Sustainability Patterns


 to the sustainability patterns


This pattern writing project began with the discovery of a small paperback book called Two Ears of Corn by Roland Bunch [1]. The title is from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels:

 Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.

 This little book, subtitled “A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement,” contains many of the same ideas that are documented as patterns in Fearless Change.[2] Two Ears is often used for courses in agriculture, for example: “The Diffusion and Adoption of Agricultural Innovations,” whose course description reads:

 Factors that influence rates of diffusion and adoption of innovations. Consequences of adopting or rejecting innovations. Processes by which change agents influence introduction and adoption of innovations.

 In the introduction to Two Ears, you will find the following:

 The introduction of innovations into Third World agriculture has met with everything from disaster to exhilarating success. Well bred animals have often died of disease and malnutrition. Home and school vegetable gardens have yielded disappointing results in many projects in India and nearly everywhere they have been tried in Latin America. Yet poor goat herders in a remote program area in the Bolivian Andes have walked for fourteen hours to buy animal vaccines, and Indian farmers involved in a program in Guatemala are producing, with their own native varieties, up to 3,200 kilos per hectare of dry beans, twice the average yield in the United States. Some innovations increase the production of thousands of farmers while others fail to be accepted by even a handful. If we are going to work with only a few innovations, how can we choose the ones that will find the widest acceptance? World Neighbors’ experience indicates that there are a number of widely applicable criteria that can guide us in choosing the appropriate technology for any particular area.

 This book and the ideas it contains point in a direction that will appeal to many in the patterns community, where we search for better ways. It has broad implications for how we introduce innovation anywhere. After reading this book and seeing ideas close to patterns we know well, we decided to begin documenting patterns for sustainable development, building on the ideas in Two Ears of Corn and studying how development organizations work successfully.

Sustainable Development Explained

 Sustainable development is a broad concept that deals with many issues such as climate change and clean energy; transportation; production and consumption; conservation and management of natural resources; public health; social inclusion, demography and migration; and global poverty.

The notion of sustainable development originated in environmental movements in earlier decades and was defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable development comprises a number of areas and highlights sustainability as the idea of environmental, economic and social progress and equity, all within the limits of the world’s natural resources. In other words, sustainable development is about offering a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come. It offers a vision of progress that integrates immediate and longer-term objectives, and regards social, economic and environmental issues as inseparable and interdependent components of human progress.

Sustainable development should not be confused with aid or relief. Aid is important in areas of extreme poverty or where a disaster has occurred. Aid brings immediate assistance and allows for short-term survival of the recipients. Sometimes this is enough to help people get back on their feet and return to normal, but typically the goal of aid is not to provide a long-term solution.

 The overarching goal of sustainable development is to encourage recipients to make significant change to better their lives. A consequence of being sustainable is that the circumstances of the recipients are permanently altered. Permanent change is cultural change. However, this cultural change is not meant to clone the culture of the development organization. Recipients should be encouraged to evolve their culture in a direction of their own choosing.

 The Patterns: Goals

 The focus of the patterns in this paper is sustainable development in impoverished areas.  In these places, aid is often supplied but long-term change is more appropriate. It is easy to read some patterns, for example Empowered Women, as an attempt to change a culture because it is “the right thing to do,” since we tend to think that we can make things better by cloning our values and imposing our ideas of morality. This would be a misinterpretation of the intent of these patterns, which is simply to document what works.

 The target user of these patterns is an organization that provides development assistance for communities in need. We often think of these communities as being part of the “third world,” but they could easily be found anywhere, including in what are called “developed countries”.

 Two terms that are used throughout this paper—program and project—refer to the strategy and tactics an organization might use in development. Program refers to a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside the scope of the projects in the program. A project is a temporary effort to create a result.


Another term often used in the development literature is “technology.” This does not necessarily mean a high-tech solution; it simply refers to any set of tools used to solve a problem.


The Patterns: Format and Relationships

 The patterns in this beginning of a pattern language follow the same variation of Alexander’s format used in Fearless Change with the addition of a photo.

 Each pattern includes:

 Pattern Name in bold
Opening Story in italics, usually a description of the photo, to convey the essence of the pattern
Abstract in bold
Problem statement in bold
Description of the Problem and Forces
“Therefore” in italics
Essence of the Solution in bold
Elaboration of the Solution followed by “= = = = = = = = = = =”
Resulting Context
At least three Known Uses in italics

Names of patterns are in a different font, for example, Early Wins. 

[1] Bunch, Roland, Two Ears of Corn: a guide to people-centered agricultural improvment, World Neighbors, 1982
[2] Manns, Mary Lynn and Rising, Linda, Fearless Change: patterns for introducing new ideas, Pearson Education, Inc. 2005.

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