by Gaia U Core Team Member and MSc Candidate, Jennifer English Morgan

Originally published in Permaculture Design Magazine issue #105 in August 2017.

“Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.” ~ Robert L. Peters

The future is balancing on precarious tipping points. An acceleration of planetary chaos has many of us waking up to our sense of accountability and desire to live more intentionally and purposefully. I wish to harness this momentum and support the refinement of pathways for people to engage in life with increased authenticity and agency.

The process of Emergent Design achieves this by emphasizing conscious engagement, and the exploration and refinement of self. Consciousness activates an alert observer of our experience and engagement illuminates the focus of our participation. Design choices are explicit interactions with the world around us. At the core of design is an intervention within a specific system, with the intent of manifesting or tracking a particular outcome, by using and monitoring an appropriate process unique to the situation.

The word emergent means that we are tapping into the present moment and witnessing the unexpected arise into view. The phrases emergent and emergency have the act of attention in common, as both require authentic presence and responsiveness at the moment. Emergency has to do with a sense of reacting to a crisis. Emergent has to do with responding to what is arising before you. However, because we are often in a state of societal strain, with fear, anger, and attachment as common frequencies, we have an increased tendency to behave in a reactionary state activating our adrenal response, even in non-emergency situations.  The attention and ability to respond with agility and dynamic adaptability are necessary to access or alleviate what is emerging. Responsiveness is essential in the context of our current work as designers because we can use design to create order in the midst of chaos, and ultimately reshape the direction of our evolution. Join me as I explore how we can become self-empowered, conscious co-evolutionaries through Emergent Design.

Stepping into Engaged Action

During the 2016 election cycle in the USA, I experienced an upheaval of my emotional stability, as an onslaught of anger, elation, and fear arose near the November election. Shifting to see what was behind the emotions, I recognized the presence of collective consciousness. The feelings were not mine to hold. Detaching left me with an invigorated sense of purpose to become more politically engaged and integrated into a unified front with my community. However, I soon after started questioning my ability and right to take action. Who was I to judge what was good or bad, when I know the concept has a link to ego? In a society that is so focused on power over resources, people, and the pursuit of control, I started questioning my motivation for stepping into my potential as a designer. It felt like I was tripping over my own choices around taking strategic political action. I set out on a journey to find my will and purpose for action, and here is my story.

We are designers of life. It’s in our nature as humans. In one of my earliest designs, I built a forest fort as a young child in the woods of Pennsylvania. I began working as a professional designer about 15 years ago, and am now one of the design instructors at Gaia University. With a lifetime of experience in the field, I took this inquiry as a design challenge. I began tracking this weariness and confusion around my ability to step into direct action. I used Emergent Design as a lens and container to follow these observations and succeeded in applying the process and principles to find my peaceful center and a clear focus on taking political action.

The rest of this article is on my discoveries of stepping into my power as an Emergent Designer. I believe that we can as individuals and as a collective force alter this evolutionary momentum. Specifically, in the case of this inquiry into action, by reshaping the direction of our evolution both as resistance to and as a solution for the chaos arising from the global turbulence of neoliberal capitalism, neo-fascism and climate change.


Understanding Motivation

I’ve been paying a lot of attention to my thoughts and actions.  I notice times when I feel peaceful and other instances when tension arises. The key to Emergent Design is conscious engagement. Unconscious decision making doesn’t equal active design. We are often unaware of the complex mental functions happening, and I’m not just talking about our biological processes. I’m referring to those times when we make decisions that are out of alignment with our authentic self. It’s important to look at how and why we make decisions and the driving force of motivation shaping our behavior.

There are internal and external motivating factors. Our genes, health, sensory preferences, history of experiences, knowledge, and our sense of purpose in the world, influence our internal motivation. External motivation includes inspiration, fear, and incentive driven factors, which can be generated or manipulated by our families, communities, and culture. Combined, these shape our beliefs.

These attitudes are a collection of feelings and values based on our lifetime of experiences and education, which includes enculturated worldviews passed implicitly and explicitly as societal values.  A good deal of our conditioned responses does not serve our authentic self-interests, the interests of our communities or, indeed, the planet. Many of our habitual behaviors and attitudes happen out of the illusion, repetition, addiction, re-stimulation, and expectations.

