more notes on generativity; and how it relates to design

This week I have the honour of attending and presenting an award at the ceremony of the 60th Australian Good Design Awards. So I have been thinking about design. In particular, how does one apply design principles to our lives?

We criticise developers who rape and pillage spaces around us, ignoring good design in pursuit of a dollar. But my suspicion is that property developers do not appreciate and reject good design, they are simply motivated by something else. Is it not also true of our living? Perhaps it is not that we appreciate the patterns of living that facilitate a good life – and reject them, maybe it is that we have never been given a realistic alternative than the dominant narrative of self serving consumerism; and the drive for power and influence or whatever shapes our discretionary choices and relational patterns.  Developers may trash our cities and towns, but all around us we’re trashing our families and communities by repeating bad patterns of living.

I completed Notes on Generativity a couple of years ago, and while I was happy to crystallise my thinking, my learning continues. The thoughts in this note have been stimulated from reading Christopher Alexander’s A Timeless Way of Building, the companion volume to A Pattern Language from which I have learned so much. If Pattern Language is the expression, A Timeless way of Building is the thinking. It has genuinely stirred my being.

Alexander describes, illustrates, explores, explains a so-called ‘quality that cannot be named’. Sometimes a town, a building, a room, a space has a particular kind of quality for which there is no accurate or precise English word. One might say it is ‘alive’ or ‘whole’ or ‘comfortable’ or ‘free’ or ‘exact’ or ‘eternal’ even … but none of these describe completely what one feels and experiences when in the space. The same can be said for a life. What is that quality? Successful, satisfied, happy? Content, peaceful or purposeful? Or what about the intelligences; emotional, spiritual? As with architecture and design, it is similarly very difficult for a single word to describe that ‘quality’ that characterises some people. In The Freedom Paradox, Clive Hamilton talks about so called ‘avatars of virtue’ … that’s kind of what I’m shooting for. But unlike some ideological or religious gurus, I’m searching for something that is a bit more ordinary and ‘everyday’.

A town or a building can be ‘designed’, but it would be a mistake to think that design is a blueprint; a set of static principles. Rather there are patterns that if understood and facilitated can give rise to ‘that quality’. It only emerges as people engage with the space; it is the way people behave in and with a space that gives it that quality that cannot be named. Think of a well design cafe; it ‘works’ only as people engage with and within.

The way to grow a flower is not to ‘build it’ with tweezers and cells, but to plant the seed in favourable conditions and cultivate the environment. Design is the same. By creating something in a particular way, based on well understood patterns, we invite the possibility of ‘that quality that cannot be named’. Good design should never be an end in itself. Of course at one level beauty is indeed an end. Aesthetic is its own reward. But most designers would admit that unless there is a social (or environmental or other) impact that emerges from the use of the product or service, then they fall short of their aspiration as designers. A beautiful chair is not just for a ‘theoretic sitting’ but a real ‘sit’, one that enhances that moment of living.

This is why I call my manifesto Notes on Generative Living. I became a student of my own life, observing the patterns that, when harmonised, gave that sense of quality of life that is extraordinarily elusive to name. I concluded that for me, there were actually three identifiable patterns that stood out. It is not a set of behaviours or activities. It is not a set of commitments even. It is a set of patterns that, if integrated into routines, generate in my life, that ‘quality that cannot be named’.

They are pleasure, betterness and meaning.

Just like design, they are not part of a blueprint that guarantee anything.

Alexander has identified 253 individual design patterns; an extraordinary achievement in observation and wisdom. There will be many many more ‘life patterns’ beyond the three I have written about. For other people in different contexts with different orientations and experiences of life, there will be others that are more appropriate to be applied to best facilitate that quality of life I describe as ‘generative’. Many years ago I defined something as generative if it is:

  1. Hard coded, non-negotiable but non-prescriptive design elements.
  2. The outward expression is intentionally and continuously evolving creatively.
  3. Positively oriented; it generates positive experiences and cultivates a positive future.

