4 Jun 2010
Rethinking Transition as a Pattern Language: an introduction
Yesterday I posted a document which contained the first rough attempt at sketching out a new way of communicating Transition, using Christopher Alexander’s ‘pattern language’ approach. Over the coming weeks and months I will be blogging more about this, but in advance of the 2010 Transition Network conference (only a week to go!), I thought it might be helpful to give some more background on this. What is a ‘pattern language’ and why might it be a better way of communicating Transition? Here are some initial thoughts.
What is a Pattern Language?
In 1977, Christopher Alexander and colleagues at the Centre for Environmental Structure at Berkeley University published a book called ‘A Pattern Language: towns, buildings, construction’, the second in a series of 3 books. Fifteen years later, a much younger me was a student on my permaculture design course in Bristol. On Day 5 of the course, the teacher introduced ‘A Pattern Language’ to the group, as though it were some ancient, dusty, sacred text, in much the same way as I now introduce people to it. He lovingly flipped through the book and introduced the concept of patterns and why this book was essential for the design of anything.
I borrowed his copy and took it home that night. Initially it looked huge and impenetrable, but once I had read the ‘key’ at the beginning, I flew through the book in a couple of hours. What blew me away was not the these ideas were in any sense revolutionary or new, but rather that it captured and put its fingers on so many things that I had felt and been unable to articulate. Why do some built environments make you feel alive, connected and celebratory, and why do some make people want to stab each other? Why does the heart soar in the old parts of Sienna, in St Ives, in Paris, and not in most of Swindon or Slough?
Alexander’s observation was that any built environment is like a ‘language’, it is composed of different identifiable elements, some obvious, some subtle, and like any language, it can be used to write beautiful poetry or doggerel. Alexander put it like this; “the elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem , in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice”.
Since ‘A Pattern Language’ was published, the idea of pattern languages has gone on to inform the software world, web design and many other disciplines. Author J.K.Rowling talks of how the whole story for her Harry Potter books, with fully formed characters, names and events, came to her on a train journey from Edinburgh to London. The idea for a Transition Pattern Language came from discussions between Ben Brangwyn, Ed Mitchell and myself on a train journey from Totnes to Slaithwaite in Yorkshire for the Transition North conference. It struck us that it was a perfect way of redefining and communicating Transition. If it could be applied in areas other than building, then why not Transition?
For me, in terms of music, the best music opens doors to lots of other music you have not heard before, sends you off exploring previously unheard music. My hope is that communicating Transition in this way will do the same, not least in terms of perhaps getting you to pick up a copy of ‘A Pattern Language’, one of few books published in the 20th Century that deserves to be called a work of genius.
Why Change the Transition model?
What is Transition? It is merely a pulse, a suggestion, a catalyst, an invitation. For some it is permission to get started on something they have dreamt about for some time. Since its inception, people have wondered what it is, how it works, and how best to communicate it to others. From the early days of Transition Town Totnes, people asked “what are you doing and how are you doing it?” That led to the ‘12 Steps of Transition’, the model currently used by Transition groups, as set out in the Transition Primer, the Transition Handbook and the Transition Training.
Over time though, there is a danger, identified sometimes in a near-obsession with “doing Transition properly”, that what was a model thrown together in order to communicate it to people becomes ossified and encourages slavish adherence rather than creativity and innovation. For some the 12 Steps becomes something where they feel they have to do it in a particular chronological order, they have to do all 12, they can’t add new ones, and so on. Also, the 12 Steps served very well in the early days, but given that the last of the 12 Steps is ‘Create an Energy Descent Plan’, and that now some initiatives have reached this stage, the question arises “then what?”
Therefore, in the interests of promoting non-attachment to ideas and enshrining the principle that none of us really know what we are doing, as encapsulated in the ‘Cheerful Disclaimer’, for the Transition Handbook 2.0 I am taking the original Transition model and throwing it up in the air, using ‘A Pattern Language’ as a way of recommunicating and reshaping it. Transition has evolved and grown hugely since the first Transition Handbook. The principle of it being an iterative process, of the sharing of failures being as important as the successes, has done it a great service, and much has been learnt as a result. New models and tools have been developed, and as a result the second edition of the Handbook will look very different to the first, but it will also, I hope, actually be a more familiar representation of the Transition you know, and also a more useful tool.
The Qualities of Transition
Perhaps in the same way that Christopher Alexander did with ‘A Pattern Language’s precursor ‘A Timeless Way of Building’ (‘Pattern Language’ was the second book in a trilogy, the first, ‘A Timeless Way of Building’ a beautiful piece of prose about ‘the quality with no name’ that has run through built environments throughout history, and the third a case study of applying pattern language to the design of a university campus in Oregon), it might be useful to identify some of the qualities of the Transition approach. What does it feel like? In the time that passed since version 1.0, I have come to think that Transition has a number of qualities, which include the following;
- Viral: It spreads rapidly and pops up in the most unexpected places
- Open Source: It is a model that people shape and take ownership of and is made available freely
- Self organising: it is not centrally controlled, rather it is something people take ownership of and make their own
- Solutions focused: it is inherently positive, not campaigning against things, rather setting out a positive vision of a world that has embraced its limitations
- Iterative: it is continually learning from its successes and its failures and redefining itself, trying to research what is working and what isn’t
- Clarifying: it offers a clear explanation of where humanity finds itself based on the best science available
- Sensitive to place and scale: Transition looks different wherever it goes
- Historic: it tries to create a sense of this being an historic opportunity to do something extraordinary – and perhaps most importantly of all
- Joyful: if its not fun, you’re not doing it right
Any pattern language designed to communicate Transition therefore needs to be able to embody these qualities. The Transition patterns straddle a range of scales, from regional design tools, to very local projects, and even down to personal qualities, and are grouped accordingly. As Alexander puts it;
“no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that it is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns within which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it. This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it”.
A Transition pattern language makes Transition much more accessible than the 12 Steps, because it allows a range of other organisations to see a way into it. A Council for example, or another NGO, can find their place much more easily, can see how most skilfully to interface with Transition. It enables people starting a Transition initiative to have a loose sense of where they are going and to put their early work in a wider context. It will always be an evolving pattern language, changing as the model and the movement evolves, but my hope is that, for the second edition of the Handbook, scheduled for publication next Spring, we can create a rich, robust and fully functional pattern language which will much better reflect the depth and complexities of what Transition has become in its short lifespan thus far. The draft of the Transition pattern language in the booklet that I posted yesterday created for the 2010 Transition Network conference sets out about 70 initial patterns. Over the next couple of months I will start posting some of those patterns and invite your input and thoughts.