Ecology-Derived Design Principles and Social Organization

By Dirk McGurk,

Whether considering an intentional community, a group of friends, an artist collective, or business and organizational structures – any collective of people can benefit from thoughtful design.  Permaculture seeks to identify patterns that are useful across all types of natural systems.  Practitioners should strive to adapt principles derived from observation of ecology and natural systems and apply them to social, financial, or any system design. This approach makes the assumption that human systems and structures, social systems and financial systems, are a part of nature, and not separate from it.

Much of the existing work on derivation, clarification, and application of permaculture principles has been applied towards endeavors that are directly interactive with ecology (gardening, agriculture, edible landscaping, livestock management, etc).  This is not surprising, as Permaculture principles are derived from the observation of nature, the most obvious place to apply these principles is to the interaction and design of natural systems.  In the following analysis, several ecologically-derived principles and concepts are viewed from a social perspective of the natural interaction between people, and communities.

What is a good social system design?

First, it is beneficial to have a common understanding of the goal of our design.  Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Design Manual defines The Design as “A beneficial assembly of components in their proper relationships.”  Mollison goes on to define the Principle of Self-Regulation as “The purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements or components in such a way that each serves the needs, and accepts the products of other elements.”  Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier expand this idea with the Principle of Stress and Harmony, writing “Stress is the prevention of natural function or the existence of unfulfilled needs or forced function.  Harmony is the permission of chosen and natural functions, the supply of essential needs, and the absence of forced unnatural functions.”(1)  So, as the organization of people is considered, the goal is to assemble individuals and social systems into relationships that serve the needs and accept the yields of one another in a self-regulating manner that promotes harmony and dissuades stress.

In the table below, two parties involved in an interaction may take on a variety of relationship types, benefiting one party, both parties, or no party.  Mutualism, or cooperation is the most favorable type of interaction, where both parties benefit.  Competition is the least desired, as both parties have a negative effect, or get less than they need from the interaction.  The goal is to structure relationships to be mutually beneficial, or at a minimum neutral or facilitative.


Jacke and Toensmeier also discuss the Principle of Community Functional Viability as “Community health, stability, and viability depend on the performance of a minimum set of functional roles within that community.” (3)  For example, in the context of a group of people living together, there are basic functions that must be fulfilled for the survival of each individual.  Toby Hemenway describes these basic human needs as food, shelter, water, energy, waste treatment, justice, spirituality, health, community, and livelihood. All those needs must be met at several levels, personally, locally, and regionally. (4)  Most organizations have basic functions that must be fulfilled in order for the organization to remain functional.  Careful design of these organizations is essential to creating efficient functional relationships that ensure the sustainability of that organization.  Social systems can be designed to express patterns of harmony rather than stress.  In traditional permaculture teachings, this is similar to designing plant guilds.

Plant Guilds vs. Social Guilds

The desire of social system design is to create functional relationships between system elements.  Guilds encompass any group of organisms, whether plants in a garden, or people within a social organization.  With regards to plant guilds, Jacke defines 3 main types of guilds, Community Function Guilds, Mutual Support Guilds, and Resource Partitioning Guilds.  

1. Community Function Guilds involve relationships that serve the community. They are broken down further into Crop, Nectary, Soil Builder, and Ground Cover functions.  It is common for one plant to be identified as filling more than one of these functions.  The table below describes these functions as they relate to a Plant Polyculture vs. a Social Polyculture.


2. Resource Partitioning Guilds describe non-competitive relationship between two or more species where a mutually-necessary resource is partitioned to more than one individual.  An example is two adjacent plants with complimentary root structures.  A plant with a taproot will grow happily among a plant that has shallow roots.  These two individuals partition the soil and water resources that they both need, in a non-competitive, or minimally-competitive relationship.  In a social context, resource partitioning might mean having enough personal space as to not “step on each other’s toes,” or avoiding cannibalization of the system’s own resources.

3. Mutual Support Guilds are groupings of species that support inherent needs of each other.  An example is the Native American “three sisters guild,” in which the corn supports the growth habit of the pole beans, and the squash supports the corn and beans by shading the ground and retaining moisture in the soil.  This could describe social interconnections and relationships that are mutually beneficial, or where two system elements rely on and support each other.  This could take the form of agreements or partnerships that support both parties.

