Approaches to problem solving


Problem solving is a significant aspect of the design for living and thus also in Permaculture Design. As we have evolved, the range of problems we face has moved further away from the purely elemental and mechanical and on to the social and spatial. Irrespective of this, the quest for good solutions will always need a thorough and honest definition of the problem. Its no good designing a solution if the understanding and then definition of the problem is hampered by pre-determination such as the goal being fixed in advance; or if there is no experiential or action learning phase; or if there are too few cycles of definition and redefinition by going through components or sub-issues and prioritising them;  or there is not at last a break from the perceived universality of solutions; or if there is no spatial coherency around sense of location, synergisms, placemaking and community building; or if it is not an integrative, systems and life-cycle approach. Or maybe it just comes down to whether and how the problem solver has been trained.

CONCEPTUAL BLOCKS need busting. We need to allow the chaos of multiple ideas to linger. The creative designer ideates - the flash of insight, the spark of creativity, are all welcomed and added to the mix. Ideation takes time because incubation of ideas (some never hatching) is crucial. Premature judgement leads to boring or ineffectual design.

INTEGRITY OF INFORMATION is my bęte noir. The need to know about and understand contested issues is tainted by information used as a tool, rather than information used as a resource from which the free thinker can make up their own mind. The integrity of the information often takes a beating when information is slanted towards a purpose, and this kind of information is quite often designed to keep its receiver in ignorance. Multiple sources of information should therefore be sought out and systems devised whereby the consequences of the information (i.e. the intended potential outcomes from knowing it), or the origination or motivation/intent of the information is worked out. We need to be wary – are there value judgements made in the information that are not clearly sign-posted? Are there ways to assess confidence level? How critical an evaluation is warranted of this information? Do we make assumptions about the integrity of the information solely because it fits with our prejudices?

EXAMPLES and CASE STUDIES from around the world offer inspiration, but they can often end up continuing the perceived universality of solutions, the panacea, the new paradigm. Case studies may provide principles, but they then need careful testing against local conditions. The recent excitement in agro-ecology over the use of the nitrogen fixing and biomass potential of the Mucuna bean plant is a classic example. No one connects the lack of temperate climate alternative (mucuna is not frost hardy) and there is no judgement on the actual need for it, or on the major difference in soil fertility between its homeland use in S. America and in the UK. Another example from agro-ecology is the Cuban “organic" explosion, which was built on pragmatism (the cessation of supplies of agro-chemicals with the fall of the Soviet Bloc) and quite rightly so. But this embracing of natural food production would be persecuted by certification bodies in this country since, in the locations where food is grown in containerised compost, it de-links plant growth from connection to the earth.

What would I advocate for quality problem solving? Permaculture training with its protracted observation; action research/learning and evaluation; and study of multidisciplinary approaches to locational ecology and design (i.e. energy, material and people flows, built and natural environment). We have to equip ourselves and others with the ability to design regenerative systems that are locationally rooted.

Is it one of the best on offer? Science fiction has a predictive quality in addition to its entertainment value. One such foresightful novel comes from as far back as 1950 - Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. van Vogt. The protagonist of the story, Dr Grosvenor, is a neophyte in the new holistic science of nexialism - "one skilled in the science of joining together in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields".

Trained in integrated science and thought, Grosvenor was able to see the connection between many aspects of a problem that other specialists on the Space Beagle could not see because of their narrow training. Nexialism was thus devised by the author to be a structured, deliberate, interdisciplinary science. Grosvenor provides increasingly important assistance in each encounter with alien races until his skills become indispensable in saving the spaceship and perhaps for the future of humanity. In a contemporary irony, the book also explores the inter-personal dimension of scientific rivalry and scepticism.

Van Vogt's vision of a new science-of-all-sciences stemmed from his fascination with the work of Alfred Korzybski in "general semantics". The Nexialists of today - they do now exist (see below) - are enthusiastic about General Semantics (GS). It is a training in using your mind to observe what is really there, rather than indulge in just superficial observation. GS deals with the relationships between what goes on in your thoughts, and what goes on in the rest of the world. The individual evaluates their perceptions, tests their emotions and reactions, making them better able to operate in any given location through the process of mapping it to a best approximation of reality that their experiences so far will let them have. It is a process that takes you through various modes of thought i.e.

  1. No matter how well you model something for the purpose of aiding decisions, there will ALWAYS be a gap between the model and the reality

  2. You can NEVER prove that something is like your model, but that you can prove what the limits of your model are

  3. No two situations are ever identical, nor any two people, so what is the right thing for one person to do in one situation may not be the right thing for another person to do in another seemingly identical situation

The Nexial Institute ( exists to promote human understanding of the natural world through science and philosophy, and to communicate that understanding throughout society. The work is carried out through research and education. The Institute increasingly finds that separate disciplines and perspectives are inadequate for dealing with the complexity of natural systems, particularly living systems and the participatory aspect of nature. As Permaculturists, we would only but agree.

Mark Fisher, 2 January 2002