In my exploration of regenerative design I’m often struck by how language is a barrier to exploring regenerative thinking. I can see two things at play here. The first that we may not have the words to fully describe what we imply by regenerative design. The second is that defining being regenerative using the terms of the growth-extraction paradigm (ie our current economic pattern) risks keeping the whole philosophy bound by that original pattern.

In my application to become an 1851 Regenerative Design Fellow I said I wanted to create a ‘pattern book’ for understanding regenerative design. It was an idea that drew on pattern books in manufacture and it was also a nod to the new pattern for construction that Joseph Paxton ushered in with his sketch for Crystal Palace. But it was also an acknowledgment that words alone may not be enough.

This week I’m reading ‘The Patterning Instinct’ by Jeremy Lent. As he puts it

The idea that language- and its corresponding cultural framework – affects the way we think is a key premise of this book.

Jeremy Lent

In it he described how humans create new words to describe a particular set of ideas. My example might be the word ‘optioneering’ (which I I dislike but hear often). In one word we combine the ideas of there being a set of options, that they are assessed, and that this be done in a systematic way. Once this new word is developed it is far easier to use it than to create a different term to link together these ideas.

These words are a way to make thinking easier. All the wisdom of these ideas combined into a single word. Our language is built up of multiple layers of words that contain ideas of deep cultural meaning. This can make it hard to change the way we think. Our existing words are already doing lots of conceptual work and new words have to work hard for adoption if they go against the grain.

Lent situates his work in the domain of neo-Whorfian linguistics, which takes as it’s starting premise that the way we speak affects how we think.

The weak-Whorfian approach says that some thinking patterns can be changed by changing the language that we use.

These insights lead me to think that there may be more to the idea of a pattern book than I had realised. I foresee patterns as a way to transcend words that may be locking us into a certain way of thinking. If so could we use a set of patterns to communicate regenerative design? That’s what I’m thinking about.

As Lent writes later (pg213)

If our cultural inheritance compels us to think in certain ways – strong Whorfianism – then there’s nothing we can do about it. If, however, our cultural framing merely encourages us to think in certain patterns – weak Whorfianism – then, by becoming conscious of those patterns, we may have the power to change them.

Jeremy Lent