
— Joseph R. Myers

Unplanning is an interesting concept because it suggests that we need to ‘undo’ what we currently know and relearn a whole new way of doing things.
— Neil Perkin

Rumor has it that energy is seeping out of the Transition Town movement. I am not surprised. They went ‘whole hog’ for planning, and it is my carefully considered, worry-tinged opinion that the hog will do them in if they don’t come to their senses.

At the heart of the current TT process is the creation and implementation of the so called Energy Descent Action Plan for each locality. The Totnes group spent two years — 2 whole years! — on creating their EDAP. I am not the first person to wonder if the time, effort and money could not have been more profitably spent on actually “doing energy descent.” But it gets worse. The depressing secret is out: step #13 (sic) of their 12-steps is — groan — yet another plan (viz these documents from Dunbar, Scotland, for example).

Contemplating what to me looks like a bizarre cul-de-sac, I decided to poke my nose into the maze. The Transition Handbook tells us that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Is it really so? Rob Hopkins, one of the founders, has in a recent interview been once again advocating “that intentional, design-led, strategic approach. The whole idea is that you’ve got a limited amount of time, limited resources, limited financial resources. Just running out and just starting to do stuff not in a strategic overview, in a strategic framework, could be a complete waste of time. ” Hm… — what if it’s the other way around? For help, I turned to the history of planning, which, before the advent of the planning craze in our time, meant mostly urban planning.

While the planning impulse probably harkens all the way back to Plato and his ideal forms, it came into its own by mid-19th century when “blueprint planning” formed a preamble to leveling town walls and historical neighborhoods in European cities, to be replaced with broad, straight thoroughfares, massive rows of new apartment buildings, and other monumental projects. In blueprint planning, the planner has an end-state in mind and seeks to achieve it through high levels of codification and control. All subsequent planning systems are variations on this theme. Adding embellishments like closer attention to goals, prediction and analysis, public participation, advocacy for the underprivileged, or lately, dressing up this process in hip, spiritual, green-friendly garb does absolutely nothing to change the underlying logic of control.

Next, I looked into planning literature, seeking evidence that planning works as advertised. The author of Urban Development: the Logic of Making Plans — a lifelong professional planner — examines the rationale behind planning and finds it wanting. He notes that plans are seldom updated despite exhortations to the contrary, that people don’t make and use plans the way planning lit says they do, and that “the lack of estimates of net benefits of plans is a major gap in research about planning.” In the end, he recommends that plans only be used as adjuncts to decision making, and specifically warns away from their deliberate implementation. After all, he tells us, human beings generally want to focus on issues, decisions and solutions and not on plans.

Is it then unreasonable to wonder whether those 19th century planners were so in thrall to their own egos and so worshipful of their own rationality that the entire planning concept is fundamentally misbegotten? What but an arrogant sense of their own superiority would drive them to trample and wantonly destroy what had evolved over centuries of human habitation, as countless people through the generations negotiated each other within the intimate intricacies of local spaces? Like hostile aliens they swooped down to raze all that well-loved, well-worn richness, all the irregularities, surprises and nooks that make vernacular architecture such a delight. It hurts, remembering.

In the New World, towns were decreed, then forced upon the land. It never seems to work well. Roads and alleyways connect properties, not intuitive landmarks. Paths for those who would walk are missing. Right-angle street grids pleased some long-gone technocrat but fail to please the human spirit, and the land itself got carved up by geometry-minded surveyors like a slab of cheese. It hurts, living in its midst.

Isn’t planning one of the tools we use to bludgeon the world into submission? Why then do we act surprised when it lies bleeding at our feet? Living forms flow from one state to the next. Civilized humans push and pull, always wrenching, wounding in our scramble toward some vaunted future. Modern planning provides a battering ram, doing unto the world according to our will.

Sometimes I wonder if Lewis Mumford was a lonely man; his understandings were so far ahead of his time. He had an answer to Rob when he wrote: “Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal: it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful so that they generate a complex, final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern. Towns like Siena illustrate this process to perfection.

Well, then, what does planning actually do, and why are people drawn to this way of ordering their thinking and doing? Here is my shot at it:

  • it enables us to linger in the safe cognitive realm, unsullied by hands-on messiness; it creates an impression that ‘something is being done’ and provides a handy cover for delays and procrastination
  • it gives us power to command tomorrow’s people to march to our tunes (but unless they are compelled, they probably won’t)
  • it provides a tool for those inclined to force the world to give them what they want
  • and it satisfies the hunger for a method that would help us bridge the gap between dreams and reality

It really comes down to ritual and incantations, doesn’t it. We all long for a magic wand that would give us the power to manifest our desires. But planning is black magic, machine-mind magic. Clumsy, always at least somewhat coercive, heavy-handed, inflexible, and absurdly linear, it is one of the reasons modernity is imploding all around us. If we are truly committed to coaxing “the world to come” with gentleness and regard for its own moment-to-moment unfolding, shouldn’t we seek to use and embody a process that truly works with the world?

