Permaculture Design for Business and Beyond

Dec 6, 2023 | Blog

Author: Jason Thomas

Isn’t permaculture all about growing food and saving the planet?


What do you know about permaculture?

Some people think it’s a sophisticated approach to organic gardening and, in many respects, it’s commonly used that way. But what else? What’s all the hype?

It began in response to the climatic crisis they identified back in the 60s and 70s. The founders of the Permaculture movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, set out to learn about sustainable and regenerative land management techniques by studying indigenous traditions that have served humanity for millennia. They did so, however, alongside curious study of contemporary adaptations, inventions, and ingenuity.

This was a true hero’s journey because they not only found answers to their ​original quest, but the process brought them to deeper questions and realizations.

“​​What were the commonalities that tied together techniques, both modern and ancient?”
“​What was the common wisdom that could guide and strategize the use of various techniques applicable in their respective climate zones?”

The word permaculture was originally coined to unite the words ​”permanent” and “agriculture.” The insights gained, however, uncovered principles that could be applied beyond land management. Ethics like “Earth Care,” “People Care,” and “Fair Share,” and Principles like “Integrate Rather Than Segregate,” “Use Edges and Value the Marginal,” and “Design from Patterns to Details” are applicable to nearly all aspects of our lives and society.

The design process of “Assess,” “Research,” “Analyze,” and “Design” BEFORE implementation is as crucial for business development and community building as it is for planting a food forest.

In the end, it became understood that the formulas these pioneers brought back from their global adventures and wisdom treasure hunts​ expanded the focus beyond agriculture, offering us a framework to design a more permanent “culture!”


Blending Permaculture with Business  

Recently, I’ve ventured into a unique realm, adapting the permaculture design methodology to the world of business design. The idea came from a period in the growth of our permaculture education center that was seeing some tough times and wasn’t meeting its needs in the way we were operating it. My wife at the time, our resident permaculture teacher, had the brilliant idea to apply what she was teaching to our home and business life, how we welcomed guests and volunteers, and to get clear about our project’s needs for cash flow. The results were rewarding, and I’ve always thought more regenerative-minded projects should formally engage in a similar redesign process every handful of years.

It took me more than a decade of personal growth and a determination to learn more about doing business in our modern age before I got serious about assembling what I’ve learned about permaculture and entrepreneurship into a framework I could use to guide other regenerative entrepreneurs toward making their altruistic dreams come true. And that leads me to the theme of this article:

How can we effectively apply this permaculture design methodology to business?

Permaculture Philosophy: Beyond Conventional Approaches

At its core, permaculture design urges us to slow down and absorb the bigger picture. It’s a thoughtful, resource-saving process, contrasting sharply with the linear, isolated methodologies of modern times. Permaculture embraces our interconnected web of existence, making it applicable across various domains – from land management and business to community building and, potentially, municipal design.

The Permaculture Process: Assess, Research, Analyze, Design

Permaculture’s essence lies in its process, referred to as a feedback loop, which unfolds in four primary phases:

1) Assessment: Understanding Your Context

Holistic Decision Making: We begin by assessing our operating environment – considering the land, people, culture, and more. This assessment asks critical questions about existing influences and their impact on our intentions and vice versa.

As important as it is to consider the environment we intend to do business in, including the needs of our ideal customers, it’s also important to examine personal goals and desired lifestyle as being part of that environment. Too often, projects get started without considering what it will be like to actually operate the business once it becomes successful.

Synergistic Considerations: In permaculture, we talk about Sectors as being influential elements that can’t be directly changed and must be designed around. In land management, we look at the movement of the sun over the course of the year and other elemental and climatic influences.

In business, this guides us to look at seasonal market fluctuations, global or regional decision-making trends, and competitors for our customers’ attention and purchase decisions. Another detail we explore, which is contrary to many modern business developers, is to look for opportunities for collaboration amidst what might otherwise be seen as competition.

2) Research: Exploring Multifaceted Options

Building Relationships: The first thing any new business owner should do is take sufficient time talking with their ideal customer. In a land-based assessment, we would talk with people who have been living in the area for generations. In the case of business, you want to get to know your customers by scheduling calls with them to ask them about their experiences, needs, and preferences.

Not only does this give you a responsible base with which to design product development and marketing, but it also forms lasting relationships with people who may become some of your biggest fans. People like to be seen and heard. Be curious.

Deepening Understanding: With the information gathered in the above-mentioned conversations, more targeted research can be done to understand broader market trends, guided by the information gathered from real people. This allows you to validate your original assumptions, adding resilience to your design.

It’s imperative to reduce the assumptions that many well-intending businesses are founded on. Thoughtful patient investigation is key. Otherwise, much energy can be lost from the system during those fragile first years of operation due to hasty investments.

