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From Ideology to Technology

by Øyvind Holmstad

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros are running a series of essays in Metropolis Magazine at the moment, they are all published here. I’ve no idea how long the series will run — hopefully forever. Anyway, it’s time to introduce this series to permaculture people, and I’ll be concentrating on the first five essays about the technologies of Christopher Alexander.

The essays on Alexander’s technologies in chronological order:

Patterns in the sand caused by fresh water run-off. Photo: Martyn Gorman

The 20th century was the century of ideologies, but it all ended in mindless consumerism. So obviously, ideologies alone are not the answer, although they can hold many a truth and be a tool to unite people behind a common endeavour. Still, all this is pointless if the people do not have the right tools, or even worse, if they are using “the technologies of death”.

The insights we are gaining about these processes are opening the door to a new chapter in design — an era of “bio-design”, “biophilia”, and “biomimicry”. It’s an exciting promise, particularly in an era when our old technologies seem to be failing us. The crude industrial processes that powered our world for a century or more leave us with depletion, fragmentation, and decay. Living systems can show us the way to recover and sustain the damaged systems upon which life depends.

The design theorist Christopher Alexander has argued that similar processes have gone on throughout our own human history, and throughout the history of life itself. Life is a kind of “making” process of unfolding and differentiating production. The “technology of life” is governed by knowable steps. And we had better learn how to apply it, if we are not to be destroyed by the unsustainable technologies that surround us today: what we might call, on strictly scientific grounds, the “technologies of death”. — The Living Technology of Christopher Alexander

Ideologies and their old technologies failed us simply because they were too simple. Further they wanted to force their images of society upon the world, like from a blueprint. Christopher Alexander does the opposite, rather than creating a “dream image” of the world, he went out in the world to study it as it is, from how natural systems and cultural societies have evolved throughout millennia.

We’ve all heard about morphogenesis in biology — the way that organisms grow and transform into endless beautiful and varied shapes. Scientists are beginning to tease out the workings of this process. It doesn’t proceed from scratch, but from the transformation of patterns of previous configurations. The patterns exist within the DNA, and within the protein structures that form cells. They adapt to the environment and to each other as they transform their shape — a process known as “adaptive morphogenesis.”

In a fascinating new area of research, some molecular biologists are now using the concept of a “pattern language” to explain how this adaptive morphogenesis works. Essentially, the patterns get coded within molecular sequences, and transform over time. S. A. Newman and R. Bhat of New York Medical College believe this model can explain the origin of multi-cellular life — one of the great puzzles of biology!

Where did this concept of  “pattern languages” come from? The architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues introduced the concept back in 1977. A Pattern is a solution-configuration discovered after many trial and error attempts. It is a lot like a “genetic packet” of DNA, incorporating information about previous evolutionary adaptations, allowing the buildup of complexity over time. (That’s how we can explain the emergence of multi-cellular life, for example). The Sustainable Technology of Christopher Alexander

The secret of life is not in the ideologies, it’s in the DNA; it’s an unfolding process. This is the technology of life. Patterns are evolved constraints to maintain “the quality of life“, they are universal and time proven, the threads in the network that maintain living communities. They make up “the pattern language“, the web of life, while “the form language” secures that the web of life is woven on a background of living geometry, which is also an unfolding process, like DNA. When “the pattern language” and “the form language” merges, our communities will become just like nature, truly whole. Think about it, this is exactly how nature is!

It is important to understand that patterns don’t replace the design process with an automated solution. The designs don’t just “pop out.” Rather, the patterns incorporate the information about previously successful solutions, in a way that designers, working adaptively and in a human scale, have more ready access to it. In this sense, the patterns are a tool for a very important concept known as “evidence-based design” — design that is well-adapted to solve human problems, and to meet human needs. The design is not the product of a linear mechanical process, but emerges from a process of mutual co-adaptation, proceeding in evolutionary cycles, with the information on successes transmitted in a DNA-like message. Indeed, natural systems do work just this way to solve problems and achieve sustainability: specifically, they retain and evolve information about adaptive form. – The Pattern Technology of Christopher Alexander

Another advantage with patterns is that people love them. While they hate disconnected laws they simply love interconnected pattern languages. This is because they have such a deep poetry. The best way to save our world is to make people engaged, and there is no better way to engage people than using the pattern technology of Christopher Alexander!

This turns out to be an extremely important quality of language. It allows us to map the meanings of things beyond simple hierarchical relationships, and describe the varied aspects of wholes — even complex emotional wholes without a simple literal meaning. We can describe the poignant decline of a rose, and many other complex aspects of a subtle and transitory reality. And somehow, we can capture something important and real to our own lives. – The Pattern Technology of Christopher Alexander

The worst thing we do today is thinking about things separately. Like separating economics from architecture (or architecture from psychology and biology). To maintain “the human scale” within economics is fundamentally dependent on maintaining the same scale in the built environment. Like with the Alexandrine pattern 87, Individually Owned Shops. In summary: “The context, not the thing, is the key”.

What Alexander argues is that we have to make some very fundamental reforms — not only in our specific technologies, but in our very way of thinking about technology. We have been isolating things, as mechanical sub-entities, and manipulating them. That works quite well, but only up to a point. As any systems theorist or ecologist will tell you, the context, not the thing, is the key. 

So it seems that we have ignored an incredibly important aspect of natural systems — namely, the fact that every structure is embedded in a larger structural context, and ultimately, in the entire structure of the cosmos itself. What Alexander offered was not just the recognition of this truth, but the basis of a new technology that could incorporate it. 

Why does this matter? Because the structure around the thing we made can come back to bite us, with unintended consequences. This is the classic form of technological failure. We can make an antibody, and then find that later new pathogens have mutated to resist it. We can make an automobile that solves our transportation problems, and then find out later that we have also engendered traffic jams, strip highways full of gas stations, and even climate change. 

This is why, in biological systems, there is more than a single linear reaction to each of the series of challenges that face an organism. There exists a kind of whole-systems optimization, a way of sorting through many contextual variables and finding a solution that not only satisfies any single condition, but is likely to be perfect in balancing and coordinating a great many conditions. (That’s how organisms achieve resilience — but that’s another long story!) 

Nowhere is this more evident than the way that organisms generate form — what biologists call “morphogenesis”. The form is not a mere collection of parts that are stamped out and gathered into a composition; rather, it emerges from a continuous transformation of elements, in an unfolding process that follows something called “symmetry-breaking.” That means that the original symmetrical form (say, a round egg) gets broken down the middle, and a new symmetry forms — the beginning of a tube, say. 

Alexander noted that in this process, there is usually a step-wise sequence that re-uses and articulates what came before, and that differentiates it into more articulated parts. The egg cell starts as one whole… then it divides, and makes more wholes with a differentiated order. And in complex processes like embryogenesis, this form-generation continues through more stages, until, through the power of compounding, the result is fantastically complex and ordered. 

A useful analogue to visualize this is in the way that Origami folds start out as simple, and very quickly become very complex and remarkably delightful, often gaining some of the aesthetic qualities of a living form. That’s not entirely an accident: the process of embryogenesis, we now know, follows a similar origami-like process. Like a recipe, it uses a coded process to govern the steps — and then it reacts to its own previous steps, and modifies the result. Like a good cook, it “tastes the soup” — it adapts the following steps to the results of the previous ones, to create a much richer and more complex result. In the case of a real recipe, the result is something that has a rich complex flavor. 

Adaptive design — a pre-requisite of evolutionary success — is highly dependent upon initial conditions, existing structures, surroundings, and human needs, just as it’s dependent on similar factors in natural systems. The same adaptive design algorithm will result in drastically different end products according to the larger-scale influences and conditions on the ground. Design is adaptive only when it is done in steps, and each step accepts feedback from the existing structure. In fact, an isolated (self-contained) design method can never be adaptive. This has important implications for the future direction of sustainable design.

In natural systems, even though this system-generating “technology” is largely self-organizing, it works extraordinarily well — it’s resilient, it’s functional, it does all kinds of amazing things. We need to learn much more about this kind of generative process and how we might exploit it within our own technologies, which are still embarrassingly crude and primitive by comparison. (For all the sophistication of a 747 aircraft, it’s nothing next to the complexity and agility of an eagle.)

