Permaculture design thinking has brought success in many situations. Permaculture seeded the transition movement, built huge aid development programs and helped millions of urban gardeners worldwide. Permaculture techniques have enriched farm regeneration. But you don’t have to leave the armchair to use permaculture thinking. New groundbreaking social structures are popping. And business strategies have emerged.
We strive for a fair share but the ultimate success would be a win-win. A win for a rich and diverse environment and a win for human health and prosperity.
Principles: Stabilisers, Enhancers and Flows
A holistic design approach can contain steady stabilisers, fancy enhancers and an ability for energy and information flow.
System stabilisers build resilience into a design.
System enhancers enable acceleration.
The principles that encourage flow let the system self-check, adjust or adapt.
Mollison says ‘A permaculture design is like a bicycle’. With this new perspective we can see that the seat, pedals and symmetry of the tool ensures stability. The tyres providing padding to the wheels, the suspension under the seat, the gears and the brakes are all system enhancers. The bicycle chain enables the obvious notion of a flow of energy from the pedals to the wheels. But another clever system flow device is the steering. The steering mechanism lets the rider respond to changes in the path. This allows information to flow from the bicycle to the rider. Adaption can be instantaneous and smooth. The modern bicycle is a clever and comfortable design. A skilled rider can steer without touching the handle bar and often without concentrating.
Permaculture aims to design a culture that is as comfortable,
responsive and sustainable as a bicycle.
A Fresh Look at Early Permaculture Principles
Bill Mollison’s Principles:
Mollison didn’t formally list a set of permaculture principles in his text. But he and many other permaculture teachers have gleaned these from his texts including Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.
Permaculture Principles To Build Stability
Relative location: position elements in the design so that there is minimal transport between them. Use natural forces where ever possible to work for you.
Multiple functions for each element: Each Element in the design should be used and positioned to perform a range of functions. For Example: A driveway for vehicles can also be used to harvest water and low growing plants can be planted onto the center strip of the driveway.
Multiple elements for each function: Satisfy each required function with more than just one element. E.g. heating can come from multiple elements – a mini greenhouse; a wood-fired stove, geothermal, solar radiators or trombe wall.
Energy Efficiency: Run your equipment to its potential. Share (or hire) equipment. Support durable technology that is adaptable and is easy to maintain.
Stacking increases the productivity of a system. A forest often has many layers: bulbs, moss, grasses, ground covers, Fungi, Herbs, Shrubs, Small trees, Epiphytes and Aerial plants, Vines, Climax Species, Parasitic plants. We applied this handy design tool in our chicken house design.
Consider Context: Work with the natural and social energies of the landscape and the community. At the steps of parliament house, Berlin (TheReistag), there is a grassed area that is designed to withstand wet conditions and high pedestrian traffic. In this situation, the compromise of hard and soft landscape tools works well with nature and also provides for the needs of the people.
Permaculture Design Enhancers
Stress-free Yield: By giving each element several functions we can accept that not all the functions can be performed all the time. A duck will hunt for snails, eat weeds and fertilise the garden. She will swim, preen, mate or shout at strangers. The eggs that are produced per busy duck are lower than in controlled conditions but the sum of all the functions is greater.
Use Biological Resources. Fossil fuel is best used
when it makes itself redundant eg. a Tractor can work a landscape that will no longer require a tractor to manage it.
Diversity includes a variety of species of food plants or animals. Diversity in nature builds resilience and resistance to pest attack. It also lets us find which variety works well in our own particular climate and micro-climates.
Information and Observation replaces Energy: Intensive systems with feedback and observation are more productive and reduce waste.
Permaculture Flow Mechanisms
Natural Succession: Imitate nature in your plans to help a system evolve to meet your needs. Build a food forest that looks and behaves very like your local natural forest.
Appropriate Technology: Maximise the use of a technology by sharing or hiring equipment. Make sure your equipment works to full capacity. Choose the simplest and most effective technologies first.
Energy Flow: harness existing energy flows E.g. Wind, wave solar, gravity or running water.
Learn about Permaculture with us, the pioneers of online permaculture training.
Permaculture is a design tool. The permaculture design principles can also be applied to the design of a small business. Here are some examples of applied Permaculture Principles. The principles used here are those taught by Bill Mollison (and some by David Holmgren).
