Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

Transition Culture has moved

I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

27 Sep 2010

Throwing Some Light on the Patterns….

My years as a teacher taught me that if one person asks a question, even if they think they are “missing something obvious”, chances are that many others are wondering the same thing.  This is probably an opportune moment in the rolling out of this patterns approach to stop and take stock as to whether everyone is still with me here!  This was triggered by an email I received yesterday from Kate Clark:

“As a member of a Transition initiating group (Transition Whatcom) and a huge proponent of Transition, I have a lot of respect for your work. However, I am finding the term and concept of “Pattern language” to be very vague and frustrating.  I keep trying to make sense of it, as if I can find a ‘pattern’ in the language (repeat first sentence once, second sentence three times, then first sentence twice, then repeat the whole pattern five times?)!  Can you send me a single sentence description of pattern language? Where is the pattern? What is the language- do you mean permaculture terminology?  Sorry if I’m being dense. I’m a communications specialist, and finding this one to be so vague that I feel I must be missing something obvious. I have NO idea how to explain this to anyone else, as a result”.

I hope that what follows will shed some light on Kate’s confusion.  The idea of this patterns business is that, rather than the linear process suggested by the Transition Handbook’s ’12 Steps’, (first do this, then do that etc…) what we see actually happening in Transition initiatives in practice is something much more organic, dynamic and self-organising, arranged in different ways in different places according to circumstances, interests and what is appropriate.  This new approach attempts to reflect this.

So what is a pattern?  Christopher Alexander describes them thus: “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“.  In the Transition context, for me a pattern is basically an aspect or element of Transition that we can observe to be used repeatedly by Transition initiatives, or which we propose could be.

For example, most initiatives use Arts and Creativity in ways that share many common features.  How exactly they will weave it into their work and what it will look like in practice in their initiatives will vary, but there is enough commonality for it to be seen as a pattern.  Also, each pattern is designed so as to address a specific challenge faced by those doing Transition and to offer a practical solution to it.  Indeed, the essence of each pattern can be quickly gleaned just by looking at the picture and reading the problem and the solution (both presented in bold).

What this patterns-based approach does is to enable a much more systems-thinking way of looking at how Transition works.  Each pattern isn’t seen in isolation, rather in terms of its relationship to others.  Here are a couple of ways we could think about how these patterns work (none of these analogies are perfect, but hopefully they convey an aspect of how this works)….

Think of this as… a computer game….

In a computer game, wherever you are within it, whatever level you are at, you can see where you are in the larger game.  Anyone walking in while you are playing will be able to see where you are in the game, and also the resources you have at your disposal (potions, bombs, gold coins, superpowers, whatever…).  In the same way, each pattern starts with its context, where it sits in the larger scheme of things, its relationship, and then ends with smaller patterns, the things you will need in order to make it happen.  This means that whichever pattern you flip to, you immediately get a sense of how it connects to the wider Transition process…

Think of this as… a gardening book…

No gardening book will tell you exactly what to plant where.  Rather they give you the information you need in order to design your own plantings.  While certain underlying processes are fixed (the changing seasons, the need for rotations and so on…), the book doesn’t set out exactly how each reader should design their garden, but gives them enough information about companion planting to ensure that they create a garden in which every element works as effectively as possible.  So, although, for example, planting onions and carrots together could be seen as a pattern, it will be implemented in a different way in each individual garden.

In terms of how these patterns are bunched together, I think of the process of Transition as being like tossing a stone into a pond, certain landmark stages each initiative passes being like ripples on the water.  It starts with the people who first come together to start things off, then with their first steps having decided to form a Transition initiative.  The next ‘ripple’ is deciding to create an organisation to support their work, ‘Transition Wherever’, followed then by deepening the engagement of the initiative, broadening its appeal.  In time, initiatives look at creating a new infrastructure, setting up community-owned energy companies, developers and so on.  Finally the last ‘ripple’ looks at where all of this might go.  What would it look like if every settlement in an area had vibrant Transition initiatives?  How would this affect the local political climate?

In practice, I hope this will be much more useful than the 12 Steps (although many people do still find them very helpful and they will still be included in the book).  It means that the experience of trying to make Transition work in a range of commuities will be much more reflected in the approach, and that it will better capture the different elements of doing Transition, in a workable and more practical way.  I hope this helps…is that a bit clearer?

