Becoming regenerative inside and out

Ash Buchanan
Sep 11, 2017 · 8 min read

When aspiring to become regenerative, it’s useful to have a range of maps which can contextualise our choices and focus our practices. Maps that comprehensively acknowledge the nature of the challenges we face so we can navigate our options in less fragmented ways.

In this article, we explore and contrast two developmental maps. First, we draw on Bill Reeds regenerative development trajectory which provides valuable insights into the eco-system aspects of regeneration. Second, we explore Susanne Cook-Greuter’s ego development theory which provides valuable insights into the role ego-system’s play in our capacity to make sense of, and respond to, the regenerative challenge.

In doing so, we aim to provide an inclusive way of thinking about both the inner and outer aspects of regeneration.

Degenerative to regenerative development

Image: Bill Reed and Regenesis

This image, developed by Bill Reed of Regenesis, is one of today’s popular frameworks for communicating the nature of the regenerative challenge. The key stages can be summarised as follows;

  • Conventional — Meeting societies minimum standards for environmental and social protection. It includes complying with laws, regulations and building codes. Conventional practices are often used to raise the overall benchmark for society more generally. An example of conventional practices is a building code that sets energy efficiency minimums for the construction of new homes. While important, conventional practises tend to be fragmented, leading to the degeneration of the planets life carrying capacity.
  • Green — Voluntarily going beyond societies minimum benchmarks. This includes concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Environmental Social Governance and Green Building Ratings (e.g Green Star / NABERS / LEED). Predominantly driven by technological innovation, rating systems and business strategy, these concepts show an important step forward in thinking — from compliance to efficiency. However, these practices have been criticised for encouraging an end-game of harm reduction and overly focusing on how we can be ‘less bad’. An example of ‘green’ practices is a business that prepares an annual sustainability report, but at their core continues to pursue degenerative growth.
  • Restorative — This emerging group of practices broadly includes concepts such as Net Positive, Benefit Corporations, Living Building’s and Design for Social Innovation. In their simplest form, these initiatives stand for organisations and developments that make the world a better place. The world should be better off with these organisations and developments than without them. They strive to be ‘good’, rather than only being ‘less bad’? Looking beyond mitigating negative footprints, to making positive handprints. An example of net positive is a building that produces more energy and water than it uses while also providing valuable community and ecosystem services.
  • Regenerative — This concept makes a fundamental shift from making positive handprints within an existing paradigm to catalysing whole system transformation into a new paradigm. Such as how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. Regenerative practices focus on cultivating co-evolutionary relationships between people and place. Between local communities and the community of life we share this planet with. Something new is created because people and nature come into meaningful relationship. An example of regenerative development is a community hub that catalyses the co-evolutionary capability of a whole city together with its local ecosystems.

If you would like to read more about any of these paradigms of practice, please refer to our publication Reinventing Sustainability.

Looking at the regenerative challenge in this way provides a systemic perspective of what’s common — and what’s possible. It’s a potent tool for opening minds, contextualising different developmental paradigms and for exploring how we can bring people and place into meaningful relationship.

To complement this trajectory of transformation we’d like to see take place ‘out there’ in the world, it’s also useful to have frameworks that describe the inner trajectory of transformation necessary to actualise these possibilities. How must our ego-systems also develop and transform to bring them into meaningful relationship with our eco-systems?

In the next section, we explore the role of ego-systems in the context of becoming regenerative.

Ego development

Image based on Susanne Cook-Greuter’s 9 levels of ego development paper

While many have researched the developmental trajectory of our inner lives including Robert Kegan, Ken Wilber and William Torbert, in this article we draw on the work of Susanne Cook-Greuter. This is because Susanne’s work resonates strongly with Reed’s regenerative trajectory.

