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A social learning organisation evolves a research capability in order to study itself

E. Sears1,2,3, C. Warburton-Brown2, T. Remiarz2, R. S. Ferguson4 (2013)
1 University of Exeter, 2 Permaculture Association, 3 Plants For A Future, 4 University of Illinois
Corresponding email: e.sears@exeter.ac.uk


Permaculture is an approach to designing sustainable human ecosystems and a collection
of practitioners implementing that approach. It is rooted in systems design theory, but from
the outset in the 1970s, the originators had an ambivalent relationship with the scientific
community, and the most frequent criticism of the concept is that it lacks a published
evidence base. This presentation elaborates the evolution of a research capability within
the permaculture network, drawing inspiration from ornithology, Viable Systems Model,
industrial ecology, Pattern Language and symbiogenesis.

The method used was to create a working example of a research ecosystem, operate it in
real time, test its functionality through trial runs, observe baseline indicators as well as
system-level behaviour, and review and amend the system cyclically to optimise
performance. Data collected include practitioner information, site locations, biological
indicators, assessments of community, intangible and system-level yields, and carbon
footprints. We will present quantitative results on international distribution of practitioners
and sites from surveys, annual and perennial polyculture yields from field trials, and
carbon footprints from permaculture diploma students. The current status, components
and performance of the research ecosystem will be reported.

Discussion benchmarks permaculture against other social learning organisations and
design systems, and explores network and system-level indicators and the challenge of
measuring impacts including the birth of the Transition Town concept during the
development of an Energy Descent Action Plan on a Permaculture Design Course and
involvement in Cuba's rapid decarbonisation after the end of Soviet oil imports.


Given the warnings of serious risks from greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere
and other human impacts on the earth system, there is an urgent need for globally
scalable solutions for transitioning to a sustainable way of life (Future Earth 2013). One
available tool is permaculture: 'the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally
productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural
ecosystems' (Mollison 1990).


This poster describes activities over the last three years to evolve a research capability
within permaculture. The 'social learning organisation' referred to is the permaculture
network as a whole, and much of this work was co-ordinated by the Permaculture

Literature review

Ferguson and Lovell (in press) distinguish four meanings of the word 'permaculture'
(design system, practice, movement and worldview) and review the published literature.
Permaculture research and the development of its published evidence base contributes to
the global sustainability science agenda and the effort to feed nine billion people by 2050,
marking a reconciliation after a historically distant relationship with the scientific
community. Inspiration for this project was drawn widely from ornithology (relationship
between academics and enthusiastic amateurs collecting data), Viable System Model
(structure and relationship with the Permaculture Association), Pattern Language (dense
layering of familiar patterns), industrial cybernetics (iterative, programming-based
approach) and symbiogenesis (repurposing academics within permaculture to act

Research question

Is permaculture a useful tool in the global transition to sustainability? A central criticism of
permaculture is that it lacks a published evidence base, so this project aims to test claims
within permaculture by developing, assembling, analysing and publishing the evidence.


The method employed is to create and operate a model research process, test it through
trial runs, observe baseline and system-level indicators, adjust and repeat. The definition
of a model is a simplified representation of the core elements of a complex system. This is
a model of a research process based on observation of the real-world academic research
process involving journals, academics, funders and other elements. This approach is
participatory action research, via a social learning organisation (Reed et al 2010). It was
selected to allow study of a complex socio-ecological system, and because it delivers realworld
benefits e.g. food grown in trials. The method was taken from the Earth System
Science group at University of Exeter, where it is applied to ecosystems, the earth system
and socio-ecosystems (agriculture), and applied here to a process or system for studying
socio-ecosystems. Some aspects of the model are coded (web server, financial records,
knowledge base) but the model is primarily physical, with the main data repositories in
people's heads and stored in the landscape.


Data gathered through this research process concerns operational characteristics of the
process itself such as the number of papers published, as well as baseline data such as
grain yields from field trials and system-level data such as the total number of countries
where permaculture is practised. The data contributes to an evidence base which has
quality, defined here as credibility and having the scientific characteristics of accuracy,
reproducibility and generalisability. In order to answer the research question, the quality of
the evidence base must be improved, by highlighting uncollated date stored in the
landscape and people's memories and records, and correlation and ground-truthing. The
priority is the creation of complex, multi-yield demonstration sites to provide genetic
reserves and food and fuel supplies as well as data sets. The approach to data-gathering
is drawn from climate science, where satellite, ground-sensed and buried and fossilised
datasets are combined to reconstruct past landscapes, ecosystems and climates.

