The Regenerative Economic Shaper Perspective Paper — Part 5
By Carol Sanford and Ben Haggard (with the Regenerative Economy Collaborative)
To start from the beginning, find part one of this series here.
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.
Evolving a Practice of Regenerative Economics
To evolve a regenerative theory and practice, thinkers about economic change will need to reign in their dependence on outdated ideas while pushing their thinking into new territory. The developmental imperative particularly applies to this group of change agents, who are as prone as everyone else to collapsing into familiar patterns sourced from unconscious paradigms. In doing so, they unwittingly reinforce the dysfunctional systems they wish to replace.
To counter this tendency, economic change agents can work on the conscious development of four capabilities, within themselves, their organizations, and the larger systems they seek to influence. The first, dismantling certainty, has to do with unlearning mental habits that block transformation. The second, paradigm discernment, has to do with generating clarity about what’s informing one’s thoughts and actions. The third, living systems framework thinking, has to do with disrupting the mechanistic mental models that drive most decision making, replacing them with processes that reflect the complexity of a living world. The fourth, self-determined accountability, has to do with managing one’s own mental processes and state of being so that the other three capabilities become possible.
We emphasize the importance of developing consciousness in this process because it is all too easy to rob these capabilities of their meaning and power by making them automatic and habitual rather than using them as instruments for disruption. In each case, the capabilities we’ve proposed have the inherent ability to interrupt patterned or conventional modes of thought and behavior. But to use them this way, one must cultivate a sustained intention and discipline with regard to observing one’s mental processes and then choosing those that are appropriate.
The consciousness-developing dimension of this work can be conceptualized as a dual discipline: forming an image of the person one wants to become through time and then monitoring how one’s choices affect this intention in time. These two practices are sometimes called self-remembering and self-observing. Using them, as one works to develop the four recommended capabilities will help ensure that they remain alive and meaningful, with the potential to generate profound changes in perception and action.
Finally, we advocate for developing these capabilities within a community of practice. This is because it is too easy to fool oneself that one is being rigorous when it comes to self-examination. In our experience and the experience of countless traditions throughout time, consciousness is best grown in communities of shared commitment.
It is not easy to unlearn and let go of everything one believes in order to recognize something genuinely new. The default position for most human beings is to cram new ideas into the old, familiar paradigm, regardless of how badly they fit. Then, because they don’t fit, one begins to alter the language used to describe them, altering their meanings in the process. We noted earlier that adopting a new paradigm is difficult, life-changing work. But it isn’t even possible to begin, if one isn’t willing and able to let go of certainty.
We want to pause at this point to make an outrageous proposal to our reader — that you have failed to understand what we’ve written. This is not because the ideas are too difficult, but because you are reading them through the lens of a different paradigm than the one from which they were generated.
To test this, take a few moments to reflect on the experience of reading this paper, or, better yet, reread it with these questions in mind:
- Did I find myself fitting these ideas into a frame of reference I already know?
- Did I uncritically assume that I’m already doing what’s being described?
- Did I find myself annoyed with the language, wanting to change it to terms that are more familiar and flow more smoothly?
- Did I take an idea that was unfamiliar or hard to grasp and move it toward me rather than moving myself toward it?
If you recognize yourself in one or more of these questions you are not alone. One’s paradigm is one’s reality, and it doesn’t release its hold easily. This is why learning to dismantle one’s certainties and to make space for a completely unfamiliar reality is a necessary first step in the pursuit of profound change.
The first step in building the capability of paradigm discernment is waking up to the fact that paradigms exist and have enormous influence on the ways that the world works. Pretty much everything that is dysfunctional about existing economies, everything that one is trying to change, is informed by paradigms that fail to adequately reflect a complex, living reality. How ironic then, that the only ways people know how to work on these problems are derived from the same paradigms. Society is trapped in a self-reinforcing loop that can only be addressed through a shift in paradigm — Einstein’s oft-quoted admonition to seek a solution from a different level than the one at which the problem was created.
The next step in building paradigm discernment comes when one applies this realization to assessing the nature of current thinking and planning in the field of economics. One must overcome the tendency to accept at face value the authority of well-established figures and institutions. Instead, one must rigorously examine the level from which their ideas are sourced. If one accepts their initial axioms, then the conclusions they come to make sense. But should these axioms be accepted? What do they reveal about the paradigms that lie behind them? At the same time, one must also overcome the tendency to reject out of hand ideas that are unfamiliar or difficult to grasp. These too should be examined for the paradigms that inform them. In both cases, comfortable and uncomfortable, the point is to cultivate paradigm awareness.
The third step is to shift from observing paradigms at work in the world and begin proactively to apply this consciousness to oneself, using it throughout the day to upgrade the ways one thinks, works, communicates, and relates. This means cultivating the ability to prepare in advance to work from the appropriate level of paradigm. It means learning to observe and, if need be, alter the paradigms that are shaping one’s actions, and to do this in real time. It also means noticing the impacts of one’s choices on others, learning to track the effect of paradigms on the will and conscientiousness of individuals, groups, or systems. This will build awareness of the pervasiveness of unconscious paradigms and how easy it is to introduce a carelessly worded thought or question that unintentionally triggers in others a response from a lower level of paradigm than the situation requires.
Living Systems Framework Thinking
A framework is a way of mapping or revealing the underlying structure of a thinking process in order to understand or improve it. To generate or engage with increasingly complex orders of thought that mirror the complexities of a living, evolving world requires correspondingly complex frameworks. The hallmark of a true framework, and what distinguishes it from a mental model, is that it generates questions rather than supplying answers.