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Mike Grenville
27 Sep 5:19pm

I’m with you Kate – I’m still struggling with the ‘pattern’ thing too. It’s feels like university language – fine for those that want big words to theorise about what is going on but in the ordinary world it tends to complicate.

Can we replace the 12 steps with the 12 patterns? Instead how about the 12 (or whatever) suggested ingredients, approaches, ideas, inspirations….

Kevin Wilson
27 Sep 6:16pm

I think it’s much easier to grasp these if you’re already familiar with the concept of patterns. How about a few references to the general concept of patterns and pattern languages:

Rob, I think it’s wise to keep other approaches to describing how TI’s make things work, as well as this pattern language approach (which I like very much, BTW). My experience of the original building patterns and of design patterns in programming is that they appeal very much to a certain set of people, but never really make it to mass acceptance.

Dave Dann
27 Sep 8:52pm

I’m a teacher too. Bit of a scarcity of comments here, so I’ll see if I can have a say. I think that one attraction of the ’12 Steps’ was simplicity. There are good reasons to like simplicity but one reason to like it is that it means less thought is involved. Maybe people thought that if they did 10 or 11 or even 12 of the steps then the world would change as a result. Perhaps they were encouraged to think so. Two years later they may be disillusioned. The famous ’10 Commandments’ may have been a brilliant way to define a successful lifestyle for a pastoral tribe but they haven’t brought in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. Nevertheless simple lists are comforting for those that seek comfort.
‘Patterns’ are used in other walks of life, software development for example. I’m not sure whether I entirely grasp their use here. Is it just going from specifics to generalities? For example, instead of listing all wheeled vehicles (train, bus, car, rickshaw, bicycle) we just list ‘wheel’? So then instead of listing ‘what’ you do, you list ‘how’ you do it?
Can’t see this helping the sale of the next edition of the Transition Handbook.

Jonathan Smith
27 Sep 10:12pm

I too am struggling to grasp the whole concept – perhaps Rob you could provide some more tangible examples?

One thing I am certain about however is that this will be a very important concept for all of us in Transition…in years to come we’ll probably be wondering how we managed to work effectively without the concept…

In my experience the things that Rob tends to bang on about he does for good reason! Therefore a clearer explanation would be helpful here. Thanks.

David M
28 Sep 1:07am

I agree with Dave that having something as simple as The 12 Steps has been extremely helpful. Having been involved in a sustainability group that was part of the Relocalization Network, and then going on to help found a Transition Initiative, I found that having the 12 Steps made a world of difference. It really helped us focus our actions and make good progress in a short amount of time.

Regarding Transition as Pattern Language, the important thing is that, whatever you want to call it, I am finding the current series of posts to be conveying extremely helpful information for making Transition Initiatives a success!

At the Transition Whatcom site, one of our members also took a stab at answering Kate Clark’s question. I’m not qualified to evaluate if it accurately lines up with Alexander’s concepts, but I found it helpful.

Walter Haugen writes:
“Think Freud and the language of dreams. The pattern is described as a “thing” and so becomes the abstract. Then the thing is applied to multiple scenarioes. Also consider language as the carrier of culture…

“Making the abstract into a concrete “thing” is called reification. Sometimes downplayed as a fallacy in argument (Kant would probably classify reification as an antimony), it nevertheless has some uses. For example, a simple example of pattern language is the chocolate chip ratio (how many chocolate chips can you put into your cookies to make a wonderful treat but still allow the cookie to hang together OR how many chocolate chips give you an economical product that still provides a satisfying treat that you can sell for a premium price. When you encapsulate the idea of a chocolate chip ratio both defining the problem plus solving the problem you have a classic example of what Alexander called pattern language. You can also use this concept and apply it by name in an entirely different work situatioin. What is the “chocolate chip ratio” of rebar needed to make this concrete foundation stable? The so-called “chocolate chip ratio” now has a life of its own as an abstract idea encapsulating multiple perspectives that can travel to different jobsites. Can you do this without reification? I doubt it.

“Language is a playful thing and being able to use terms like “pattern language” and “reification” outside of their contexts is all part of the game. In your advancement of the next edition of the Transition Handbook, you will have plentiful opportunities to create some howlers (as I have just done) as well as some extremely useful strategies.”

