When renewable systems are over exploited they fall into a desertlike state. In this state the system population is too low to support regrowth and the system structures break down. But given the right conditions and encouragement, regrowth can return. The seeds are all there. The self-organising ecosystem can return to recreate resilience, complexity and diversity associated with rich life.

Deserts can be sandy, rocky step or icy poles. As I wrote yesterday, where I live I can see evidence of where Bristol was once a desert. These are deserts that come and go over millions of years.

But systems more generally can into a desertified state much more quickly. Think of massive fields where only one crop grows, or our coastal waters that only a few hundred years ago teamed with life unimaginable today. But think also of deserts of trust, deserts of community-mindedness. In Bristol I witness hundreds of people stuck daily in traffic jams where these same people called all be using active travel – I see this as a desert of collective will. Where there could be life, richness, there is sparsity instead.

Forests to desert and back again

We see this phenomenon in forestry. Timber can be sustainably harvested from a forest in such a way as to promote regrowth. But if we cut down too many trees, the life-supporting systems in the forest breakdown. Species become too sparse to effectively reproduce. The whole food chain, from the microorganisms that feed on rotting material to the insects that feed on these, up to larger mammals and birds, can no-longer be supported. A rich landscape can become a desert if the rate of exploitation exceeds the system’s capacity to restore itself.

And yet, forests have the capacity to restore themselves when the conditions are right. Pioneer species are the first to return. They are can put down roots in poor conditions and stabilise the ground conditions. Once established, these first trees enable more species to re-establish themselves from seeds that have lain dormant in the ground. Over time, as long as some remnant of life has survived in the system, it is enough for the whole cascade of life to grow back.

Recognise the desert to return it to life

If you were to be parachuted into a desert landscape, your surroundings may not enable you to see the bountiful place this could be. If you hadn’t seen the place before you would be unaware of the potential for life that remains hidden away until the conditions for regrowth return.

I see a key tool in regenerative design is to recognise how existing systems may be in a desert-like state, and to see that a much richer version might be possible. It is to remove the temporal blinkers that train our focus on the poor present and exclude either the possibly rich past or potentially rich future.

Once we have recognised the potential, we then have to ask what in the system could enable the system to flourish again? What would be the pioneer species? What could provide stabilising conditions for other species to emerge? Where are the seeds – the knowledge, the instructions for regrowth? Where is the system already growing in some small way, and how can that be nurtured?

Unlocking abundance

When regenerative design thinkers talk about unlocking abundance, this is one way that I understand it. It is both to recognise the poor state of many of the human and natural systems that we inhabit and to find ways to re-enable that latent richness of exchange, complexity, diversity and resilience.

Recognising a system in a desert-like state is the first step to unlocking its abundance.