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?