Whole Systems Economic Development: A Regenerative Approach
Article 1, Part 2
By Beatrice Ungard and Ben Haggard (with the Regenerative Economy Collaborative).
To get caught up, start at part one.
The Hazards of Conventional Economic Development
A regenerative approach to economic development starts from a couple of fundamental premises. First, every community, including those that are financially poor, inherently possesses wealth. This wealth takes many forms, including culture and climate, natural abundance and relationships among neighbors, enterprises small and large, shared infrastructures and governance, etc. When it is recognized, this wealth can be stewarded and grown by community members. Even in situations where it has been badly degraded, it can be regenerated by people who are willing to align their efforts toward creating well-being for all, human and non-human alike. All communities have the potential to develop this wealth because it arises from their nature and from their spirit rather than their affluence. The question is how to build their capability to access and grow this wealth in ways that benefit everyone, not just a privileged few.
A second premise is that regeneration deals with living wholes. At its most fundamental level, this means committing to helping every human being to express their potential and to make meaningful contributions through their lives. It also means committing to the potential of other living wholes, like ecosystems and communities. As a basis for an economy, this is quite different from an approach that seeks to control a limited pool of resources and extract value from them. A regenerative economy seeks to increase the value-generating capacity of everyone and everything in it, thereby producing a steadily growing pool of common wealth.
In diverse settings around the world, communities undertake economic development programs to secure their future wellbeing. All too often, these development activities unleash a host of negative impacts, especially for communities that are impoverished or disenfranchised. These impacts can include displacement, gentrification, the destruction of the social or ecological fabric, or the continuation of processes that systematically keep women, racial minorities, and other groups in poverty for generations. Instead of improving communities, some economic development activities end up reducing community wealth.
For example, the success of Valle de Bravo, a popular weekend getaway for Mexico City’s most affluent residents, has created intense pressures on the town’s natural and socio-cultural systems. The high demand for housing has induced poor farmers and indigenous groups to sell the agricultural plots they traditionally collectively owned and to make a livelihood from low-income jobs. This shift of land use from agriculture to urbanization has produced a real estate boom for wealthy developers while doing very little to improve the quality of life for campesinos, resulting in community tensions.
The systemic disempowerment of certain community groups is often compounded by failures of strategic thinking. For example, rather than developing from the inside, many communities ignore their inherent wealth and native genius, turning instead to outside expertise, best practices, or attempts to attract large companies through costly incentives. Often these imported approaches, however effective they may have been in the contexts within which they originated, fail to successfully integrate with the underlying character of the communities into which they are introduced. This erodes the very source of their inherent wealth.
Also, economic development efforts can become fragmented and even counterproductive when projects are created around specific problems, needs, agendas, priorities, or funding opportunities. When these are not integrated into the life and potential of the community they end up delivering narrow material results and fail to achieve the systemic improvements originally sought. In addition, these kinds of efforts often fail to engage the thinking, care, and investment of local residents.
Initiatives like shifting toward renewable energy sources, creating bike paths, or focusing on affordable housing, while useful at a certain level, do not in and of themselves generate transformative systemic effects for a community. Such interventions are often reactive and opportunistic and, in worst case scenarios, can impact communities negatively. For example, the redevelopment of a derelict industrial zone into a thriving commercial district might contribute to the tax base and add vitality to a city. But it can easily come at the expense of adjoining low-income neighborhoods, who may find themselves displaced, with their inherent wealth and potential diminished rather than augmented.
Building Community Wealth With A Regenerative Developmental Approach
We believe a more whole and strategically effective approach is possible for communities that want to work on their capacity to generate wealth in this larger sense. This approach, which we call regenerative development, is grounded in the regenerate life paradigm defined by Sanford and Haggard in The Regenerative Economic Shaper. As the authors state:
At the level of the regenerative life paradigm, one’s thinking moves from doing things for others or to others toward serving the development of their capacities, capabilities, and agencies. This implies respect for and faith in the ability of living beings to become their own sources of creativity and self-determination.
Therefore, a regenerative approach is inherently developmental. That is, in addition to developing local economies and improving socio-ecological systems, it aims to build strategic thinking and leadership capabilities across sectors and among diverse stakeholders. It does this by developing the in-dwelling potential, intelligence, creativity, and dedication of local people. In this way, they evolve themselves as engaged citizens, embracing rather than fearing the messy challenges and dynamic complexities that are found in any real community and place.
When adopting a regenerative approach, communities shift from constantly playing catch-up on a never-ending list of issues and crisis. Instead, they begin to orient toward getting out ahead of issues by developing their capacity for evolution. They learn to become increasingly life-affirming and life-enhancing, able to improve the vitality and viability of their physical, biological, social, economic, and cultural environments. As systemic change agents they build the capability to determine their own collective destiny, self-organizing and focusing on actions that are meaningful to them while also grounded in the potential that surrounds them. In doing so, they participate consciously in an evolutionary process.