If only we set the goals right, if we find the logical steps to get there, if only we march resolutely enough! Then we look away, baffled, when this path reaches once-promising milestones at the price of unplanned, untoward consequences. A far subtler tool is needed to lead us away from civilization’s impasse.

Christopher Alexander’s call for us all to reflect on the damaging processes we have inherited and to search in our daily life for processes that make for wholeness and life, tugs at my heart. Can you feel it? Another way is possible. On a clear day, I can see it emerging within the goodness of the present moment.

If we examine a complex natural system evolving, each next stage of its evolution depends on its previous stage. Mechanistic 19th-century science created a thought-model in which the next stage would be easily predictable from the previous stage. But it turns out that the world is not like the mechanical thought-model. More sophisticated discoveries have made it clear that in a complex system the next stage is dependent on the current configuration of the whole, which in turn may depend on subtle minutiae in the history of the previous wholes, so “trace-like” that there is no way to predict the path of the emerging system accurately ahead of time.

To create a living world, successfully, we must again find ways of making all building processes move forward in [an] experimental, responsive fashion. That one thing alone, as a kind of bedrock for all design and all planning and all building, will change the world.



When we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.
— John Gray

Since my next post on unplanning is ripening but slowly, I thought I’d post slightly edited excerpts from a paper I found enlightening in my quest to understand unplanning’s underpinnings. Vladimir Dimitrov is an Australian mathematician with keen interest in complexity, chaos theory and fuzzy logic. In Complexity, Chaos and Creativity: Journey beyond Systems Thinking he explores how complexity improves upon systems thinking, and in the process illuminates some of the ways that planning undercuts us.

Wholes inside wholes

System thinkers see the world made up of parts (systems, subsystems, components, elements, particles) that can be separated and analyzed independently from one another. The underlying assumption is that the whole is more than the parts, where ‘more’ usually relates to ‘more complicated’ or ‘more difficult to study and understand’; consequently, the parts are simpler and therefore easier to study and understand. For artificial (human-made) systems, such an assumption can be accepted. In nature and society, this assumption fails.

The microcosm is not simpler than the macrocosm; the same inseparably connected dynamics, energies and forces that make the spiral of our galaxy fold and stretch pulsate in a similar way through any living cell. The life of a single individual is not simpler than the life of society considered as a whole. In the fractal structure of nature the whole consists of wholes, only the scale changes.

To be fair, I think that system thinkers made a real effort to stress the emergent quality of the whole when all those components came together, which made it ‘more than the sum of its parts.’ That was an important insight of systems thinking. This insight was then built upon by complexity researchers.

It occurs to me that when we attempt to come up with patterns that help us walk in the “right” direction (as planning attempts to do), we are stymied by the effort to set clear goals and then break them down to parts, into steps that we can take. The alternative that I am trying to articulate does not start with a linear process (over there a goal, over here we taking the steps and the jumps arrived at by deduction). It starts with an awareness of wholeness that shifts into another wholeness, and another, as we walk. Tomorrow’s wholeness, emergent as it is, is not altogether predictable from today’s wholeness, and we have to give it a chance to evolve according to its own logic, not ours. The movement of wholeness to wholeness is like the slight turn of a kaleidoscope: a new whole, just as lovely and coherent, emerges from the previous pattern. Each new turn takes us further from the original whole but the final pattern still carries within it an echo of the first configuration.

Be here now

Complexity and chaos focus their attention on the present, because even tiny perturbations in the process of self-organization occurring at present can have enormous impacts on further development. It is an impossible task to make the ‘butterfly effect’ follow a goal-oriented strategy or target-setting anchored in the future.

While centered in the present, complexity thinking has the capacity not only to see the emergent phenomena at the moment they happen, but also to capture the signals related to their potential occurrence before they happen. This is of crucial importance, particularly if the emerging phenomena could affect negatively the unfolding of life. In contrast, being constantly centered on the various goals and targets attached to the future, systems thinking can see that emergence only after it has occurred, that is, when it is too late to undertake any action to prevent its occurrence. This explains today’s impotence of of systems thinking to cope with ecological complexity. Being mostly preoccupied with all kinds of ‘ecologically sustainable’ goals and dreams for ‘clean technologies’, with many local projects for ‘tomorrow’s environmentally friendly developments’ and noisy preparations of world-wide forums about how to make the planet a ‘better place to live for future generations,’ ecological systems thinking is unable to stop the ever accelerating tempo of environmental destruction that happens today.

