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.
4 Jun 12:53pm
Good answer to the question, “And then what?”
I have been using APL in courses at the Ecovillage Training Center since our beginning in 1994 (indeed, we used the book to design the ETC) and some years ago wrote a book review for The Permaculture Activist. One of the key takeaway points for me is that Alexander’s group did not consider the patterns as set or final but ranked them by degree of confidence. Some were merely tenuous observations. Others were confirmed across many cultures and climates.
This is the essence of transition — flexibility and change in the face of change all around.
4 Jun 4:22pm
This is very exciting; I will watch this spot for pattern updates.
4 Jun 4:36pm
I think the idea of implementing patterns is a very good one. Some patterns will be more easily followed than others and mostly on the local scale as the larger societal patterns that have been created since WWII continue to dissolve.
I suspect that the predominant phenomenon will bring the patterns into existence will be “emergence” — the notion that patterns spontaneously form out of a sort of jumble of possibilities.
The Transition Initiative is, I think, an example of an emergent pattern.
4 Jun 7:04pm
Looking forward to figuring this one out!
oh, and it’s Siena, one n 🙂
4 Jun 8:39pm
I first learned about the pattern language in Jim Kunstler’s classic The Geography of Nowhere. He was so enthusiastic about it that I immediately bought Alexander’s first two books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. I wasn’t disappointed: Alexander’s beautiful prose and intuitive thinking offer a very efficient way to rebuild our urban landscape and our homes. I agree with you, Rob, it is really a work of genius. The Transition couldn’t take a better turn.
4 Jun 9:11pm
I can see the attraction of this having experienced (during 18 months of part of a transition group which unleashed last May) the realisation that awareness-raising doesn’t stop at any point before, during or after “12 steps” – and communication is the key.
Reading the article one thing leapt out at me from the quote near the bottom:
“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.”
and it immediately brought to mind a concept (I think they’re called adaptive cycles) of kind of sub-ecosystems operating in semi-autonomous cycles of growth, collapse and renewal which are layered in greater and lesser degrees of scale to form a whole. I can’t remember where I read about this idea (does anyone know?) but it has stuck in my mind and I just wonder if the similarity has any significance!?
4 Jun 9:21pm
Skintnick, you might be thinking of the concept of ecological succession.
Greer discusses it often, particularly in his book The Ecotechnic Future.
4 Jun 9:38pm
I too have used APL and its predecessor, The Timeless Way of Building in my PDC courses, as my teacher did. Mollison, Jacke and others mention it of course.
I like the concept, but wonder whether it isn’t a rather obscure subject on which to base the 2nd edition of THB. Also in reading the first few patterns in APL- “Independent Regions”, “Country-City Fingers” etc. I was struck on how impractical they seemed.
Are patterns (Alexander’s patterns that is- not patterns like “Strip Mall” and “Acres of Asphalt”) actually used by planners and architects? It’s giving me an idea for a parody…
4 Jun 10:15pm
Thinking about it perhaps I read it in THD’s Upside of Down but the idea definitely predates that book and is the work of a US ecologist.
4 Jun 10:52pm
I’m reading the Patterns stuff in the booklet, Rob, and I’m bouncing up and down in my seat I’m so excited 🙂 (I know, I’m easily excited).
Very interesting that the one pattern that’s fully fleshed out so far is Standing Up to Speak.
Before I started our TI here in May 2009, I had been in our local Toastmasters group for about 3 years and one of my thoughts as I read the Handbook and got all inspired was “THIS is what I’ve been doing Toastmasters for!”. TM is extremely helpful with not only speaking – the obvious part – but leadership skills, running formal meetings, and (especially if there’s only one TM group in your community) meeting an extremely diverse group of people from all parts of the community. I have made many, many contacts through TM with people I would never otherwise have met. Being able to give speeches in front of that diverse group about all kinds of subjects is also a really useful opportunity, though you can’t bash away at the same thing all the time. I have “done” Peak Oil and Climate Change along with amateur music, gardening, cats, and all kinds of other topics.
Anyway, for those with extra time to spare (LOL), I highly recommend Toastmasters.
