The regeneration economy is the next big thing in sustainability – except it is out to replace the whole idea of sustainability altogether. It argues that sustainability is a limited concept because a. you can’t sustain what you have already destroyed b. to keep on doing what were already doing isn’t going to solve our problems c. it’s not ambitious enough in terms of the potential impact – why just sustain when you can flourish?

The concept of sustainability has been abused like few other terms in history. It is time to think not just about sustaining the world’s badly damaged ecosystems and human communities, but about regenerating them instead.

– Herbert Girardet

What is regeneration?

Regenerative design started in agriculture, then moved into architecture and built environment design. Increasingly, it is being used in economic development, and its concepts are starting to be explored in designing businesses. Regenerative design successfully incorporates other ideas about strengthening society, such as co-creation, resilience and health (no doubt there will soon be a resilience lab as well). There’s not a set of universally agreed principles that describe how to do social and economic regeneration, but there are four overarching themes:

Intentional design – in response to the challenges and opportunities facing us, we actively design our organisations and our future rather than just let things happen. Design is investigative and outward-facing – it seeks first to understand the people and systems we seek to affect, so that our ideas have the evidence needed to be successful.

dead mangrove

Place-based – regenerative design is done in relation to a particular place, not in some abstract realm. Design starts with understanding physical or social landscape, taking advantage of its features and understanding its constraints to plan where and how you are most effectively able to create change.

Holistic  – the regeneration economy emerged out of systems theory. Rather than breaking things down into little pieces, it argues that instead we should understand the whole and how the parts interact, rather than looking at one part in isolation. You can’t fix something if you don’t know how it will affect and be affected by others parts of the system.

Ecologically derived – principles of regenerative economies and organisations are learnt through understanding how organisms, ecosystems and societies regenerate and flourish. Think about the parallels between how nature functions and how communities function.

This leads to some catchy ideas like “going with the flow” and “finding your niche”. For example, contours in the landscape slow down water to retain its benefits to grow plants, just like the design of the duty free shops in an airport slow down travelers so that they spend.

duty free swale

If you want to have a look at examples of  projects employing these principles in practice, the Regeneration Hub showcases organisations working to build the regeneration economy around the world.

Want to read more?

The think-tank the Capital Institute, together with its founder John Fullerton, is probably the leading promoter of the concept today. In 2015 he produced the key text Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles and Patterns will Shape our New Economy  and the online Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy.

We can use the universal principles and patterns underlying stable, healthy, and sustainable living and nonliving systems throughout the real world as a model for economic-system design – Fullerton.

Proponents of the approach nominate a number of starting points for the concept, such as Herman Daly’s Steady State Economics or or E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, but John Tillman Lyle’s Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development in 1994 was the first recent contribution (hard to get hold of though). The ideas in Lyle’s book where drawn on in the popular Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make things by McDonough in 2002, although I think in some ways this book is a more limited approach.

In addition to the Capital Institute’s text, there are a few other key modern books to look at. Designing Regenerative Cultures (2016) by Daniel Wahl, a German Buddhist, provides a vision for how we can regenerate our society in the face of current crises, asking as many questions as giving answers. Carol Sanford on her website and in her book The Regenerative Business has lots of ideas and insight, but doesn’t provide as much depth as I would like. Finally there is Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability by another consulting and education organisation Regenesis Group, which bridges the physical and social design world.

If you’re specifically interested in agriculture and landscapes, a diverse set of approaches coming out of various institutes around the world are in the process of converging, bringing together their ideas under the banner of regenerative agriculture.

  • The Rodale Institute has been around the longest. It isoften cited as the originator of regenerative agriculture, which they combine with organic farming. In 2014 they put out Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming.
  • Permaculture afficionados will recognise a lot of the concepts that have informed regenerative agriculture. The Permaculture Institute is the leading educator in the field, drawing its ideas from the father of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, whose 1996 text Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual is still the most important, although Bill Holmgreen’s 2002 Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability takes a more explicitly regenerative approach.
  • The Savory Institute, with Zimbabwean roots and a Boulder base, promotes Holistic Management, another convergent approach.
  • Terra Genesis is a professional consultancy working around the world that has recently produced this synthesis of thinking in the field – interestingly drawing on some of the social design thinkers above.

I think there’s am opportunity to take forward the thinking in terms of organisational strategy and program design, drawing on and revitalising the biological and cultural diversity of the tropics. I’m looking forward to developing these ideas on my blog over the next few months. If this is something that excites you, please get in touch.


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