3) Analysis: Aligning Desires with Practicality

Objective Evaluation: Once sufficient data has been collected, we sift through our findings to identify key functions the business needs to provide in order to meet our determined goals. Next, we list the systems required to meet those functions and the elements required to build those systems. This is where strategy comes in. It involves honest appraisal and aligning our desires with realistic means. Too many businesses begin implementing the most idealistic or flashy elements first, often wasting precious resources on projects that might be premature or need to be redone once more of the systems are put into place.

Meanwhile, more prudent elements get left for later. Permaculture teaches us to implement the elements first, that plug energy leaks and save resources before spending them. Another favorite concept in permaculture design guides us to stack functions, leading us to focus on implementing elements that meet the needs of multiple functions and systems, building a more resilient foundation. Taking the time to analyze the multi-functionality of the potential elements in our systems helps us to make wise decisions that support the whole.

Resource Evaluation: The analysis phase is when we consider our resources against our plans, ensuring alignment with permaculture ethics and principles. There are a couple of concepts I like to integrate into the analysis process. One of them is to consider the multiple forms of capital moving in, out, and around our business. A great book was written called Regenerative Enterprise, describing the “8 Forms of Capital” and the importance of considering the intrinsic role that Social, Cultural, Spiritual, Living, Material, Experiential, and Intellectual Capitals have beyond their exchange value for Financial Capital.

The other is to examine the hierarchy of resources available and to focus on those that are renewable over those that are more scarce. It isn’t a matter of lack consciousness or limiting beliefs but rather a recognition that the more we can focus on keeping energy circulating back into our business and community, rather than away from it, the more regenerative our efforts will become.

4) Design: Crafting Resource-Efficient Strategies

Conservative Design: Permaculture teaches us to design conservatively, prioritizing existing resources and integrating feedback loops for continuous improvement. The design is generally laid out in phases so that the big picture can be seen, with each step in relationship to those that come before and afterward.

It takes into consideration the seasonal influences, limiting factors of the business person as well as their environment, and the holistic context that was identified in the assessment phase. By doing the assessment, research, and analysis BEFORE implementation, we’re able to design more efficient and resilient steps forward.

Adaptive Design Process: The design is ever-evolving, encouraging us to blend our plans into the web of interconnected influences we encounter. In laying out the design, it’s crucial to schedule maintenance checks and regular revisits to the feedback loop.

A great book was written called The Lean Startup that illustrates the wisdom of this approach. We live in an organic universe, and the uncertainties of life are certain to present themselves. Keep it flexible and be prepared to adapt to newly perceived information. That’s how nature flows, and bringing that wisdom into our business design is the permaculture way.


Permaculture’s Broader Applications

Permaculture transcends land management, guiding us in making wise decisions in all life aspects. Whether it’s for a piece of land, a business model, community development, or daily decisions, permaculture is about evaluating our actions for their regenerative potential.


The Essence of Permaculture: Mindfulness and Impact

Permaculture is not an elitist education confined to formal certification. It embodies a commitment to mindfulness, recognizing that every decision impacts the intricate web of life around us. It’s a philosophy of patient contemplation and compassion, aiming to serve our needs while supporting the planet and future generations.

Permaculture can be learned in a multitude of ways. Some are costly, some are very inexpensive, and many opportunities exist to study permaculture entirely for free. While wonderful retreat experiences and online cohort-based programs are widely available (and usually worth the money,) the wisdom of permaculture is available freely for any sincere seekers committed to personal growth and a more connected relationship with the world around them. You just might need to do it from the comfort of your home, with cooperation from neighbors who own their property and are open to your experimentation. (That, and a DIY spirit that doesn’t require paying an instructor to keep you motivated to get your hands dirty.)

The only reason you might want a formal certificate from an accredited teacher is if you want to practice professionally. Otherwise, gaining a deeper understanding for how you can apply permaculture into your lifestyle doesn’t have to cost you a thing. For starters, you can download an eBook I wrote on the topic called Permaculture Lifestyle Explained: The Eco-Enthusiasts’ Guide to Efficient Living.

Join the Conversation!

For those interested in exploring this dynamic design approach and its application in various aspects of life and business, join our “Right Livelihood” community hosted by the Permaculture Institute of North America Engage in discussions around permaculture’s potential in supporting sustainable and mindful living.

If you’d like assistance applying the permaculture design method to your own business, schedule a call!

My Eco-Aligned Business Design services or the Permaculture Professionals Business Development Program might be just what you need to get your regenerative enterprise thriving.

The regenerative movement is a team sport

We’re all in this together!

Let’s keep the message positive. Each one of us has the potential to be a potent agent for positive change. In essence, we’re each powerful examples of regeneration in motion!


As always, I hope my ponderings have been uplifting and inspiring.

Comment below and let us know how these concepts have moved you.

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