Kevin Wilson, ACB, ALB
4 Jun 11:37pm
I’m about to make my debut on stage (age 47) with a talk in my town about transitiony stuff and wish I could attend this TM training (alas, time precludes!) it sounds helpful. One idea I had which harps back to communication – to an audience – and how difficult it might be (Kevin??) is the degree of cultural brainwashing that consumerism has engendered, thus making the connection to a representative audience hard to pierce – which is the gist of what RH’s idea is to achieve. Is the following metaphor too complicated? [Cut from wikipedia]
“Metaphor of the Cave; Plato imagines a group of people who have lived chained in a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them…the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to seeing reality. [I]s it not reasonable that the prisoners would take the shadows to be real things…not just reflections of reality, since they are all they had ever seen or heard? [W]ouldn’t the whole of their society depend on the shadows on the wall?”
The contemporary metaphor, of course, being the powers-that-be controlling the images that parts of an audience would believe, to the core, to be reality.
5 Jun 12:07am
Skintnick, the role of adaptive cycles in ecosystem resilience is central to Buzz Holling’s theory of ‘panarchy’, which contrasts with the classic view of ecological succession to a stable ‘climax’; I think he’s the one Thomas Homer-Dixon refers to. There are, of course, websites for people who like this sort of thing, e.g.
5 Jun 8:07pm
The quote you used from Christopher Alexander reminds me of Tolkien’s and Christoper Paolini’s books since, the elves in both of their novels build societies which coalesce well with the environments around them.
5 Jun 9:31pm
I was really happy to see you referencing A Pattern Language and using it in updating and revitalising Transition. Wonderful possibilities of synergy. It is truly a great book. If you get more people to read it, that can only be a good thing.
I spoke to one of my old Small School pupils the other day who is now an architect and she told me that the book was required reading on her course, which kind of gives me some hope. There is a great example of the Pattern Language in action in chapter 3 of Jon Broome’s book, The Green Self Build Book. Inspiring.
5 Jun 9:55pm
Thanks all… wanted to just pick up on Dave Feasey’s comment above that perhaps pattern language is a bit ‘too obscure’ for Transition Handbook 2. I have had this conversation with a few people, including Green Books, and our thinking is that the book probably won’t actually refer to the concept of ‘pattern language’ very much, possibly even only in a footnote, the idea being to keep it as clear and simple as possible. The last thing I want is to bamboozle people with more unfamiliar concepts, I want this to feel as accessible as possible…. good point though, thanks…
6 Jun 1:50am
saludos de Mexico
this is great, I need some time to process this one
I was thinking amomng the same lines lately, while I was reflecting about Transision-Perspectives in relation to the place where we happen to live …
More comments soon
7 Jun 7:08am
The pattern language concept is a very powerful way of presenting and linking ideas. The publisher may be worried about whether the concept isn’t clear and simple enough but the original book has consistently been a best seller, even though it’s only ever been available in expensive hardback. I heard someone remark that it’s the most popular work on architecture and planning ever. For a great example of a really accessible ‘pattern language’ book, see Apprenticeship Patterns (the publisher has very kindly put it on a wiki recently). Another book/project you might like to look at by way of comparison is Douglas Schuler’s Liberating Voices.
I’m also wondering if you are paying attention to Alexander’s more recent view that the use of patterns indiscriminately was a bit haphazard. He developed a process for how patterns should unfold in time – a process of structure-preserving transformation. That’s in the four volume ‘The Nature of Order‘(especially vol 2) It’s more expensive and less accessible than A Pattern Language, but a work of genius nevertheless.
Corinne in Paris
7 Jun 1:38pm
This is great – an extra resource to help us figure out a way forward, and a style of doing it, here in the big city of Paris. At least we do have a lot of great architecture.
…in contrast to the example that Atlanta seems to provide for the second case in your question: “Why do some built environments make you feel alive, connected and celebratory, and why do some make people want to stab each other?” Below is a link to J.H. Kunstler’s photo essay which admirably illustrates this point:
I can’t make it to the conference this year, sadly, but I will be very happy to catch up on things via all your publications – Thanks!!
8 Jun 8:09am
I have been doing a brainstorm with people who come on the transition training on what the the defining characteristics of Transition are for them – what drew them to it and what makes it different.
I have been collecting photos of these brainstorms, with the vague idea that it might come in useful sometime to have an overview from large numbers of transitioners of what transition is. I will send them if you want them.