Livelihoods and skills

Principle permaculture-derived livelihoods include tutors, designers, network staff and
community gardeners. Other parts of the larger green economy contribute to the
permaculture community including construction and renewable energy installation.
Permaculture can contribute elements of subsistence living for people on low incomes.
The 2-year permaculture Diploma focuses on developing design, implementation,
presentation and review skills.

Sites and case studies

Network of demonstration sites: the LAND network of 67 permaculture-designed sites and
25 learner sites in England, and the ScotLAND network in Scotland, have received 18,153
visitors and 14,526 volunteers during 2009-13. R. S. Ferguson is conducting field work in
the USA, visiting and surveying permaculture farms in SW, W and SE USA during 2013. A
notable omission is baseline data and systematic records of the hundreds of sites
designed and developed according to permaculture principles in the 1970s, 80s and 90s in
Australia, during the early development of the concept.

Designs and plans

Permaculture designs have been developed for scales from apartment balcony to
homegarden to city block, up to a regional tipping element in the landscape: the Aral Sea
watershed (Jones 2012), and whole islands. They extend across many habitats, tropical,
temperate, dry and wet, mountains to prairies, coastal and inland locations. Kim Stanley
Robinson's fictional portrayals of terraforming on Antarctica and Mars extrapolate the
creation of designed landscapes even further beyond our current capabilities.
Permaculture design principles have been applied to people care (Macnamara 2012),
finance, dance and organisational structure: the Permaculture Association's use of Carver
governance, Viable System Model and other tools has been noted in the press (Boyle

Stories and cultures

The culture, history and personalities of permaculture are located in popular publications,
in books, articles, television programmes, online websites, forums and video, and in
memoirs, archives, biographies and diaries (Grayson 2010). The two most popular
magazines, Permaculture Magazine and Permaculture Activist, have readerships of
100,000+ (quarterly print-run of 20,000, sold to 77 countries) and 9-11,000 (quarterly printrun
of 3,600) respectively. The permaculture community gathers at conferences and
convergences, and through permaculture design courses (PDCs) and other training


The results from running the model research process for three years (2010-2013) are that
22 components are operational or funded. Time spent on permaculture research includes
one co-ordinator (3 days/week), 6 interns (average 3 days/week), Research Advisory
Board (14 people, occasional), students and academics (300+ studying diploma, and
permaculture research at BA/MSc/PhD/Post-doc level). Papers, posters and conferences,
surveys, field and organisational trials have been completed, and the handbook and
indicators are in draft.


Ferguson and Lovell (in press) have already reviewed what has been published, so this
research process aims to add to that by assessing what else is available in other forms.
Contrasting scientific and permaculture value systems place differing value on published
and in-situ, physical evidence but both are required for correlation and they reach different
audiences. Further work to benchmark permaculture against other social learning and
non-governmental organisations and design systems should identify design frameworks
(e.g. landscape architecture), movements (La Via Campesina), practices (organic growing)
and worldviews (deep ecology) which can usefully be compared to permaculture. The
coloniality of permaculture knowledge deserves further study: the distribution and reporting
of permaculture is influenced by the dominance of the English language and by the
prevalence of the internet and modern communications equipment.


Permaculture is developing fast as a practice and as an academic field. This project is an
example of how to do systematic work in a non-hierarchical network, using a distinctive
'grow your own data' and 'eat your own results' approach to scientific experimentation,
giving a strong connection between real-world personal survival strategies and a
community design process for transitioning to sustainability.

Additional Bibliography

Boyle, D. (2013) How policy governance can improve your board's performance. In:

Ferguson, R.S. and S.T. Lovell (in press) Permaculture for Agroecology: Design, practice,
movement and worldview. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development.

Grayson, R. (2010) The Permaculture Papers. Retrieved http://pacific-edge.info/category/
permaculture/permaulture-papers/ 24/11/13 (note mistake in spelling in web address).

Jones, A. (2012), Permaculture Restoration of the Aral Sea Watershed, in Edelstein, Cerny
& Gadaev (ed.) Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and its Lessons for Sustainability
(Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Volume 20), Emerald Group Publishing
Limited, pp.391-409.

Macnamara, L. (2012) People and Permaculture. Permanent Publications.

This handout and accompanying poster were presented at the Radical Emission
Reduction conference held by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the
Royal Society, London, UK on 10-11th December 2013.

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