Towards a WorldChanging Pattern Language Part II: A Forest for the Trees

(Photo credit: Eye, by Paul Fly; CC-Attribution-ShareAlike)

(See also Part I: “Define Sustainability?)

A few days ago, we had our first local Austin WorldChanging blogger meeting. One question that arose was that of scale: what level are we to write on? Purely in terms of local events, or could we write more globally as well?

The WorldChanging Manifesto speaks of the myriad models and tools existing at all levels of scale, and the challenge of bridging them. “Think Globally Act Locally? takes on new meaning when the tools and models exist at all scales. Of course, we are in physical bodies, and thus always localised. But the stakes are global. We know that our concern is global, but if we don’t anchor our approaches in the real day to day challenges which face us, then they will not connect fully at the crucial transition points between one-another, as they will need to for the sake of synergy.

In A Pattern Language, there are several ways of thinking at work. We will talk about each of them as we go. I call those aspects relevant to the personal dilemma of “where to place one’s emphasis and energy? as Scale, Sequence, and Scope. The text does not use these terms, but they are useful tools for understanding some things about Pattern Languages.

Scale is a raw measure of size and context; it simply acknowledges the fact that the planet is larger than its regions, which are larger than its cities, its houses, and our posessions. Although globalization has made the world smaller in the realm of commerce, a raw sense of physical scale is crucial to the way A Pattern Language encourages the creation of whole systems.

Sequence is a question of taking problem-solving steps in the proper order; this is most important when creating solutions which depend on one-another to come to fruition. We understand that in a networked world, events will happen simultaneously; sequence simply relates to self-contained actions and situations at the level of individual or small-group efforts. Sequence of events turns out to be an inevitable result of unfolding wholes in a pattern-based way. In developmental biology, wholes differentiate sequentially into parts; parts are not stuck together randomly to create wholes.

Scope would seem to be similar to scale, but it is a different concern. Scope relates to the fact that, while problems and contexts may interconnect at many scales from local to global, at some critical point the problem-solver must exercise sound judgement in determining the proper scope of a single given project.

This a form of triage; and in the case of Pattern Language thinking, it means including the context slightly larger than the central problem at hand, as well as the issues slightly smaller; and ignoring all the rest for the moment. This pragmatic method solves the problem of thinking too broadly about situations which call for rapid response, which anyone who realizes that the stakes are global is prone to.

From Stuff to Planet; from Global to Local...

WorldChanging, as a book laid out with numbered pages and ordered chapters, moves sequentially from the smaller-scale to the larger, beginning with Stuff and ending with Planet. One reason may be that individuals are saturated with their stuff, and that to start there and expand outwards is the clearest way to ground a reader in real-world solutions.

A Pattern Language, as a book, moves quite deliberately from the larger-scale to the smaller; from global and regional patterns (Independent Regions being the largest) to personal details (Things From Your Life being the smallest). This ordering is very intentional.

However, the intent is not to say that we should start at the level of the planet when seeking solutions. For instance, it’s unwise at this time to spend our energy planning for the day the sun expands to consume the earth, or even for the possibility that an asteroid will strike us tomorrow. Even if we must remember to start larger and work our way in from the context, defining realistic scope is crucial to engaged action in the world.

The scope-finding method, suggested by A Pattern Language, is to find the largest level of scale that we can reasonably effect which relates to and contains the problem at hand. This sets the scope of our design problem, and from there, related patterns connecting all the way down to the smallest reasonable aspect can be found as well. Rather than simply thinking globally or acting locally, Pattern Languages empower you to stretch your view as far towards the global and the local as is reasonable, without losing sight of the scale of your immediate problem. It becomes the pivot for all that follows.

In order to help us avoid seeing problems as isolated things, A Pattern Language suggests we always look first at the causes and factors surrounding them; at the immediate context of a problem. Because its central thesis is that wholeness and synergy must be evolved rather than assembled, A Pattern Language takes a morphogenetic view on wholeness (in the biological sense of a whole differentiating then into proportionate parts).

If building a house, this may mean that you start with an Entrance Transition even though what you really want to do is get around to A Room of One’s Own. By approaching challenges sequentially, in an unfolding order, from largest relevant pattern to smallest, the designer finds that each larger solution plays an important part in shaping the palette of options for each smaller solution. Once you are at the stage of laying out your room, you find that half of its elements have already found their perfect relations through the work done at the larger scales. You have not wasted excess time and energy trying to design your yard while lying in your bedroom, only to have to go back and redo it later because it fails to relate as a whole.

Back in The Real World...

Is A Pattern Language only useful for design problems in the built world? However important one might feel the physical configuration of our built world to be to the problems facing us (and I find it to be more important than most), a truly viable strategy for WorldChanging must work in many situations. Let’s try one; and just to be fair, let’s make it a hard one.