In the years since then, having digested Alexander’s work, I am more inclined to nuance the language a little. Something is generative if:

  1. Based on an established pattern, observed in diverse contexts, which facilitates a high probability of, rather than guarantees a positive outcome.
  2. Experience of it evolves in a creative, dynamic way from considered behaviour.
  3. It facilitates outcomes that are regenerative, reproductive; offering life to the future.


antifragility and generativity and why they matter (at least to me)

This is pretty dense with cross references which I want to link for future reference.

back at CityPoint … a familiar view

It’s mid-April in the city. The warm days keep intruding on Autumn but sitting outdoors at a cafe at 9pm in windless, high 20s, taking in the night rhythms of the west end is good fun …
The paradox of having multiple projects on is that I read more … something about needing to feed my brain in order to keep the output energised and fresh.
Anyway, earlier this evening I was grateful to finish reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I read it knowing I’d find it both good and bad. The good bit is that I enjoy engaging people who operate with unfamiliar mental models.  He is super smart, eccentric even, and I love delving into the minds of radically intelligent thinkers. I do however find myself disagreeing with where he ends up on some topics. But I chose to read him intentionally. I chose to suspend judgement and listen, really listen. Too often we consume intelligence that we already broadly agree with, and so we create in our minds a growing illusion that people who disagree with us must be stupid or wilfully selfish or evil even. So while I disagree with where he ends up sometimes, I certainly do have a greater appreciation for why he and others have such a distain for political correctness. (Jonathon Haidt’s work argues compellingly that we must do this more. see his first TED talk here.)
But my main reason for digesting Peterson was because I had set myself to go deeper into the parallel universe that is Nassim Taleb’s view of the world. And like Taleb, Peterson is concerned with understanding how to live well in the context of chaos. I knew I’d find more of Taleb that was aligned with what I already believed, so wanted to read Peterson as a counter.
I first heard of Taleb’s work via Issue 1 of The Alpine Review. Like a very few other other big ideas I’ve come across, I sensed there was something in this that would be important for me. As I read the other day, mental models are the new alphabet, so I’m thirsty for new ways to see and therefore make sense of this crazy world. Taleb and Peterson certainly both offer different ways of seeing the world.
Taleb has spent his career trying to understand uncertainty and randomness. Both he and Peterson hold the view that chaos and randomness are not bad per se, and are not to be, indeed cannot be avoided. Further, it turns out that most of the really significants things that happen in our lives can be traced to random events. 
But many of the systems which define modern life are fragile. Random and unpredicted events can cripple whole sets of infrastructure. One apparently isolated occurrence has ripple effects across nations and the world. (Just think about the impact of volcanic ash or the 9/11 terrorist attacks on air travel. Or think about how the apparently untouchable Facebook could be out of business in a relatively short period of time when trust is broken.)
Most people, when asked, say that the opposite of fragile is robust (or similar). But Taleb argues this is not the case. If a package is marked fragile, it means that its contents will break if subjected to trauma. The opposite would be if the items got stronger if/when subjected to trauma. So Taleb is in search of those things that are improved by randomness, uncertainty and even trauma. Things that are antifragile. His argument is that we can glimpse the future by taking notice of those things which have antifragile attributes. Or the corollary; we know that if something is fragile, its time of dominance or prominence at least will be limited. 
 I recognised in this reasoning something of what I was grappling for in my manifesto. The idea of generativity comes on the back of this. It’s also a bit akin to Peterson’s idea behind the 12 Rules for Life – what is the smallest number of essential things a person needs to know in order to live well? My thesis is that three drivers (pleasure, betterness and meaning), on two foundations (home and community) and four disciplines offer a generative life – a life that feeds itself with ‘the quality that cannot be named’ (from a masterful chapter in Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building. Alexander goes through multiple alternative (English) words that capture elements of that quality that is recognisable in a room or building but for which we don’t have an adequate word. If I was in conversation with him, I’d offer ‘generative’.)
I have recently had an email exchange with Paul Hawken, whose Natural Capitalism gave me great hope when I read it more than a decade ago. For many years now people have been lamenting that the term ‘sustainability’ has lost its meaning as it gets co-opted ubiquitously. But like many others, I have struggled to think of an alternative. Until now.
Paul’s upcoming book will be called Regeneration. It comes from the same thinking as Taleb’s antifragile. We can’t get to a solution to todays problems by using the same thinking that got us where we are. ‘Robust’ is about risk mitigation against fragility – but that’s not enough. Sustainability is about risk mitigation against depleting natural resources – but that is not enough. We need radical new thinking to change the game.
Taleb says, how do we build systems that actually thrive on uncertainty and randomness? Hawken says it’s not about sustainability, it’s about creating a society that engages the natural environment in a way that actually regenerates it. I am interested in the ingredients that facilitate better living when we encounter the normal terrain of contemporary society; those disciplines and mental models that provide generativity amidst normal chaos. 
A bit to think about …

time for some old fashioned innovation

image copied from quotesnackcom

image copied from

Tonight is a big one for my dad. He is on the Spirit of Tasmania with his new motorhome, off on his first real excursion, testing his capacity to bring a dream into reality. It will not be easy. His mobility is limited and there is much he will need to figure out as he goes.

