These are my reflective notes as I work through chapter two of Daniel Wahl’s ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures‘. My aim in this reading is to find clues as to what a set of principles for regenerative design for engineers could look like.

Wahl introduces three types of innovation:

  • Sustaining innovation – that which keeps the current system working
  • Disruptive innovation – that which introduces new operating systems
  • Transformative innovation – that which is the ‘long-term innovation process of fundamental changes in culture and identity.

He argues that if we want to achieve a transition towards a regenerative culture, it is this third kind of innovation that we need.

How does this apply to design?

The starting point for me in design is often the client-designer relationship, but this points to a much deeper transformational process in which I am less sure of the client and the designer roles.

If we think of design as the intentional change from an existing situation to a preferred one, anyone engaged in seeking transformational innovation towards a regenerative culture is a designer (- are they are regenerative designer?).

So, suspending notions of engineering design for a moment:

Wahl acknowledges the challenge we face is in ‘refitting the aeroplane while keeping it flying’ – in others words, meeting our basic needs while fundamentally changing the way we meet those needs.

He suggests that the only way to do this is to experiment with and accept change ourselves in order to bring about the transformation.

Why does such transformation need us to live it? He does not seem to explain, but the word ‘transformational’ infers it: it is a change to the people involved in the process. Culture I understand to be a lived set of rituals, habits, relationships, processes and power plays. Identity I don’t have a mental model to explain so easily. But I assume it is no less lived.

And thus I accept that we can’t achieve transformational innovation in theory. It is through experimentation. And it is through accepting change – because if we don’t accept it, the change is still theoretical.

How should we conduct this experimentation?

Wahl’s starting point is to start by looking at ways of living and patterns of thinking that are no-longer serving us, and presumably to look for ones that do serve us.

Building from the thinking in Chapter 1, for the former, look for ways of living and patterns of thinking that promote competition and a scarcity mindset. And for the latter, look for ways of living and patterns of thinking that promote collaboration and the creation of abundance.

This, then, gives me a clue for a design tool. It is to start design by looking at what is no-longer serving us (especially by promoting scarcity and competition) and what will serve us in future (especially by promoting collaboration and abundance).

I recently wrote about how I have started describing design as a continuous process. One of the inferences from that model is that we often start design by looking at the brief, but a better place to start would be in depth observation of what is happening.

What is happening and then what is needed.

From there we can experiment with what is needed, and live that change.

This gives me another clue as to the nature of regenerative design. That it is a lived process. This feels fundamental. That we no-longer have the separation of the designer and what is designed. The designer is embedded, is part of the system, is transformed themselves.

As an aside, what then the role of the consultant? Maybe the consultant is no-longer the designer but an enabler of regenerative design.

Wahl is suggesting two modes of working:

  • ‘Deep listening into what wants to emerge’ and
  • ‘Conscious and intentional interventions’

I see these as two sides of the continuous design diagram. One half is listening, observing and reflecting on what is needed. The second half is imagining and implementing interventions, the impacts of which we can then listen to, observe and reflect on in the other half of the process.

Wahl ends this section by suggesting we can navigate these already changing times by:

  • Learning to spot the interconnections between different crises
  • Paying attention to the underlying systemic structures
  • Paying attention to the narratives that drive our current behaviour.

These three points are also roles for the designer/facilitator. To prompt the questions that enable the people in the system to ask these questions for themselves.

To conclude

From chapter one we say that the shift to a regenerative way of living requires a fundamental shift in how we relate to each other and the ecosystem that supports us. It requires a shift in the stories we tell about ourselves – a shift from a scarcity and competition mindset to one of collaboration and abundance. So far, from this chapter I have understood that:

  • Transformational innovation is the process of creating a fundamental shift in culture and identity.
  • All people taking a conscious role in that process are designers.
  • Transformation of this sort requires experimentation and acceptance of change. It is lived and learnt from.
  • The traditional role of the designer as external consultant may no-longer be relevant as it is currently understood. Instead the consultant could play a role in facilitating the listening and experimentation.
  • A starting point for experimentation (and design) could be to look at what is no-longer serving us (scarcity and competition) and what will serve us in future (collaboration and creation of abundance)
  • Working with a complex, changing system, we have two modes of operation: deep listening; and conscious experimenting.
  • We can think of these two modes as different phases of a continuous design process.
  • Questions for the design facilitator to ask: what are the interconnections between crises; what are the underlying structures; and what are the narratives that are driving this behaviour.