Trend of the Day: Permaneering

= an approach to selecting, salvaging, reusing and modifying tools that’s based within ecological design criteria


Paul Mobbs:

“‘Permaneering’, or “Persistent Materials and Engineering”, is a developing concept within the Salvage Server Project’s approach to engineering, electronics and system design. Put simply, it’s an approach to selecting, salavaging, reusing and modifying tools that’s based within ecological design criteria. It’s a new way of looking at the value (or systemic weakness or problematic performance) of the manufactured tools and devices that surround our everyday lives; not just ‘sustainability’ or ‘zero waste’, but truly ecological designs that seek to integrate future trends and the demands of society within the design, development and use of technical systems. At it’s simplest permaneering could be described as permaculture for hardware, but in reality it’s a far more complex issue that seeks to relate resource depletion with our need for tools and devices to support our everyday needs.”


Paul Mobbs:

“It’s possible to write a whole book on this issue so we’ll just summarise the main points from our initial deliberations. Note also that the use of the word “system” is abstract – it could mean a simple mechanical linkage or the entire human system. These points are in no specific order, and rather than a hierarchy should be viewed as a holistic approach to how we construct human technological/techno-cultural systems:

Simplicity – not so much as the opposite principle to complexity, but rather the characteristic of a simplicity of operation and design so that the system’s performance and interaction with other related system elements can be easily understood;

Transparency – not just in terms of the operation of the system being readily understood, but also ensuring that the elements of the system are not encumbered by restrictions over copyright, patent, or other black box design features that might hinder our understanding and maintenance/modification of the system;

Integration – through its design a system should function transparently with the other systems that it must interact with to support their operation;

Modularity – rather than relying on a single, monolithic structure, a system should be composed of a collection of small modules that perform a simple task very efficiently;

Redundancy – the system, or parts of it, should be designed so that it can be backed-up by other redundant parts, or have its parts/modules easily replaced by cannibalising less important parts of the same or other systems to keep it functioning;

Diversity – related to modularity and redundancy, if all the functions of a system were designed the same a single design fault would affect the whole system, so instead we should seek a variety of approaches to the same problem/function to avoid the likelihood of systemic design flaws creating more widespread problems (which is why open standards are such an important element in system design, ensuring that diverse designs can reproduce the same, compatible functions);

Durability – the complementary principle to redundancy, each individual part should be made to last for its maximum possible operational lifetime so that, if necessary, it can be reused again and again in different applications;

Serviceability/adaptability – as far as possible all systems and their components should be serviceable and replaceable to avoid the entire system having to be discarded, and this potential should include the ability for users to adapt or extend the functions of a system;

Autonomy – we should, as far as possible make, systems operate in a stand-alone way as creating interlinked chains of control and interoperability creates a greater likelihood of a cascade of failures causing disruption to the whole system;

Scalability – by extending the principles of modularity and redundancy we create systems that are scalable, being able to increase their capacity by adding additional components rather than engineering whole new systems to replace them; and

Iteration – these principles could be applied to a single component, but by enlarging the scope of the components/sub-systems that they encompass they should be applied from “top to bottom” within the system in order to apply the philosophy of this approach across the entire system, so creating a systemic level of compatibly from “end to end”.” (



Paul Mobbs:

“A large part of what the FRAW web site concentrates upon is the “crisis of human ecology” – the idea that the human system is reaching the limits of the environment that it inhabits and that this portends a significant change in how society will/must operate in the future. This future is non-negotiable because, quite simply, there’s not enough “stuff” to carry on living as we are today. However, that’s not a strictly accurate description of our situation – the paradox of our situation is far more complex than it seems. We are not short of resources – quite the opposite in fact; we are surrounded by them. For example, three-quarters of the copper ever mined in human history is still in use.