8 Jun 10:39am
Great idea to use Pattern language for Transition, Rob, and good to see Critical Thinking there as well.
However, there is a danger you are hijacking Critical Thinking
to support your own ideologies- you say under this section:
“Integrate new insights from holistic science…”
But where is the critical thinking there? Transition does seem to be based around ideological concepts of “Holistic Science” (needs a definition), Deep Ecology, etc which claim to be scientific but subvert scientific methodology by subtly claiming that personal opinions, feelings, intuition etc are equally valid with science, ie “Holistic Science” is holistic because it includes ideologies opposed to science (they claim to be valid though they cannot be tested.)
From Wikipaedia on Holistic Science:
‘Holistic science is controversial. One opposing view is that holistic science is “pseudoscience” because it does not rigorously follow the scientific method despite the use of a scientific-sounding language. Bunge (1983) and Lilienfeld et al. (2003) state that proponents of pseudoscientific claims, especially in organic medicine, alternative medicine, naturopathy and mental health, often resort to the “mantra of holism” to explain negative findings or to immunise their claims against testing. Stenger (1999) states that “holistic healing is associated with the rejection of classical, Newtonian physics. Yet, holistic healing retains many ideas from eighteenth and nineteenth century physics. Its proponents are blissfully unaware that these ideas, especially superluminal holism, have been rejected by modern physics as well”.
Science journalist John Horgan has expressed this view in the book The End of Science 1996. He wrote that a certain pervasive model within holistic science, self-organized criticality, for example, “is not really a theory at all. Like punctuated equilibrium, self-organized criticality is merely a description, one of many, of the random fluctuations, the noise, permeating nature.” By the theorists’ own admissions, he said, such a model “can generate neither specific predictions about nature nor meaningful insights. What good is it, then?” ‘
8 Jun 8:59pm
Amen to this. We’ve been eagerly anticipating your ‘next move’ and this is an A-grade advance that comes at a critical time. You’re right to be concerned with those who hew too close to dogmatic approaches. It’s quite inspiring to see that Transition will not be easily allowed to fall into the category of a ‘check the box’ affair.
25 Jun 7:59pm
1. DEFINITIONS OF “A PATTERN”: I think of a pattern as “a design element” — something we need to attend to when consciously creating a healthy whole (of whatever the pattern language is about). Another way I think about it is as a “need” of a healthy system. Nonviolent Communication (which deals with personal and interpersonal dynamics rather than whole social systems) teaches that needs are deep and universal; that their satisfaction and violation generate emotional responses, and that they can be met in many different ways. This understanding translates easily into the needs of a whole community or transition process. A major test of a pattern is whether we can manifest it in many ways.
2. A SUSTAINABILITY PATTERN LANGUAGE: Ecotrust and Christopher Alexander created a pattern language for a sustainable economy (now called “reliable prosperity”), presented in depth at http://www.reliableprosperity.net . It gives one vision of that attractor “on the other side” of the endless bridge that we call Transition.
3. USES OF PATTERN LANGUAGES: Part of what I like about this pattern language is that it includes organizations and resources for each pattern, raising the possibility that a pattern language could be used as an organizing tool (where do I fit? who do I depend on and need to collaborate with? who depends on me?) or as a guide for curriculum development (a student would major in a pattern; but understand well the patterns connected to their specialty plus the “whole” modeled by the pattern language). Imagine a pattern language as a portal into WiserEarth.org, for example (I’ve suggested it to Paul Hawken).
4. GROUP PROCESS PATTERN LANGUAGE: For a pattern language on good group process see
http://grouppatternlanguage.org . It is also a good example of an innovative participatory pattern language project, being done on a new form of wiki called Wagn. I see this as related to the Transition pattern language in that participatory community process is central to the unfolding of Transition initiatives.
11 Jul 1:08pm
I think there is a great deal of merit in working with pattern languages generally in fostering sustainability. I’ve been developing a “sustainability pattern language” called PatternDynamics™ (PD) for the past 5 or 6 years. I’ve used it in teaching permaculture and as a design tool. I’m in the process of writing a handbook that more fully explains the patterns and how to use them in creating cultures of sustainability. The chart of patterns is available for download from http://www.patterndynamics.com.au Anyone intersted in the theoretical basis of PD, how it was created and how to use it can download an article I’ve had published in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice called “Developing a Sustainability Pattern Language”. There are substantial references to Alexander’s work there and to Holmgren and Mollison as well. It is available at http://www.sunypress.edu/p-5108-journal-of-integral-theory-and-practice.aspx and can be downloaded as an individual article. Developing a pattern language for the transition movement is an excellent idea and I’m happy to be involved in the conversation.
