Regenerative design as a response to the systemic challenges we face

In the construction industry we are focused on tackling anthropogenic carbon emissions. But this focus misses two wider points. 

Firstly, that the climate crisis is just one of a series of outcomes of wider system collapse. Others include massive species loss, social injustice, health, war. 

Secondly, that the restoration of our biosphere could tackle all of these crises. A thriving socio-ecological system would sequester carbon at the same time as reducing emissions, would create the conditions for a great return of dwindling species, create the conditions for a more socially just society, in which humans can be healthy and thrive. And in which we are not competing with each other for resources.

So why don’t we just get on with the mission of restoring habitats ourselves?  

The problem is that setting ourselves that mission does nothing to change the fundamental relationship between humans and the wider living world. 

Since the Enlightenment, in the Global North we have come to see the living world as something that we can fully know and control. But what we can now see is that the net outcome of humankind’s intervention in the living world is system degredation. 

From systems theory, we know that if you want to change the outcome of a system, you need to change the rules and relationships in it. 

As we witness the collapse of our life-supporting ecosystem as a consequence of our actions, many people are starting to realise that it is our relationship to the living world that is at the heart of the problem. Unless we tackle that, and therefore the actions we take as humans, the system will continue to collapse. 

Instead of seeing ourselves as controllers of nature – separate to nature, what if we instead saw ourselves as part of a wider living system, and having the unique capacity to unlock the potential of that system. In this framing humans act like a keystone species, one that has a disproportionately positive benefit on its ecosystem – a species that increases the potential of all to thrive around it. 

It is in this philosophy that regenerative design is framed. Regenerative design seeks to intervene at a socio-ecological system level (in other words, the system that includes people and wider living world) to increase the capacity of that system to survive, thrive and evolve.

By adopting a regenerative approach, we fundamentally change our relationship to the rest of the system – with the aim of changing overall system behaviour, from one of system collapse to one of system thriving.

When our socio-ecological system is thriving, carbon is sequestered in soils, plants and oceans, species can recover, our use of resources stays within the renewable limits of the local system, resilience returns to our living system, social injustice by definition disappears and the health of our population improves.

We don’t have to solve these problems one by one – nor can we. Instead we need to create the conditions within which our socio-ecological system can flourish, and these other benefits will follow.

Regenerative design provides the lens for seeing how we can intervene in a way that seeks to work with life-giving capacity of living systems, and in doing so, transforming our role from instigators of collapse to a keystone species that unlocks living potential. 

More blog posts about regenerative design

My work on regenerative design is generously supported by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Read more about my Fellowship in Regenerative Design.

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  1. Great post Oli that helps to explain regenerative design and systems approaches in a way that is easily understood. Nice job!

    One question it leaves me with is about social injustice which you mention by definition disappears as a result of the system being in balance/ thriving. Is that too simplistic?

    • Thanks.
      Good point about social justice. I think I was being too concise. Trying out something a bit longer…

      • I think the point I am trying to make is that if for the socio-ecolocical system to be thriving, people must be thriving, and if there is social-injustice then people are not thriving – we haven’t created wholeness. Or put the other way, if we set the goal as socio-ecological thriving, we are setting the goal of removing social injustice.

  2. Simon Reynolds

    Best explanation of regenerative design I’ve seen. Also the first one I’ve seen that avoids making it look like another chore to be endured. Who wouldn’t want to be a keystone species, up there with the wolves, the bears, the bison, the tigers and the elephants !

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