NASA ‘UK at night’ image As an example, take a walk out into the countryside, outside of the “developed” urban areas: What you see wherever you look – apart from the pretty fields, trees and wildlife – is, from the fields and farms to the small settlements connected by power lines and of many con-trails in the sky above, the vast panoply of the human system – even more so at night when the lights stretch to the horizon, fed by the arteries of the floodlit road network. A mass system of energised activity, developed to serve the needs of the human population but, within the positive feedback loop of advanced economic development, which is now consuming beyond the capacity of our environment to support it. The difficulty is that these various resources are already employed for other purposes. For example, large areas of the countryside contain tonnes of copper – in the form of power lines stretching across the landscape – but if you were to utilise that material for another purpose then the people in the villages would be none to happy about their power supply being cut off!

This might seem a rather pointless argument, but it demonstrates the flaw in the present debate about eco-efficiency. Recycling more material is a good thing, but it doesn’t escape from the fact that the economy requires a growing mass of energy and resources in order to keep economic growth functioning. In fact, far from reducing consumption, every revolutionary change in technology towards more efficient systems has driven the economy to consume more – meaning that the net effect is not to save the material/energy anticipated, or even to accelerate demand. Any process which seeks to deal with the problems of the present economic system in isolation from the purposes of that system is doomed to failure – the rebound/take-back of energy and resources as a result of increasing the efficiency of technology being the ideal example. What we must create, to summarise my thoughts rather cumbersomely, is economically inefficient thermodynamic efficiency; actions that use less resources but don’t create a boost to the economy in order to enlarge consumption in general. The difficulty for the promoters of greater efficiency is that the traditional sweeteners for change (such as jobs and wealth) would not materialise with this approach – unlike traditional efficiency measures it would not stimulate growth.

There is however a more important “economic self-interest” driver to encourage such a change in approach. The economic inefficiencies created by climate change and resource depletion will inevitably achieve the same economic inefficiencies within the economy as a whole, but far more chaotically for our society. In the face of resource shortages merely shifting towards renewable energy, leaving aside the practical limitations on its use, is not a solution. The idea of simply shifting energy supply to other sources does not address the purposes of why we use energy, and therefore the issue of the energy equilibrium and the role of entropy (or rather, overcoming entropy) within the high-tech systems which we are told will “save the planet”. Consequently “planned economic inefficiency” is really the only way of re-balancing demand and supply in ways that we have a far greater chance of managing the outcomes. The only problem is getting “the powers that be” to realise that this is the case whilst we still have the ability to do something about the problem.

Radical Graphics: ‘Consume!’ Today there are a plethora of schemes and plans for how we will either reduce carbon, increase renewable energy sources, reduce fossil fuel use, or shift to a low carbon economy. In contrast there are no UK-based, mainstream plans that deal directly with the de-materialisation of the consumer lifestyle against a background of a diminishing resource base. If our present consumer lifestyle is unsustainable because of its demand for natural resources, then no amount of bolt-on eco-efficiency and renewable energy will make it sustainable; making systems more eco-efficient might make “the party” last a little longer, but it doesn’t avoid the eventual outcome of depletion. In the short term we have the economic rebound problems to deal with too, although this will reduce as depletion takes hold in the middle of this century; and adding renewable energy doesn’t make a difference either because, even if we could get all the low carbon energy we wanted from natural sources, we’re still going to run out of other essential “stuff” at some point in the future.

To solve the lifestyle problem we have to shift from linear to cyclical forms of consumption – not just recycling, but rather systems which are designed to maximise the lifetime of each component using the least energy and resources possible. We must also shift from a system of parallel, linear consumption systems towards integrating different systems in order to get, in the language of economics, economies of scale in the way we do things. For example, why have a TV, games console, video player and stereo system when a programmable multi-function device (such as a computer) can perform all these functions in one machine, often using less energy and resources as a result.

More importantly, we have to improve the resilience and reliability of our consumption systems, especially the most important ones such as food production, winter heating and hot water. For example, large energy grids represent a single point of failure, and, as the supply of dense energy sources (especially gas) diminishes, the operation of these bulk consumption systems will become less reliable; in contrast smaller independent, distributed or personal supply systems based upon localised sources are able to operate irrespective of the conditions around them, creating greater resilience. This is all sounds very complex, and it is, but there is a very simple way of approaching these difficulties – design, or rather, a design philosophy that internalises biophysical and ecological principles.

