Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

How do you distinguish between regenerative and sustainable design?

Session with the student on the post-graduate programme of the Indian School of Development Management (Nov. 2019)

This autumn I was asked by Suparna Diwakar, co-founder of the Indian School of Development Management, — who had read Designing Regenerative Cultures — whether I would be willing to offer a webinar to their postgraduate students.

In the spirit of ‘living the questions’ — a practice I consider critically important for the emergence of regenerative cultures — I asked the students to watch a recorded talk I gave at the Findhorn Foundation last year online and read some excerpts from my book on Medium and then to come up with some questions for me. That way I made sure that what I would offer to them would be relevant to their situation and life.

In this post I share some of my answer to their first question (and you can watch the recording of that answer below). In the coming weeks I will share their other questions and how I responded to them.

The one slide I shared with the students is based on a diagram Bill Reed created in conversation with Carol Sanford and his colleagues at Regenesis Group. I first came across this framework through a paper Bill wrote in 2006 entitled ‘Shifting our mental models’.

I very much like that it offers a spectrum — a journey to embark on — rather than dismissing any stage on the journey. Ethan Roland’s more recent addition of calling sustainability “the bridge” we need to cross to get from a degenerative to a regenerative impact is very useful framing as it emphasises how important becoming more sustainable still is on our journey towards becoming regenerative. We have not crossed that bridge yet!

Too many of the buzz-word focussed consultant types that have recently jumped on to selling “regenerative” as the new trend, make the mistake of dismissing working on sustainability as outdated. There is a way to create more sustainable systems through regenerative practice. I know many people who have worked for decades to promote sustainability and have done so with a regenerative approach even if they did not use that word. People working on sustainability and implementation of the SDGs are our allies in the rise of the reGeneration!

We still need to do a lot of work to become sustainable but to do so successfully we will have to set the goal post much further out. We have to understand that as expressions of life we have the capacity to create conditions conducive to life — to regenerate our communities, to regenerate our local and regional economies, and to regenerate the ecosystems in which we live. We do so, as part of and participants in those ecosystems, so we start to design as nature rather than design or do things to nature.

So I put the Sustainable Development Goal — and the United Nation’s sustainable development process — right in the centre here to represent the bridge of sustainability. The SDGs offer a platform for conversation and partnerships that might help us cross the bridge towards a healing, restorative and regenerative human impact on the world and the places we inhabit.

Please notice that I slightly changed the icon of SDG8 — currently worded as ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth’. I do that to indicate that within the SDGs framework number 8 is the ‘spanner in the works’ that will sabotage the implementation of all the other goals, unless we redefine growth to qualitative growth.

The problem that has driven un-sustainability — or the growing degenerative impact of humanity — is that structurally we designed an economic system that needs economic growth in oder for this economic system to continue. The structure is design as a zero-sum game that needs losers in order for there to be any winners. It is a system that structurally drives us to exploit the planet and exploit each other.

There is a structural dysfunctionality in the design of our economic system that will stop us from being able to implement the 17 SDGs unless we address this issue and redesign that system. Doing so is critical for us to be able to cross that bridge towards regeneration (in my opinion).

Some other changes that we need to make on the path towards working more regeneratively are:

  • pay more attention to the kind of metaphors we use and shift from our predominantly mechanistic and techological explanatory frameworks to being informed by a living systems view of life
  • defragment our intellectual landscape with is siloed disciplines and the different specialties that people become “experts” in and earn their income from
  • we need to value specialist expertise while understanding that with every perspective comes a blindspot and therefore wise decisions will have to be informed by multiple perspectives that capture a more holistic understanding of complexity
  • we need to get out of the ‘if you can’t quantify it, it is not there’ mindset that goes along with the “what get’s measured get’s managed” platitude (which is mistaken), and understand that engaging in regenerative practice is about affecting the qualitative relationships between people, between people and their place and the ecosystems they inhabit
  • we need to shift from aiming for control, prediction and manipulation to aiming for appropriate participation in the dynamics of nested complexity that we are expressions of and have agency in
  • we need to remember that life is a planetary symbiotic process and that to fall in alignment with its patterns we need to value collaborative advantage over competitive advantage as we try to have regenerative impact.

(Here is the video)

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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




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Daniel Christian Wahl

Daniel Christian Wahl

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

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