1. Identify Your Elements
An element is a component of your system or business. Your list of elements may include: intellectual property, office, marketing, natural capital (such as water, fruit/nuts), presentation material such as boxes, jars, labels, product information, transport, time for delivery (especially for services), customer feedback processes. These elements are then analysed to determine their needs and all their potential functions, not just the functions we seek. We then use the principle of relative location to link them together to optimise efficiency.
2. Use Relative Location
Connect elements by their function and needs. Elements can be linked in a energy chain or network. Here’s how it could work in a simple system like an orchard:
An Orchard needs protection from fire, a good water supply. It also needs to be weeded and rotten fruit needs to be removed.
The processing shed can capture rain water which can be used by the fruit processing system then fed to the geese, then it could go to the orchard if we locate the shed uphill from the orchard and use gravity as part of the water management.
Geese can weed, mow the fire break, eat rotting fruit and provide droppings as a natural fertilizer.
Through the principle of relative location we link the shed, the orchard and the geese (a biological resource). Some elements are linked more closely ie. Workers need education and procedures. Procedures need feedback from workers.
Position elements of business so that there is minimal transport between them.
Use natural forces where possible to work for you. (Eg. Information transferred by email, mail or fax so workers don’t have to travel far to work.
Use local inputs. Physical elements such as manure can be collected, filtered and processed nearby, are easily relocated and you can determine manageable sizes (in the same way bee-farmers move their hives).
Sunlight can warm the wall of a processing unit – be aware and determine if this is helpful or increasing your refrigeration costs.
Solar power can be used to run computer monitor systems.
Your office can be mobile and paperless.
We can bring the information to the customer in a variety of ways.
Waste can be valued. It can be integrated into the system, process and sold. ie. waste water can also act as fire-prevention by being positioned in a useful location near a main path and up high where it can be distributed easily needed.
3. Enable Multiple Functions
Each Element in the design should be used and positioned to perform a range of functions.
Marketing is performed in a variety of ways, through different media, and to different types of customers.
Services and Products are modular and durable. Customers can tailor their purchase or use by purchasing the components they want, expand or reduce interconnecting parts and purchase as and when they want it.
Transport can be shared with other suppliers, businesses or projects.
Tools and equipment can be shared with other businesses. Sharing includes hiring.
Equipment and physical resources will be recycled or reused as much as possible.
Multiple elements for each function
The variety of skills can satisfy other functions either for other elements or for other like-minded businesses (for example: your efforts to promote sustainability will help other similar organisations). Therefore, you can band together and form a co-op or just a friendly relationship with other businesses.
A business function is satisfied with more than one element: eg. Other businesses refer customers to yours because your marketing has been general as well as specific and has helped build general interest in sustainability.
Use a range of inputs ie. herbs or fruit, especially seasonal and local ones, to create the products whilst maintaining the quality expected by your customers.
Rely on more than one source for your supplies. Ie. water, produce or power collection needs various methods to create resilience during dry periods. Rainwater tanks, condensation traps, in-ground collection such as swales and rain pits. Similarly, use a wide range of suppliers or types of inputs to build resilience when a supplier is suddenly unable to meet your needs.
Use a combination of security measures such as dogs, geese, friends with neighbours, fencing, hedges and housing.
Use variety of pest deterrents such as animals (cats or ratting dogs) indoors in warehouses to deter rats, ultra-sonic beams to scare away rodents, as well as rodent-proof construction of shed walls, floors and doors. Steel wool is eventually biodegradable and is an excellent rat-hole plugging material. Unfortunately a lot of degradable materials and techniques have been abandoned and forgotten in the Plastics era.
Use a combination of hazard prevention measures such as a building a culture of care, clear signals, clean workplace, good relations with workers.
Use different means of support. Ie for fences we can use metal stakes interspersed with wooden poles made from woody weeds. When a farmer plants living fences or hedges as well as wire fencing, she is creating a durable, long-term security system. Hedges can last hundreds of years. She could use the wire fence in the short-term (up to 20 years) and be confident that the hedge will only require low-tech (but specialised crafting) for good maintainance.
Pumps can be solar-powered with a back-up facility such as a windmill, hand pump or ethanol-powered generator. Etc.
4. Stress-Free Yield
By giving each element several functions we accept that not all the functions can be performed all the time.
The workers can choose to from a variety of tasks unless there is a strict time frame, then there should be a rotation system so they don’t get bored or injuries from repetitive work (such as picking fruit, or bending over to pick salads).
Listen to ideas of workers, suppliers and customers to improve the system.
Production may be lower than in forced conditions but the sum of all the functions is greater (ideas, harvest collected, respect and observation of trees).