Natural ecological systems are stable because they require few external inputs – usually just sunshine – in order to function. Entropy – the tendency for matter to be dispersed and energy degraded – is minimised in these systems because all that the life processes need in order to keep the equilibrium stable against entropy is the input of environmental energy flowing through the system; with the renewable flow of energy to counteract entropy, everything is reclaimed and reused through an interlocking series of life-based systems, from birds and bees through to fungi and bacteria – and with often more than one species performing the same function interchangeably to cycle energy and nutrients through the system. As a result of these factors, over time evolution tends to work within rather than detracting from the ecological equilibrium of the environment. Providing that there are not external factors to destabilise this ecological balance – such as climate change, volcanic eruptions or blinkered economists – the evolution of species within a balanced ecosystem will be constrained by the available energy and nutrients flowing through the system.

Nature often provides the best design template for us to emulate, but also the starkest critique of why, as we have moved away from our close associations with natural systems, human-designed systems are nowhere near as efficient as biological ones. A characteristic of many natural systems is that they are metastable. Ecosystems use the environmental energy sources (heat, sunlight, water, etc.) that flow through them to maintain an equilibrium which favours the diversity of species that it contains – and this self-reinforcing equilibrium is maintained by the diversity of species unless the principles on which it is based radically change.

The difficulty is that such an approach, given the need to operate without centralisation and with minimal turnover of resources, wouldn’t be conducive to the continuance of the centralising tendencies of economic efficiency. Thinking more broadly about the potential conflicts with present-day sensibilities, not only is this approach contrary to the wasteful, planned/perceived obsolescence-led systems of our throwaway society, but, unlike most natural systems which exhibit a limiting balance on populations, the human system today operates on the principle of exponential material growth. Ultimately this is the fundamental difference between metastable, natural ecosystems and the human ecological system: Natural ecosystems tend to be stable because they are fixed by the energy flowing through them, and so changes are limited by the succession of species within the same domain rather than the physical growth of resource flow through the ecosystem; for the human ecosystem, and clearly so in the model followed for the last few centuries, growth is the characteristic that dominates change and so rather than ecological succession we see the wholesale take-over of other ecosystems/resources, through human adaptation of the environment, in order to fuel human growth.

Even so, we see viable examples of the development of diverse, decentralised systems already under development – from creation of free and open source software (FOSS) and computer operating systems, to the use of permaculture design to plan ecologically balanced food production systems. Of these two examples it is permaculture that perhaps best represents the approach we will need to take in the future. In many ways the principles of permaculture (see the second box below) emulate aspects of the metastable nature of natural ecosystems. However, in designing “hard engineering” systems – such as those for energy supply or utilising non-renewable resources (such as the production of metal goods) – the principles that mirror largely biological systems are not directly applicable to the abiotic, mechanistic assemblage of parts that make up human-created systems.

Despite this, modern engineering still has much to learn from natural structures in order to radically improve both design and efficiency, and we think that permaculture principles, with a tweak, do apply to engineering. We could design engineered systems which, in their structure and the way they operate, replicate elements of the stability, diversity and resilience that we see in nature. If we’re looking for a label, then what about Persistent Materials and Engineering? – or just “permaneering” for short! (see the “permaneering design principles” box below). So, anyone up for a little permaneering, perhaps?

In the past technolgy was an essential and evolving part of human culture that was rooted in practical realities not abstract design concepts. For example, old buildings were developed gradually; very little was thrown away, what worked well was kept, and new developments were often extensions to or layers applied over the old (in that sense, the old human “culture of technology” operated as an extensible system). Rather like natural organisms, human technology evolved from what went before. What’s happened in the Twentieth Century is that we’ve made culture, and hence the built environment, disposable – they can no longer “learn” (see especially part 3 of the series, Built for Change – embedded in the page here on the right) through a more organic form of evolutionary development because they are continually being “junked”. Given that buildings and our large infrastructure systems represent our largest investment of resources, is it any wonder that we’ve got problems with resource depletion?

In the consumer society “design” is something that is a surface feature, usually associated with fashion or as a means to distinguish similar products. What we mean by “design” is the deliberate engineering of whole systems, in depth, and according to principles that create, as far as possible, a metastable system; that is, a system that is able to function independently and perform its functions reliably, as far as is practicable, with renewable of energy and resource inputs. We have certain identifiable problems that we must contend with in the future – such energy depletion, climate change, food shortages, etc. By designing metastable systems that internalise such restrictions we can develop solutions that not only are able to meet certain criteria, such as reducing carbon emissions, but which are in a sense “future proof” because they should keep operating within the boundaries that we define in the design – for example, the temperature, weather conditions or resource availability that we expect will be common in 100 years time.

If we look at old buildings or other ancient human artefacts we can see metastability principles at work – they are very simply designed, with a minimum number of standardised components, and with very simple criteria for how they should perform (e.g., a door, chimney, wall, etc.). For example, what we call vernacular architecture is really a design solution that is specific to the ecological conditions that exist in a given locality. It favours the types of wood, stone and other materials that are common to that area, the design and use of which has evolved culturally through many centuries of practical human innovation as people selected those ideas that worked well and discarded those that didn’t.

If we consider other human artefacts we can see this same idea at work. Just think about the average cup; for thousands of years people have made round, hand-sized cups for every day use. Recently we might see funny shapes and sizes, but for most people a “cup” is a simple receptacle, the curve of its opening matching the profile of our lower mandible to allow a clean transfer of liquid into our mouth. In terms of human society, the cup represents a culturally-originated metastable design – try as we might we just can’t improve upon its basic function, shape and proportions.

Today we don’t see this approach in the mainstream of manufacturing and technological development. Rather than learning as we go by trial and error and embedding those solutions in culture, just as evolution accomplishes within the natural environment in order to find the best solutions, today our needs are “designed” to meet new and abstract criteria. The short service life, as a result of the need to differentiate alternating fashions, means that we junk entire systems/products and start again on a regular basis. Even more bizarrely, as noted in the ‘Transparency’ section of the Permaneering Principles, modern intellectual property law, especially patent and design rights, effectively prevent incremental development by legally barring the re-design of existing systems in order to protect the economic power of one group of creative people over another. The imperative for growth and consumption also means that the market usually adopts the option that creates the greatest level of material turnover because, in the global market, making small margins on a large turnover creates the greatest returns.

For example, today it is common practice to demolish entire buildings and clear a site for reconstruction, but 200 years ago the pre-existing structures would have been largely retained and adapted to perform new purposes; and whereas only thirty years ago machines such as cars would have gone to a breakers yard to allow the recovery of spare parts, today the whole car is thrown into a crusher or fragmentiser before being taken to the metals reclamation furnace. This trend evolved because today’s cars not designed to be serviced by their owners, which as a result has enabled manufacturers to sell more new, rather than recycling used, car parts, so increasing the car producer’s turnover.

It might represent a seemingly large leap, from the operation of self-interest within free market toward a more ecological planning of human systems, but there is an example of this happening in the past. One of the great engineering innovations within the Industrial Revolution wasn’t technical, it was cultural – rather like the general adoption of permaneering would ultimately be. Up until the middle of the Nineteenth Century engineering systems were designed in a piecemeal way, each company producing it’s own proprietary and largely incompatible designs, parts and tools. Then in the 1840s, Joseph Whitworth created the revolutionary concept of engineering standardisation. By making the most basic parts of engineering systems – the screws, bolts and rods used to build the machine – a standard size, the process of both building and maintaining machines became far simpler.

From this beginning was developed the concept of open standards, and this approach has been one of the reasons why, in the latter half of the Industrial Revolution, technology was able to develop so rapidly and cheaply. Even in recent times we see the same process taking place – for example, the adoption of open standards was the most critical aspect of the success of the IBM-compatible personal computer, and the modern microcomputer industry that it spawned.