The more we derive our decision making from conscious personal motivation, the more we can develop an awareness of and a drive for self-actualization. Through this self-fulfillment, we can maximize our potential as human beings. To do this though we must unlearn counterproductive attitudes that developed through negative conditioning. Engaging consciously through goal setting, and applied transformational thinking and action creates a broader awareness and confidence in one’s abilities while dissolving barriers and unhealthy patterns.


Natural Patterns

A supportive and holistic replacement pattern of engagement that exists at the foundation of life is the breath pattern, a process with three phases – divergent, emergent and convergent in four actions <in – transition – out – transition>. They are different and complementary ways of thinking and working, and link to the three stages of breathing: in (lungs expanding), transition or holding (emergence), out (lungs contracting). The breath is at the heart of Emergent Design. The following chart shows this breath pattern. Expansion/divergence is when we open up as designers by surveying ideas and creating possibilities. Contraction/convergence is when we make decisions through analysis and sharpen our focus. Emergence is the balancing place in between. Inside this central phase, you will discover a choice to transition or hold incoming energy. Ultimately everything is received and released. Our ability to skillfully navigate the center is the apex of Emergent Design.

Laura Kaestele generated the above chart, adapted from Sam Kaner’s book “The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making.”

Building on this concept, there are two common patterns in how people engage in the world at the apex of decision making. One emphasizes too much and the other too little. I’m a student of Ayurveda, which is the life and medical science in India. In Ayurveda, this concept has to do with the flow and utilization of energy. Ayurveda recognizes rajasic energy (excessive) and tamasic energy (deficient). Neutralized harmonious energy is called sattva.

In the 25 years working in the community, business, non-profit and higher education sectors, I have observed two common design approaches that mirror this pattern. Andrew Langford, co-founder of Gaia U has identified them as predict and control and using no system at all.

Emergent Design is a balance between these two design patterns. In Ayurveda, I’d refer to Emergent Design as having sattvic attributes, which bring about a state of peaceful harmony and refines the art of balancing form and flow. This pattern reminds me of the characteristics of the Dragon and Phoenix.

I started thinking about the symbolism as I considered how our society seems to be shifting towards chaos while stuck in an egotistical state of controlling and grasping for power.

The Dragon and the Phoenix are considered yin and yang in Chinese Feng Shui. In my exploration, I’ve come to understand that the Dragon represents focus and form

and Phoenix represents the emergent flow. This symbolism is synonymous with contraction and expansion in our more familiar design language. All of these descriptive attributes have the flow of life energy in common. The pairing of Dragon and Phoenix is a powerful sign of energetic, good fortune in life, reflected in the ancient Chinese expression, “When the dragon soars and the phoenix dances, the people will enjoy happiness for years, bringing peace and tranquility to all.” (author unknown)

Be the phoenix awakening in the fire of change. Don’t trip over the ashes of transition and the center will emerge. Be the dragon in the infinite sky. Focus and refine your power in the present to illuminate the path of creative change.

The Dragon and Phoenix represent the clearing of and focusing on the mind at the same moment. The Phoenix is clearing. It empties and frees the mind of attachments. In comes energy and life emerges. It is also the birth of the individual: I am. The Dragon is the focus of setting the intention and direction of awareness in the present moment and then tracking the course and illuminating attention. It is also the vastness of space: we are one. Ultimately this metaphor represents energy being received and released. What we do with that power determines our experience and evolution. In enters in opportunity – our will. The White Tiger.

The symbolism of the white tiger represents our pursuit of personal truth and the power of conviction. Inner strength allows the tiger to stand by values, even if they are not the popular opinion, to advocate or champion political or philosophical freedoms from a place of non-judgment. A contrary judgment does not align. To step into the energy and attributes of the White Tiger one needs to acknowledge and accept the shadows and the light.
With Power and Strength, you glide through the night,
silent as the mist that evaporates with
the first rays of morning light
Eyes, glowing with a blue fire that reflects both water and sky,
you stare deeply into the Soul, leaving nothing unknown,
for all is revealed before your penetrating gaze
Keenest of all is the gaze you turn Inward,
searching the depths of your restless spirit
in a quest to know your Self
The Hunt for Personal Truth is called
. . . and swiftly answered
When the Truth is revealed, torn free from the grasp of the past,
any fear felt is faced with stealthy observation
and unrelenting determination,
for fear now is the prey.
~ Poem by Crystal Wind

Finding the White Tiger and balancing the energies of the Dragon and the Phoenix requires an exploration of the edges and transitions between their dance and flight. The White Tiger arises after much inward reflection. The following illustration represents my experimentation with this edge pushing.