Andrew Lucas
28 Sep 5:37am

I am hoping the patterns approach doesn’t over intellectualise the Transition work done to date. I’ve always viewed the 12 steps as broad concepts or ideas which like many things in Permaculture open doors to other areas and are anything but prescriptive. Is it expecting too much for people to intuitively understand which order the 12 steps arrive in and what success and failure look like?

Rob, an area I’ve love to see explored in the new book is the importance of leadership in Transition. I’ve seen a stack of initiatives in my work and one of the main ‘patterns’ popping up is inspiring leadership at the top. I agree with Heinberg’s notion that Transition isn’t a personality cult, but confident, capable leadership seems certainly doesn’t hurt the process…

Jerry McManus
28 Sep 5:49am

Patterns can best be understood as proven solutions to common problems.

It might help to think of “pattern” as just another word for “we’ve seen this problem before”.

Naturally, it follows that the more people who solve the same problem the more likely it is that they will arrive at roughly the same good solutions.

Not identical solutions by any means, everyone’s situation is different, but solutions that have enough in common that you start to see, well, patterns.

And, what do you know, look at all of those really smart and creative people out there that are doing a really amazing job of solving many of the same transition problems. Every day, all over the world.

Now here’s the beauty part, if you can find a way to capture that knowledge and experience then you might have something REALLY useful to people who are just as likely to hit the same problems that everyone else did.

Useful not because you are presenting it in the form of a recipe to be followed blindly, but presented in the more general form of “when you have a problem like this, then use a solution like this”.

This allows people the freedom to adapt that solution to their particular situation, using whatever resources are available to them.

Hope this helps.


Marcin Gerwin
28 Sep 8:03am

It seems to me that the only difficult thing about the new approach to Transition handbook is the name “The Pattern Language”. Why not call it: “A Collection of Ideas and Solutions for Setting Up and Running a Successful Transition Initiative”, for example, and skip the pattern thing for clarity?

I can understand that some people are attached to Christopher Alexander’s book, but since the name “Pattern Language” creates so much confusion, it seems to me reasonable to change it. I guess the “patterns” (solutions and ideas) themselves are clear and easy to understand, like “Becoming a formal organization”, for example. Looks fine by me. Rob, if you could just change the name “pattern language” into somthing simpler, things should become clearer. I hope 🙂

28 Sep 8:11am

Hi Rob,

Working with a management consultant in the 1980’s we came across (what I think is) this same phenomena. We began to see patterns of in dynamic systems.

To describe this, we coined a new term: “permaform”.

Loosely based on the phrase “persistent formation”, permaform means any repeated response to a situation, where-ever it crops up.

Trees responding to a prevailing wind direction by leaning with it – is a permaform. As is the way underwater fronds and seaweeds lean with the tide; the same permaform.

But it needn’t be physical; responding to reduced income by spending less is also a permaform. It doesn’t matter whether you are a kid or a government; however presented it’s the same thing.

So a permaform is basically the same old situation, fixed in a similar way, cropping up again – perhaps somewhere else. It’s a pattern.

Do feel free to use the term!

John Boshier
28 Sep 9:25am

The word Pattern was the bit that confused me. I thought it was a concept that I couldn’t face getting my head round at the moment. Then I started reading the stuff on forming groups and running meetings, and thought “Oh, that’s not what I was expecting, this is really useful”.

Is the word Pattern being used in the same way as in the Permaculture Principle “Design from Patterns to Detail”? I get a feeling that it is, but I’m not sure. If it isn’t, it will cause confusion. It’s too early in the morning to be awake enough to read it up in Holmgren’s Principles and Pathways, and I need to get on with setting up a display about our new Housing Group, that I’m starting!

28 Sep 9:28am

Dear Rob,

with a background in computer-programming the term “Pattern” quickly made sense to me. There even is a famous book “Design-Patterns” which coined this term in the computer community. It seems to be a quite technical term though. Maybe if you deliver some background in systems theory the concept becomes clearer. I would certainly like to hear what you have to say about that.
The Garden-Book example is a fine way of saying it but maybe you could elaborate a little bit more on why it is so important to have the pattern perspective rather than a cooking recipe.
Cheers! Sebastian.

28 Sep 9:46am

Thanks all, very useful feedback. I think that Jerry McManus’s comment hits the nail on the head, indeed he puts in a fraction of the amount of words I used what I was trying to convey, and far more eloquently. Thanks Jerry, beautifully put.