Federico San Bonifacio
26 Jul 2:20pm
you probably know about the MEME concept, a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.
There’s a direct analogy between MEME and the genetic GENE.
I believe this will be a useful tool to develop the new transition model, at least to better visualize its evolution.
There are many information on wiki !!
31 Jul 5:52pm
This is great! I always thought that the Transition concept and A Pattern Language had much in common.
17 Aug 8:00am
Speaking only for myself, I find this move a bit discouraging. Everyone understands what a 12-step program is. Offering “63 patterns for your delectation”, by contrast, seems like it might be uninviting to many, and could even be off-putting to some.
If I need to read a book or three, and learn a new way of thinking, to keep up with the leading Transition edge of Transition thinking and participate fully, I’ll do so. But it’s hard for me to see this as promising for communicating Transition to new audiences, or even for helping most current participants to accomplish more.
I see the core ideas of Transition as being very appealing to a smaller group, and then much of the energy actually coalescing around projects more than ideas in isolation. So perhaps this is a good move (to help advance the core ideas). However, I’d like to see some feedback, especially from the as yet uninvolved, before this is broadly delivered as the new explanation and invitation to Transition.
Sorry to be a wet blanket. I see a lot of enthusiasm around the idea here, but maybe that means it’s the right time to introduce a cautionary note.
20 Sep 9:48am
I can understand Bud’s concerns.
How about re-naming “patterns” and “recipes” ?
20 Sep 9:49am
Er, that should be: How about re-naming “patterns” AS “recipes”
20 Sep 9:56am
Hi Bud… (and Josef).. thanks for the concerns, well voiced. The idea of this approach is not to replace or discard the 12 steps approach, which many people still find useful. The new book will still include them, and will offer them first, but go on to say that as Transition has evolved, some people have found them too constricting, too linear, and that Transition has since become something much more complex. I agree that it could be seen as too complex and impenetrable, but my sense as I’m working on it is that with pictures, graphics, and clear design, it will be fascinating and enticing rather than impenetrable… in terms of Josef’s ‘recipes’… hmmm, doesn’t really work for me… but ingredients might work… don’t know.. we want to keep jargon to a minimum and maintain clarity so, I think what they are called is something that we’ll keep under review as we work through this process…
22 Sep 12:28am
Thank you for the specifics. It sounds great to keep the easy approach as an introduction, while also adding some depth and rigor, which is necessary for growing the movement.
24 Oct 11:59pm
“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”
I think this is the first time Im hearing of “Pattern Language” and I like it– it sounds like something that has resonance to my own lookings from over the years.
I wanted to share a fun fact that leapt to my mind as I read the above quote (*wondering if Christopher Alexander noted this in any way?):
the etymology of Pattern is Pater, which may bring us to mind of seed/male/”hand of man”/etc.
the etymology of Matrix is Mater, which may bring us to mind of egg/female/”mother earth”/etc.
the interplay of pattern and matrix, of the male and female, of creation and creativity, of nature and culture, seem to run through these notions of pattern language seen above– and indeed, to what Transition has been all about.
looking forward to more
22 Nov 5:41pm
Hi, I’m reading the french translation of the Transition Handbook which add a part on the economy. I suggest that belongs to peak oil and climate change, we need to add the biodiversity dimension to the problem. This will change a bit the view about future territory management and urbanism in order to get resilience. May be it can help too, tg go further in thinking efficiency and resilience around local money.
Lietaer, Ulanowicz ans Goerner works.
Follow this links:
22 Nov 5:44pm
Some considerations about Community land trusts too, as an alternative to private surface property, as a factor of presence to the public life.
22 Nov 6:41pm
The purpose of my messages is for Transition Handbook rewritings. I think that biodiversity discussion will help to figure out that the energy problem is not only the fossils fuels problem but an anthropocentrism problem, which is aggravated with free or almost free energy. We have to produce institutions for a less intrusive anthropocentrism.