Susanne’s research suggests that as our ego matures and becomes more complex — we evolve through 9 distinct and identifiable stages that transcend and include each other. It is not possible to skip a stage, because the development of each stage is necessary to enable the emergence of future stages. At each stage, our conscious capacity for making sense of, and responding to, the challenges we face transforms. The stage descriptions can be summarised as follows;

  • Impulsive — Can take a 1st person perspective. See concretely from our own perspective. Unable to distinguish people from the environment. We are governed by our impulses and act reactively.
  • Opportunist — Can distinguish others from the environment and can live in parallel with them. We talk at people, not with them. We are governed by our wants.
  • Diplomat — Can take a 2nd person perspective; we can now take another person’s role. We can now talk with people. This enables us to differentiate ourselves through comparisons. We are governed by conforming with group norms and rules.
  • Expert — Can take a 3rd person perspective; we can now think conceptually. We become skill-orientated and develop a capacity to solve problems. We are governed by our need for mastery and knowledge and the need to create clearer boundaries of who we are and what we do.
  • Achiever — Can use our expertise to achieve our goals. We are governed by linear reasoning and a need for independence and success. We use our context to satisfy our needs.
  • Pluralist — Can take a 4th person perspective: becoming context aware. This stage sees a fundamental shift towards deconstructing our constructed boundaries of who we are and what we do. We value diversity, consensus and community and use it to innovate systemically.
  • Strategist — Can identify and work with complexity. We recognise that many of the challenges we face are too complex to diagnose ‘problems’ and recommend ‘solutions’. Instead we are governed by our desire to inclusively co-create and transform ourselves, others and the systems we belong.
  • Magician -Can take a 5th person perspective; we become construct and meta aware. We use our increasing awareness to facilitate transformation of self, others and systems. The artificially created boundaries of the self becomes clearer and we continually work to dissolve them.
  • Unitive — Can take a 6th person perspective; we are able to cohere in the we space. We have a growing appreciation of non-duality and increasingly identify with all that exists.

The dominant arc here is one from unconscious union to conscious union. Initially, we progressively differentiate ourselves to discover our uniqueness before we naturally reintegrate back into conscious coherence with all that there is.

Therefore, our capacity to make sense of, and respond to, our eco-system challenges evolves and becomes more complex as our ego-systems develop. In turn, this development expands our awareness, widens our circle of compassion and improves our capacity to respond to emerging challenges.

The challenge with developing ourselves through progressive stages of ego maturity and/or through Reed’s developmental trajectory is that we struggle to ‘see’ later stages. New paradigms are over our heads until we become mindfully aware of their existence. The process of becoming aware is therefore the process of making the invisible visible. This includes letting go of our limiting beliefs and limiting language that may have once been dear to us and the authoring of new beliefs and language.

A generalised example of how beliefs and language evolve as we develop can be presented in relation to the regenerative challenge when we draw on both of these tools;

  • At the Expert and Achiever stages, we would likely possess sufficient inner development to make sense of regeneration as a problem to be solved with expertise, planning and outcomes. Something a professional, consultant or a specialist would design for others. Ego development would likely be described in dualistic terms, contrasting a life degenerating mechanistic worldview with a life regenerating ecological worldview.
  • At the Individualist and Strategist stages, we would likely possess sufficient inner development to transcend and include our problem-solving beliefs and language and ‘see’ regeneration as a future to be co-created. There is a shift from designing for — to co-designing with — where regenerative practitioners act like facilitators to surface collective wisdom, collective leadership and emergent co-evolution.
  • At the Magician and Unitive stages, we would once again transcend and include previous sense making beliefs and language, recognising while regeneration may include some problem solving and some co-creation, it’s more deeply a developmental challenge. Where we work to progressively dissolve the boundaries of the ego and identify with all that exists.

Therefore, at each progressive stage of ego-development, our capacity to make sense of the regenerative challenge evolves and becomes more complex. While many may aspire to do regenerative work at early stages of ego maturity, it’s deeper nature is likely to be over our heads until we have sufficiently transformed our ego-system sense making capacities.

Evolving our sense making of the regenerative challenge

Many of us know deep in our hearts that a number of profound shifts are needed to respond to our global challenges. On this basis, I’d suggest there is value in drawing on both of these perspectives when attempting to make sense of, and respond to, regenerative aspirations.

Together, they suggest that becoming regenerative is a challenge that transcends outcomes and ambitions — it’s a commitment to a process of becoming more whole and coherent with ourselves, others and all that there is.

If you have any reflections you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below 😊.

Benefit Mindset

Creating cultures of everyday leadership

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