But hardest of all is not figuring out how to cope with the practical realities of daily life on the road. Hardest of all is that my dear mum is not with him. She will spend the next few weeks in the dementia ward of the aged care facility that is her home these days, without my dad’s daily companionship. The next few weeks will require lots of different kinds of courage from Dad. As he has said on more than one occasion, ‘old age is not for whimps’.

Maria’s dad is also in an aged care facility so we have spent quite a bit of time around them in recent times. And I feel uneasy. You know when you get a deep feeling that things are not right, but it is hard to figure out what the alternatives are …. aged care feels like that.

One of the triggers for thinking about this was Karen Hitchcock’s (in The Monthly) intelligent rebuttal of Andrew Denton’s contribution to the euthanasia debate. In essence she argues that a ‘quality of life’ argument for euthanasia cannot be legitimately offered until we fix our societies inability to treat our senior citizens with an integrated dignity and respect. “Death can only be the solution when life itself is the problem.”

I thought about it again tonight when reading Sophie Grove’s essay in this month’s Monocle magazine where she discusses what innovative architects and planners are doing around the world to place the very young and the aged in proximity. Childcare centres and aged care facilities co-located with shared facilities including meals. Places in Paris and Seattle are doing interesting things. NYC firm HWKN is also exploring alternatives. And of course, many societies don’t have far to look to find traditional family and community cultures that integrate the lives of ageing people, including South Korea and Japan whose populations lead the table of ‘oldest’ societies.

I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know something is not right when we syphon off those whose bodies can’t keep up with the frantic pace of contemporary living, and put them out of sight. Yes, of course we should be doing everything we can to make our aged care facilities better. But I have that uneasy sense that it’s not about doing things better, it’s about doing better things. There is an oldie but a goodie about innovation that says it is about putting two things together that don’t normally go together to see if they ‘stick’. Mostly they don’t stick, but sometimes they do – and an innovation is born. Sophie’s simple but potent idea of co-locating aged care and childcare could just be one of those system changing innovations.

personal manifesto: the end summary bit …

This post is the final in a series of 16 posts sharing my personal manifesto. If you have stayed with me over the journey, thanks. And if you have have found some useful thoughts I’d love to hear from you. DM me, send me an email at or just leave a comment.

The complete manuscript is available here.


A GENERATIVE LIFE is a life oriented to appreciating the beauty in the world (pleasure). It is characterised over time by a pattern of doing what we are good at (betterness), and has a defining direction of creating a better world for future generations (meaning). Saying it like this might sound a bit grandiose, but I can live a generative life with no public profile. It is not about impact per se or even recognition. It is about living appreciatively in the wonderful place that is our world, about being fully who I am as a contributing adult, with an innate understanding that I am connected with everyone else, that our collective destinies are ultimately different parts of a bigger whole.

External circumstances are important. Living in a naturally beautiful environment can enhance our experience of pleasure. But it can also tend to take what is readily accessible for granted. Only in exceptional circumstances am I, or will I, be robbed of opportunities to experience beauty (pleasure).

My particular life scenario might apparently prevent me from using my best skills, but even then, I gravitate to doing everyday tasks in ways that suit my innate or acquired competencies (betterness). And there are people all around me. The opportunities to make a positive difference to those who come after me are as plentiful as the interactions I have with strangers and loved ones every day. As is often quoted, “if I don’t stand for something, I’ll fall for anything.” (meaning)


The inner strength and moral capacity to harmonise my drive for pleasure, betterness and meaning comes from, in the first instance, a ‘home’ where I am fully accepted for who I am and in turn accept others for who they are. Unconditional love. This is my basic human need that, unless satisfied gatecrashes my motivation in virtually every other relationship and endeavor.

And I am a communal being. I do my best work, and experience my most pleasurable moments in relationship with others. So finding kindred spirits in my pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning is natural and necessary. I need community.


To enable and sustain mental health in this journey, there are a number of disciplines that, in essence help me live with the tensions of being fully in the moment, but with an orientation to broader patterns and new opportunities. Firstly, I must be alert to addictions. I must develop the mindset that chooses – intentionally – everything about my attitudes, behavior and routines. I must get and stay unstuck.