Life happens in the now. Letting planning processes take that now away from us seems, in retrospect, just another deceptive trick of a way of life gone awry.

Don’t plan; plant!

Another important advantage of complexity thinking is its awareness of the self-organizing capacity of the present. This awareness helps complexity thinkers see new emergent phenomena and to facilitate initiation of new processes that are coherent with self-organization and therefore realizable.

Complexity thinking does not try to fight chaotic attractors that emerge out of the turbulent flow of human life and does not aim to ‘reform’ or ‘improve’ them. Attempts to improve chaotic attractors are similar to attempts to ‘improve’ the whirlpools of a mountain river — an entirely senseless task! Chaotic attractors reveal the self-organizing nature of complex dynamics, and to fight self-organization means to lose: nature is always stronger than the individuals who fight it. But what complexity thinking is able to do (and successfully does!) is to seed the emergence of new attractors.

As all the attractors pulsating in the ‘phase space’ of life have a common supply of energy, when the energy flow directed to nourishing newly planted attractors grows in volume and intensity, the energy supply to the other attractors automatically decreases and, if not supported any further, those attractors simply ‘shrink’ and dissolve.

This takes me back to my post on the counterproductive nature of political resistance. I am convinced that our strategy needs to be based on recognition of the energies that flow through “all that is” and on the use of those energies (as aikido teaches) in seeding new possibilities. Fighting the old gives new energy to it. Planting the new now — in the present — that’s where our attention is sorely needed.

Orwell redux

Prediction, target setting and goal achievements are essential attributes of systems thinking; they work effectively in a linearly ordered environment where the changes in system’s inputs are proportional to the changes in system’s outputs and the cause-effect relationships are transparent enough to be discerned. Because of this, whenever systems thinkers (systems analysts, designers, developers) explore real-life situations, they automatically turn to models that allow prediction, target setting and goal achievement. And since any non-trivial life situations represent a realization of some chaotic processes, difficult to predict or orient toward pre-defined goals and targets, systems thinkers focus intensely on trying to ‘improve’ chaos, to substitute for it some form of order, or more precisely, to impose a pre-designed model of order.

In society, such ‘improvements’ on chaotic behavior gravitate to the establishment of hierarchical models of order. When put into operation, such models serve to assert power and control. Thus, in an almost invisible way, the application of systems thinking to social reality contributes to strengthening the power-oriented aspirations and ambitions in society. The sphere of economics and politics is saturated with such kind of aspirations and ambitions, leading to what some have described as the “global free-market capitalist religion.”

The phenomenal brainwash in society serves to suppress any spontaneous and therefore difficult to control expression of self-organizing ability of complex social dynamics. If released, this ability could be a threat to the functioning of the System. Marionette-like governments, corrupted police, various military, technocratic and educational institutions, bureaucrats and commissioners with controlling, legal and financial functions, a great number of experts, consultants, preachers, and entertainers all help the System to function properly. If they do this, the System grants them Its support.

That is the essence of utopian thinking, it seems to me, this idea that you can fix (or govern) the world by imposing a human design onto it. No wonder utopian visions mostly turn out to be dreary reruns of Plato’s Republic spiked though and through with pie-in-the-sky fallacies!

And a parting thought from Christopher Alexander:

Thus the world has entered a new phase. What is made, what is built now, what develops in the world, is governed by images and rules. It is no longer automatically governed by the existing wholeness. It is now governed by what we decide.

If you say “I will do this”, you sabotage yourself. What really works is to say, “Will I do this?”
— Ran Prieur on the Willpower Paradox

I grew up in the heartland of planning. The hype surrounding those ceaselessly promoted Five Year Plans hung heavy in the very air I breathed. So when I fledged and left the nest, I planned. It was enjoyable then, the dreaming and scheming, but somehow it never got me to those lovely goals. That puzzled and disturbed me. Mostly, I blamed myself. Eventually, though, I matured into a heroic planning push. For two and a half years, I used a closely followed planning process to get me — late bloomer that I was — through college. It worked extremely well. Hey, I thought, it was just a matter of time, I finally learned how to do this! Now it can see me through the rest of my life!

