Techniques for permaculture practitioners…

Traversing the curve of ideas diffusion

According to Dr Robert Gillman — a one-time NASA astrophysicist turned sustainability educator and at the time publisher of In Context magazine — there is a process by which new ideas move from the creative fringe of society into the conservative core.

For those working for social change or to produce a new product or idea, the process Robert Gillman described provides a context and a timeline for their work.

Small groups have influence

Robert Gillman’s message is that small groups working to popularise a new idea or innovation can have a long term impact if they understand how ideas move into society and if they strategise to get their ideas to the take-off point.

The process is known as the diffusion of innovations theory. It is the invention of American communication theorist and sociologist, Everett Rogers, who gave us the term ‘early adopter’.

Ideas diffusion and the edge of chaos

Like a leaf caught in a whirlpool, useful ideas and innovations spin into society by flowing from the edge to the core, from fringe to mainstream.

Robert Gillman told those who attended his talks at the 1996 Adelaide permaculture convergence that the process can take as long as 15 to 20 years. Now, thanks to the speed at which information spreads through the internet, we see a much shorter lead time.

The edge is the creative zone, the place where innovation occurs and change starts…

The observation that great ideas start on an innovative fringe has some resonance with an idea postulated by scientists studying complexity. They allude to life existing in a zone they call ‘the edge of chaos’. Here the possibilities are greater, less confined, the options open. The edge occupies a narrow, dynamic zone between the disorganised chaos beyond and the overorganised, regulated area of confined possibility on its other side. The edge, then, is the creative zone, the place where innovation occurs and change starts.

The ideas diffusion model describes the way by which innovative ideas move from the social fringe where they are created, into the conservative core of society where they are adopted and put into broad use or commercialised.

The model was developed further in the Context Institute’s book, Making It Happen.

Virtually every major shift in cultural history can trace its origins to the work of a small group, often gathered around an innovative thinker or body of thought,” writes the authors.

If this is true then the impatience, which can be almost like an anxiety and frustration with whatever progress they are making, that so many social change agents have about influencing the mass of people is misplaced.

Traveling the road to adoption

Ideas are adopted by societies by flowing through several stages.

Ideas follow a path into societies that passes through successive phases:

  • ideas start with the inventor on the social fringe; initially, the inventor’s ideas are regarded as unorthodox; they may be ridiculed or at best disregarded by those inhabiting the conservative core of mainstream society
  • attracted to the ideas of the inventor, perhaps by their book or media attention, a small group of early adopters takes up the idea, technology or product; these are solutions-oriented people who further develop the inventor’s work, prototyping it to make it work better and who, perhaps, go on to offer courses and workshops in it; in modern technological parlance they produce a ‘minimal viable product’
  • after a period of development and popularisation by the early adopters, the new idea is taken up by early mass adopters; it has started its journey to social acceptability; the idea is gaining traction in mainstream society and the number of people adopting it is growing
  • sooner or later it seeps into the world of the greater number of later mass adopters, a larger group located in mainstream society; the idea, technology or product is now accepted; entrepreneurs will offer the product or service and a market will evolve to meet demand.

With the later mass adopters the idea moves further into the social mainstream where it becomes part of the intellectual or technological toolkit of society.

Mass adoption is not a homogenous state. There are those who resist the intrusion of new ideas and new practices.

These curmudgeons may feel threatened by the innovation or the new idea because, perhaps, their financial, political or social power may be at stake. Alternatively, they may simply be people resistant to new ideas because they have been caught out by them in the past, perhaps having been marginalised by social, technological or economic change.

Robert Gillman told his audiences not to waste their energy arguing with the opposition because it takes time, energy and resources that could be better used. He suggests bypassing curmudgeons in the way water flows around a rock in a stream, wearing it away over time and reducing its influence.

The intersection

There will come a time when the innovation reaches peak adoption. Further adoption and development slows. That may be due to the market for the idea or innovation becoming saturated or because it starts to become less relevant. Here, it comes to an intersection.

Along one road lies the path to decline, a road to the idea or innovation becoming less relevant to its social/environmental/economic/political environment and slowly falling into disuse, perhaps to be replaced by some new innovation or idea starting its rise.

Along the other road lies the path to reinvention. The idea or innovation is revised, reiterated and reformatted to better accord with its environment. It starts rising along a renewed curve of adoption. This phase may be the work of new leaders.

A couple examples

Let’s look at a couple examples of ideas that started on the social fringe and, thanks to the work of early adopters, drifted into society’s mainstream.

Herbal and traditional Chinese medicine and naturopathy started life as properties of the alternative movement of the 1970s. As the movement’s participants matured, many to become the social mainstream, and as early adopters set up businesses to supply the therapies, they were adopted by the social mainstream and today form a substantial industry around alternative therapies.

It’s the same journey from that fringe social milieu for what today are common foods like brown rice, muesli and soy compounds like tofu and tempeh. The organic food industry followed the same social road to acceptance and industrialisation.

The smartphone’s rise was rapid. It met the ‘evident social utility’ criteria of the Context Institute because it enabled people to do what they were already doing more effectively and it allowed them to do new things, all in one pocketable package. Tech writers say that the mobile phone may soon approach its time of peak adoption, the time when most who want one have one, the time of market saturation. That might be so in more developed countries but it does not take into account the potential for market growth in lesser developed countries where mobile phones have already proven to be of value in terms of livelihoods.

From its inventors in Tasmania, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the permaculture design system followed the innovator > early adopter > early mass adoption sequence. It is now in that early mass adoption phase of the ideas diffusion curve. Evidence for being in this phase comes from the growth in numbers of people doing permaculture courses, to it being offered in Australia through the nationally-recognised workplace training scheme, Accredited Permaculture Training, to the existence of books on permaculture and to numerous permaculture websites and social media. Permaculture is more widely known now although what people understand it is, is variable. It is not yet commonly known in society in general.

What should social entrepreneurs and early adopters do?

The ideas diffusion model tracks an idea from innovation to acceptance. Its critical time is the take-off point.

That is when the idea starts to move into the mainstream. This occurs, says Robert Gillman, when the idea is adopted by between 5 and 15 percent of the population. After that it may be unstoppable, building up a momentum through word of mouth, media coverage, adoption or commercialisation.

The take-off point deserves special attention. It is here that the innovation or idea has the potential to take off or fade away. This pre-take-off time is where the idea needs greatest nourishment and development, the time when the cost in time/energy/money of adopting the idea or invention is made to outweigh the costs of non-adoption.

The lessons of the diffusion of ideas model for sustainability educators, community organisations and social entrepreneurs includes:

  • nurture an idea to its take-off point; a high level of organisation, continuity, planning, persistence and capacity is needed; this is the time for exploration and prototyping to produce a minimal viable model, something which works although it will need improvement
  • the idea has to have some evident social utility to be adopted into the mainstream; the mobile phone had so much evident social utility its take-off and adoption was rapid
  • having innovative ideas is not enough by itself; they must be built and prototyped
  • it is possible to move in small steps; mass change does not have to come all at once; ensure a step is complete, working well and consolidated before moving on to the next step
  • the influence of the inventor is likely to lessen as the idea enters the early adaptor stage; new voices will emerge from the early adopters and some of the inventor’s ideas may require adaptation.

The Context Institute identified five characteristics of a successful innovation:

  1. Relative advantage — is the idea better than what exists and will people perceive it as better?
  2. Compatibility — how well does the innovation mesh with personal experience and needs?
  3. Complexity — the usability of the innovation; how comprehensible it is and how easy it is to use? (easier to use = swifter adoption)
  4. Trialability — can people to try it out before committing themselves
  5. Observability — are the results of its use easily seen?

Effective communication drives adoption

The process of testing, developing and demonstrating the innovation becomes the key to its adoption. The five characteristics provide the foci for education around the invention or idea and to further develop it.

Communication skills are crucial to the popularisation and adoption of a new idea. Publicly demonstrating the utility and the benefits of the innovation should be a major part of the communications process. The demonstration effect works when people witness the idea in operation and realise that it is not threatening and is of benefit to them.

Demonstrating the idea should be done so that it is publicly accessible and should be supported by messages and literature explaining the idea and its benefit. The publishing of information about the innovation and the results of trials provides information of value to early mass adopters.

Development and adoption is assisted when accompanied by an educational package around the innovation. This package focuses on the usefulness, relevance and desirability of the innovation rather than on refuting the arguments of those opposed to it. A compelling narrative about the desirabiity and benefits of adopting the idea is a good idea.

To popularise an innovation, the Context Institute says that personal adoption, promotion and influence are necessary.

Evolutionary, not revolutionary

Ideas diffusion following that bell curve of adoption leads ideas, practices, products and innovations from the innovative social fringe into the staid heart of mainstream society.

It is a path to acceptability and respectability. It is not a roadmap to change the political economy of the society it seeks to be accepted by. It wants acceptance, to be a viable part of mainstream society. Ideas diffusion is evolutionary but not revolutionary.

This is the direction deliberately taken by natural therapies, organic food and permaculture. The evidence lies in how they transformed from practices promising alternative approaches on the social fringe to industries within the dominant socio-economic system.

Some say that the process of moving from social fringe to social mainstream transforms society from within. This is the ‘quiet revolution’ hypothesis. Critics say modern capitalism adapts to the challenges of new and potentially disruptive ideas by co-opting and absorbing them into the economic mainstream. Society may be changed by those innovations in some ways, however they are not ways that threaten the existence of the dominant socio-economic system. As one social media commentator wrote, they can actually make the dominant political economy more efficient, such as do renewable energy systems. As a complex adaptive system, society and its institutions evolve to absorb most of the challenging ideas.

Where does this leave the notion of the permaculture design system as a quiet revolution? I think it was either Bill Mollison of Geoff Lawton who described permaculture as a ‘revolution disguised as gardening’. I think whoever it was is wrong. Permaculture might have revolutionary ways of doing things and might introduce better ways, but they are improved approaches within the dominant political economy. That is good, but it is not the social revolution some in permaculture envisaged.

The chrysalis

The prevalent although seldom-articulated model of permaculture’s journey along the diffusion of ideas path is that of the chrysalis. The chrysalis is the seed, the pupa, in which a moth or butterfly gestates to emerge into the world as a new creature. So, permaculture is the chrysalis containing the ideas that would be so compelling when they emerge from their early adopter phase. From there, they transfigure society from within by developing alternative equivalents to mainstream social institutions.

Perhaps it was its early links with the alternatives movement of the 1970s behind this idea. Then, people set up intentional communities in rural areas, developed natural therapies as alternatives to conventional medicine, adopted owner building and tried other alternative ideas. They didn’t attempt to overthrow or displace conventional systems by direct pressure, but to slowly replace them from within. The idea was that doing this would reconfigure the system.

Many in permaculture continue to hold this belief and many are not interested in replacing modern corporate capitalism, just changing its behaviour. Permaculture’s social makeup, after all, demonstrates the diversity it champions in all areas and this may be what blunts its potential for systemic change.

On its journey along the diffusion of ideas bell curve, permaculture competes with other rising ideas for public attention. Some of those ideas rose on the back of campaigns. Some declined when their demands were adopted or discarded. Some were fellow travellers which inadvertently fell into competition with permaculture, like the Transition Towns movement in Australia. The ideas of permaculture and Transition Towns were so similar and too-often attracted the same people that Transition Towns declined in population, though it retains a presence, and permaculture, thanks to its being the first estasblished, continues.

To transform permaculture, the fair food movement, Transition Towns and other popuar social movements from reformist to revolutionary would require an infusion of political understanding and action. That would be difficult thanks to the revulsion with which politics is held by many in those movements. The ideas have the opportunity of making changes for the better within the parameters of the dominant political economy.

On technique…

Traversing the curve of ideas diffusion

Time for a little Passion Mashin’

ORID — strategic questioning that gets you to a decision



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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.