Whole Systems Design: How to Live More Sustainably

In a whole-systems design, needs are met with resources in a closed loop.
illustration showing interconnection of all parts in closed loop system whole system design
In a whole systems design, each component links to the next, in a closed-loop system, meeting needs with resources. Artwork by KT Shepherd

Whole Systems Design, defined

In permaculture we use the terms “whole systems design,” and “whole system design” (no s) interchangeably, to describe the overarching approach we use to make sense of a project. It is what it sounds like it is: a design that includes your whole system. Your system, your garden’s system, your water supply’s system, your climate’s system, your economic and social systems, and so on. 

Permaculture is a design science, and in order to use if effectively, we have to become systems thinkers, and cultivate a designer’s mind. The purpose of today’s class is to open those doors for you.

Here’s a mini-lecture about it (please forgive my primitive animations!)

Whole Systems Design vs Permaculture: are they the same?

Close your eyes and imagine your own “whole system.” It’s easy to let it overwhelm you, to get lost in huge fantasies of what you will do…one day when you win the lottery and buy a huge farm. Don’t do that. Be here now, Sister bear! Part of what makes permaculture so special is that it provides us with a tangible framework around which to plan and implement whole systems designs in real life, on any scale.  ​

How do we do this, you ask?

he four parts of permaculture design 

Patterns, Principles, Process, Place

On your permaculture journey, you will encounter a multitude of complex ideas and expandable, exponentially powerful concepts. This can be a joyful ride, even when it’s overwhelming and confusing! However, if you’re anything like me, you enjoy a bit of structure now and then. 

A permaculture whole systems design can be simplified into four basic parts:


We use patterns in nature to guide us. We mimic them, we obey them, and we work with, rather than against them. We develop our multi-phase plans based on patterns in our lives, and we design our gardens based on patterns in our soil, climate, and water cycles. 


Observing and adhering to natural patterns is one of the core principles of permaculture, and there are several more, which we will learn about in the next few weeks. Whenever we are stuck on a decision, struggling with how to prioritise different aspects of a project, or dealing with interpersonal conflict, we rely on our principles to guide us. 


To provide a tangible structure to all of these visions and bold ideas, we need a specific, measurable, actionable result-driven, and timebound process. That’s where GOBRADIME comes in.  I use GOBRADIME in all of my work. 


We’re all connected to a place, and some of us are connected to several. No matter what your goals are, you still have to sleep, eat, get warm, make friends. In its most basic essense, every design comes back to place, and placement.​

what is permaculture pie chart by Heather Jo Flores

GOBRADIME Permaculture Design Process

I wrote about GOBRADIME in my book, Food Not Lawns, which you now can read for free!

Permaculture practitioners also use other processes besides GOBRADIME, such as Looby MacNamara’s design web. But since GOBRADIME is my jam, that’s what we will use in this course.

GOBRADIME Permaculture Design Process, explained
  • GOALS What is your specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timebound, ecological, and rewarding (S.M.A.R.T.E.R.) goal for this design? 
  • OBSERVATION Use all of your senses to learn as much as you can about the design problem/challenge. 
  • BOUNDARIES Choose, find, change, negotiate, and establish your boundaries, both visible and invisible 
  • RESOURCES Everything is a resource, and everything has a need. Tap into the waste stream and turn pollution into abundance. 
  • ANALYSIS Deep thought and careful consideration of the information accumulated thus far. Take your time but don’t get analysis paralysis!  
  • DESIGN Phase planning, overlays, patterns to details. Create a realistic, logical plan of action that considers all of the above information. 
  • IMPLEMENTATION Use a task-based process that moves the design from idea to reality, one step at a time. 
  • MANAGEMENT Monitoring, Maintenance, Messes, Mistakes. This is the place where you learn more and discover new problems to solve. 
  • EVALUATE & ENJOY Take a nap in the hammock, then get out there and share what you’ve learned. Then, do it all again! 


Ready to put these ideas into action?!?

Paradise Design Game

Step 1: Make a list of every component you think you might want to include in your whole systems design. Vegetable garden? Orchards? Food forest? Solar hot water? Wind power? Workshop? Animals? Whatever you want, make a list (or, use index cards if you want to spread out!)

Step 2: For each item on your list, note which of the other components this item could somehow connect to. Does your shower connect to your garden? How so? Does your kitchen connect to your chicken coop? Where? And so on.

Step 3: Then, play with drawing it out. Don’t worry about drawing maps to scale or getting all the details! Think of it more like a game, and make a drawing of your silly ultimate fantasy whole system design. 

More stuff to do

  • Learn about GOBRADIME and see if you can use it for a tiny design project like, say, reorganizing a project. Work through each of the steps and imagine how you could use the same process for your whole system design.​
  • Practice “systems thinking.” What does that mean to you? Write about it, talk about it, try to embody it as you move through your day.

Relevant Links and Resources​

Again, all we can do is scratch the surface of this topic for you…but hopefully you’re inspired to go deeper on your own. Here are some resources to get you started:

Don’t miss this great article about How to Think Like an Ecosystem.

Here’s a super-useful video from the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop, who also happen to make an excellent free app that you can use for all of your design artwork.

Whole Systems Design: Introduction to Life Cycle Thinking

Clarification and Review

​If you’re still unsure exactly what permaculture and whole system design are, and you haven’t taken advantage of the free guest pass to the PWG certification course, head over there now and check it out.

Even if you’ve already seen that content, take a moment this week to review it all. 

Things to keep in mind:​

  • Permaculture is, at its core, a design science, heavily focused on placement as a vector for environmental regeneration.
  • Permaculture, like any new skillset, cannot be learned in a day or a week, or even once a week for a couple of hours. You can learn a TON of amazing stuff that will have profound influence on your day to day quality of life, but if you really want to master the art of this powerful toolkit, you have to put in your 10,000 hours. 
  • Permaculture is not the one true path. It’s the vehicle, not the destination. 
if permaculture was a tree illustration by Heather Jo Flores

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