6 Ways to Design Regenerative Cultures in Business

A brilliant conversation between diverse business leaders into what measures they are taking to rebirth the human spirit through work

We know from research studies carried out by global organisations like Gallup, that employee engagement in their work is at an all time low across most Western businesses. We know we face many existential global challenges — not least how to reverse rampant climate change and urgently reimagine the future of food production. We know that business has a critical role in accelerating transformational change. How are we going to release those most brilliant and required of all human qualities — creativity and innovation — to make the changes we need to make?

I was asked to curate and host the second Connectle Con on Regenerative Cultures in business. You can watch the full replay at the bottom but here’s a sneak peak summary of some of the key points our guests made. Let’s firstly set the scene…

What did we lose in terms of humanity at work during the industrial period of organisational design?

The change in the human experience at work has altered over a period of time during the late 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries. Several significant factors have contributed to our existing model of work no longer being fit for purpose which include (but aren’t limited to)

  • a growth in the percentage of our population with higher education
  • a gradual growth of personal awareness and understanding
  • the change in business models from factories to service centres

Largely thanks to several international polls from organisations like Gallup there’s a growing recognition in the corporate world that engagement is a critical issue for greater performance . We have gained a lot of recognition and awareness of the issue of disengagement at work in the last decade.

Through brilliant thought leaders from authors like Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organisations, Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics, we’re beginning to see new organisational options emerge. From the growth of purpose-led business, B Corporations to ‘teal’ designed startups.

Equally thanks to leading thinkers like Otto Scharmer, we’ve also become more aware of the cultural narratives of this period which walk side by side the economic models of the time. Such narratives include creating a false perceived scarcity to drive competition and therefore competitive advantage, as well as the notion that ‘more makes us happier’ largely driven by global brand advertising. They summarise well in a story of ‘separation’.

The Iceberg Model of Economic Thought from Otto Scharmer of The Presencing Institute
  • Separation between humanity and nature that has resulted in environmental degradation;
  • separation human to human which has resulted in economic polarity of wealth and opportunity,
  • Separation between humans and their real selves or soul, which is showing up as increased rates of disengagement, depression and lack of purpose.

In this Connectle Con we explored ways in which business could address the droop in human aspiration through work.

1. Regenerative culture through Organisational Design & Structure

Reimagining legal frameworks for business is an area of opportunity now and in the future — not just for businesses but also for regulators, legislators and politicans. Most companies — even global multinationals — operate on a basis of limited liability in some way. In Britain the Ltd company could be seen as a god-send to organisations who want to do the legal minimum when it comes to the environment and people.

As far back as 1951 Scott Bader, founded by a Quaker family, designed a different organisation. CEO Jean-Claude Pierre explained: “Our founders had a principle that business is not about making money but satisfying the needs we have as human beings.” Scott Bader has developed a number of democratic processes which are secured by a constitution, to ensure the organisation always operates towards those principles. The company has very clear descriptions of governance principles, which make sure the company leaves people, the environment and its business in a better position when leaders leave than when they join.

The three elements include:

  • a Commonwealth Board who are the guardians of the ethos, and act similarly to charitable trustees. The Commonwealth makes sure the company stays true to the original ethos of the founder
  • A Members Assembly comprised of 12 people who are elected from employees around the globe who have a final say in all the decisions the company makes — from hiring of the CEO and Chairman to new HR policies. Everything has to be approved by the 12.
  • A Business Board: who take care of normal business strategy

Jean-Claude gave an example of how the system works. In introducing variable pay, there was a question as to whether this was true to the ethos and values of the company. The question was submitted to the Commonwealth Board for consideration and working practices adapted. In the UK we know from the John Lewis model how participation for employees in the success of the company through distributed profits, adds positively to organisational culture.

How does your legal and organisational design help or hinder your ambitions to be socially and environmentally regenerative?

2. Regenerative culture through Practices

Inspired by Fred Laloux’s ‘teal’ business model and equally by one of its first proponents Buurtzorg, Helen Sanderson’s Wellbeing Teams takes a very human entered design approach to provide home care and support. An expert experimenter with weaving together processes and practices she has sourced from the teal movement, holacracy and sociocracy, Helen is currently an exemplar of leading human development in the workplace.

Among the practices she has implemented is a completely different system of recruitment described as value-based recruitment. No CVs are asked for, and no formal interviews are held. Instead there’s a 20 minute conversation around a 1 page personal profile which seeks to understand what people like about you, what your interests and strengths are. It’s followed by a workshop in which potential employees explore a series of values-based exercises.

As a self-managed business, roles and tasks which would have traditionally been done by managers are shared across all team members but allocated according to strengths and interests. Teams are also trained in compassionate and non-violent communication to ensure people are confident and able to give feedback — both positive and negative. They foster a culture of appreciation using Shannon Webber’s Love Notes which allow people to post messages of appreciation to each other.

But what would that look like somewhere like a Bangladeshi fabric business? What would the cultural interpretation of that be?

