Regenerative Design

The logic is straightforward: Culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage. But if all you do is sustain your culture, your relative advantage erodes over time. The strongest teams restore themselves after losses or injury and create new growth. Culture is indeed a sustainable advantage – but only if it’s regenerative. 

When we understand the inter-connectedness of everything, we can see how dealing with one crisis makes others more likely. We need to look at why we are always drawn to solutions that recreate the old problems. The tree is toppling and the solution necessitates whole-system, root-and-branch transformation. We must rebuild our teams, our organisations, and our communities with regenerative design principles at the foundation. If we simply carry on the way we have been, we not living up to our name of Homo Sapiens. ‘The clever human’ is here to grow and evolve.

There is no doubt. We are living in a time marked by great upheaval and change, where the breakdown of global systems has become impossible to ignore. Leaders – both political and business – are being forced to cope with rising challenges: resource scarcity; high levels of stress in the workplace; unpredictable, frequent and disruptive innovations; rampant social inequality; constant competition for top talent; increasing volatility and changing stakeholder expectations; rapid digitisation and globalisation; fragile supply chains; mounting social tensions; political extremism; unhealed childhood trauma affecting decision making at every turn; and rising consumer debt levels the world over. Throw in a global pandemic and all the fear porn that goes along with it and, you get the messy picture.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.”

— Sir Robert Watson

The Age of Unreason

We have created production systems that are based on a linear, take-make-waste approach, focused on immediacy and dehumanisation. We have created financial systems based on short-term profit maximisation that ignore life and debase human integrity. Our organisational systems are dominated by hyper-competition, power-and-control hierarchies, and rising stress. In our current environment, the few benefit at the expense of the many. A toddler could tell you this is simply not sustainable.

The old systems and structures of a post-industrial hyper-consumerist culture are collapsing. The old ways cannot go on, and through this breakdown, we are witnessing pioneers all over the world birthing the conditions for a new way. These pioneers believe there is a better way – to live and do business. They are reconfiguring systems and structures and instilling new business practices that actually contribute to life on Earth rather than destroy it. If there was ever a time to step forward as your courageous, authentic, intelligent, heart-based self and contribute to humanity’s future, NOW is that time.

Initially, you may think it might be easier to stick your head in the sand and continue doing what you’ve always done. You may even be able to justify it in your mind because it’s a sensible option, amid all the uncertainty and volatility – surely it’s best to remain comfortable. Here’s the thing: in the long run, it will eat you up inside, weaken your spirit as a leader, and undermine your organisation’s vitality. The real questions you need to be asking yourself are:

  • How can I help to pave a new way amid these challenging times?
  • How can I help design new thriving ways, even in a time of crisis?
  • How can I become a Conscious Leader, who contributes to a future where organisations flourish, ecosystems thrive and people truly come alive?

“We are now entering an Age of Unreason, when the future in so many areas, is there to be shaped, by us and for us – a time when the only prediction that will hold true is that no prediction will hold true; a time therefore, for bold imaginings in private life as well as public, for thinking the unlikely and doing the unreasonable.”

— Charles Handy

The New Economy

Are you up for thinking the unlikely and embarking upon the unreasonable? Are you up for behaving like an adult and realising our collective house is on fire? Humanity has the numbers. Together we can change the rules. Those already on this journey know that this is, first and foremost about a shift in consciousness, which can be neatly articulated as a shift from separateness to interconnectedness, and yet there is nothing neat-and-tidy about this journey. While we are all for tearing down the old command-and-control style hierarchy, we must simultaneously rebuild new systems and structures using the principles of regenerative design. Regenerative design is a process-oriented whole systems approach to design. The term “regenerative” describes processes that restore, renew or revitalise their own sources of energy and materials. Regenerative design uses whole systems thinking to create resilient and equitable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature.

The new generation of designers apply ecologically inspired design to agriculture, architecture, community planning, cities, enterprises, economics, and ecosystem regeneration. Designers use the resilient models observed in the natural world throughout their design process. Ecosystems are resilient, largely because they operate in closed-loop systems. Every output is an input into another part of the system. Using this model, regenerative design seeks feedback at every stage of the design process. In this way, it is naturally agile. Regenerative design is related to systems thinking and also with the New Economy movement. The ‘new economy’ sees that the current, crumbling economic system needs to be restructured. The global shift is toward a Wellbeing Economy where people and the planet must come first for any economic system to be sustainable.

