Perma Observation – The Central Importance of Observation to the Design Process and the Output of Innovative and Effective Designs

I love quotes from Bill Mollison’s book “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” in particular those to do with Methods of Design (Chapter 3)  in the Permaculture Design Process.

no other analytic method can involve one in the world as much as observation, but observation and its methods need to be practised and developed, whereas analysis needs no prior practice and requires less field-research or first-hand knowledge. As an observer, however, you are very likely to stumble on unique and effective strategies and thus become an innovator“.

This quote raises an interesting insight the relevance of which to my own permaculture learning journey I am only now starting to realise. In my experience often true observation takes a back seat to intellectualised analysis. Intellectualised analysis, lets call it the ‘intel approach’ is perceived as and in effect is easier than observation – it is quicker, it is rationalised, it can be argued, it does not in practice require locality which therefore enables the importation of a standard patchwork of potentially irrelevant ideas, knowledge and techniques (lets say shapes and patterns, square pegs and round holes) to produce design outcomes.

The intel approach suits a modern world dominated by competitive individualism – where an individuals identity is inextricably linked directly to his or her intelligence combined with the competitive tendency to need to out-intellectualise others to remain strong, to ‘win the comp’ as it were. The intel approach also fits the economic and commercial imperative in which ‘time is money’. Game over, intels in charge … observation please jump in the back and be quiet.

But what is the cost of maintaining observation as central to the design process – the failure to truly observe? Clearly intellectualised analysis does provide design outcomes but do these outcomes truly represent the “most beneficial assembly of all components (or elements) in their proper relationships?”

If permaculture design is “a system of assembling conceptual, material and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms” do design outcomes which have been predominantly based on the intel method truly ‘crack open’ the site-specific patterns and enable a truly effective and inovative design outcome to be achieved that benefits life in all its forms? It is easy to argue that potentially they do not as they have failed not only to truly observe and interact but they have failed in essence to design from patterns to details, a powerful principle in the permaculture design system as it were.  A design based on the intel method without the benefit of observation informing and shaping it can and often does become an impost on the site. Such a design it could be said becomes an installation of artifact, perhaps with some attempted balance, but all in all a manufactured and irrelevant one none the less as it has failed to take stock of all components and as a result can only fail to arrange them in their proper relationships.

My experience of watching the design process unfold where poorly developed observation skill takes the back seat to intelligence and analysis is that details (often imported and irrelevant) lead which in turn dominates and confounds the creative process and with the design outcome itself. Nothing unique, nothing innovative. The design solution in effect is rendered ineffectual.

True observation is a skill that takes time as it is itself an art and a science.

“Short practice at refining field observation as a design tool will convince you that no complex map overlays, library, computer data or remote analysis will ever supplant field observation for dependability and relevance.”

I do think that there is the possibility that some designers with a dominance of the ‘intel approach’ ‘believe’ or let themselves ‘think’ that they ‘do observation’. This really talks to the nature of the intel method as a whole where construed by thought one believes one is ‘doing observation”  when really it a subjugated version of analysis dressed up by the intellect to ‘feel’ like ‘observation’. Sort of like a token gesture as it were.

“Observation is not easily directed, and it is therefore regarded as largely unscientific and individualistic. Process and events, as we encounter them on a real site, are never revealed just by maps or other fixed data. Yet is is from observation of processes and events (such as heavy rain and subsequent run-off) that we can devise strategies of “least change”, and so save energy and time. No static method can reveal processes or dynamic interactions.”

The ability to self audit is critical to developing powerful observation skills. Methods of observation need to be practiced and developed and their meaning experienced with all the senses free of judgement. The ‘intel approach’ dominated designer carries the perception that the process of observation takes too much time and that without time true observation can never be achieved. While this is to some extent true it is not reason enough to fail to observe nor to actually refine and develop the skills of observation in the first instance.

If  it is true that “from observation of processes and events that we can devise strategies of “least change”, and so save energy and time” then it is economic, effective, efficient and potentially innovative to ensure observation remains central to the design process. Sure it might take time to firstly observe and to develop the skills of observation but as an “observer, however, you are very likely to stumble on unique and effective strategies and thus become an innovator”


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