In Safia Minney’s experience at People Tree starting with the basics of gender equality was key. “First give women economic power and a livelihood; support them to work by providing nurseries for children. Then work with people as equals. Don’t come with an attitude of condescension and Western superiority. Design a working partnership in which a product can be produced that benefits everyone,” she suggested.

In addition to creating workers committees and supporting them to make decisions on behalf of their community, People Tree staff would live in the villages with artisans, sharing their life and food to builder stronger foundations of trust. The effort put into relationship-building allowed workers to understand that they could expect to be treated with respect and could expect a voice and a supportive environment.

People Tree pioneered community building and cross pollination of respect, cultures and ideas between producers and consumers by initiating visits for artisans to markets, and visits for consumers and media to producers — another win/win solution for connectivity, although still with an environmental footprint.

What practices could you experiment with in your organisation?

3. Regenerative Culture Through Designing for Diversity

In a 60 minute webcast you can’t dig into diversity in any great depth, but there’s no doubt that diversity contributes to the potential for regenerative human experiences, and perhaps it doesn’t even need to be said.

One way in which Wellbeing Teams is disrupting its sector is again through its recruitment process. Typically in home care, employees would be likely to be older people, often 50+. Helen was keen to ensure that Wellbeing Teams intentionally welcomed in people of all ages and groups, but is also very clear that they should come from the locality they are going to work in to reflect the values, customs and ethnicity of the geography. Currently the company recruits people across the diversity spectrum some straight from University and school. Helen’s vision is that Wellbeing Teams should offer an opportunity for young people to explore whether or not working in a self-managed business is for them, where the fact that it’s a care business happens to also be part of the equation.

How does your business consider diversity in all its actions?

4. Regenerative Design Through A Transition to Glocal

Another enormous area for potential — and debate — is the idea of rowing back from the globalisation of business systems to a more bioregional and local approach.

One of the key ‘losses’ from the past century of business which Daniel highlighted is the loss of connection to what he described as the ‘bio-uniquesness of place’. One of the more obvious impacts of globalisation is the impact on the environment of the production/shipping/distribution triangle for most manufacturers. Could we expect to see a move towards increased regional production for regional consumption in the future?

Perhaps glocalisation is currently executed as a sense of origin within a brand — like Patagonia’s sense of connection to mountains and water. A sense of connection to what materials come naturally from the place of birth of a business, like lavender from Provence or pasta from Italy. And also to supporting the community from which the business is birthed which most companies currently approach through corporate social responsibility programmes alone. In today’s per-globalised world, the high street is probably the best example of loss of sense of place and design where you could almost be anywhere in the world as you pass Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada. But this is no simple system to overhaul and redesign.

An interesting example we discussed of a bioregional approach to business was Ecover’s Majorcan project on which Daniel worked, together with Forum for the Future. The objective for the Ecover business was to see if it could become an international knowledge holder to work with other organisations in the future on the power and potential of glocal business and product development.

To achieve this, the innovation department attempted to see if it could produce detergents and floor cleaners from material sourced in the local environment — such as waste streams like lemon peel for example in a nontoxic process — and then sell them to local businesses. Those included on Majorca to hotels and apartments in the tourist industry which accounts for over 500,000 beds. The group worked with the local chemical industry who had already shown an interest in greener chemistry, to try to create greener products.

One of the key learning outcomes of the experiment was to see that when you try to work with bioregional organic waste streams — as Daniel describes the biocultural design of the future — the bi-products of fossil fuels will also decline in use. So shrinking the industrial material cycle of the circular economy digram in order to help to grow the biocultural resources.

There are plenty of examples of how this could be possible in the future. PoZu itself uses fabric made from pineapple leaves to replace leather. It’s possible to produce a leather-like fabric from mushrooms. But currently, as Safia pointed out, it’s not possible to both produce materials and have production in one locality at costs which are commercially viable for smaller businesses.

One of the major challenges of redesigning business to be regenerative is that is the current degenerative economic models create an unfair playing field which is fundamentally driving the exploitation of people and planet. As a business you need to survive commercially, deliver profits to shareholders, and in playing by those rules are at risk of become a degenerative business. The world does need governments, regulators and investors to step in to give incentives for local production to local consumption, and especially to products who design with carbon drawdown designed in.

As Safia pointed out, the experience in developing nations clearly illustrates how the current economic system fundamentally disadvantages locality and place. “When we looked at the carbon output of 10 million hand weavers in India and Bangladesh versus making fabric on power looms, we could see that you would be saving about 1 tonne of CO2 per handloom. So each of those families were saving 1 tonne of Co2 per year. If you are growing cotton organically, you are sequestering carbon into the soil.” The challenge however lies in the the fact that these are smallholders and micro businesses for the most part. They have no voice, no body or organisation to represent them and their interests against the power of the multi-nationals. Unlike Esso or Shell they have no capacity to negotiate a CDM programme to bring them such a tiny economic benefit. We still need to fund business models that help to create voices for the people with the lightest economic footprint in the world.

