PatternDynamics: Following The Way Nature Organizes Itself to Deal with Complexity

I posted a blog entry about PatternDynamics on my site on Dec. 22nd, and it has since been reposted at,, and a couple of Permaculture sites.  I thought I might repost it here as well...

The natural world is staggeringly complex, and yet amazingly elegant in how it manages the multitude of interconnected parts into organized, unified wholes that thrive.  What is the secret for harnessing this elegance for use in human systems? Tim Winton found that observation of the most common patterns found in the natural world led to the development of high level principles which can then be used to address the most complex challenges that human systems face.

After learning some of the common patterns found in all natural systems, we can then begin to recognize these patterns in human systems , and learn how to balance the ones that are skewed, and to integrate in the ones might add a greater level of enduring health. We can “make a deeper difference by changing the system!”

change the system

PatternDynamics is a systems thinking tool for creating systems level change that Winton has been developing over 20 years as he’s worked in diverse fields, including: environmental services contractor, organic farmer, sustainability educator, designer, project manager, consultant, executive leadership, and corporate governance.

What is unique about PatternDynamics is that it combines the patterns of nature with the power of language, to produce a sustainability pattern language.

In a recent paper by Barrett Brown, referring to a study he had done in 2012 of top performing organizational leaders, he observed that these top leaders “use three powerful thinking tools to design their initiatives and guide execution. They are (a) Integral theory, (b) Complexity theory, and (c) Systems theory. These models help them to step back from the project, get up on to the balcony, and take a broad view of the whole situation. They use these tools to make sense of complex, rapidly changing situations and navigate through them securely.”

And famed Permaculture teacher Toby Hemenway (author of Gaia’s Garden) recently posted on his blog the following recommendation:  “To enrich our ability to use recipes and put them into context, without engaging in a full-blown design analysis from scratch, we can use pattern languages. The term was coined by architect Christopher Alexander to mean a structured grammar of good design examples and practices in a given field—architecture, software design, urban planning, and so forth— that allow people with only modest training to solve complex problems in design. … Like recipes, pattern languages are plug-and-play rather than original designs, but they allow plenty of improvisation and flexibility in implementation, and can result in rich, detailed solutions that fit. A handbook of pattern languages for the basic human needs and societal functions, structured along permaculture principles, would be a worthy project for a generation of designers.”[my emphasis]

PatternDynamics is firmly rooted in Integral theory, Complexity theory, and Systems theory, and as well contains Permaculture’s emphasis on patterns and principles (PatternDynamics was developed during Tim’s time as Director of the Permaforest Trust, a 170 acre Permaculture education center in New South Wales, Australia). In addition a fifth strong influence was Alexander’s ideas on pattern languaging. These five robust theories and practical application tools provide a very firm foundation that will continue to support PatternDynamics long into the future as it continues to evolve. It is probably not the recipe book that Hemenway envisions, rather the patterns are more like a set of key ingredients from which we are invited to collaborate to c0-create the needed recipes for a given context.  The goal is to facilitate collective intelligence.

Tim Winton“The key to complexity is systems thinking, and the key to systems thinking is patterns. The key to patterns is using them as a language – an idea I borrowed from architect and mathematician Christopher Alexander’s book ‘Notes on the Synthesis of Form’.”
– Tim Winton

Systems thinking itself is complex and difficult to learn, which is why the series of Patterns in PatternDynamics can be so helpful in simplifying that complexity – “If we don’t have a symbol for something, it does not become enacted in our reality” Winton says.


Secondly, as these Patterns become part of a shared language, this gives us the ability to collaborate with others –hence the facilitation of collective intelligence.  Noting the increased complexity in our human systems, Winton states that “No longer is any one person brilliant enough to solve the complex problems we face; we really have to use our collective intelligence.”  This innovative method of facilitating collective intelligence is proposed as an essential 21st century skill.

Speaking for myself, after completing the Level II training in PatternDynamics, I notice that I am starting to see “wholes” much more often, in extremely diverse systems.  Everything from systems at work in my own body, to systems in organizations I’m involved with, to the systemic problems facing our world, and all the way up to long term processes going on in our universe.  Being able to see these wholes then helps the next step – ideas are flowing more easily on how to balance and integrate to improve the health of the systems I am involved with.

Therefore, it is with some excitement that I am preparing to host a One Day PatternDynamics Workshop on January 26, 2014 here in Bellingham, Washington.  Click Here for more information about this event. A workshop is also being held in Oakland, CA on January18th – more info here.


To read a longer article I co-wrote about an introductory workshop I attended last year, go here: Integral Leadership Review

Download a free PatternDynamics Workbook: Click here.

Much more info can be found at the PatternDynamics website here:

Additional content here on Integral Post-Metaphysics that discuss PatternDynamics:

Comments in the Integral Semiotics thread

Balder post on PatternDynamics in 2012.

Discussion about Tim Winton's paper for the 2013 ITC conference: The Meaning of Planetary Civilisation.

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Comment by DavidM58 on January 17, 2015 at 10:19am

Yep, that's a danger, isn't it? A model becomes an ideology, and the ideology becomes reified. The map of the territory becomes a map of the prison. I've done the same thing, and yet I'm still attracted to models and theories of everything. I still think they are very useful, even as we should also try to maintain an openness to perspectives that are outside of or larger than the given model. For that reason, I always try to remember this quote from George MacDonald (from the Christian tradition):

"The ruin of a man's teaching comes of his followers, such as having never touched the foundation he has laid, build upon it wood, hay, and stubble, fit only to be burnt. Therefore, if only to avoid his worst foes, his admirers, a man should avoid system. The more correct a system the worse will it be misunderstood; its professed admirers will take both its errors and their misconceptions of its truths, and hold them forth as its essence."

- George MacDonald, Weighed and Wanting, chapter XXXII, quoted by Rolland Helm, Introduction to The World of George MacDonald.

I don't follow that advice, but I try to keep it in mind as a balancing point.

As I said in a different thread:
"One example might be the use of AQAL - the map of the prison.  Many will rightly point out that these are artificial boundaries; however, I think many of us will admit that a whole new world of distinctions was made possible when we started employing the AQAL map.  Some of us later loosened our grip on this map - the trick is to use it where and when it's useful, but not to let it get reified as some absolute truth, but rather to allow ourselves to continue to explore the deeper territory that it opens us up to, and to realize, for example, that quadrants don't actually exist in the clearly dilineated way that it looks like on paper."

And to slightly modify other thoughts from that post - As we can name and further refine distinctions/dharmas/patterns (via PatternDynamics, for example), then we can more easily see them, and hence they become more real and tangible to us. As that occurs, we then possibly can take another step with the "more" that exists beyond that, and then eventually perhaps find an articulation for this new experience, and continue this pattern to ever further refinements and distinctions.  What this requires is continued inquiry, continued openness, not holding tightly to past understandings and learnings, and the development of post-cognitive/post-formal skills...which is part of what some of the PD Patterns are about, especially the Primary and Secondary Patterns of Creativity, Dynamics, and Source.

Comment by Edward theurj Berge on January 17, 2015 at 8:12am

I highlight this novel due to its exploration of apophenia. We humans have a tendency to see patterns where there is only jibberish. And/or even if we see some legitimate patterns and form models therefrom, we tend to continue to impose those modeled patterns on new data despite other data to the contrary, i.e., confirmation bias. I know I've done this several times throughout my life, like with hermetic qabalah and kennilingus. I get so attached to the models I interpret everything through them and it becomes  an ideology that prevents further growth. Oft times I'd go through the most bizarre contortions to try to fit all data, no matter how contradictory, into the models. Granted, I've eventually come around on those two models and named that phenomenon kennilingus when it comes to the Lingam's AQALitus.

Comment by DavidM58 on January 16, 2015 at 8:06pm

Thanks for the tip!

Comment by Edward theurj Berge on January 16, 2015 at 8:25am

Do you know the sci-fi author William Gibson? He wrote a fascinating novel call Pattern Recognition that may (or not) be of interest.

What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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