What does regenerative design mean for engineers?

As I wrote in my last post, this summer I have been thinking about regenerative design, and what it means for engineers. 

In the context of climate breakdown, the dominant paradigm in design is sustainability: design that seeks to sustain the quality of our existing ecosystem for the benefits of future generations. But as the latest IPCC report makes clear, our planetary systems are so depleted that even if we stopped putting carbon dioxide into the environment now, there is sufficient carbon dioxide in the environment to trigger significant temperature rises and ecosystem destruction. What we need now is to go further than maintaining the status quo and start regenerating our planetary ecosystems through our actions – this is regenerative design. 

Wahl (2016) defines ‘regenerative cultures’ as ones that enable a flourishing in planetary and human health. It is a philosophy rooted in systems thinking and recoupling activities with nature; a philosophy that seeks to move communities away from scarcity and competition towards abundance and collaboration. 

The trouble is, while plenty has been written regenerative design, I have seen little written on how to do it practicably in the engineering and construction sectors.

I suspect one of the challenges is regenerative design is so different from our current ways of working, which have been so dependent on extractive linear systems, decoupled from nature. This dissonance leads me to questions: 

  • How can engineers act in a way that enables the communities and their supporting ecosystems to support themselves?
  • What is regenerative engineering knowledge, and where should it sit in the community?
  • How do we move from delivery of short-term projects to longer-term experiments?
  • Is a gradual shift to regenerative working possible or is radical change needed?
  • Is engineering itself framed in an extraction-and-control mindset and do we need to reframe the profession?

And so I am setting my mission for this year is to translate thinking on regenerative design into my teaching to make it more accessible to the mainstream of engineering and construction. 

My approach will be necessarily exploratory. Design is part of a complex system. Systems theory tells us you can’t fully know a complex system – you can only observe, look for trends and try to influence the outcome of the system. 

I have recently applied for funding to set up a 9-month regenerative design learning lab. Watch this space for more information and to get in touch if you are interested in finding out more.

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1 Comment

  1. William McCuen

    This whole approach is fasinating and I look forward to getting my head around it in some fashion.

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