5 shifts to create regenerative futures

By Dr Nina Terrey

In the modern world, we are facing unprecedented environmental challenges due to climate change, biodiversity loss and resource scarcity.

With the world population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, it is imperative that we adopt not just sustainable practices if we are going to protect our planet for future generations – we need regenerative practices. Regenerative design offers an innovative approach.

What is regenerative design?

Regenerative design is a holistic approach to business models design, products and services. It goes beyond simply reducing negative impacts on the environment and communities. Regenerative design uses whole systems thinking to create resilient and equitable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature. It seeks to create systems that actively enhance the natural environment and build social resilience, with the intent of realizing net positive benefits in these areas and move towards long-term circularity.  It seeks to go beyond sustainability by creating positive environmental impacts in addition to managing resources efficiently.

What is the difference between regenerative design to sustainability design?

Regenerative design is more ambitious than sustainability design because it seeks to build upon existing successes and create new systems that actively restore ecosystems and improve communities. Sustainability, on the other hand, focuses primarily on reducing negative environmental impacts by minimizing resource consumption and waste production. Regenerative design has a much longer-term view with the goal of creating resilient and equitable systems that are able to both meet current needs and be prepared for future changes. Whereas sustainability design seeks to minimize the resources used, regenerative design seeks to use existing materials in a more efficient manner and produce outputs with higher value-added.

What 5 shifts do we need for regenerative futures?

There are five core shifts we take to be regenerative:

SHIFT 1: Extractive versus regenerative

Extractive practices involve taking resources from natural systems such as water, timber, precious metals and soil without replacing what was taken. This type of practice puts strain on nature as the environment is not being replenished resulting in a loss of resources for both present and future generations. On the other hand, regenerative practices emphasize restoring and rebuilding the landscape, and social systems to maintain a natural balance, that will be present for current and future generations. These include investing in societal values and attitudes, creating community building capacity, planting trees and flora, restoring soil health, conserving water and preserving ecological hotspots. Regenerative activities help restore complex environmental and social systems which are critical to our planet’s future. Regenerative activities are essential aspects of conservation, restoration, sustainable and regenerative development and must be carried out to protect our environment and social systems for generations to come.

SHIFT 2: Economic capital versus natural capital

Economic capital is the total value of all assets that can be used to produce wealth. It is generally made up of money, stocks and bonds, and other physical items, such as buildings, technology, materials, factories and so on. Natural capital, on the other hand, refers to nature’s own investments in human well-being such as clean air and water, recreational resources, biodiversity, soils. Natural capital also encompasses the stock of ecological resources like forests and fisheries which are critical for sustaining life on earth. The difference between economic capital and natural capital comes down to one simple concept: renewable versus non-renewable resources. Economic capital can increase over time, but natural capital needs our protection, or we risk it being depleted forever. Investing in both types of capital is essential for a healthy future.

SHIFT 3: Traditional economic models versus integrated socio-ecological-economic models

Traditional economic models, in contrast to integrated socio-ecological-economic models, focus primarily on the financial aspects of an activity or sector. This means that the model does not take into account other wider impacts such as social, cultural or environmental implications. As a result, traditional economic models may fail to measure and forecast possible positive or negative outcomes from human activities beyond GDP. On the other hand, as stated by Raworth, integrated socio-ecological-economic models factor in all of these elements when predicting patterns of economic growth. By doing so they are better able to consider factors like resource exhaustion, environmental degradation and societal health considerations when assessing probable outcomes. Ultimately, taking an integrated socio-ecological-economic approach enables more accurate predictions of how policies interact with different aspects of society and can provide a holistic representation of how decisions can impact our environment and people’s lives.

SHIFT 4: Individualism versus community building

The difference between individualism and community building comes down to fostering relationships and self-empowerment. With individualism, people focus on their own success, increase self-reliance, and build social networks that propel them forward. Community building on the other hand emphasizes creating strong ties with those in your immediate area or group such as family, friends, and colleagues to bring about widespread success in tackling a common problem or goal. In regenerative futures, we must act more with the collective mindset, and understand how we deal with the individualism which permeates Western societies. In creating regenerative models of production and consumption we need to determine what people feel they can accomplish independently versus what they would like to achieve collectively. The emphasis on defining and working towards common goals can bring about positive results for everyone involved.

SHIFT 5: Institution-centred versus relationship eco-system centred

One distinguishing feature between institution-centred and relationship eco-system-centred approaches to business is the focus of each type. An institution-centred approach largely emphasises the power of the organisation, looking at corporate goals, competitiveness and brand awareness as primary objectives. In contrast, a relationship eco-system centred approach will place more significance on relationships with staff, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders for long-term success. In regenerative futures, pre-competitive relationships, cross-industry, and cross-sector relationships are increasingly important.  The activities for relationship eco-system centred approach include developing shared mutual interests, developing mutually beneficial relationships, building partnerships with suppliers and encouraging workplace engagement to ensure positive contribution from every role in the organisation’s network of relationships. The right balance between these two approaches is essential if an organisation wants to create regenerative futures.

Regenerative design is essential for a healthy future. It requires us to shift our perspectives and approach to business from traditional economic models towards integrated socio-ecological-economic models; from individualism towards community building; and finally, from institution-centred approaches towards relationship eco-system centred ones. By taking these steps we can ensure that the decisions we make now will have positive impacts in the long run on both people’s lives and our environment as well.