Secondly, I must resist the contemporary urban pathology of living a busy, cluttered life. To live a generative life I must say ‘no’ a lot. The ‘slow’ and ‘local’ movements are more than a fad; they are a healthy reaction to the unhealthy excesses associated with the increased expectations of speed, efficiency and globalisation. I need to unclutter my life.

Thirdly, the capacity to understand what each of my roles in life requires of me (physically, emotionally, and mentally) to optimize my engagement in each associated context – the discipline of modal living – will equip me with that powerful but too rare trait of being fully present.

Finally, I need to become a master of contentment. Contentment comes from the discipline of opening my eyes, ears, hands (and yes, I guess nose and mouth) to the opportunities for satisfying experiences of pleasure, gratifying contributions aligned with my skill set, and purposeful and meaningful service, right here right now. Contentment is the foundation piece. Its antithesis is restless fantasizing about my future or the current lives of others. Contentment does not trump ambition, but it does trump the obsession with getting and experiencing what I don’t currently have.

Yes, external circumstances are important, but living well, living a generative life, is mostly about choices to have positive attitudes and develop live enhancing patterns of behaviour. This is a good thing, because so many of life’s circumstances are outside my control whereas the communities of people with whom I choose to share life and the associated habits of thinking and doing, are entirely up to me. I will not settle for anything less. I will figure out what I need to do to live better, right here, right now.


1. A generative life has these elements (as above).

2. How this is expressed is up to me. But I know that a generative life will be continually and intentionally evolving, growing, developing, changing, not for change’s sake, but because stagnation, equilibrium is death. The external environment in which I seek to live is relentlessly asking different things from me, and offering me new experiences of beauty and wonder.

3. And ultimately, the essential characteristic of a generative life is that it facilitates the possibility of a positive future for others. This is the litmus test. In theory, all the other elements could get ticks, but if my commitment to living a life oriented toward the welfare of others is inconsistent over time, then, in old age, my answer to the question “What kind of life have I lived?” will leave me with deep dissatisfaction.

I aspire to live a generative life. I am happily determined to look back on life with no regrets; I intend to experience as much beauty in the world as I can; to become the best I can possibly be with what I’ve been given; and to ensure that my legacy is to have facilitated a better life for others.

personal manifesto: generative engagements

I can sustain engagement with a cause, an employer or a recreational activity when what I give and what I get are generally in balance. There are three ‘currencies’ with which I give and take; physical, emotional and intellectual. It doesn’t matter which ones are in play, but overall, what I give compared to what I get will need to be correlated.

For example: If what I give at work either physically or intellectually is significantly less than what is deemed reasonable given the size of my paycheque (physical), then I am likely to get a tap on the shoulder and asked to lift my game or lose my job. If what I contribute through volunteering at little athletics is not matched by the emotional satisfaction I take, I am likely to opt out.

Further, if my engagement involves my core values and decision-making drivers then I am likely to give more, resulting in a deeper engagement. If I do not, my engagement will remain superficial. The deeper I engage, (usually accompanied by strong connection with others who are also engaging, see notes on Community above) then the deeper I will be drawn in. It is possible, that the ‘reason for being’ of a particular community or cause, becomes or is recognised as being aligned with my own sense of calling and passion. At this point the engagement actually generates energy and the giving is overshadowed by the positive flow outwards.

We can call this generative engagement.

A generative life, is therefore not just a life that ticks the three boxes of pleasure, betterness and meaning. Generativity happens when I engage deeply in the different dimensions and experience an energising that enlivens my life and flows onto others. This most typically happens in the context of ‘community’, where my engagements tap into the purpose and meanings associated with the entities.

generative engagement 1

generative engagement 2

generative engagement 3

Surfing is somehow more enlivening when the routines and activities are shaped by the reality or fantasy of belonging to the surfing tribe. When what I experience is the same as what I imagine that reality to be, it is a generative experience. This is what I love.

When I burn the midnight oil to solve organizational problems and design and facilitate change processes that deliver the outcomes that are at the centre of the organisation’s reason for being, I feel pride and confidence. My facilitating is a generative practice. This is what I do.

When I collaborate with kindred spirits to enable a real difference for people, whether via an international development project or a empowering a local values driven organization, I feel like I am living in tune with my purpose. It usually takes blood sweat and tears, the effort is substantial but the outcomes pay me back with surplus. The world is a better place because I have linked arms with others and done something that wouldn’t have happened without us. It’s a generative contribution. This is what gives meaning to my work.