Whole Systems Economic Development: A Regenerative Approach

Article 1, Part 3

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

To get caught up, start at part one.

Playa El Sol and the Las Salinas project in Viña del Mar, Chile from Wikimedia Commons

A Three-Phase Approach to Building Place-Sourced Community Intelligence

The regenerative development approach is grounded in living systems thinking and uses systemic frameworks and principles that can be learned and applied by community members. To engage a community through a multi-year regenerative process we use a meta-framework (Figure 1), which depicts an on-going learning process that enables a community to co-evolve with its environment. Three overlapping phases of work support this systems change — thinking strategically, leading systems change, and institutionalizing patterns and processes. Within these three phases, a community will undergo a series of changes in state that enables it to deepen its regenerative capacity over time. The framework shows the shift from self-actualizing to system-actualizing, where individuals and groups move from a focus on developing their own wealth-generating potential to serving the wealth-generating potential of systems that are larger than themselves.

Figure 1: A Three-Phase Approach to Building Community Intelligence

This framework describes the work that is needed for a community to become able to regenerate itself and its economy as a single, self-reinforcing process. Each phase depends upon simultaneous development of inner and outer capabilities. Inner work relates to helping people recognize and realize the potential that lies within them, the potential that can be expressed as a contribution to something larger than themselves. It also relates to building their skills, capabilities, and capacity for self-managing so that their actions become increasingly purposeful, strategic, and systemically effective.

Outer work relates to helping people discern the essence and inherent potential of the living systems that they live within. Put another way, it’s about giving them a way to make sense of their world, as a living dynamic whole, so that they can make strategic choices that are truly beneficial for all who will be affected.

Harmonizing inner and outer work ensures that as individuals grow, they are helping to grow the health of their surrounding human and ecological systems, conscious of the fact that these systems are the source of present and future wealth. Indeed, learning to work with complex systems is an integral part of fully developing and expressing human potential. For this reason, our approach emphasizes a necessary relationship between self-actualization and system-actualization.

Phase One: Thinking Strategically

The capacity for strategic thinking is foundational to a community’s ability to evolve its economy. Without it, community members run the risk of depleting the inherent wealth in their system by addressing their challenges in fragmented or scattershot ways. They are less able to identify where strategic interventions might be made and less likely to understand the implications of their decisions on the future prosperity of the community.

In a regenerative context, strategic thinking focuses on the potential that lies within a living system, waiting to be brought forward and realized. This is very different from the kind of strategy that seeks to gain advantage from a situation by manipulating the forces that are present. By contrast, one might say that regeneration works on strategies for evolution.

This demands a set of capabilities that go beyond conventional strategic thinking, and these capabilities need to be developed as part of an overall strategic planning process. For example, Sanford and Haggard have identified four capabilities that they believe are critical to community regeneration. First, people must learn how to think about complex, dynamic systems without fragmenting them into parts and pieces — living systems frameworks can be helpful in doing this. Second, people must learn how to take full responsibility for managing their own behavior, personal growth, state of being, will and commitment, and personal agency. Third, people must learn how to hone in on the core of what they are working on, ignoring whatever is superfluous. Fourth, people must learn to understand and embrace place as a living whole, seeing the complex weave of social, ecological, economic, and cultural forces that contribute to its unique nature and potential.

Community members develop these thinking capabilities through working on the place where they live, generating a strategic direction for its future that is grounded in a deep understanding of who it is and what it could become. This direction is then translated into a continuously evolving set of leveraged pursuits and actions designed to engage stakeholders across the community to invest in manifesting their individual and collective potential.

The Las Salinas real estate development project in Viña del Mar, Chile, demonstrates the power of strategic thinking to harmonize formerly fragmented groups and issues in a community. The development, a complex of luxury apartment towers, was slated for the only sizable parcel of land left in the urban zone. For this reason, special interest groups saw it as sounding a death knell for a community that had been slowly declining for years due to tourism, automobile dominance, and political intractability. In particular, the surrounding neighborhoods were angry that it would permanently block access to the adjacent beach and had sworn to kill the project.

Alarmed at the intensity of local hostility, the development company asked Regenesis Group to lead a two-week process with local activists, the development team, and planners. Together they investigated the underlying patterns of life of the place and began to reveal its unique nature and potential. Community members reconnected to their long history and discerned critical conditions that needed to be restored in order to bring their once-beautiful city back to life. They also began to see that this multi-billion dollar project represented a once in a lifetime investment opportunity for regenerating Viña del Mar’s health and resilience. They joined forces with the development team to completely re-conceptualize the project as a strategic intervention to improve life for the city and its surrounding ecosystems. The spirit of collaboration and unity that emerged from this process saved both the community and the developer years of legal battles, costs, and bad blood, and opened the door for economic development that could benefit everyone.

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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.