The Regenerative Economic Shaper Perspective Paper — Part 3

A Framework for Architecting the Next Economy

By Carol Sanford and Ben Haggard (with the Regenerative Economy Collaborative)

This is the third part in a series. To get caught up, see parts one and two.

Photo by Joao Branco on Unsplash

The problem with the global economy isn’t how we do it, it’s how we think about it. The dysfunction and destructiveness of the current economy is all the evidence one needs for how bad our economic thinking is. Yet human intelligence has the inherent potential to create an economy that activates life — for people and the planet — if we shift the paradigm from which we’re thinking.

This paper is for those who want to create profound economic change. It provides a framework from which to innovate designs for the next economy.

Levels of Paradigm, Continued

Do Good

The do good paradigm removes the arbitrary ceiling imposed by arrest disorder, which devotes its energies to making the world less bad. But in its pursuit of abstract ideals, do good-ism also introduces its own unintended negative consequences. At this level, one’s attention shifts to discovering meaning in life, and this awakens altruism, the desire to improve the world by moving it toward an ideal pattern. One seeks to model one’s actions on an inspiring or aspirational model, often manifest as a set of values and principles, the life of an exemplary individual, or the teachings of a community. One’s orientation moves from problems to be solved to potential to be pursued, away from the things one wants to prevent and toward the things one wants to create or encourage.

The do good paradigm guides the work of many philanthropic organizations, religious communities, and social and ecological movements. It can even show up in international politics. For example, the U.S. chose to change its policy and invest in rebuilding the German economy after World War II, as part of a larger aid program for post-war Europe. The Marshall Plan, as it came to be known, fostered peaceful and prosperous partnerships that had a stabilizing influence on the world for generations, and it established the reputation of the U.S. as a principled actor in world affairs.

This approach was different from containment strategies pursued in the aftermath of more recent wars and from foreign aid that was intended to address the immediate needs and problems of regions undergoing conflicts or natural disasters. With a focus on building the capacity of nations to create their own wealth, the Marshall Plan funded the construction of critical infrastructure. Although there were flaws in the plan’s conception and execution, it nevertheless stood out for this commitment to the development of new capacity.

An intention to do good can actually generate energy, whereas constant effort to restrain disorder usually drains energy. One reason why it has been easy in the past to tap the isolationist impulse in U.S. politics is that most of the country’s international spending, including support for the military, goes to arresting disorder. People grow understandably tired of the endless, unrewarding effort to feed and police the world. The do good paradigm offers the appealing alternative of support for the economic and social growth of independent, thriving nations.

Yet at the same time, the do good paradigm carries within it a dangerous shadow. What one person thinks is good is not necessarily what another thinks is good, and implicit in the do good paradigm is the do-gooder, the person who decides which good to do. Out of the kind of thinking that this paradigm tends to produce have come imperialism and religious wars, as well as unintended negative consequences from a host of well-meaning initiatives. A classic example is the green revolution programs that increased farm production while decimating indigenous crop varieties and impoverishing small farmers. This kind of problem arises because the do good perspective values abstract ideals, which are always less dimensional and complex than a living reality and may or may not be relevant to the specific people or situations to which they are applied.

Regenerate Life

At this level, intention shifts from doing good to serving as an instrument for the evolution of being. One comes to understand oneself as a living process, embedded and intertwined within all of the other processes that make up a living world. The sense of personal identity drops away, to be replaced by a deep and caring resonance with each specific living being one encounters. This resonance creates an unshakeable commitment to enabling all living entities to awaken and express their indwelling potential in service to life’s evolution.

One has moved in a dramatic way from the broad and general to the concrete and specific. One can only regenerate life for something particular — a friend, a beloved town or landscape, a favorite business — and only when one has a deeply embodied understanding of it, alive and at work, mutually engaged with its proximate environment. One can work on regenerating larger and more complex systems, such as watersheds, nations, or industries, but only when one has developed the capacity to understand them as whole living beings rather than as abstractions. When this living understanding is present, it opens the door to enormous creative energy as the being, whether an individual human or an entire ecosystem, discovers new ways to express its essence in reciprocity with the evolving life around it.

At the level of the regenerate life paradigm, one’s thinking moves from doing things for others or to others toward serving the development of their capacities, capabilities, and agency. This implies respect for and faith in the ability of living beings to become their own sources of creativity and self-determination. We do not mean to suggest a laissez-faire approach that forces individuals and communities to sink or swim, depending on the resources they can muster. Rather, we are pointing to an unwavering commitment to provide the infrastructure necessary to support the development of living systems as they become increasingly successful participants in evolutionary processes. Available energy is invested in helping everyone and everything tap its inherent orientation toward growth.