I’ve expanded on the idea of Micelle and Joel Levey’s <> learning zone model to incorporate the energies of too much and too little. In the center, there’s a space of sanctuary, peace, and comfort. The terrain is well known, and we hone the skills needed to thrive.

Out from the center exists an area of learning, where expansion and contraction occur. In this space, we step outside of our comfort to gain a new skill, solve a problem, face a challenge, and critique or expand our thinking. As we engage in life, we often move from this central place of order out into difficulties, complications and in some instances pure chaos. Problems can merely be areas of skill that are unfamiliar to us, or they can be complexities in society. Someone who doesn’t know how to cook, who is preparing dinner for twenty people will be moving out of their comfort zone. How they handle the situation will determine if the experience becomes a learning or stress. The more time they spend in the learning zone, refining the process of learning, the more likely the person will incorporate the lesson. Returning to the center of comfort is restorative and necessary. The center is a place to integrate and embody learnings into wisdom and intuition.

Through learning, we extend our skills and ability to be comfortable amidst challenges. By living on the edge of our comfort, our learning zone can expand within complexity, and enable us to better respond to emergent behavior. If we stay only inside our comfort, we can get stuck in unresponsiveness, and if we wait too long in chaos without learning comfort, we can burn out from over responsiveness. The goal is to stay on the edge of aliveness and in the present moment, by anchoring into the center, into the now.

Practice and experimenting with edge exploration, both refine our ability to perform successfully. The more we skill up as designers, the more we can reprogram our response patterns and be useful in co-creating the world we live within. We can reshape and redefine our designs and even reprogram our brain’s neurocircuitry from practice and repetition, helping us choose the best and quickest responses. Rapid cognition streamlines brain function, and this can happen through practice.

Intuition derives from experiences. Our gut reaction, or that part of our brain that makes automatic decisions, is part of intuition. This thought led me to consider The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Naturalistic decision making or recognition based decision making help us understand how people make choices in demanding real-world situations. In war, we have no time for logic. We need a situational response. Our brain functions in if/then statements. Compacted information is a pattern in life, such as DNA, which is a template of codes. This model is essential when considering reprogramming our brain’s ability to function in chaos.

We need analysis to understand and respond to systemic problems, and to deconstruct our internalized oppression by reprogramming our situational response patterns. We also need intuitive presence, because ultimately that is where our brain is thriving in the moment, and responding to emergence. Understanding this increases our capacity to refine the art of balancing form and flow.

We need this dynamic to receive or release what is emerging, similarly to Aikido. The word Aikido means “the way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the way of harmonious spirit.” We move with the emergent energy towards an optimal evolution. An emergent designer witnesses and interacts with the unexpected, while creatively moving towards and along a pathway of self-actualization and the manifestation of intentions.


Emergent Design Principles

Gaia U. Masters Associate Laura Kaestel and I have been experimenting with applying Emergent Design since 2015. Through our collaboration, we have observed a growing list of twelve principles that guide the process of balancing form and flow and can be used by a designer. The undercurrent of these principles is related to cultivating a harmonious mindspace for making decisions and design interventions. Points of intervention are specific places in a system or mindscape where a targeted action can efficiently interrupt the functioning and open the way to change. The principles are patterns of engagement with holistic properties in consideration of process. It is essential to accept the concept of emergence during the use of these principles, finding value and opportunity in what arises, and feeding that back into the process, rather than attaching to the path or an outcome.

Observing Frequency and Patterns

Life is like a song; it has crescendos, flows, and stops. Our bodies and minds are a fine instrument. There are different frequencies for different types of experiences, and we can train ourselves to recognize those transitions between frequencies. There’s a moment when everything is ripe. Sometimes we pick things too soon or too late. Recognize patterns in what is driving our motivation. An example is to notice the voices of “I’m great, and I’m not good enough.” Practice focusing the mind, surrendering the mind, and facing some of the shadows of our motivation. Fine tune yourself with patience.

Cultivating Pathways and Embodying Knowledge

The true voices of reason are intuition and wisdom. Pay attention and set an anchor to the quality of these voices and how they arise. Utilize the anchor and signs to help find your way through life. Set observing and interacting from a heartfelt center as the default brain state setting. If you lose your aim or the path, this is a useful place to rest your mind. Cultivate a healthy confidence. Practice and learn. Become the embodiment of your skill. Follow your intuition and trust the unfolding of the journey, your aim, and focus. Continue to hone your craft and power as it is ever changing.

Receive and Release

Hold knowledge not power. Power is current, and we are a conductor and transmitter. We can’t give or take control. Celebrate, like a dolphin riding a wave. The Ego tries to harness power. The issues in society are a reflection of ego trying to capture and control energy. As with power, observe, receive and release ego. Similarly, when taking action, suggest and observe, rather than manipulate and control. Also, skill up in methods to release stuck energy. This skill can reset our ability to be authentically present. To hone the ability to witness the current, practice welcoming and thanking each thought and experience as it received and released. Also study the dynamic of power and energy across fields such as physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and eastern and western life sciences.

Utilizing Creative Tension and Edges

Contradict the contrary thoughts from a place of calm center. Don’t get stuck in analysis or doubt while applying critical evaluation. There is no right or wrong. Creative tension allows us to focus on what we want to create, rather than reacting to stressful challenges or avoiding responsibility and taking action. This zone is the difference between emergence (attraction – pull) and emergency (pain – push) or applying generative energy versus reactive energy. Edges create diversity. An increase in diversity equals an increase in learning opportunities and possibilities for adaptation and integration. Learning includes facing and incorporating the shadows of self and society.

Generating Conscious Intentions

Understanding the purpose and motivating force behind the change you want to see in the world, produces a powerful sense of purpose. Those thoughts and intentions can become charged with the law of manifestation. Through visioning and attracting energy, a project has more potential to manifest. The more you put your energy in a specific direction, the more the Universe responds to that energy and opens up opportunities for the energy to arise. Being transparent and conscious of your purpose also helps you be more ready and agile to catch opportunities that may otherwise go unrecognized. Having a willingness to experiment is essential in releasing attachments to outcomes and overcoming fears of success or failure. Cultivate a sense of simplicity in creating experiments that are not overly complex. When it comes to the focus of the mind engage in stacking functions rather than multitasking. By stacking you can get a lot accomplished with a singular effort. Multitasking divides and fragments our attention.


Free the stories and worldviews that prevent the realization or acceptance of a process, pathway or destination. Reprogram the voice of ego that hides peace behind illusions. Refine your mindflex with a flexible, dynamic collection of assumptions, viewpoints, and mental attitudes. Refining our mindflex is inherent to our learning capacity and a process of actively engaging with and changing thinking rather than being trapped by dysfunctional worldviews and thought patterns. Skilling up on dynamic adaptability, agility and other emergent design practices creates awareness, sustains liberating structures, encourages transitions and embraces life’s uncertainties. It’s essential that we exercise the mind and hone our ability to learn. However, we all need rest and restoration for the full integration and embodiment of knowledge to anchor. Practice techniques for being still, recuperation, deep restfulness, and tools that reset your focus on the center.

Interacting With and Accepting Feedback

By observing patterns, we can use them in our design work, to engage with the natural flow of life energy, not against it. Observation enables us to understand complex systems to make a small informed intervention. Carefully observe and incorporate feedback by tweaking interactions. Together careful observation and thoughtful interaction inspire design. Rapid Prototyping is a simple process to integrate feedback from our environment, actions, and people as exact instructions for what to change to get the intended results. Rapid prototyping with built-in feedback loops is critical to active learning. Small iterative and integrative processes allow for agility and responsiveness through continually developing and refining a design based on feedback and evaluation.

Connecting with Presence

Staying present and having a realistic appraisal of the current moment creates authentic connectivity. The groundedness in and acceptance of what is, exactly and intrinsically, is the foundation for any change to happen. In that sense, the first position and ongoing practice of a designer are to be present, centered and connected before, during and after taking action. Routine reflection also keeps us linked to remaining in the present moment and keeping an eye on real emerging opportunities and constraints. By all means, appreciate the aliveness of presence whether in awe or celebration. Smile.

Balancing Insight and Ideation

Insight is the capacity to gain an intuitive understanding of something. Ideation is the ability to form ideas and thought. As emergent designers, we make the best use of both our intuitive and intellectual mental capacities depending on what is appropriate in the particular context. Actively engaging and connecting with life gives us access to our full creative potential beyond the limits of what we know.

Creating Liberating Structure

Supportive frameworks and models create order and a liberating structure when applied within an emergent context. This arrangement allows evolution, which is more elegantly ordered complexity, to happen. Liberation in this regard means that the conscious use of specific tools can help create enough innovation and order, to free up energy. The aim would be to create a greater sense of power for the individual while removing traditional control or social conditioning.

Dynamic Adaptability

This dynamic creates agility and enables forward intentional momentum without a fixation or attachment to an outcome. Use grace and a proactive attitude to welcome and greet the unexpected as it araises. In this space of open, curious flow, expectations release, problems become solutions, and new opportunities are harvested and woven into an integrated whole. Attachment to outcomes is limiting, and even painful as things take their course and can neither be predicted nor controlled. Releasing expectations and attachment to results opens us in a humble way to the awe-inspiring magic of and being in flow with life. Dynamic adaptability describes our capacity to thrive while responding to and navigating changing situations without attachment.

Regenerative and Holistic Thinking

The term “regenerative” describes processes that restore, renew or revitalize their sources of energy and materials, creating sustainable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature. As designers, we filter our choices by ensuring our direction is towards creating and serving life. Holistic thinking characterizes the understanding of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. Whole systems thinking focuses on linkages and interactions between these elements.


Emergent Design as a Tool for World Change

“Evolution in complexity theory is more elegantly ordered complexity.  Bringing things together doesn’t create emergence. It’s bringing them together in a way that is particularly elegant is the key.” ~ Daniel Schmachtenberger in his video, Emergence.

I appreciate Schmachtenberger’s concept of elegant evolution. We have the opportunity to reshape the direction of our growth in response to the chaos arising in the world. Chaos is a metaphor for change. Because chaos relates to changes over which we have limited, or no control, applying Emergent Design confronts that confusion with wisdom and intuition. It refines and actively engages our authentic self, and gives us agency and direction to take action.

Regarding my authenticity and agency, I set out to find my White Tiger and discovered the balancing art of the Dragon and the Phoenix. After much reflection, I’ve decided that I am clear about my philosophical and political values. I also know they are not definitive. I will meet each moment with this intention and travel with purpose, conviction, and non-judgment as tools in my satchel.

The process of Emergent Design creates awareness and agility, enabling people to gain more skill in embracing life’s uncertainties. We can release expectations and indeed be proactive in harnessing the opportunities of the present moment. If we accept change, upgrade our outdated modes of operating, and move towards an approach that values and serves life, then we are tapping into powerful possibilities. I highly recommend watching Schmachtenberger’s video after reading this article. His work aligns with my thinking on Emergent Design and emphasizes how humans have the capability of impacting the planet in a meaningful way.

Life. We can consciously choose how to participate.  We can forecast, create and steer the direction of our collective experience by applying appropriate interventions within a system, guided by our center. We have the opportunity to engage with a participatory and regenerative worldview that serves life. It is our responsibility to consciously choose to participate on this path as active change agents.


Jennifer English Morgan works as an instructor, facilitator, designer, project manager and consultant in regenerative and healthy lifestyles, participatory community and business design, applied Permaculture and holistic living. Jennifer holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Integrative Eco-Social Design, an N.D. and an M.S. in Natural Health, a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Environmental Studies, a Diploma in Wildlife Management, and 20 years’ experience leading projects and nonprofits in the alternative health, community, and environmental sectors. Jennifer serves as the Director of Advisory and Associate Services with Gaia University International. There she also serves as the facilitator of the Online Orientation, as project manager for the development of a Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design and Gaia Radio, a student-led webinar series. Jennifer helped build Solar Springs, a naturally constructed off-grid lodge and Permaculture Farm, and Co-founded the Financial Permaculture Institute.

Gaia University Associate Laura Kaestele and I generated much of the content in this article as part of a collaborative research project on Emergent Design.