Aug 14, 2023

An introduction to Permaculture Design Systems for a Digital Landscape

As the digital design space continues to evolve quickly around an environment of design processes that rapidly manufacture and output so much of what we experience in our day to day lives, the conveniences gained almost always overlook the amount of effort, energy, process and waste that goes into something as simple as the placement of a button. What can be learned from other systems and how can we design with consciousness around these inputs?

This concept is an observation and discussion around principles, ethics and elements of Permaculture Design and Digital Design Systems, looking into the overlaps, connections and interactions between design in the natural and technological worlds and ways of applying this thinking to more than the current applications.

In an upcoming talk at the Web Directions Summit ’23 in Sydney, I’ll be sharing ways of thinking about digital design from a Permaculture perspective, designing with more permanence and looking at digital design more holistically while also touching on Design System thinking applied to natural systems of elemental and atomic organisation.

Some background on Permaculture

Permaculture (the word, coined by Bill Mollison, is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture and permanent culture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. - What is Permaculture

Created by a couple of Aussies — Bill Mollison and David Holmgren — back in the 1970s, this movement, philosophy, methodology, and way of living has come a long way since being seeded. With flourishing, mature food forests scattered across the globe and more people finding the culture of permanence a valuable way of going about their daily lives.

With the ongoing practice of conscious design and maintenance, Permaculture people or Permies are the Hackers of Natural Systems.

How is Permaculture beneficial?

Permaculture integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies — imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems. - What is Permaculture

At present there is a rapidly growing interest in alternative systems of agricultural production. These industrial concerns are across many systems of similar process that provide us with what we wear, what we eat, what we build with. With non-permanent methodologies applied, we are seeing the effects and can somewhat foresee the long term running of these effects.

It is these concerns that Permaculture meets head on with a ready to go set of ethics and principles and a toolkit of design elements that all follow natural systems of design. By harnessing this in the agricultural sector, it may even be possible to produce environmental gains as a by-product of the primary agricultural production. While there is still non-permanent solutions in place we can expect to continue a throw away attitude around much of our day to day activities.

What about for a digital world?

Going from patterns to details, the overlaps and connections between Permaculture Design and Digital Design become more present the more you zoom in.

From observing these patterns, here’s a little bit of detail:

The web is a digital landscape. With connected systems of function stacking, catching and storing energy in forms of user interactions and database transactions. The resources available in this landscape are naturally present in the form of the continuously available services or manufactured as artefacts, assets, packages and may even have seasonal variation and availability. All of this produces energy flows through the elements of the system and exists from the interactions by consumers of the products that are, at least for now, created and maintained by people.

Creating mutually beneficial synergies that imitate no waste, closed loop systems based on the success of natural systems could also play a big part in addressing present and future concerns around energy usage, sustainability and an inherent throw away nature of digital creation. Part of the solution can be achieved by a simple change of perspective.

Why is it important for design?

Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. - What is Permaculture

By thinking with permanence in a digital design setting, we are able to break out of the now and think more about how the various elements connect and interact with each other, intra and inter-component relationships, what happens when components are completed and shipped at different times while holding the potential for mutually beneficial relationships. This is what can be thought about when permanence is considered.

In digital design and technology in general, it is all too easy to produce masses of content and material in pretty much any digital sub-genre. As an immediate side effect of such a luxury we are met with tonnes of waste, most of which would never concern us. When you start to consider that all of it had energy input, a process of energy throughout the creation and some form of energy output either being useful or waste, there ends up being a lot of energy that goes into waste and seconds grade by products that mostly just consume space on a hard drive somewhere.

Introducing Permaculture Design Systems or PDS for a digital landscape.

PDS for a Digital Landscape

Creating a Digital Design System based on Permaculture principles is the goal and by leveraging the principles, ethics and looking at how the elements provide strategies for dealing with energy flow and efficiency can provide insight and influence in how we look at Digital Design Systems.

There are a lot of ways that this paradigm shift can provide real benefits, with immediate and long term effects and can be achieved using tools that we already use and processes we are already familiar with.

Over the coming months I’ll share a bit more on this topic and will be presenting it in full at the Web Directions ’23 Summit in Sydney, Australia.

Web Direction Summit ‘23 - Mick Real: Permaculture Design Systems for a Digital Landscape

At the intersect of two worlds

Mick is a Designer and Creative. With roots in early web design and over 20 years working through the progressions of digital design learning the concepts of atomic design and design systems. Recently becoming a Permaculture designer has created a perspective to see natural systems of design and organisation as inspiration to influence the digital landscape.