My own personal ‘uh oh’ moment, the moment when I realized that the problems facing the planet in the 21st century would be far more intertwined than I had been taught, was in 1994. There, in the midst of my hip young strivings towards cyberculture, I read an Atlantic monthly article by Robert Kaplan called “The Coming Anarchy: How scarcity, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying he social fabric of our planet.?

Yes, I know; but let’s be real: had its title not thrown tact to the wind, I might not have read it back in 1994. Yet only now, years later, are some few of us beginning to come to grips with the idea that endemic civil wars might actually be be better tackled through scarcity and poverty than by other means. And yet, one of the reasons the desire to put out fires rather than tackle flammability endures is that a single fire might actually be put out; we aren't always able to see how to tackle problems through their contexts.

A basic principles of WorldChanging is that we do not present problems without possible solutions. If all problems are interconnected, then so also must be all solutions; it takes only the right way of seeing wholes, of putting the solutions together. Perhaps they must be evolved; perhaps scale, and sequence, and scope all matter. Certainly, maximizing impact matters.

One of the many tools within the WorldChanging guide which lends itself well to pattern thinking is ‘The Virtuous Circle’ (p355). It is a concrete, real-world method of maximizing the impact of small actions. It is the heart of the concept of 'Giving Well'. Through generosity at levels where the most desperate needs exist (the poorest of the poor, whether in a global or local context), the relative buying power of a small amount is amplified, empowering that beneficiary to in turn aid those around them. This may turn out to be one of the only truly effective ways to combat the vast middle ground of global conflict: by creating patterns of prosperity which can spread and saturate the context of individual problems.

With projects such as One focusing global attention on the dynamic, we are better equipped than ever to take on poverty as a context for a variety of problems, through patterns that connect. “Indeed, no social phenomenon is as comprehensive in its assault on human rights as poverty. Poverty erodes or nullifies economic and social rights such as the right to health, adequate housing, food and safe water, and the right to education. The same is true of civil and political rights, such as the right to a fair trial, political participation and security of the person.? (UN-OHCHR)

A weed not pulled up by the root will regrow, and a problem not solved at a scale somewhat larger and smaller than its single instance will remain and recur. By seeking out the context for an immediate problem, one instantly discovers a synergy of options which can actually tackle the problem from multiple angles, far more efficiently than if each were trying to tackle it alone.

A Pattern Language suggests that so long as we fail to work our way sequentially inwards to a given problem from its context, we will fail to birth true synergy in our solutions, holding instead in our hands a pile of loose parts.

As the WorldChanging Manifesto tells us, there’s simply not the time for our tools to remain disjointed. A Pattern Language would suggest that the key to joining them is to learn the art of triage and contextual thinking; to start a few steps larger than the heat of the moment compels (which also has the advantage of giving one some breathing room) and to delve somewhat deeper in the details our solution yields up to us.

In the third (and final?) part of this series, I will make a try at rephrasing The Virtuous Circle as a Pattern in a Worldchanging Pattern Language, along with a more simplified template pattern or two. Not because I believe it is singular, but because I believe it is deep within a vast web of potentially worldchanging patterns. And because a pattern based around it would demonstrate quite well that Pattern-based thinking is not limited to the built world alone.

By the way: the outcome of our discussion at our local WorldChanging blogger gathering was that we should seek out articles at the scale and scope which most compelled us, exploring the slightly larger context and then the slightly narrower as appropriate. Sound familiar..?

Next Time: Initiating the Fractal: A Worldchanging Seed-Pattern


Well Heath, we're certainly on the same wavelength. This stuff can sound very abstract and academic, but it's really pragmatic and concrete. We're trying to make a new world. The real test of knowing how to make something is if you can convey the instructions for doing so. We need to ask ourselves what we know about creating a sustainable world that we could teach others, in a way that they could repeat, adapted to their circumstances.

I look forward to your next post.

Posted by: David Foley on February 22, 2007 6:29 PM

Brilliant! I totally agree about making the language about action and starting at the individual. There are some obvious ways to look for other patterns -- the Buddhist precepts of right action, right speech and right livelihood are important to all. Moving outward and reaching out to others: micro-credit (and their poverty indicators) are at one end of a spectrum while teaching (study groups?) is perhaps in the middle and philanthropy on the other end. This is a great open source and worldchanging process. I am willing to partner or help anywhere I can.

Posted by: Curt McNamara on February 24, 2007 12:39 PM

These things are definitely practical and down-to-earth, and hopefully this post will have been my most abstract; the rest should be more applicable to real-world action. The last post in this series will take awhile to write, partly due to some pressing obligations and partly because it's more important that it be done well than done quickly. I hope to lay out a basic pattern template; the rest will be up to us, and the future.

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on February 24, 2007 9:09 PM