reGeneration Rising! Conversations about regenerative practice (Part 1)

with Jason Twill, Dominque Hes and Daniel Wahl

On December 19th, 2019 I had a Zoom call with Jason Twill and Dominque Hes (who joined us half way through the call). Jason and Dominque have been instrumental in building a network and growing capacity for regenerative practice in Australia — both in their different roles of working with the building industry, with communities and in academia.

I was introduced to Jason by Stuart Cowan from the Regenerative Communities Network about two years ago and met him in person at the Common Earth gathering at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London last October. I was deeply impressed by how Jason embodies through his personal story how regenerative practice starts with personal development first.

Jason’s story: a pilgrim and apprentice of regeneration

In our conversation Jason started off by sharing his personal story from a very open and vulnerable place to contextualise what lead him to do the work he does today. He has managed to work with and transform personal challenges like teenage alcoholism, and traumas like losing a close friend in a car crash and escaping — with his now wife — from one of the Twin Towers during the events of September 11th, 2001.

Jason Twill from Urban Apostles

Jason recalls how reading ‘The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape’ by James Howard Kunstler was his “spear in the heart” that woke him up to understanding how a particular US American paradigm of real estate development had led to the suburbs with their dysfunctionalities that he grew up in. This degenerative built environment had a play in how Jason’s teenage years and early adolescence played out for him.

“I was able to understand the spatial dynamics of suburban sprawl, the commute pattern of fathers, the divorce rate, the lack of sidewalks and walkability, the behaviour of teenagers in that society, the lack of independence from home and places for us to congregate safely outside the parent world … it was my lightbulb moment … it helped me find my purpose and the system that I wanted to change.

[I am] really coming at built environment transformation from a social-ecological transformation perspective. My sweat spot is [to find answers to the question]: How do I change the social dynamics of place so that on our life journey we are looked after at each stage of the journey.”

Jason has worked for some of the largest developers in the world. Inspired by people like Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, Chris Alexander and others whose work he was studying in addition to his conventional training helped him get a good understanding of “system A” and “system B”. For the last twenty years he has been an “architect of change” trying to bridge these deeper ideas of a healthier and more regenerative way of doing things into the large scale development industry, He worked on the frist LEED certified buildings in New York in the early 2000s when talking about sustainability was rare in the industry.

By 2005 things were changing and sustainability started to be a market driver and it got easier to do this work. Jason moved to Seattle and started to work for Microsoft co-founder Paul G Allen. He began to develop his own style of working with storytelling and personal narrative to connect to people at a human level as a way of seeding change agent work. Jason has worked for and with the Cascadia Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute, while still working with Paul G. Allen on global change projects.

Jason’s experience ranges from museum projects to sustainability retrofit projects for massive sport stadiums. Out of this a process evolved the creation of the Green Sports Alliance aimed at taking the regeneration and sustainability conversation to sports fans using their stars. Jason is the co-founder and founding director and still serves on the executive committee of the board 10 years on.

After 6 very successful years in Seattle, Jason and his wife decided to move to Australia partially because they wanted to raise their children outside of the US. A decision influenced by Jason’s own opportunities to himself live overseas and learn from other cultures when he was young.

Jason and I explored how such experiences help us both to understand the value of diverse perspectives, ways of seeing and ways of being. He has now been in Australia for over 6 years. Initially moving from the US to Sydney felt like stepping back 10 years in time with regard to where the sustainability within the building industry was at.

What deeply nourished Jason on his journey of learning was his close connection to Indigenous wisdom keepers in Australia and he has been immersing himself into being a humble apprentice of their culture with such an ancient history of living in places over many millennia. This wisdom resonates with the regenerative practice approach and expands on it in deeply place-sourced ways.

Bill Reed from Regenesis Group and Carol Sanford have been important personal mentors and friends to Jason since 2008. They both have supported him on his journey of becoming a regenerative practitioner.

Working with Jason McLennan through the Living Futures Institute Jason had a lot of opportunity to invite and learn together with people like David Suzuki, Paul Hawken, Pliny Fisk, Gail Vittori, Hunter Lovins, Vivian Loftness, Stephen
Kellert, Janine Benyus, Ray Anderson, Bill Browning, Jonathan Rose and Amory Lovins. Jason wanted to befriend and “learn from them to become a respectful next generation custotian of the work they started”.

I personally very much like the way Jason framed this inter-generational mentorship and support and sense of carrying on a lineage. I feel similar regarding all the amazing people I learned from at Schumacher College, and through my work with Bioneers, Findhorn, the ecovillage movement and the International Futures Forum.

Expanding the field of regeneration through indigenous wisdom

Jason gives a lot of credit to Caroline Robinson from Auckland, New Zealand who pioneered bringing together regenerative practitioners with Maori elders for mutually enriching conversations. There are by now about 150 people who have gone through the Regenerative Practitioner Training in Australia and New Zealand in the last few years. Most of them are exploring this fertile connection of Indigenous culture with the frameworks of regenerative practice in some way in their ongoing practice.