Living systems frameworks are specifically designed to enable people to think about the underlying dynamics and energies that give coherence to complex, self-evolving systems. They can be used diagnostically, to understand existing phenomena, or creatively, to enable systems to shift to higher orders of expression. They allow the human mind to manage dynamism and change as living aspects of the world, without the need to atomize or dumb things down.
Used inappropriately, living frameworks can easily be converted to mental models, which are patterned sequences or recipes. As we have pointed out before, generic, mechanistic thinking is antithetical to understanding living systems. To be used regeneratively, frameworks must be applied to specific phenomena, which have been brought to life as images in the mind. This specificity contains the livingness of these phenomena and, when viewed through the lens of a framework, enables profound insight into potential that is present but not manifested. Bringing this potential forward is a defining characteristic of regenerative work.
This is why frameworks are almost always learned within an oral educational tradition, where students have an opportunity to apply them directly to real experience. Like the Japanese martial art of aikido, which cannot be learned from reading a book or watching a video, the art of using living systems frameworks happens in dialogue with others who share a dedicated discipline. Happily, the numbers of people who have developed a strong interest in regenerative practice is growing rapidly around the world, and the opportunities to learn living systems framework thinking are growing as well.
It may be apparent that we are proposing a radical departure from economics as usual. To create an economy that works in harmony with the planet will require enabling every participant to become increasingly self-determining and committed to accountability for the systemic effects they produce. It will no longer be acceptable to give away one’s authority or responsibility to experts, asking them to do one’s thinking and decision making. Experts, in turn, will need to shift their role from supplying answers to resourcing the efforts of others to find their own answers by developing discernment and thinking skills.
One of our colleagues was a pioneer in the application of regenerative thinking to designing change processes for large, complex organizations. He had a saying, “Everything for someone; nothing for the shelf.” It was a vivid way of capturing what it means to work specifically rather than generically. His purpose was to help people connect their actions and choices to the real lives that their work would touch.
This meant getting people to do their own thinking, ask their own questions and find their own answers, continually growing themselves in the process. It also meant getting them to set their egos aside so that they could image what would make life better for others. And it meant cultivating a culture of open-ended exploration, encouraging the humility needed to start afresh as a beginner in each new situation and letting go of the arrogance that comes with so-called expertise.
It isn’t that there is no place for experience or skill in a regenerative economy, but all of this experience must be placed in service to overcoming the comfortable belief that “we already know how to do this.” A truly regenerative economy is one where no one is an expert and everyone is using their experience to stretch beyond what they already know and believe. This can be profoundly challenging to one’s sense of self and value because modern culture places so much emphasis on certainty and knowledge.
A Developmental Economy
A regenerative economy is a developmental economy. It grows, thrives, and evolves to the extent that all of its participants are becoming increasingly intelligent about how to work within and contribute to the well-being of living systems. With regard to self-determined accountability, this can be a real challenge. It is one thing to say that one should set aside ego and learn to foster the self-determination in every person and system one encounters. It is quite another thing to do it. After all, everything in the existing infrastructures of education, design and engineering, policy, employment, and economic valuation are opposed to this way of conceptualizing social interactions.
For this reason, those who wish to change current economic practices will need to recognize that this is, in the deepest sense possible, a systemic undertaking. Social institutions produce and reinforce the economies that exist, and without shifting these social institutions, one can’t shift economies. Developmental economies aren’t possible without developmental cultures and practices. It took generations to first coerce and then to educate populations to fit into industrial economies, a mostly top-down effort that was imposed and reinforced by a host of governmental, educational, social reform, and financial institutions. It will take a better and equally massive educational effort to help people learn how to take charge of and co-create their own regenerative economies, which will work from very different premises and capabilities than the economies that have preceded them.
We believe that the place to start is by cultivating the four capabilities described above within those who have a strong interest and desire to bring the next economy into existence. Each of their efforts, endeavors, and communications should be informed by their own reflective experience of a developmental approach. This will build their understanding that any effort to regenerate an economy should be accompanied by an equal effort to help everyone who participates develop their own capacities and capabilities. This broader educational undertaking will ensure that the groundwork for successful economic change is built into each of the projects and initiatives that are designed to produce the new economy.
We have written this article for engaged practitioners, people who care deeply about addressing destructive economic impacts on the lives of people and the planet. Our aim is to provide a sound basis from which to explore a regenerative theory and practice of economics. We have proposed several key concepts that we hope will be useful in moving this exploration forward.
First, it is necessary to redefine the meaning of the word economy. We believe that the idea of economy has become debased, robbed of its life-giving intention and replaced by mechanistic and materialistic functionalism. We propose revisiting and regenerating Aristotle’s definition, which addressed not only the functional dimensions of economic activity, but also its qualities and larger purposes. Aristotle reminds us that a healthy economy is grounded in the wise management of households, nested within and contributing to a community and cultural context. With the advent of the space age and growing awareness of planetary dynamics, the idea of the household must now encompass the whole of Earth, and wise management must take into consideration the interrelatedness of all scales of living systems.
A regenerative economy will require a profound shift in the way people see and think about the world. For this reason, we place strong emphasis on the need to adopt a regenerative paradigm informed by living systems principles as the basis for economic designs, decisions, and actions. This implies the need for an extended and pervasive process of education — encompassing institutions responsible for everything from governance to education to business to child-rearing — to enable society to step into and then act from a new paradigm.
Finally, as a focus for this education process, building wealth-generating capacity in human and natural communities requires work on regenerative capabilities, not just equitable distribution of resources. Specifically, it requires dismantling certainty and building paradigm discernment, living systems framework thinking, and self-determined accountability. We propose that the development of these capabilities is the quickest and most effective way to create the conditions for transformation of economic systems. It is also the most democratic way to enroll communities in shaping their own economic destinies.