According to Adam Brock, JVA’s Director of Social Enterprise, the major barriers we face to living well on the planet are not technological–they are economic, social and political. In his years of food activism and permaculture design, Adam encountered many brilliant initiatives that failed as a result of their execution at the social or economic levels: a genius biodynamic farmer incapable of managing an intern, for instance, or an innovative food distribution company that failed within six months of launching because their business model wasn’t quite right.

This led Adam to wonder: Could we apply patterns that make natural systems successful to the realms of social, political and economic organizing? Could this help address issues like how we make decisions in groups, how to handle conflict in a group, and how not to burn out?

Change Here Now

Recently published by North Atlantic press, Change Here Now is the culmination of Adam’s inquiry. A set of 82 “patterns” that can be applied at the level of organizational, social and economic phenomena, the book explores methods, practices and structures of “appropriate design and technology” on issues of group and community work.

At a recent Conversations That Matter event, Adam shared a set of brief summaries of these patterns from the “Organizations That Live” section of his book. Take a look, and see if any of these have relevance in your organization:

Networks and Hierarchies

Described as the “yin and yang” of organizational forms, networks and hierarchies are fundamental forms in natural systems that reflect opposite strengths and weaknesses. Hierarchies are highly structured, efficient systems that concentrate and channel energy in one direction at a time. Networks are sprawling, webbed, redundant systems that take a lot of energy to maintain–but through which energy can flow spontaneously and diversely, making them more resilient to disruption than hierarchies. Both networks and hierarchies have useful applications and can be integrated intentionally in organizational design.


The Japanese term “nemawashi” is biological metaphor describing the act and aftermath of transplanting a seedling. It is connected to understanding the stages a new group goes through: forming, norming, storming, and performing. Before any group is able to dive into the important work to be done, these other phases of getting acclimated, defining norms, and grappling with differences must occur. What’s powerful about considering nemawashi is that conflict is acknowledged as a natural, integral part of the process. “If we can acknowledge that conflict is inevitable, and we can work intentionally with it using best practices, that’s going to strengthen the whole organization,” Adam remarks. “‘Storming’ is something to embrace, and to be intentional about how that conflict happens in our organization.”

Human Polycultures

Plants and animals exist in a web of interconnected relationships. In human groups, there are certain archetypes and behaviors in a group that serve different functions–which, in balance, comprise a healthy group. To apply this pattern, be intentional about balancing who is in the group and what energies the group needs to thrive, e.g., the Elder-Radical polarity. Elder: person in the group who has been around the longest, knows how things have always been done. Radical: wants to start things over, is newer to the group, has energy for challenging old ways and implementing fresh ideas.

Interested in working with Adam to explore how applying social permaculture thinking could enhance your organization? Talk to us today – and join us for our next Conversations That Matter networking event for more conversation relevant to social and nonprofit changemakers!