Last year I read about foundational capital in Lean Logic. It’s the idea of the capital that systems depend upon to live. For us Earthlings it’s clean air and water, a thriving biosphere, sufficient minerals. But it can also be intangible things: trust, knowledge, peace. In an extractive economy, we seek to mine these resources and use them to create a financial surplus. This financial surplus we can then invest to invest in growth. But not growth of the foundational capital, but growth of the business. In this model the foundational capital is repeatedly depleted. This extraction works for a while so long as there remains sufficient foundational capital, but at some point the foundational capital is so reduced that it can no longer support life.

The idea of investing financial surplus is so ingrained that it is hard to imagine alternative models. As a business owner, I feel it myself: the instinctive thing to do with any profit the business makes is to invest in growth of the business.

But we can see an alternative approach in more traditional approaches that seek to re-noursish the growing environment with each harvest. For example, I have heard permaculture teachers talk about sharing the harvest three ways: one part for me; one part for the community; one part for the soil. That final third is left to rot on the the plant to return nutrients to the ground. Contrast this to a more extractive approach, which would harvest all the fruit, leaving the ground more depleted. More profit but less foundational capital.

Last year I thought how could I experiment with this idea at Constructivist Ltd. A traditional business approach would be to charge clients as much as possible to run training. But that sets our aims against the aims of our clients. The more we can extract, the more profit we can make and the more our clients are depleted.

Another way to look at things is to say that if we’ve made a profit this year it’s by charing our clients more than we needed to. What is the equivalent of returning this harvest to the ground? Well we could return the extra fees. Another approach is to use the funds to support the flourishing in some way of those organisations that are our clients, which we depend on. The latter option is easy to administer, but the bigger reason I prefer it that it isnon-financial exchange. It is specific, rather than interchangeable (non-fungible), building interconnections and therefore the capacity for feedback. It is also greater than zero-sum (a topic for another post).

Since most of our work with clients involves direct collaboration with individuals, we decided to return the surplus to the system by running a regenerative thinking retreat at Hazel Hill Wood for this group of individuals. Much like the work done in winter by soil-plant systems – quietly, underground – this gathering deepened connections, allowed knowledge to be exchanged, repaired damage from the last season of growth. In other words, fed the foundational capital of the system we are in and set the scene for a new season of growth on a more resilient grounding.

In regenerative design we are seeking to create thriving socio-ecological systems. By noticing foundational capital we can start to tune in to how the projects and processes we are involved with deplete or nourish foundational capital. And we can start to think about how to design systems that aim to grow this capital.