Social Polycultures: Using Permaculture for Building Resilient Relationships

Many people use permaculture to design physical systems like farms and homesteads, to have the resilience and benefits that are found in natural systems. They use the permaculture ethics and principles, coupled with a holistic design process to create relationships between elements that foster greater ease, mutual benefit and increase positive feedback loops. Like locating mushroom logs in a forest, next to a pond, with ducks for pest control and fertilization for a connected crop. By placing these elements in relationship with one another we get greater symbiosis than any one of these elements on their own.

It is important to recognize that no physical system is created without social systems and stronger social systems better support our physical systems and vice versa. Each of these physical systems have some assemblage of roles that make the whole project function. For example a permaculture based design firm working on installing an urban permaculture farm might have, designers, office managers, installers, caretakers, etc. Those people are in turn connected to and supported by additional social systems, like families or friends and colleagues that enable them to do the work that they do.

By applying the permaculture ethics, principles, and a similar design process that we use in our physical systems to our social systems we can get better at bringing about greater ease, functionality and mutual benefits in both our physical sites and social organizations and programs. By making these social networks visible and honoring their important functions we can counter the problematic individualist narrative and learn to better collaborate for greater effective change.

Permablitz: Social systems design in action:

One example of this design thinking in action can be seen in the implementation of Permablitz’s. As defined by Permablitz Melbourne, a Permablitz is an informal gathering involving a day on which a group of at least two people come together to achieve the following:

• create or add to edible gardens where someone lives
• share skills related to permaculture and sustainable living
• build community networks
• have fun

There are many different roles in a permablitz: including but not limited to host, designer, facilitators and community members. Each of these roles have a vital role to play and the whole event would not be as successful without one of these roles. The people that are grilling up lunch are just as valued as the people doing the heavy lifting. Without the community members the design would not get installed in and in turn the community members need the designer to have a plan.

Permablitz’s follow the principles of the yield of the system is unlimited and multiple functions as many positive feedback loops and yields come out of this social/physical system. One could argue that more than any one person could do on their own. For example out of this particular permablitz came the physical transformation of a driveway to food forest and the ecosystem benefits of that but also social benefits, such as building of relationships and knowledge in the community and new clients for the designer.

Before: The driveway was way too big and taking up prime south facing real estate. Photo by Deborah Schwartz
Before: The driveway was way too big and taking up prime south facing real estate. Photo by Deborah Schwartz
During: With many hands a couple hours later the driveway had been depaved. Photo by Deborah Schwartz
During: With many hands a couple hours later the driveway had been depaved. Photo by Deborah Schwartz

Additionally, permablitz’s both supplement and give us practice in alternative economic models that transcend the money economy and build on the fair share ethic. It goes beyond the fee for service economic model and embody’s another way of interacting that is not based strictly on the monetary system or client/service relationships.

After: The same driveway a couple months later planted with the first phase of a forest garden. Photo by Aeryca Steinbaur
After: The same driveway a couple months later planted with the first phase of a forest garden. Photo by Aeryca Steinbaur

Social Polycultures

Just like we would design a polyculture for our forest gardens that are composed of plants that have beneficial relationships with one another we can use the same logic to create or hone what I am calling social polycultures. I am defining a social polyculture as an intentional working relationship between 2 or more people or organizations to support a given goal. We can use the above example of a permablitz as an example of a social leverage resources and solve complex problems. By working well within an organization and collaborating across disciplines we can create more effective and lasting change.

Graphic by Lisa DePiano
Graphic by Lisa DePiano

The following is a list of questions to begin the process of designing social polycultures and more resilient social systems:

What would the world look like if you were wildly successful?

It is so important to take a step back to visualized and describe the vision of what we are working towards. What would the world look like if your organization was wildly successful? Realize that this might look differently for each person in the organization. Take the time to allow each member to describe this and then articulate this as a collective vision. This also might change as the organization grows. Give time and a place to revisit your original vision. Have this written down or otherwise up so that you can zoom out to the big picture when you are mired down with the daily details or frustrations.

What is your organizational niche?

To understand this it is important to conduct a site analysis and assessment of your organization. This goes for both physical resources and behaviors and skill sets.
One of the ways that we can begin to figure out organizational identity is to do a niche analysis both of your organization and each of the people in it. What are some of your yields and needs? Allies and predators? General behaviors?

Do you have a physical office space? An amazing set of tools? Deep knowledge in a subject? Are you a great facilitator? Each of our organizations have a unique set of needs and yields. Once we identify them we can form clearer relationships within our own organizations and then with other organizations.

Students in a graduate student organization create a niche analysis for their group. Mapping their needs, yields, allies, predators and behaviors. Photo by Lisa DePiano
Students in a graduate student organization create a niche analysis for their group. Mapping their needs, yields, allies, predators and behaviors. Photo by Lisa DePiano

What is your role/s in and what is the larger community ecosystem?

Realize that you are one organization in a sea of organizations with similar goals and visions. What are your roles within this ecosystem? Who are the others in this ecosystem? In what ways could you form mutually supportive relationships? Doing this activity allows for greater collaboration between groups that might look very different or have different vocabulary but have similar underlying goals.

They then pin up their niche analysis with other groups so they can see in which ways they can mutually support one another. Photo by Lisa DePiano
They then pin up their niche analysis with other groups so they can see in which ways they can mutually support one another. Photo by Lisa DePiano

What mechanisms are in place to accept and incorporate feedback?

Just as we would accept and incorporate feedback from our physical system we need to develop mechanisms in our social systems to do the same thing. Do you have an evaluation meeting after every big project? Do you have a way for each individual to receive feedback both positive and things to work on? Each person is able to receive feedback differently. What works for people in your group is it written, one on one, some form of stickers or notes in a common place?

What are your successes? What were the conditions that made this possible? Did you celebrate your success?

Sometimes in this work there is so much to do that we can forget to celebrate the small victories. Not only to start to get down your “template of success” so you can understand how you achieved your successes but we need take the time to celebrate to keep us going for the long haul. Undoing hundreds of years of systematic oppression and environmental devastation is hard work. We can use permaculture to leverage our energy and resources to create the most amount of change with the least amount of effort. Together we can play smarter not harder and lift each other up to do greater things that we could not do apart.

For further resources on this subject you can listen to a free webinar, Permaculture 101: A Design Tool for Grassroots and Environmental Social Change Work. If you are interested in learning how permaculture principles can be used in socially check out Permaculture Feast Principles Flashcards and the article Social Permaculure: Principles in Action.

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