Whole Systems Economic Development: A Regenerative Approach

Article 1, Part 4

By Beatrice Ungard and Ben Haggard (with the Regenerative Economy Collaborative)

To get caught up, start at part one.

Curitiba Brazil, from Max Pixel

Phase Two: Leading Systems Change

As community members grow their strategic thinking and planning skills, it becomes important to mobilize key stakeholders from across the community, engaging their creative participation in the identified pursuits. Most community-based projects define stakeholders as those who have some influence over or who will be affected by the project. From this perspective, the goal of engagement is to address and mitigate stakeholder concerns by, for instance, negotiating specific community benefits. This transactional approach is based on an exchange of perceived value and rarely attempts to build lasting and reciprocal relationships.

In regenerative development, stakeholder engagement is intentionally relational and developmental. Stakeholders are co-creators and co-investors who have a stake in the greater potential that a project introduces to their community and place. At the same time, the project is conceived and organized as an opportunity to grow the thinking capabilities of everyone connected to it¹.

The Las Salinas project offers a good illustration of this concept. In a matter of weeks, participants had radically shifted their ideas of what it means to be a stakeholder. They had become stakeholders in the future social and economic vitality of their city rather than their own narrow interests. This meant that the developer, local activists, and, eventually, city government could be stakeholders together, standing side by side, each bringing different resources to bear in order to achieve a compelling common purpose.

It’s worth noting that the strategic thinking capabilities that are the focus of Phase One continue to be developed during Phase Two. As each subsequent ring of stakeholders joins the process, they are invited to grow their own capabilities in order to fully participate. In time this creates ripple effects across the community, as initiatives and projects become increasingly able to harmonize their own interests with the collective direction. Through ongoing, shared learning, a community creates distributed generation, distributed leadership, and distributed ownership of its economic development.

Phase Three: Institutionalizing Systemic Planning Patterns and Capabilities

Eventually, a community that has been able to sustain momentum, learning, and success with this approach will want to institutionalize it. They will look for ways to create infrastructure and processes that can pass regenerative insights and methods on to subsequent generations of leaders, entrepreneurs, activists, and citizens. Over years, the cumulative impacts of sustained regenerative effort is profound.

Perhaps the most famous example of what we mean by institutionalizing is offered by the city of Curitiba, Brazil, which was able to successfully sustain an approach like this for half a century, even through transitions in political control². Citizens and government officials, working with minimal resources but a lot of creativity, were able to transform a situation of poverty, homelessness, pollution, and urban collapse into one of the world’s most celebrated ecological cities. This is because the city was able to institutionalize its values and approach and to embed them in the populace.

The city established a university whose sole purpose was to educate stakeholders about the region, its ecological dynamics, and the strategies that would be needed to ensure the community’s future. It created a design and engineering team dedicated to translating these strategies into cost-effective programs. And it established a political culture that dedicated a significant portion of its time to thinking about the whole rather than reacting thoughtlessly to fragmented issues or problems.

The aim of this phase is to activate governance systems that will ensure ongoing stewardship of place by nurturing community intelligence and political will. During this phase, the focus is on inspiring, facilitating, and coordinating creative initiatives aligned with a community’s essence and strategic direction. At the same time, there is continued attention to building capacity for self-organizing, systemic thinking, regenerative planning and design, and leadership, to reinforce the developmental culture that has been built in the previous phases.

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Beatrice Ungard

Beatrice Ungard

Facilitate the resolution of adaptive challenges and design purposeful and conscious organizations while focusing on the wellbeing of the whole ecosystem.