“What I had to do during my career is to figure out how to take the ideal of regenerative development and apply them to a broken system.” — Jason Twill

Jason is developing a new programme to help people who have done the Regenesis Institute’s ‘Regenerative Practitioner Training’ hone their ability to apply the frameworks and insights they gained in the mainstream planning process working with the building industry. Jason’s business partner is the Aboriginal wisdom carrier Chels Marshall. She is a systems ecologist, marine biologist and Aboriginal ecologist and has a background as a ranger and manager of protected areas.

“I have learned more in the last 3 years from my aboriginal brothers and sisters than I have in the previous 17 years of my career.” — Jason Twill

Jason spoke about an experience he has had on his learning with the elders in that culture that I can relate to from having had a very insightful conversation with Johnnie Freeland regarding Maori culture in New Zealand. The way that our concepts like biophilia, biomimicry, permaculture and regenerative practice are aligned to and informed by what indigenous wisdom carries have learned from their elders and within their cosmology for tens of thousands of years.

Jason and Chels have mentored each other in these complimentary frameworks exploring how this merging of Western science and frameworks with Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and wisdom of living in place and listening to place can mutually enrich each other. They call their work “Life centred design through cultural reciprocity”.

[This is to about minute 34 for the below linked recording — video linked below] … around min 37 Dominique Hes joined our conversation … as we were just deepening into how building a bridge between Indigenous (ancient) ways and practices that have enabled culture to live in place as expressions of place for millennia with the modern regenerative practices of systemic healing and regeneration is one of the crucial challenges of our time.

Dominique Hes

Dominique Hes is the co-author of Designing for Hope: Pathways to Regenerative Sustainability. She has been working on the notion of “modern custodianship” that looks precisely at what kind of innovation and transformations can happen as these ancient and more modern knowledge systems meet.

“There is some really interesting learning in that yes-and conversation between indigenous wisdom, and knowledge and thinking and being, and current issues and thinking and being. […] it is about coming together and seeing what emerges.” — Dominique Hes

Dominique described herself as the “mycelium of the Australian regenerative development network” and in its genesis saw her role mainly in connecting people and enabling collaboration and exchange to happen.

… we went on to explore how different people use and build on what they learn on the Regenerative Practitioner Training. …

[around minute 45] … we explored the idea of how cascading ecosystems collapse and climate change are pushing us — humanity — into a species level rite of passage … Dominque mentioned that Charles Eisenstein had been talking a lot about this lately … I shared that this was probably linked to him and me sharing common mentors, like Gigi Coyle from the School of Lost Borders.

We talked about the wisdom of cool mosaic burn strategies as a way to manage fire risk and work with the creative disruption that managed fires can represent in ways that strengthen ecosystems resilience … I mentioned the work of Dennis Martinez in California on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and how American indigenous people have used selective burning to steward ecosystems health for millennia.

Dominique shared how she was observing a hopeful shift in awareness as every the numbers of people who are actively engaged in regeneration and the practice of “how to increase future thriving” are growing.

We agreed that it is not too late yet to avoid cataclysm.

[Around 60 minutes Dominque had to drop out of the call again] Jason and I continue for another half hour, touching on the Australian Change Agents Development (CAD) group that Carol Sanford is running in Australia through a series of quarterly online gatherings that Caroline Robinson is also involved in.

Jason shared that while he was being mentored by Carol Sanford he realized that many of the frameworks that she and Pamela Mang used and developed based on their work with Charlie Krone were similar to what he had experienced in his work in the AA 12-step programme.

“I have to wake up every day and put my feet on the floor to ground myself and say ‘I belong to the Earth’ and ‘I am in service to life’” — Jason Twill

… Jason and I talked about how so much of the transition from our exploitative and degenerative cultural patterns to healing and regenerative one is about overcoming addiction.

… Towards the end we explored how the regenerative movement can grow beyond the Regenesis and Carold Sanford lineage while at the same time deeply valuing their contribution. The is always a tension between honouring lineage and depth of practice on the one hand and allowing the work and practice to evolve and grow as the network of practitioners grow on the other hand.

… Fittingly at the end we returned to the gift that is Aboriginal wisdom and practice: “80.000 year+ of living in place in a regenerative way.”

There is lots to learn!

90 minute (unedited) video of our conversation

… to be continued (I hope to follow up with Domique in a separate conversation as she could only join us briefly)

[Upcoming conversation guests for this new series: Bill Reed, Pamela Mang, Marilyn Hamilton, Stuart Cowan …]

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

Activate The Future

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Activate The Future

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Daniel Christian Wahl

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Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

Activate The Future

Insights and stories about the future qualities and shape of business: regenerative business, self-sufficiency, self-management, creativity, purpose and innovation