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Principle of Highest Use [Design
Posted on January 18, 2016 @ 09:01:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One of the books I'm currently reading is Toby Hemenway's book, The Permaculture City (2015), which I also mentioned in my last blog.

I am a couple of chapters in. These 2 chapters were worth the price of the book as they are filled with insights on systems thinking and design, a couple of topics that are of perennial interest to me. These chapters reaffirm a suspicion I've held for awhile now, that anyone looking for advice on coming up with ideas and approaches to starting a business can look to Permaculture as much as to Lean Startup Theory for advice and inspiration on how to proceed. With the publication of this book, I think that there is now a solid case for doing so.

The book is not about starting a business per se, but starting a business is just one example of where good design comes into play. You also need good design to grow a productive garden, to raise good kids, to construct a successful investment portfolio, to build a house that you will be satisfied with over the long term. Why should the theory on how to start a business be viewed as separate from the theory on how to design anything well? Toby views Permaculture's design principles as general design principles.

The Principle of Highest Use is one such principle which Toby discusses in chapter 2. This principle advises us to consider all the uses that X might have and to structure our usage to ensure that we extract the highest use along with many of its other uses as well. We employ the highest use principle, for example, with our use of clothing. When our clothing is shiny and new we wear it in situations where it will be put to its highest use, at work or at school for example. Once the clothing gets a bit tattered and smeared, it might become clothing we wear around the house and in the garden. Once it gets really beat up we might wear it on a messy job that makes even its use around the house unacceptable. At that point we might cut it up into rags and continue to use it. Our clothing has all of these potential uses, but we want to make sure we enjoy its highest use, its next highest use, and so on before eventually discarding it or recycling it. This may sound like an ecological principle with a scope limited to telling us how to treat physical objects, but what Toby does well in this book is illustrate how Permaculture principles have much wider relevance:

Many people, consciously or not, apply highest use to their work habits. At the beginning of my workday, my brain is at its best, so I do the most intellectually challenging tasks, such as studying new material that I need to master. When that part of my mind feels stuffed full, I move to writing and other creative work. Once my creative juices are spent, I answer e-mails and make phone calls. It takes even less brainpower to sort, file, and organize tasks and materials so I do that next. When my brain has deteriorated to an inert mass, I find physical work to do. Somehow that work pattern manages to preserve some social energy, which often fills my evening. ~ p.33

This way of illustrating the principle is provocative and made me reflect on whether I am making the highest use of my brain. Makes me appreciate why watching TV is a guilty pleasure. Is my brain really that dead that all I can do with it is watch tv?

The highest use principle is useful for thinking about manage a business. If your startup is doing poorly is it because you aren't making the highest use of your employees? Are you only getting their second or third highest use? How do you structure your workplace so highest use is managed appropriately. If your programmer's highest use is programming, when should they be attending meetings? At the beginning of the day when they are potentially at their most productive or at the end of the day before they leave work for the day? What may be convenient from a management perspective may be disastrous from a highest use perspective.

According to Toby:

Highest use tells us how to connect design elements or activities in time by linking their functions or uses in a sequence. It tells us what to do first. ~ p.33

The assimilation of a design principle usually involves 2 aspects:

  • Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture, observed that design principles are usually formulated as as imperatives to do something. In this case, we might formulate the highest use principle as the imperative to "Evaluate and Apply Highest Use".
  • Toby advises us to turn this imperative into a mantra so that it becomes ingrained in our consciousness.

I hope this discussion of just of one of the many Permaculture Principle discussed in this book helps to convince you that Permaculture might have something useful to say about alot more things than how to grow a garden, which it also offers good advice on. It can also be used to give us practical ideas on how to start and run a business or how to invest in such businesses. What is the highest use of investment capital? What are all of its potential uses?

I don't want to leave you with the impression that I think Lean Startup Theory is not worth studying. It is. It is no longer the only game in town, however, and many Lean Startup principles are derivable from Permacuture's larger set of design principles. Where they fundamentally differ is that Permaculture's principles also include 3 ethical principles (i.e., Earth Care, People, Care, Return of Surplus to Earth and People) where Learn Startup Theory is not so constrained - let the free market be the judge. Ultimately I think there should be more crosstalk between Learn Startup Theory and Permaculture to see if we can't move both frameworks forward even further. I think Toby's book is a good resource to spur some of that crosstalk.

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