A reduction of stress on each element in the business, if they are all working for the good of the business, will result in the sum of efforts will be greater. Every worker and component will run efficiently and have greater productivity.
Safety is a very important consideration, without safety in the workplace; the cost can outweigh all profits over the years of the business.
Early in the implementation of our permaculture enterprise we aimed for stress-free yield because we knew our work was pioneering, and vulnerable to stress. We didn’t borrow money for the business because this would have enforced a level of profitability that would be stressful. We didn’t seek government funding because the project would have to meet the government expectations rather than the real customer needs.
Small and Slow Solutions
A small business can be a pilot for a larger company or you may discover that you are happy staying small.
Some services and products can be expanded or contracted according to market demand.
Obtain a Yield
Ensure that your short-term efforts have some immediate rewards but keep some profit for long-term goals ie improved software and documentation methods)
refine work procedures (homework answering, student management),
Re-evaluated your measures of success
sharing surpluses once the business is functioning well by providing scholarships, support or donations to others in need.
5. Energy Efficiency
Use existing physical, social and biological capital to maximum energy potential: share resources such as cars, support local transport, build structures that can work to shelter the garden as well as store heat for night-time, require minimal energy in maintenance, and are durable. Avoid abandoning ideas, technology, machinery or computers that are not competitive without first examining ways to update/expand and increase their efficiency. Many users do not use their equipment to full potential, they are still learning the potential of the current one while considering a new model.
Some offices can be made more efficient by natural resources such as natural lighting, solar or sun-heating, coupling the room with a greenhouse window or room. Remember that customers will expect your office to be a working model of sustainability. Ideally it should not look expensive but should be simple, comfortable, accessible, well-lit, full of natural fibres and a view of a garden.
6. Biological Resources
Maximise the use of biological and physical materials.
Consider the full life of the product.
Search for biodegradable alternatives that can be used as mulch or compost at the end of their first use. Eg. A wide-spreading tree is a more efficient use of resources for a shade house than one made of wood and nails. In the promenade at Notre Dame Paris, the trees form a durable, seasonally adjusting, air filtering shade. In the narrow streets of El Bosque in Spain, citrus trees are the posts to guide to cars, their trunks are painted white and flowers grow at the base. Consider only biodegradable packaging and insulation such as popped-corn for fragile packages instead of plastic pieces.
A clever small business example is GroCycle in Totnes, UK where the business cut the processing cost of growing mushrooms by using an abundant pre-processed waste – coffee grinds.
7. Energy Flow
Design to harvest and use natural energy flows E.g. Wind, wave solar or running water. Animals can be guided into narrow paths that serve to compact and stabilise slopes on contour. Water can be used to maintain an edge. Gravity can aid harvest machinery by collecting fruits from the top of the hill and roll the machinery downhill as the loader fills with fruit and becomes heavier. We can position collection points, processing equipment and export sheds with a road out at the bottom of the hill. This can help minimise the need for imported energy inputs.
Reduce costs of storage of products or equipment by keeping the product fresh and utilizing the just-in-time processing concept. We can keep the order process prompt and maintain a closer contact with our customers.
Let nature do her work
In a Business design we can use natural energy as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to tell a customer that nature can offer a similar service. Consider the Osteopath that recognised that the customer needed to walk to help heal their back. The customer who takes this simple advice may no longer be a regular customer but will refer other.
On a chicken farm we can set up systems where the chickens can feed themselves.
On a Maron or Yabbie farm we can create ideal conditions that support natural breeding rather than engage in expensive artificial breeding systems.
Silk worms can be housed close to or in the trees if we can devise protective shelters.
Nuts may be able to harvested more easily during particular climatic conditions.
Allow crops to self seed or allow crop residues to act as nurse for a different crop.
8. Natural Succession
Imitate nature in your plans to help a system evolve to meet your needs.
For commercial crops investigate systems similar to Fukuoka. Eg: You could allow the grasses to become seeded with herbs and flat ‘weeds’, grow tall grasses and pioneer species that act as green manure (Oats, Wheat, Sorghum) to protect young climax species (eg. fruit trees) from frost and insect attack.
A social example would be to glean the wisdom of our elders (canopy and support species)
Be active in social or professional guilds (companions and guild people) and seek a niche for our talents (a place in a complex society)
Allow time to explore growth opportunities as they appear (as in the forest when the canopy opens and new light appears).