And I tried, oh did I ever. And the harder I tried, the more my inner self balked. Eventually, I got to a place where the very thought of planning made me… unwell. My head simply refused to look yet again at the larger picture, refused to painstakingly envision my goals and destinations, refused to be herded by the drill sergeant-like presence of lists and tasks. I started having nightmares of interminable train trips where invariably I lose my baggage, meander off after it, and never discover wherever it is I am going. You figure my subconscious was sending me a hint?!

I used to muse about my ‘inner slave driver,’ desperately wishing I could liberate myself and not having a clue how. Well, in the absence of alternatives, I “liberated” myself by falling off the wagon almost entirely. My inner self went on strike, and my day-to-day life suffered. I forgot commitments, lost my day-runners, and accumulated ‘to do’ lists in dusty, carefully ignored piles. For a decade, I oscillated between refusal to do any planning and systematic doing, and desperate periods when the taskmaster gained an upper hand. I would run around trying to regain ground previously lost, getting a lot of stuff done but never catching up, then fall off the wagon once again, miserable, loathing all that stress and unpleasantness and feeling of futility.

Then, I went through a long period of chronic and acute illnesses, and mostly just stopped trying to cope at all, only doing what truly needed doing for survival’s sake, and letting the rest fall by the wayside. But lo and behold, I did not die, and a couple of years ago I gave some thought to the daunting prospect for having a life again. And I reasoned that either I must find an alternative, or it’s time to throw in the towel and go back to the taskmaster.

Perhaps my illness really gave me a gift. It gave me permission to be entirely self-determined and autonomous. It gave me a chance to let go, and see if something new would emerge in place of the old dysfunction. The cancer illness gave me the opportunity to heal my planning sickness? What a strange unfolding. Realizing this a year ago, I belatedly voiced appreciation to my own deep self that “we” (the multivoiced self that I am) finally did demote the slave driver. We’d become refuseniks of the planning mode, of all that drives modern people to run the treadmill. We suffered for it, as all refuseniks must. We paid the price. We understand that to mercilessly drive one’s own self is neither self-respecting nor a good example to others. So what now?

I pleaded with the universe to show me another way. Ask, and it shall be given. Over the last few months, I have finally come across and partially internalized another way of doing things. I call it unplanning. I am writing this in the conviction that I am not the only one who has dealt with the problem of counterproductive goal-setting. And I see evidence that politics, businesses and many other areas of life have been damaged — not helped — by the rise of the rational, technocratic planning. Wouldn’t heartlessness toward the self directly translate into heartlessness in the public square?

Did you know that those astonishing medieval cathedrals were built in the utter absence of a planning process? The builders, craftspeople and pious volunteers had no blueprints, no final design. They started with a prayerful dream and good skills, and let the edifice emerge. They tried bold things. Sometimes, they had to backtrack, or stop the project, only returning to it when understanding grew. The beauty and daring they infused into those soaring structures endures to this day.

It turns out that the builders of the Empire State Building in New York did not exactly follow a plan either. They did not even have a design when they started! Yet they finished the building in 19 months and under budget, not unusual in those days. This intuitive building process that relied on trusted experiential knowledge was trampled in the rush toward modernity. Instrumental rationality preened itself as the replacement for all that was old fashioned, all that quaint reliance on off-the-cuff, fuzzy local rules and traditional hands-on skills.

Planning has failed me personally. But my thesis is larger: planning — that imperious child of overweening rationality and pencil-pusherdom — has failed us all. I suspect that the many problems of human-crafted, urbanized environments — depressing architecture, alienating neighborhood layouts, user-hostile design, or especially the failure to provide for a livable future — have been made worse by a reliance on the planning process. As architect Christopher Alexander, who has been trying to conceptualize a different way in his many books, writes:

Eliminating the plan is not a call for chaos. Rather it is an attempt to overcome the difficulties inherent in this way of ordering the environment: the impossibility of making accurate predictions about the future needs and resources; the ignorance of the more minute relationships between places [and people] which are not prescribed in the plan; the insensitivity of the plan to the ongoing needs of users, and the alienating quality of the plan as an administrative device.

I have come to see planning as a way to colonize and dominate the future. It’s yesterday dictating today. It’s an example of instrumental reason, like Orwell’s pigs, grabbing the master’s spot. I invite you to come with me on an exploration of alternatives.

In a mechanistic view of the world, we see all things, even if only for convenience, as machines. A machine is intended to accomplish something. It is, in its essence, goal-oriented. Like machines, then, within the mechanistic view processes are always seen as aimed at certain ends. We think of things by the end-state we want, and then ask ourselves how to get there.