Species Niches

“Every person possesses a unique set of qualities, equipment, and training that prepares her or him for certain lines of work.  A species niche resembles these inborn and developed characteristics. A species niche reflects the sum total of the organism’s ongoing attempts to remain adapted and adaptive, or its ways of interacting with the world.  Every surviving organism must marshal these characteristics and inner resources in a way that blends its inherent character with its environmental context.  We all must choose how to spend our limited time and energy.” (5)  Toby Hemenway states that, “Finding where we fit into the larger community gives us a sense of purpose and also makes us valuable to others, and that’s the basis of true security.” (6) This definition of Species Niche is closely tied to The Competitive Exclusion Principle, which states that “Stable populations of two or more species cannot continuously occupy the same niche… one species: one niche.” (7)

When designing plant guilds, each individual’s niche should be considered.  As the seasons change, the designer aims to cover the entire growing season with flowers for pollinators by planting species that fill specific niches, and flower at different times, ensuring that something is flowering at all times.  Designing for food crops that can be harvested throughout the year ensures food security.  Designing for redundancy ensures resilience, so that if one plant has a bad year, other plants fill the same function.  If a flowering plant is affected by a disease, other species of plants should flower at the same time so that there is still food for pollinators.  The garden is designed so that if one crop fails, there are others to harvest.

Dave Jacke describes The Principle of Redundancy Principle as, “Every essential function should be supported by many components.” (8)  Likewise, when designing social polycultures, consideration for functional coverage and redundancy in the community is necessary.  If a group of friends is planning to form a co-habiting community, it would be problematic to have only one person who knew how to cook.  If that person gets sick or leaves home for a period of time, the community needs redundancy of the function of meal preparation.  If the community’s only chef plans to travel during winters, than it would be useful for the community to consider who will fill this niche during this time.  If the cook only plans to live on the property for 2 years, it would be pertinent to consider the succession plan for preparing meals after the cook leaves.  These types of considerations can be identified with a careful system audit, and by thinking towards the future.  One possible solution would be for another member of the community to learn to cook by assisting the chef one day a week.  This would create functional redundancy throughout the year.

Structure and Function defining Aim and Strategy

“Principles expressed through patterns and processes create systems yielding emergent properties.” (9)

  • Principles = Strategy
  • Patterns = Structure
  • Processes = Function
  • Properties = Aims

Within an ecosystem, the function of a community of organisms is bounded by the structure of the ecosystem.  The structure may be thought of as the architecture (layers, horizons, density, patterning, and diversity of species) of the ecosystem.  The structure might also include species niches and interactions, community niches, food webs, guilds, and polycultures.  When analyzing social structures, existing cultural and societal structures might also be considered.  This can be accomplished with a niche analysis considering:

  • National and global economic and governmental structures like capitalism, socialism, anarchism, or democracy (context)
  • Local regulations and laws
  • Local economic needs and yields (market demands and yields)
  • Existing partnerships/networks/friendships
  • Community characteristics
    • Rural, urban, artistic, technological, industrial, agricultural, etc.
    • Intolerant of change, or embracing change
  • Threats and allies to achieving your goals

These characteristics of social structures may help guide the design of social systems.  This type of analysis relates to the Observe and Interact Principle of Permaculture. Permaculture practitioners must understand the current state of a system in order to change that system.  This allows for understanding of how much change can be enacted while ensuring stability and openness to change.

Practitioners analyze the structure and function with asset mapping and a system audit, and design adjustments to the structure, which defines the functions of a system through which the principles of the system are expressed and specific desired properties of the system emerge (ideally).  If the emergent properties aren’t the desired properties, then a cycle of feedback and adjustment is necessary.  Successful designs create harmonious relationships and minimize stress.  However, Jacke and Toensmeier emphasize, “We cannot hope to understand all the interactions in our gardens as they take place, and we don’t need to.  We need only develop anchors and strategies to design a fundamental framework of relationships and conditions, and then remain observant.” (10)


When considering species and community niches, it is useful to think about how these niches change over time. (11)  With plants, it is understood that certain species produce flowers, fruits, and seeds at different times of the year, and sometimes in different years (as in the case of biannual growth cycles).  When designing social systems, it is also useful to consider succession.  “If a garden yields abundantly all at once, the workload can rise to the breaking point and significantly reduce your ability to use it all. Analyzing yield timing is often as important as yield quantity in assessing system stability and sustainability.” (12)  This emphasizes the importance of successional planning in a design.  