9. Value Bio-Diversity
A farm would aim to include a variety of species of food plants, pollinators, animals and workers. This principle works in Business when we value a diverse range of supplies, techniques and technologies.
Diversity in nature builds resilience and resistance to pest attack. It also lets us find which variety works well in our own particular climate and micro-climates.
There are some government subsidies, customer value (including organic and Forestry certification systems) and other Integrated Pest Management rewards for farmers who strive to preserve. These are tangible economic rewards for the active efforts of businesses to preserve and promote diversity in natural systems.
Diversity creates opportunity for initiatives and inventions.
Explore a range of biological solutions to complement and eventually replace the conventional.
This concept aims to maximise the productivity of a system. In the same way a food forest can have numerous layers. A business can have many layers and zones:
Family and friends provide support and promotion in personal circles
Associations, educational bodies and accreditation bodies provide support and quality maintainance
Like-minded businesses provide branches of promotion
Customer Relationships – we can use diverse channels for promotion and feedback. Observe and accept feedback as a chance to connect better with your customers.
11. Appropriate Technology
Optimise the use of a technology by making it serve more than one need, have it work to full potential without overload. ie. David Homgren says “the easiest way to double efficiency of a car is to take an additional passenger.”
Favour simple and effective technologies. Consider delivery and running costs, it is efficient, prompt and reliable. Here is a comparison chart to help choose the best-fit in efficient technologies.
Favour natural fibres and avoid destructive materials such as plastics or inefficient fuel-dependent delivery.
Information and Observation replaces Energy
Smaller, more intensive, localised systems can be more productive and adaptable. They can take advantage of reduced costs/waste involved for transporting a product to the consumer.
Specialised products and services develop by information and observation. The natural succession or staging plan can conclude with the sharing of the business experience or intellectual property with franchisees, senior employees, students or prospective business purchaser.
Ensure your business is well equipped with tax and legal information, for example if you are not aware of the tax costs upon sale of the land or business, then the overall profit figures may be greatly altered. If you have to pay more tax in capital gains than you have earned as a business based on the family land, then the net result is not worth the effort. On the other hand there may be a wide range of tax advantages. Information is critical in business.
Aim for optimum production with minimum intervention. This is how new farming techniques such as SRI have evolved.
Work with the natural and social context. Fit the design into its surroundings. Look at the wider social environment as a key to what will work. At the steps of parliament house, Berlin (The Reistag), there is a huge ‘lawn’ area that is designed to withstand wet conditions and high pedestrian traffic. It works with nature and provides for the needs of the people. Another example can be seen when planting expensive crops in poor regions. These require more human intervention (in the form of security). Whereas a design that considers the social environment involves the community; provides work; and shares the profits with that community. It also benefits from pride, protection and support from that community.
In nature: consideration of context can mean the choice of mixed species suited to the sites natural advantages. E.g. water collection, condensation trapping, shelter, sediment as occurs at an oasis. We can also see what to avoid. E.g. if the design is within an area of natural fragility we would avoid planting trees whose seed are carried by birds or wind.
The Web of Small Business:
From the initial source (sun, rain, wind, and animals) energy is diverted, used, released again and transferred from one element to another. Energy connects the elements. Their common use of energy forms the web of relationships.
From the source to the sink (the place where the energy leaves the system):
Energy stores increases
Organisational complexity increases (but there are many new management tools to help to enable better self- determination and team work between workers.)
A business can be truly sustainable and ethical when it is resilient, responsive and responsible. This is a hard conversion in the short-term, especially when competitors are cutting costs by using economic slaves and polluting the environment. However, being ethical and environmentally responsible facilitates long term market harmony and prosperity.
In-process waste recycling and choosing natural energies can reduce costs.
Environmental responsibility is a means of value adding to a product.
There are government funds and other avenues of support and some economic incentives for acts of conservation and protection.
When a business does not behave ethically it eventually faces market disapproval and risks failure through legal processes. Ethical is good. Many businesses have had to face huge legal costs of unethical, economic or environmentally damaging acts in recent years.
Innovative business that work with nature are complex and may require patience and development of specialist skills and knowledge.
You can team up with other business. Many businesses have been successful in forming partnerships that provide a hub for small, diverse and complimentary projects. Ie. The Eden Project provides a space for like-minded businesses to work with, Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm supports small business projects that use his large living capital.
Small businesses without debt have a better opportunity to grow according to the proprietor’s wishes.
There is growing network of environmental organisations and mentors to support ethical growers, producers and service operators.