Marcin, I agree, it may well be that in the final version we don’t even use the term ‘patterns’ or ‘pattern language’, that is all still up for grabs and for discussion.

Thanks all…

28 Sep 9:49am

I get the Pattern Language, and I also agree that the 12 steps are not quite right now, TN has moved on and we’ve learned a lot over the last few years. My main concern is that like Kate, I think theres internal and external words we should be cautious with. A programmer gives you words like File/Save/Quit/Delete etc but hides the complex lingo in which he/she writes the code. Pattern language is the same for me, it’s like trying to tell people that we are writing Transitiion in Pascal or SQL… or whatever. PL is the right approach I’m sure, but can we think more carefully about the words we choose and how we use them. PL is just the means to an end in terms of describing what you want to do. Lets NOT loose focus on the content which is more important.

Patterns can be random and structured. I’d like to make sure we don’t get too lost in what is PL and forget the priority to update the 12 steps to be more current, granular and relevant to TN groups.

Paul Mackay
28 Sep 9:58am

There are some tough communication challenges here, its not a straightforward concept for everyone (as these comments suggest), but personally I think its a powerful way to define how Initiatives can evolve.

The patterns are currently broken down into 6 “stages”, relating to when they might typically be used by an evolving initiative. Could the 6 stages be diagrammed alongside the 12 steps, and the similar/matching patterns to the 12 steps highlighted? But the stages are more of a time phase, so other patterns in that stage are simply other possibilities, like one of the 12 steps, that an initiative could use.

Also longer case study examples could help to create more context. Why not write some case studies of some initiatives that have got a reasonable way along their path and describe when, why and how they applied patterns in their evolution? Maybe the wiki could be encouraged for that, so any initiative could write their own stories.

@Marcin: The point about the name is a tricky one, I’m in favour of sticking with patterns. Patterns are more than ideas (a pattern should have been implemented more than once already). Solution is closer but seems a bit strong – a solution suggests it is a completely solved problem, whereas a pattern says this is how you could implement it, here are how some others have done it, but you need to figure out how you can best apply it in your situation with the people, resources and location.

28 Sep 10:03am

Thanks Paul and Alan… as I say, I think that while this is being rolled out I will keep the whole patterns/ingredients/ whatever discussion forefront…. I agree with Alan’s point about how computer programmers hide their code as it were.. Paul… the book will include case studies which are told showing how each place utilised the various patterns… that should help really bring it to life….

Andrew Ramponi
28 Sep 10:46am

I agree with Marcin. To me the description of the Pattern approach was verging on making common sense complicated. Intellectually interesting but not very practical.

Explaining permaculture is already difficult. Perhaps this is because when we feel we grasp something intuitively words are often inadequate.

The word is not the thing.

Erik Buitenhuis
28 Sep 11:24am

Marcin, sorry to pick on you, but did you really just say that “A Collection of Ideas and Solutions for Setting Up and Running a Successful Transition Initiative” is simpler than “The Pattern Language”?

Mike Grenville
28 Sep 11:49am

I think Marcin did say “A Collection of Ideas and Solutions for Setting Up and Running a Successful Transition Initiative” is simpler than “The Pattern Language”

But the former is more easily understandable. Try this experiment; tell someone you meet that you have:
“A Collection of Ideas and Solutions for Setting Up and Running a Successful Transition Initiative”


“A Transition Pattern Language”

While the former may be a few words longer, I predict that it will not have questions about what you are talking about!

28 Sep 12:30pm

in my understanding when one talks about patterns more than “a collection of ideas” is implied. The important point here is that patterns are supposed to interact. They are interrelated and “talk to each other”. I agree though that this is not obvious from the term.
“Modules” might be a word that has the interrelatedness connotation but might be more common language.

28 Sep 12:32pm

or what about “Building blocks”?

28 Sep 1:41pm

Hi Rob,

We spoke briefly before on the subject of PL….

I mentioned on the US transition site that I think it would be could to have a workshop/symposium on transition, PL, and the later Alexandrian concepts, which are highly relevant to transition, but have not yet been well integrated. Please do consider this, because there is a lot of untapped energy and intellect and learned experience that could have a great effect on some of the theory behind transition.