This mistake was widespread in the 20th century. For example, in the extreme 20th century view of some mechanistic sociology, even kindness might have been seen as a way of achieving certain results: part of a bargain, or a social contract, which had the purpose of getting something.

Real kindness is something quite different, something valuable in itself. It is a true process, not guided by the grasp for a goal, but by the minute-to-minute necessity of caring, dynamically, for the feelings and well-being of another. This is not trivial, but deep; sincerely related to human feeling; and not predictable in its end-result, because the end result is not a goal.

Everything is deeply intertwingled.
— Ted Nelson

Remember when we discovered systems thinking? All those amazing feedback loops and flows; finally, a way to grok that the system really is more than the sum of its parts. Well, complexity thinking takes the fun a few steps out into the wild blue yonder. It builds on those systems insights. But instead of painting images of thermostats and other mechanical gizmos, it dwells on slime molds, weather patterns, ants, immune systems and whirlpools. The feel of it – oh joy – is organic, organismic. It leads us away from machine-based thought patterns that have dominated civilized intellectual landscape for centuries. No more clockwork universes for you and me, thank you very much!

Complexity thinking emerged from non-linear mathematics. In practice, it means stepping out of the framework of linear continuity and smoothness, and entering the world of discontinuities and sudden transformations. A particularly endearing concept is the phase shift. Picture a brook babbling along while the temperature drops. Nothing to see here, just water, right? Then all of a sudden, what was swirling fluid turns into hard, crunchy ‘glass.’ A phase shift just occurred – an unexpected reconfiguration, sometimes a fundamental leap or an evolutionary breakthrough. Phase shifts are not intuitively apparent. Would a tribesman raised deep in the Amazon ever anticipate ice? And this is one of the reasons doom no longer makes sense to me. The daunting, dreadful, suicidal sameness we see all around us holds the potential for an astonishing transformation, a radical reordering of what was there before.

Often, it is a tiny nudge that leads the system to such a shift. This phenomenon is called the ‘butterfly effect.’ As the saying goes, a butterfly flapping its wings in China may precipitate a windstorm in Kansas. Discovered by a mathematician who was studying weather patterns, butterfly effect simulations were instrumental in convincing the scientific community that accurate long term weather forecasts were not possible. Translation: what each one of us does to coax out a better world can have a huge and surprising impact down the line; moreover, it’s not something opponents of such changes can foresee or prepare for.

Complexity thinking explores new metaphors and intimations that are remarkably friendly to the new political and social consciousness just now being born. Take self-organization, for example. Self-organization — the ability to emerge structures without anyone actually in charge — is the default behavior of complex adaptive systems. In other words, life knows how to organize from within and will do so if left to its own devices. Hey, the anarchists have been right all along! And even better: complex systems show that entirely local behaviors generate global patterns and structures (global in this case meaning systemic, overall). As researchers say about social animals, “they think locally and act locally, but their collective action produces global behavior.” If slime molds can do it, surely humans might?

When individuals in a group are able to respond collectively to changes in circumstances, the group becomes a complex adaptive system. Life, as a complex adaptive system, happens ‘at the edge of chaos.’ This is the fertile space lying between rigid order and randomness. Organisms move back and forth within that space, avoiding the trap of going too far in either direction. There appears to be a force that attracts the living forms to that in-between space where they can flourish. Such a force, such a “lure” – a point or region to which a system is drawn – is appropriately enough called an attractor.

Systems thinking has one major weakness: a fixation on goals. After all, machines are always designed with a definitive purpose in mind. Life, not so much. So complexity thinkers talk of strange attractors instead. These are potential end-states that themselves emerge from the present, and cannot be either predicted or pre-set, much less arrived at by stepwise design. I will return to this welcome insight in a series on unplanning.

There are other intriguing areas to explore that impinge on complexity thinking. Here’s a sampler: fuzzy logic, game theory, self-similarity (fractals), chaos theory, tipping points, coherence, stigmergy, criticality, small worlds, circular causation. In addition, complexity theory has been making inroads into the bleak landscapes of “management” and corporate restructuring, scaring the crap out of ladder-climbing sycophants hungry for their slice of the power pie. The cat is out of the bag: complex systems, sorry, cannot be controlled. Be still, my beating heart — is the myth of heroic managerial prowess nearing the dustbin of history? As the tide of complexity thinking rolls in, the beach is washed clean of the sandcastles of the control freaks. Complexity science is painting the mustache on the boss. Who woulda thunk?

But enough candy for today. Have some broccoli fractals. Tasty!


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