Inherently, persistently, we humans work together to solve our diverse problems, and as we do we zero in on patterns for solutions that just work. Architect Christopher Alexander realized that you could identify patterns for towns, buildings, and construction, and you could aggregate those patterns as a language for describing the visual articulation of design. (Read our 2007 review of Alexander's book, A Pattern Language.)
Each pattern, per Alexander, "is a three-part rule, which expresses a relationship between a certain context, a problem, and a solution." Once you have established the core of a solution to a problem that occurs over and over, you can "use the solution a million times over without ever doing it the same way twice."
It's inherently human to see patterns in all kinds of systems and relationships, sometimes whether they're there or not. Alexander's innovation was in creating a discipline for defining patterns in a structured way and creating a "language" to represent relationships of patterns. Or as the "child's history" or "just so story" at the Pattern Language site says, a pattern language was created to "organize implicit knowledge about how people solve recurring problems." The language also opens up the reality around the components mentioned above - context, problem, and solution.
Inspired by Alexander's work, Doug Schuler has conceived a pattern language for communication in which, he says, "each pattern is an encapsulated, peaceful revolt." He sees the problems within communication as those things that stifle or oppress free and open sharing of thoughts and ideas. They constrain or prohibit the flow required to enable the kind of citizen action that drives social change and supports social justice. Schuler's project, he says, "is intended to be socially ameliorative. We intend to promote it by focusing attention on the world and its problems and how people might engage fruitfully in addressing those problems."
For Schuler, this is more than a mere problem-solving exercise - "Patterns are an attempt to choose life over death," he says. "Employed intelligently, they can inject life into ailing environments. In living systems, diversity is the key to life. Each pattern in the pattern language is intended to inject life into systems that are often barren, often life destroying, and often, apparently, beyond our control."
The resulting book, Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution, is the first output from the first seven years of a twelve year public project "to help understand, motivate and inform the worldwide movement to establish full access to information and communication — including the design and management of information and communication systems."
Our "pattern language" is a holistic collection of "patterns" that can be used together to address an information or communication problem. Each "pattern" in this pattern language, when complete, will represent an important insight that will help contribute to a communication revolution.
It's an ambitious project, and the resulting book, Liberating Voices: a pattern language for communication revolution, is a good start, a beta release that has flashes of brilliant insight, and offers many paths to transformation to a just and sustainable society. It's not perfect - it can be wordy and dense in places, especially the discussion sections, but overall it's a significant and useful body of work that I'll refer to over and over again.
Read in the Boston Globe yesterday that Donella Meadows' final work is coming out. It is called _Seeing Systems_ and may also be something like a pattern language for [human] living systems.