PL was mostly unsuccessful as a document for transforming mass architecture, while the Transition Handbook seems to be creating change. Perhaps the two can learn from each other. I think your idea to use it is good in the sense that it provides a network of solutions in the form of a linear book. However, there is much that could still be developed by way of a generative code, as I mentioned earlier. Some of the comments here are from people who don’t know PL in detail, so I think it would be really good to bring people together who DO know something about it with Transition folks, so that the complicated baby doesn’t get thrown out with the simplistic bathwater and the head-heart-hands can work as one.

Daniel Schwab

Shaun Chamberlin
28 Sep 2:25pm

As you know Rob, I’m totally with Marcin and co.

It’s important to acknowledge the origin of the ideas (and I have no doubt you always will), but I think the name “Pattern Language” grew out of Alexander’s particular intellectual heritage, and is unnecessarily confusing for many others.

As Jerry said, it’s a a beautifully simple idea, but currently you have to get past the mystifying name before you can see that. It took me a while.

So what should we call it? “Transition Thinking” maybe?

“Frequently Appearing Quibbles – They say experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it, but we might be able to change that” 😉

Or just “Transition Experiences”?


Also quite like Mike’s point – does it really need to be quick and catchy?

Jerry McManus
28 Sep 4:47pm

Thanks Rob!

Your kind words made my day. It’s unfortunate that there is some confusion over the words “pattern” and “language”, but there should be no doubt whatsoever your approach is valid.

Case in point, as was mentioned before, is the fact that an entire generation of software developers and object oriented “systems thinkers” were inspired by Alexander’s work.

This was due in no small part to a single book titled “Design Patterns” (Gamma, et. al.), an example which absolutely serves to make your ongoing efforts towards a transition pattern language all that much more vitally important. Thanks again!


Bart Anderson
28 Sep 7:28pm

Good discussion.

No matter what the “patterns” are called, I think the approach is more complicated than the simple 12 Steps.

The 12 Steps is a great way to start things off. True, they are incomplete and prone to becoming “10 Commandments.” But when one is starting a new field, it is very important to have something definite and clear to hold on to. A deeper, more complex understanding can come later.

I’d like to see the Patterns (or whatever they’re called) presented as an Advanced Stage. “Transition 2.0,” to coin a phrase.

I love this approach, but it is not for everybody. As a more exact name, I might call them “Design Principles.” My guess is that people who do design – of any type – would understand what they are. When I worked for Hewlett Packard, I used the Pattern Approach to write a guide on designing computer hardware interfaces.

Part of the problem is that thinking in terms of design is not widespread in modern society. It is important to encourage design thinking … but it looks as if introducing the Transition Concept at the same time may be too much.

I think I might put these Patterns into a back section of the Handbook, or even in a different book.

One approach might be to encourage people to concentrate on the CONTENT of these posts, and not to worry about the “pattern” aspect.

28 Sep 9:18pm

Andrew L., and Rob,
I agree, having a pattern on Leadership could be interesting! I could think of Peter Senge’s “5th Discipline” framework of the learning organization as a very useful framework or at least starting point. Might be worth considering this, Rob?

marcus perrin
1 Oct 9:30pm

Rob – can I suggest a page on the TC or Transition Network site to collate links to all the pattern posts? If on the TC site maybe then a ‘button’ (is that the techno term??)on your front page through to the collation page. Without something like this, I fear the pattern posts could remain buried under later posts. I need a few weeks to get through the pattern material and offer some comments – a collation page would help me navigate back to find it all. Cheers.

marcus perrin
1 Oct 9:34pm

Oh, and maybe a high level A4 ‘picture’ of the patterns (mind map style?) to help get an overview of the pattern principle relationships?

Kevin Wilson
4 Oct 8:03pm

One thing about the existing “12 steps” is that they aren’t. Steps, I mean. Some are things to do, some are ways of doing things, some are ways of thinking… it’s not possible to execute them as “steps” as they are. I had this reinforced again when I was giving a “What is Transition” talk the other day and came to that part of the talk about the 12 steps – they really are all over the map.

Having a mutiplicity of patterns (whatever they are called in the end) available, and grouping them into stages, with a “short version” perhaps of 2-3 essential patterns for each stage so you end up with 12 steps again… may be just as accessible but much deeper.

Marcus, I like the idea of a mind map of the patterns (elements?) to help see how they interact and build on each other.