This is the key to an important realization about natural systems and how they generate form — one that, as Alexander has long noted, is distinct from how we humans typically generate form. And this is not a mere philosophical matter of humans being different from nature, or “having culture.” It’s a question of how we humans can also have a technology that is actually more complex, resilient, and sustainable — quite literally, more life-like. Ultimately what is at stake is how we are going to survive, within nature, and as elements of nature. Ultimately we cannot stand apart, without destroying ourselves.

In a sense, says Alexander, we are then “making life” — we are making the kind of living structure that is made through any other natural process. This is an exciting frontier for our technology of design — pointing the way to a world that has the sustainability of living systems. – The Radical Technology of Christopher Alexander

My hope is that this new century, this new millennium, will become the end of ideologies and the beginning of technologies. Not “the technologies of death” supporting dead ideologies, but living technologies creating a forever increasing world of living structure, where wholeness is the ultimate goal and purpose of life.

One reason this matters is that when wholeness is not achieved, then the system in question is disordered and inefficient, and probably headed towards a state of collapse. If it is a biological system, we might say it is “diseased”. If it is a system of human technology, we will probably say it is highly inefficient and perhaps unsustainable, and needs to be reformed. The alternative may well be a catastrophic collapse of the systems upon which human wellbeing depends—or at the very least, a disastrous decline. Sustainable systems of technology seem to have been designed, perhaps unselfconsciously, with wholeness in mind. 

As we noted, Christopher Alexander has been concerned with this topic of “wholeness”—the relation of parts to wholes—from the beginning. He has sought a more advanced method of design that might help us produce more integral wholes in the built environment, and in other fields. The “Wholeness-Generating” Technology of Christopher Alexander


  1. Thanks for sharing this article. I must read the whole series and more of Alexander as well. I work in the arts and soft sciences, but I felt I could almost have written the first article. It described many patterns that I have documented in my research.

    I study the evolution of human and social systems—the emergence of competence (learning) in individuals, how interpersonal interactions evolve over time, and the influence of organizational contexts on learners and learning. I even use much of the same terminology as the authors, but even when language differs, the patterns are the same: whole-to-part directionality; emergent analyses and process designs; upward spirals (of growing confidence and success, first in learners and, as a result, in teachers); downward spirals (of growing frustration and failure); hierarchies of nested hierarchies (in organizational structures); emergent-design research and teaching (using grounded theory processes in action research).

    My teaching and research evolve because they intertwine, creating upward spirals of professional growth for me. The teaching is based on “biomimicry” in that its foundation was my research on the linguistic processes of experienced writers and the ways in which they teach others to write. The goal was to learn to help every student writer succeed, and I found that writers who do what “English teachers are supposed to do” (often by focusing on linguistic structures in didactic ways) tend to experience feelings of growing frustration and failure because many of their students do not learn to write well. By contrast, self-sustaining/regenerative learning (i.e., upward spirals of growing motivation and success) kicks in when writers align their teaching with their personal knowledge of writing which typically leads them to teach structures at the individual learners’ point of need.

    These insights led to studying differences between fine arts instruction and how folk arts and crafts are typically learned.

    In short, the patterns described in this article are the same patterns I have described in my work on how people learn. The fact that the patterns I’ve documented in teaching and learnaing were perfectly aligned with permaculture principles is what drew me to permaculture in the first place. Now I’m learning how well they align with Alexander’s work too.

    1. Hi Marie, if you do see this message, can you please share links to your research? I am very interested. Thanks!

  2. Hello again Oyvind. Thanks you for that summary of the first series of current articles. Your articles and these will be a great help as I get up to speed again on the written stuff about PL,after a large gap, after absorbing the NofO series! I have been using the patterns for about twenty years now, and writing about them for permaculturists in Western Australia.

    The structures of PL can be seen in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, which was published in 1964.

  3. @ Warwick Rowell. Wow! Congratulations! I’ve still a lot left before absorbing the NofO series, still yet only got into depths with The Phenomenon of Life. Next I plan to go to the last book, The Luminous Ground, after the big discussion on metaphysics here at this blog. Please post your articles here at this blog as well, so that I can read them. It can never become too much Alexandrian stuff here. Happy to get to know yet another Alexandrian person, we are too few!

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