This dedication to developing the potential and effectiveness of every living being, from smallest to largest whole systems, is the hallmark of a regenerative economy. It invites everyone onto a path of evolution, growing their ability to manage increasingly complex relationships in ways that produce wealth and new capacity for all stakeholders. A degraded watershed evolves its ability to integrate increasingly complex biological communities so that the river it feeds can provide healthy, oxygenated water for humans, ecosystems, and eventually the ocean. A business evolves its ability to manage innovation, production, and distribution, and becomes increasingly able to bring products to market that have the power to transform the lives of its customers and its industry. A child evolves toward adulthood by taking on increasingly ambitious and personally resonant challenges, extending her ability to think, collaborate, and express herself in the process.

A path of evolution cannot be predetermined, and thus the invitation to step onto such a path must be made without preconceptions with regard to the speed or direction of growth. These must be dictated by the living being on the path, in dialogue with its context. After all, for the process to be evolutionary this being must make a meaningful contribution to the future health of its environment, thereby securing a role and a place for itself in this future. This is how the regenerative paradigm addresses the shadow side of the do good paradigm. The good that one sets out to do at a regenerative level is always guided by the perspective, inherent potential, motivation, intention, and drive to contribute of that which one seeks to serve.

A regenerative economy works to realize the potential and grow the wealth generating capacity of every living entity it touches. The focus of such an economy is on the matches among what a living entity has the potential and aspiration to become, the role that this allows it to play within the context of a larger system, and the value that it can therefore contribute.

From a regenerative perspective, the role of social institutions, including economic institutions, is to foster and nurture this living development for all. Although we stress the importance of growing self-determination, we always intend this to be understood as occurring within a context of mutualistic exchange and cooperation, supported by developmental infrastructure. We do not mean to suggest that there is no role for social institutions, but that these institutions need to evaluate their effectiveness based on the degree of self-determination and capacity they have helped to generate.

Working Regeneratively

Although the regenerate life paradigm has since time immemorial been familiar to indigenous peoples, it has only now been rediscovered in the industrialized world and is therefore new to most others. Modern habits of thought, developed and reinforced for centuries, tend to produce in most contemporary cultures a fragmented and abstract view of living processes. These deeply engrained habits must be unlearned in order to make way for a completely new experience of the world as a living phenomenon.

It takes effort to evolve one’s thinking and practices in order to access the regenerate life paradigm at will and then maintain its integrity as one brings it to bear in work. How does one know that one is working at the regenerate level? A practical answer to this question is that one works from the principles that govern living systems. Regeneration is a property of living systems and can only occur within a context of evolutionary dynamism. This means that to lift themselves to the level of the regenerate life paradigm, humans and their institutions must learn to generate a comparable pattern of dynamism, change, and complexity in their thinking.

We have found that the application of all the following first principles of living systems is a good way to help ensure that the mind is operating at the right level.

Seven First Principles of Regeneration

Wholes — experiencing a being as singular, unified, and with a role to play within a larger system, rather than as made up of interconnected parts.

Potential — experiencing something in terms of what inherently it could become and contribute, rather than in terms of its current existence.

Essence — recognizing that each being is different, has its own nature, and will express itself distinctively, rather than lumping things together in generic categories.

Development — bringing forward the essence, potential, and distinctive contribution of a whole being so that it can be more fully manifested.

Nestedness — recognizing that every whole is embedded within other wholes, such that impacts to one level affect all levels and the potential of one contributes to the potential of all.

Nodal — revealing essence-sourced dynamics within a system in a way that allows one to find focused interventions that transform it toward a greater expression of its potential.

Fields — discerning and shaping the source of the qualitative state of something, which either limits or enables the work it could be doing.

These principles can be used to generate images in the mind, which is very different from adopting them as abstract concepts to be manipulated in mental sequences. This is also different from visualization, which has to do with producing mental pictures that illustrate a desired condition. By contrast, imaging is the mental activity of simply seeing things as they are and observing the way they work. These images can then be woven together in order to produce a rich, multi-layered understanding of the livingness of a system.

One of the biggest challenges to learning how to work regeneratively is the assumption that one is already working regeneratively. We are aware that for many of our readers, the set of principles described above will be conceptually recognizable and even familiar. Unfortunately, this sense of familiarity can rob them of their disruptive potential. One must break the unconscious habit of resisting the new paradigm by familiarizing it, reinterpreting and appropriating its ideas and language in order to integrate them into old ways of thinking. Getting comfortable is a process that extends the content of one’s thought without actually lifting and transforming it.

We acknowledge that surrendering to the power of a living principle, rather than keeping it at arm’s length and using it as a tool, may feel alien and uncomfortable at first. Nevertheless, these principles, used skillfully, can undo a lifetime of conditioning if they are applied, regularly and rigorously, to catching oneself whenever one drops below the regenerative level of paradigm. Each time they are used, they must be brought to life (that is, regenerated) by imaging and weaving them together in the context of a specific living system. They must not be turned into a checklist of abstract concepts, which not only robs them of meaning but also creates the illusion that one is thinking regeneratively, when in fact one is clinging to an older paradigm.

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Carol Sanford

Carol Sanford

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson |# 1 AmazonBest Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator