Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the launch at Parliament of Building Blocks to Transform the Built Environment – a manifesto to turn the climate emergency into a climate opportunity. If you don’t know about it, then you should definitely check it out here.

On the journey back I was thinking about what conversations it is and isn’t possible to have in a place like the Houses of Parliament. For example, we were there to talk about making our building standards fit for purpose, incentivising retrofit and circularity and ensuing a just and green transition. These may not seem like particularly radical ideas, but standing in those halls of power, I couldn’t help think that these run against the grain of business-as-usual here.

In the Systems Bookcase model that we use at the Regenerative Design Lab, we show that a system will only tolerate: ideas that are in line with the paradigm of the times; ideas that line up to our collective goals; and, ideas that are line with the dominant mindsets.

For those us thinking about how the act of designing and building can actually make the world better, the idea of a campaign of building improvement, based on circular principles, seems like the very first thing to do, and an easy next step.

However in the seat of a government that is so committed to unrestricted growth, these ideas are at the edge of what it is acceptable to talk about. We are tolerated, but as long as we don’t make too much fuss and don’t interrupt the order of play. 

But to turn up and talk about the reality of the climate emergency, about our general lack of progress towards any meaningful change, about the complicity of this government in maintaining the current patterns, well that would not be tolerated. Those ideas are not permitted in this System Bookcase. And in fact we see the organs of the state turned towards quieting voices of descent. 

Yesterday’s visit was on the one hand an illustration to me of the power of the dominant paradigm. But it was also a reminder of the potential to move ‘systems’ sideways. 

In our Library of Systems Change model we show how systems can change over time. We need consistent pressure at all levels. We need to continue pushing at the boundaries of what we are able to design. We need to keep challenging the rules and regulations we set ourselves. And we need to keep showing up here to shift the mindsets of the people setting legislation. Because that is what the people invested in reinforcing our current destructive patterns are doing. That is the game they are playing – we need to play the same game, and we need to win.

To win at this game, to reach the goal of humans and the rest of the living world surviving, thriving and co-evolving, regenerative designers need to do three things: 

  1. To hold in their minds and develop with others a compelling vision of a thriving future; 
  2. To start to create the transition towards that future through system-level interventions, like the Building Blocks manifesto is aiming to do.
  3. And to start to dismantle the existing system that is causing so much damage. 

The existing system is configured to reject the notion of shared thriving within planetary boundaries. We should expect that. But we should also know that no system can resist change over time – the rate of change depends on sustained pressure at the right points in the system. 

Our job as regenerative designers is to keep showing up, to keep experimenting, and critically, to gather feedback on what is effective and to keeping pushing harder in those places. 

That is what the committed volunteers at Architects Declare are doing with Building Blocks. They are showing up, making proposals, seeing how they land, adjusting course, keeping on trying. Eventually, the system will shift.

The Regenerative Structural Engineer, by Oliver Broadbent and James Norman, is out now, available in print and PDF from the IStructE website.

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.