When considering social system succession, the viability of different designs based on how well they fit into the current state of a wider social system should be considered.  At the personal level, Ethan Hughes, from the Possibility Alliance and Stillwater Sanctuary in La Plata, Missouri, reminds the Permaculture community, that it must “Meet people where they are.” (13)  Success cannot be expected if changes are designed in such a way that they do not fit within the flexibility of a person’s current lifestyle.  The focus should be on making one change at a time, making small and slow steps to achieve lifestyle goals.

Another example of social system succession is seen in the ability for society (in its current state) to see value in a project. For Curtis Stone, a small-scale farmer in Kelowna, BC, Canada, a successful strategy is to mimic the look of “production” farming (monoculture) with his backyard urban farms.  Curtis urges permaculturists to, “Keep your ideology, but put it in your back pocket.” (14)  He partially credits the success of his farm operations to the fact that they resemble production farming that people can relate to.  They view his straight lines of greens and vegetables, and they understand that a lot of food is growing, locally and organically.  With a typical garden designed using permaculture, there is a common perception of disorder, which is not relatable to the majority of many cultures today, making this type of garden less recognizable and relatable.  Curtis’ operation still uses many permaculture design principles, but he is more accepted by the current state of society, making him a “pioneer species” in the ecosystem of society.

Ethan Hughes, on the other hand, lives in a community in Missouri that has given up the use of electricity in favor of a simple, creativity-focused approach to problem-solving.  This lifestyle is more in-line with the ideal future-state according to permaculture values.  However, this type of lifestyle is a stark contrast to the current state.  Ethan Hughes has achieved a late-stage successional phase in his lifestyle.

It is important to note, however, that Ethan Hughes’ late-successional lifestyle is not necessarily “better” than Curtis Stone’s “pioneer-species” lifestyle state.  Both pioneer species and late-successional species are necessary in a continuously fluctuating ecosystem, just as both these roles are essential in our global social system.  The goal of permaculture design is to move systems away from degenerative processes (as we see in our current society), and towards regenerative processes (as seen in Curtis Stone’s and Ethan Hughes’ work).

Permaculture Strategies

When designing social systems using permaculture, the 12 Principles of Permaculture are just as useful for guiding the designs for social systems as they are useful for designing gardens and farms.  Techniques like Niche Analysis, Zone Mapping, and Sector Analysis are also useful for gaining insight into the interconnections that guide the emergent properties of a system.  Key strategies for social system design are careful observation and planning, transparent and interactive decision-making processes, and thoughtful conflict resolution strategies.  Often times, experienced Permaculture designers will attribute the failure of a project not to the inadequacy of the physical components of a design (vegetation, infrastructure, etc), but rather to the social aspect of the design.  Toby Hemenway states, “We could design and build these wonderfully productive and biologically healthy landscapes that would function beautifully, but they’d repeatedly be destroyed or compromised by social or economic factors.” (15)  Frequently, designs are implemented without considering how they fit into the current social state of a system.  Lessons learned from these failed designs often point to early involvement and inclusion of the surrounding community in order to build the support structures that are necessary for successful design and implementation.  These social considerations are often called, “Invisible structures.”  However, as the neglect of these social design elements are so frequently attributed as the cause of design failure, it is becoming evident that these are the most clearly visible structures in determining successful design.

Works Cited
  1. Jacke, Dave and Toensmeier, Eric; Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, p 129 (Adapted from Mollison, Bill; Permaculture Designer’s Manual, p. 38
  2. Jacke, Dave and Toensmeier, Eric; Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, p 129 (Adapted from Mollison, Bill; Permaculture Designer’s Manual, p. 131
  3. Jacke, Dave, Designing Perennial Polycultures, May 2015
  5. Jacke, Dave and Toensmeier, Eric; Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, pp. 122-124
  7. Jacke, Dave and Toensmeier, Eric; Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, p 133
  8. Jacke, Dave and Toensmeier, Eric; Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, p 150
  9. Jacke, Dave, Designing Perennial Polycultures, May 2015
  10. Jacke, Dave and Toensmeier, Eric; Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, p. 121
  11. Jacke, Dave and Toensmeier, Eric; Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, pp. 128-129
  12. Jacke, Dave and Toensmeier, Eric; Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 1, p. 129

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