More recently though, with the post-War emphasis on the maximisation of intellectual capital within businesses through the use of various types of intellectual property rights, we’ve seen a return back to the old, pre-Whitworth systems of proprietary controls over manufactured goods – and as a result, a growing level of incompatibility. Machines, especially consumer electronics and household goods, are becoming less compatible and as a result they are often junked rather than repaired or reused. We also see incompatible standards arising for similar functions in order to create market advantages for their producers, for example the rise of incompatible standards for normal and high definition DVDs and copy-protected CDs. In fact, under certain types of intellectual property, the adaptation of reuse of technological devices can be ruled illegal and result in civil or criminal penalties. Whilst this might be excellent in terms of the economic efficiencies it creates, it is a dire state of affairs in terms of thermodynamic efficiency.

This brings us back to energy…

The manner in which we conceive, design, produce and then maintain the energy and resource systems that support our future society is as important as where the raw energy or materials they convey are sourced. This is because, as global energy production diminishes, it will become harder to produce and maintain engineered systems at a high level of reliability and serviceability. For example, if we develop renewable energy systems based upon the expectations of today’s energy market what residual value will that equipment have in twenty or fifty years time, after the peak if oil and gas production? Too many schemes for our future well-being assume that existing concepts and standards will still apply in the future. In a sense this just represents the systematic enactment of J.K. Galbraith’s observations on the nature of conventional wisdom, and as Galbraith states, such hubris is easily and inevitably overcome by changing circumstances. The difficulty is that, when looking at energy systems, invalidating the principles upon which the system was conceived could also waste the energy, materials and money that was put into their original construction.

Today, in the fully globalised world economy, the most affluent nations require a complex array of trading links to supply their needs. More significantly, states such as Britain import a large proportion of their food because their agricultural systems have specialised in producing large quantities of a few food commodities in order to extract a higher economic return from agriculture. Underpinning these trends has been the development of telecommunications, information technology, and the use of electronics and machine tool systems to produce and maintain these systems. In turn these systems are reliant upon a range of elements that have only become significant in their application since the Second World War – and all are comparatively rarer than those we relied upon before. Each increase in technological sophistication in turn generates the emergence of new and increasingly complex patterns of activity in society. The difficulty is that each increase in complexity also brings with it the potential for increasing instability due to the over-dependence upon disparate resources, and the need to co-ordinate the production and transport of these resources over longer distances.

Over the last two decades a new field of research has sprung up within human anthropology that examines the physical basis of how societies operate, and how technology and new forms of organisation can contribute to the success or failure of more advanced societies. Research studies by Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond and Thomas Homer-Dixon have highlighted the importance of complexity in determining the sustainability of a society. By putting increasing reliance upon scarce and rare resources and a dependency upon continuous growth – the opposite trend taken by nature over the course of evolution – our technological society is creating an increasingly precarious system (see especially the section of the James Burke’s series ‘Connections’, espisode 1, ‘The Trigger Effect’, on systemic failure – embedded in the page on the right) that is prone to unpredictable and potentially catastrophic failure.

To avoid making the same mistakes as past societies we need to do what the human species are uniquely able to do – think abstractly. That doesn’t just mean creating strategies to decide where our energy comes from in the future. Implicit in this process must be the consideration of the design principles we apply in their creation to ensure that, come what may, the value (both financial, energy and material) that we invest in them today creates the greatest benefit to future generations – who will have to use, maintain, but ultimately reconfigure and adapt those technologies to suit their needs with perhaps far less energy and resources than are available to us today.” (


Permaculture and Permaculture Principles

Paul Mobbs:

“Permaculture is probably the nearest thing we have to an adaptable design system based upon biophysical concepts. Developed in Australia in the 1970s, permaculture is an approach that seeks to design human systems (often food production, but also wider lifestyle solutions) that fit harmoniously within a functioning ecosystem, and which thus require far lower inputs of both time and energy/natural resources to produce a high-yielding and self-sustaining system. The themes of permaculture were stated as 12 principles by its co-creator, David Holmgren, in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:

1. Observe and interact – By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

2. Catch and store energy – By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

3. Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure systems can continue to function well.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services – Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.

6. Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

7. Design from patterns to details – By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

8. Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

9. Use small and slow solutions – Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

10. Use and value diversity – Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

11. Use edges and value the marginal – The interface between things is where interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

12. Creatively use and respond to change – We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.”

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