Can designing glocally help to regenerate human culture?
Its easy to see that this needs careful consideration as we shift from one business paradigm to another. In the case of Safia Minney’s People Tree — a model most people would describe as foundational in terms of ethical fashion — we can see that it is completely possible to up-level the quality of life of individuals, families and communities in a given region through a carefully designed business model.

“The approach with which I developed People Tree was a very regenerative approach. We started with the producers of the product and the environment in which it was produced being central to everything that we did. We did this without compromising on quality of design or product — and because we started in Japan our products had to be well designed because that was an important quality. In our selection we ensured that there was not only fair pay for the designers and workers, but also the wider community. We designed in support to help women with children work by creating creches and nurseries. We made sure workers had access to clean water, had bank accounts. We gave literacy training. So we were able to weave the social and cultural development of the area into the product story, combining it with the local skills.”

The partnership approach through social dialogue amongst progressive businesses, trade associations, local governments and trade unions such as People Tree and the Fairtrade movement pioneered, is giving a real sense of how to strengthen the social impact in supply chains and overcome the reality of risks around scarcity.

If regenerating human culture in areas like Bangladesh or India seems to be much more about still establishing the basic human rights project that all nations agreed was important through the UN Sustainable Development Goals — then Jean-Claude also reminded us to bear in mind that human needs don’t really change just because you’re in a developing nation — they may manifest in different cultural forms depending on place but they remain the same. Access to health, education and life in a fair and impartial environment.

The key challenge for business is to work out what the transition models can be away from global to glocal and to local. Even the People Tree model with all the human rights benefits woven in still transports and distributes products — made in certain localities — around the world to localities where there are markets. And we should remember that there is still great benefit to be given to poorer communities around the world by designing international trade in this way. Trade has elevated millions of people out of poverty in China alone.

The question is how to balance the human rights project and live within the boundaries and and carrying capacity of a finite planet. We are in a transition phase — one which is likely to last the next 20–30 years — away from business as usual to business as regenerative.

How could your business innovate with a global approach?

5. Experiment with Radically New Technology

One way in which technology is being harnessed to deliver local regeneration both to land and people is being pioneered by ReGen Network. ReGen Network uses on-the-ground science processes to measure the potential for regeneration of land and soil, measures progress through satellite and on-the-ground systems. The intention is to reward farmers who are committing to regenerative agriculture not just through their produce sales, but through allocation of blockchain driven values for the regenerative activity on a given piece of land. For example tokens for Co2 sequestered which can be traded and turned into a financial incentive. Farmers — the primary producers — would get paid twice — for the price of the product but also paid for sequestering carbon, protecting the local ecosystem and improving the entire local landscape.

What exponential or emergent technology could transform or disrupt and advance your industry’s capacity to be regenerative?

6. Shift Consciousness Through Shared Learning & Transformational Experiences.

A brilliant question from audience member was how to activate a greater level of consciousness in rights holders within a given business. Our panel’s answers included:

  • Increase the capacity to develop critical thinking by designing opportunities for multi-stakeholder input into how you will do business. Scott Bader instituted The Social Review which involved bringing together producers, staff, customers, e-commece customers, influencers and supporters to explore each others human needs and desires as both people and in their businesses. By gathering the collective emotional intelligence of the group they were able to find ways to redesign their business processes to accommodate as many needs as possible. But also to find the necessary compromises that take into account their three key pillars: Business, Ecology & People. Compassionate and connected dialogue is critical.
  • Draw on indigenous wisdom and native cultures, as well as modern understanding of neuroscience. Daniel highlighted The Way of Council — a practice of learning to listen and speak from the heart in a circle to explore questions together.
  • Develop literacy in systemic thinking and interacting patterns in the world in the people who work for and with you.
  • Spending time alone in nature, deep connection to wild nature gives us the answers that transforms consciousness.

Finally and perhaps most profoundly, before we can answer the how and what of regenerative business and culture, we need to ask a deeper question — why is humanity worth sustaining. Creating opportunities to discuss, sit and ponder questions of philosophy with your community, will help to transform consciousness. To make it also the responsibility of business to create moments of contemplation that will allow us to deeply transform the way we see ourselves so that we can remake the human presence on earth, stop being a degenerative influence on each other and the environment, and start regenerating what we’ve destroyed to create abundance for all life.

And on that note…..the whole story via video or podcast — your choice!

And here’s my own TEDx talk which incorporates the three pillars of which I consider to be regenerative business: design with planetary purpose, deliberately developmental human design, and designing for creativity & innovation

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My enormous thanks to Connectle, Daniel Christian Wahl, SafiaMinney, Jean-Claude Pierre of Scott Bader and Helen Sanderson of WellbeingTeams.

Jenny Andersson is a neogeneralist, synthesiser of ideas and future trends. She support leaders for change from business, NGOs, and governmental organisations to navitage and cross thresholds in perspective, and shape their personal narratives and messages. She draws on unique array of international experiences and roles including brand strategist, international trade adviser, innovation consultant, curator and host, as well as being a successful business owner in her own right.

You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIN.