Co-creating regenerative enterprises

If the goal is to regenerate the health and vitality of living systems, then an enterprise will be most effective if it is designed: 1. To mimic living systems, following clearly defined ecosystem principles, 2. To be an integral part of living systems, building living capital through all their processes, and 3. Collaboratively with other enterprises, to form conscious enterprise ecologies.
Ethan Roland & Gregory Landua (2013: 35) 236

Roland and Landua’s book, Regenerative Enterprise (2013), provides a lucid and practical exploration of the question “What would a regenerative business do?” [This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

Ethan is a multiple entrepreneur and investor with a background in permaculture and sustainable agriculture. His work combines education, the restoration of degraded farmland and international development. Gregory also works in education and international development and helped to establish a direct trade chocolate business that supports reforestation in tropical Latin America. They define ‘regenerative enterprise’ as “a venture that pro-actively grows and cultivates the foundational pools of social, cultural, spiritual, and living capital by providing goods and services in a way that creates net positive gains for the system as a whole” (ibid: 22).

Such a business “does not harvest the roots of the tree of production, only its fruit”. Working with and supporting healthy eco-cultural systems, such businesses are able to “gather the unique, surplus, place-based goods and services” emerging from healthy regenerative systems and enterprise ecologies. A “regenerative enterprise helps to grow the roots deeper and wider, healing the damage that has been done and eventually creating the possibility of new and larger fruits” (ibid: 24–25).

In general, regenerative systems create conditions conducive to life, nurturing diversity and complexity characterized by mutually supportive relationships that build resilience, adaptive capacity and transformability throughout the system as a whole. In the creation of a regenerative enterprise we should ask (p.17):

How can our connection with the system we are harvesting from grow the integrity, resilience and long-term viability of these people and this place?

They explain their theory of how a regenerative enterprise should be designed and function in the context of a holistic model of the economy based on eight forms of capital:

Social capital: the influence, relationships and networks an individual, business or community can draw upon
Material capital: the physical resources, infrastructures and technologies
Financial capital: money, currencies, securities and similar financial instruments currently facilitating the exchange of goods and services
Living capital: soil, water, biodiversity, human health, the health of other organisms and healthy ecosystems functions
Intellectual capital: ideas, concepts, and knowledge
Experiential capital: actual embodied know-how, built from personal experience
Spiritual capital: an entity’s internal connection and awareness of a greater whole
Cultural capital: emerging from the “shared internal and external experience of a group of people: Cultural capital is an emergent property of the complex inter- capital exchanges in a community, village, city, bioregion, or nation […]”.
Ethan Roland & Gregory Landua (2013: 12) 237

In this systemic model, “pools of capital can be held and developed by multiple entities, and various flows can occur within and between each form of capital”. The economy is understood as “the sum total of global inter- and intra-capital exchanges”. Roland and Landua argue that the current “international trend is to deplete the pools of most forms of capital while exponentially increasing the amount of financial capital”. They warn “this mono-capital trajectory has significant impacts on the sustainability of current and future generations” (p.13).

By valuing financial capital above all others for too long, they say, we have severely degraded and destabilized the healthy dynamics of the whole economy (oikos). We have compromised the planetary life support system by degrading ecosystems everywhere along with human cultural diversity and community resilience. [Our current] “trajectory fundamentally limits the long-term viability of humans and other species on the planet — instead of life flourishing, it is degenerating” (p.15). Therefore, we need a regenerative systems design approach.

An extractive economy depletes diverse forms of capital in the system and damages the long-term viability, vitality and health of the whole system. A regenerative economy, on the other hand, does more than simply sustain the status quo by refraining from further depletion. It optimizes the whole system rather than maximizing privileged parts. Roland and Landua suggest that growth has to be reframed from our current obsession with increase in size to increase in surface area and connections. “Regeneratively cultivating capital means increasing the amount and complexity of edge, not just growing the size of the system” (p.19).

By connecting diverse collaborative networks within and across localities into symbiotic relationships the economy grows qualitatively (optimizing all eight forms of capital) rather than quantitatively (maximizing financial capital in the hands of a few).

As a general rule, living capital should only be traded between localities if it is surplus (in terms of annual bioproductivity in that locality) and does not deplete “the living core of each locality, preventing regeneration and continued health of the system”. They emphasize that “foundational pools of capital must be kept intact — enterprises must never extract more value than can be regenerated within the capacity of the living system itself”; and propose that “by cultivating capital instead of extracting it, growing the edges of a system, and increasing its internal and external connectivity, enterprises can proactively develop greater surpluses for harvest and exchange” (p.21).

Regenerative development at any scale will require us to reverse the current systemic trend of increasing financial capital while severely degrading and depleting ecological, social and cultural systems. Investors play an important role in redirecting financial capital into regeneration and the building-up of “the four nurture capitals” (social, living, spiritual and cultural capital). Impact investment can strengthen the virtuous circle of regeneration by “optimizing for multi-capital abundance”.

Roland and Landua pay attention to the inner as well as the outer, the personal as well as the collective dimensions of regeneration. Success in regenerative enterprises, communities or cultures does critically depend on the level of personal development of the people that co-create these collectives. Our collective thriving depends on our individual “ability to articulate and achieve goals”, the “capacity for clear communication”, “integrity in making and keeping commitments”, “intellectual and emotional flexibility”, as well as self-acceptance and a deeper understanding of and compassion for different people and situations.

Roland and Landua suggest that “clear-thinking, spiritually confident, emotionally resilient people are more effective at repairing the world’s living and cultural capital” (p.32). Creating a regenerative culture asks all of us to revisit our personal strengths and weaknesses, our emotional scars and unhelpful patterns, and to transform them for the benefit of our community and our self.

Regenerative economic systems emerge out of following three closely linked and self-reinforcing “global imperatives” (p.48): i) the personal imperative that change starts with our individual intentions and actions; ii) the trade imperative inviting us to “stop buying, selling, and trading in degenerative goods and services”; and iii) the capital imperative requiring humanity globally to “reverse the dominant flow of capital, stopping financial capital’s destructive processes, so that living capital can repair, grow and thrive” (pp.45- 46). Figure 27 describes a regenerative enterprise as a nested system of personal, business and cultural transformation:

Figure 27: Principles for Regenerative Enterprise (redrawn & reproduced with permission)

In summary, a regenerative enterprise aims to reverse the degenerative trends of our current (financial growth obsessed) economy by supporting a healthy pool of nurture capitals (social, cultural, spiritual and living capital) at local and regional scale. It does so by effectively transforming financial capital into living capital as the basis for supporting all other forms of capital. In supporting the personal development of all the people involved in a regenerative enterprise, a business increases its effectiveness and chances of success. Overall success critically depends on the way businesses optimize for multiple forms of capital by collaborating within the regenerative enterprise ecology they participate in. Such business ecosystems are culturally transformative as they offer “new routes for the flow of financial capital into regenerative venture” (p.57).

Many pioneering businesses and entrepreneurs are already exploring the vast potential for enterprise creation in service of regeneration through regenerative design† and are already living the question of how we can co-create enterprises that regenerate the health and productivity of our communities and ecosystems. By caring for and working towards the health and wellbeing of our communities and ecosystems, enterprises can collaborate to become catalysts of a culture of regeneration.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016. I thank Ethan and Gregory for letting me include this short summary of their insightful book in my synthesis of what it may take to create diverse regenerative cultures everywhere. Do read their book and browse the website of the Regenerative Enterprise Institute.]

NOTE: Here is a recording of a conversation hosted by the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Working Group at OCAD on Regenerative Business Models and their context. You can follow this link to the OCAD site and recording. It takes about 90 seconds to load. The link again:

How to join the webinar

[Some examples of businesses already operating successfully in the field of regeneration: Apart from being a principal of the ‘Integrative Design Collaborative’ and ‘Delving Deeper’, Bill Reed also co-founded the Regenesis Group, a collective of regenerative design and planning professionals linked into the ‘Alliance for Regeneration’. Regenerative enterprises are active in landscape architecture (Regenerative Design Group), education (Regenerative Design Institute, Weaving Earth, Living Education), architecture, community planning and industry (Biohabitats, 7group, The International Living Futures Institute), and regenerative agriculture and food production (Intervale Center, Hermannsdorfer, Polyface Farm, New Forest Farm). The Rodale Institute, Holistic Management, and RegenAG all support the development of regenerative farm enterprises. Luckily, this list is far from complete.]