Saturday, June 21, 2008

Patterns as Policies, and Pattern Languages as Policy Frameworks?

I was having a discussion the other day with Ray (the Chair for my PhD committee) about what "patterns" are in the context of Alexander's vision and conception for his pattern language. Now, we have had numerous conversations on this topic as he is still attempting to grasp what it is we are talking about, but he has heard enough to engage with me on this topic.

Anyway, I proposed that in the context of pattern languages that address issues within some sort of social domain, the patterns themselves could be best understood as policies. Now, based upon our previous conversation Ray dismissed this analogy, and yet, as I have pondered this for a while I've begun to wonder if this is not so far from the truth. Adding some validity to this particular conception of what a pattern represents I was hit with a set of definitions that attempts to define a range of meanings associated with the word, policy.

In reading the book, The Policy Process: A Practical Guide for Natural Resource Professionals by Tim W. Clark, I came a across a definition that breaks the term up into 10 distinct units for understanding. According the Hogwood and Gunn (1986, 13-19) the term policy is commonly used to describe:
"(1) a field of study, such as wildlife policy, (2) an expression of general purpose or desired state of affairs, (3) a specific proposal, (4) a decision of government, (5) formal authorization, such as the Endangered Species Act, (6) a program, (7) output of what government delivers, (8) outcome of what is actually achieved, (9) a theory or model, such as "assumptions about cause and effect relationships" about a problem and how it should be solved, and (10) a process, as of complexities unfolding over time."
Following this set of meanings for the term I immediately recognize where the concept of patterns intersects with the term policy, the most obvious of which is #9. Certainly patterns represent a particular model, and as Alexander himself describes, "a patter is a perennial solution to a reoccurring problem." This sounds to me like both a model with a set of assumptions of how best to solve a specific problem. Likewise, #2 as more broad conception of the term policy relates to the overall nature of a pattern language itself, which is essentially a normative vision for solving a system of problems in ways that address underlying structures. And since we are talking about social systems and not architectural design we would think of these underlying structures as persistent problems of social inequity, environmental degradation, economic insecurity and marginalization. One could also assert that #10 represents an inherent principle within a pattern language itself, especially within dynamic social situations. In this way one could perceive patterns and the pattern language itself as an evolving and dynamic model, a process.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and argue that this is the right way to think about patterns, but it does show that my own conception is unclear. And I would invite a conversation into this, because if we can envision patterns as policies and pattern languages as a the framework in which these policies are embedded, then it is possible to perceive Alexander's construct as a highly transferable model to a range of social domains that seek to address policy problems.

This is also important when considering the inherent difficulty in attempting to explain what a pattern or pattern language is. All to often it seems that people have a difficult time in making the leap from past concept of patterns to the one defined by Alexander.

So the question goes can we think of patterns as policies, and if so, can we co-construct useful frameworks (pattern languages) to address systemic problems often encountered within complex social situations?

I would argue yes, and if one looks into the current practice of environmental conflict resolution one would find that the sets of solutions developed among some of these extremely contested processes, it is possible to see them as representative of specific patterns. Now, I know some would immediately jump on this and argue back citing the thinking that these patterns are meant to be perennial solutions, not failures, and so many of these resource management decisions generated out of local level negotiations are anything but solutions.

In response to such a hypothetical argument I would have to counter that the patterns defined in these process are not necessarily the right one for the situation, yet they are models that possess particular assumptions and that intend to solve specific problems. Unfortunately, these patterns are generated out of situations where competing visions and interests collide, and thus potentially more effective policies get pushed aside due to political constraints involved within the process.

Also, according to Tim W. Clark, many of these miscalculations are the result of misunderstandings or complete oversight of the contexts in which these policies are being developed. This is interesting as this shows how patterns depart from traditional notions of policy. For one, patterns have a specific structure that includes: problem statement, description, solution, examples of implementation, and of course, a context in which it can be applied. So right off the bat, patterns assert the need to understand the context or set of forces that are at work when constructing a system of solutions. To me this would suggest that patterns can not only be seen in terms of policy, but the structure that patterns represent fill in gaps left out in traditional problem solving ventures.

Anyway, these are some thoughts and I would really enjoy comments, clarifications based upon other people's conception of what a pattern really is and what a pattern language really is once the model is removed from its original domain.

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