Restorative and regenerative are two words I am hearing used interchangeably. Both are relevant to engineering and design. Both are approaches to design that are valuable. But they need differentiating.

Restorative – putting something back

To restore is to put something back to its previous, usually working, state. I once tried to restore an old SNCF station clock that had a water-damaged mechanism. I failed, but had I restored it, it would have worked once more.

At Hazel Hill Wood we are restoring an area of woodland where the trees were knocked over by a storm in the late 80s. In this sense, there were once trees, then there weren’t. By planting Douglas fir we are restoring that area of woodland.

I think of restoration as the return of something to a previously functioning state. It does not convey any qualities of the restored state. The clock is dead, the wood is alive, both are restored.

Regenerative – a quality of the end state

As I set out in my post ‘Four Characteristics of Regenerative Systems‘, regenerative systems have the capacity to continuously renew themselves, thrive within the limits of the system and adapt to changing conditions.┬áRegenerative systems tend to achieve this state by having four characteristics. Renewable sources of energy and materials. Feedback loops keep behaviour in balance. The capacity to self-organise and learn. And a nested structure or hierarchy balancing semi-independence at different scales in the system, while maintaining connectedness across the whole.

When I restore my station clock, it works again. I might power it on renewable electricity. It could be connected to a central SNCF clock to check it is running on time (a feedback loop). But these qualities alone are not sufficient to make it a regenerative system.

The case is different with the woodland. By restoring the trees, I may create the habitat that allows a whole cascade of animals, birds and micro-organisms to return. This ecosystem allows many of the regenerative characteristics to emerge.

Mycelium networks connect the trees to one another, providing feedback for instance when one is attacked by insects. Of the vast range of seeds locked away in the soil, the appropriate ones thrive and the others wait until the conditions are right – this is self-organising.

Whole systems of sub-systems emerge in a complex hierarchy of scales. A log rots in damp conditions, creating a habitat and nutrients for an abundance of creatures. Those damp conditions are created at a larger scale – by the canopy of trees. And that canopy of trees is strengthened by being adjacent to taller trees that can protect them from the wind.

Restorative to Regenerative

In the woodland example above, I see the restorative work of planting the trees as a pre-cursor to the re-emergence of regenerative system. When I am planting the trees I am helping to create the conditions within which those regenerative processes can emerge.

Natural systems are regenerative, and so given time and the right conditions they can restore themselves to a flourishing state. But sometimes the degradation is so severe that there is not the critical mass in the system to get things going again. Or the loss of knowledge (e.g. seeds, information from feedback loops) is so great that there doesn’t exist the coding in the system for the life-creating processes to kick in.

By restoring parts of a broken system, humans can create the conditions in which regenerative processes can start to emerge. We see this in work to create green corridors between isolated habitats. By connecting these habitats humans are widening the gene pool in the system, increasing the system’s capacity to adapt and respond to change. This is enabling a key characteristic of a regenerative system to remerge.

Restorative not necessarily regenerative

Just because we restore something does not mean the system will be regenerative. But it may be a crucial step in helping the regenerative system emerge.