“From a cognitive perspective, Systems Thinking integrates analysis and synthesis.”
― Pearl Zhu

Beyond Sustainability

The highest aim of sustainable development is to satisfy fundamental human needs today, without compromising the possibility of future generations to satisfy theirs. As co-creators of this reality, we think that is setting the bar pretty low. We can do much better than that. The goal of regenerative design is to develop restorative systems that are dynamic and emergent and are beneficial for humans and other species. This regeneration process is participatory, iterative, and individual to the community and environment to which it is applied. The core intent of this process is to revitalise people, natural resources, and society as a whole. 

Organisations that believe in a profound and authentic purpose will lead in the new economy. Those that understand that the point of differentiation between good and great is not what, or how products are brought to market, but why the organisation finds it integral to their existence. Organisations with hearts sized for the future embody this characteristic through purpose-driven values. Organisations that zero in on their north star will continue to lead the world forward. The context we find ourselves in today is a predominantly mechanistic leadership paradigm. It is a quality of consciousness that creates a sense of separateness in our own sense of self, in our relationships with others, and in our view of reality. 

When we view the organisation as a machine, we seek to manage and control change. This perspective is based on a worldview of fear and separateness. With only 13% of people engaged at work, let’s face it, how we manage and design organisations is clearly not working. When treating organisations as if they are machines, we push productivity and efficiency at the expense of long-term health. In this archaic model, humans are resources that must be aligned on an org chart,  like cogs in a machine. Here’s the thing: organisations are NOT machines. They never were machines and they never will be machines. Organisations are complex living systems, and living systems require a very different approach to design and management.

“Vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.”
― Peter M. Senge

3 Levels of Learning from Living Systems

Regenerative Leadership is arguably one of the most important texts of our time because it outlines the complete regenerative DNA model required for regenerative business. Regenerative Leadership builds relationships, solutions, and systems that not only solve the problems of our time, but also heal the existing damage done by the old destructive and oppressive systems.

1. Living Systems Design

When sensing how living systems work, we find certain life dynamics, patterns, and principles. We can apply these principles and patterns to how we design our products, teams, services, processes, places, and economic models. This is the exciting, and revolutionary, space of biomimicry, industrial ecology, circular economics, regenerative design, cradle-to-cradle, biophilic design, bio-innovation, regenerative economics, and more.

2. Living Systems Culture

As well as applying living-systems insights and systemic-leadership to the design of our processes, products and places, we can explore a shift in our organisational cultures from ‘organisation as a machine’ to ‘organisation as living a system’. This is the space of complex adaptive systems applied to organisational development, adult developmental psychology, systemic leadership, and systemic/ecosystemic coaching, self-managing team dynamics, purpose-driven business, adult-adult coaching culture, shifting power dynamics, and more.

3. Living Systems Being

The shift from reductive to systemic ways of leading and operating involves a shift in our consciousness, a shift in our ‘being’.  The very practice of being-in-nature is scientifically proven to help us become more systemic, empathic, integrated, and balanced. Through various practices, we can learn to be more deeply attuned to life. In this way, we open up to our deeper nature, while understanding more of how life really is. This is a life-long journey towards wholeness. It is the nutritious soil from which regenerative leadership grows.

“The living organism is maintained in a continuous exchange of components; metabolism a a basic characteristic of living systems. We have, as it were, a machine composed of fuel spending itself continually and yet maintaining itself. Such machines do not exist today.”
― Bertalanffy Ludwig Von

It’s a Biophysical Thing

The holisitic design of organisations must be built upon cycles of coming together, meeting objectives, and creating abundance. It’s something that is more than the sum of its individual parts. In this way, it is dependent on all of the relationships within the system. The holistic design of organisations recognises that each member of the system is unique and the system as a whole evolves dynamically, in balance with its environment, in response to ever-changing conditions. It is not controlled by any central authority or structure. It is decentralised, nodal, distributed, and it develops over time. These are the regenerative design principles that teams, organisations, networks, communities, and government entities of the future will use to thrive.

The great Niklas Luhmann, coined the term ‘cultural autopoiesis’. Autopoiesis refers to the biophysical nature of self-maintenance within a cell. The patterns in living systems relate to processes of biophysical things – the things that are exchanged, the things that are moving, the atoms, nutrients, carbon, and nitrogen. In organisational design, we recognise that the equivalent of what is being exchanged (what is flowing through the system) is information. Information in the form of decisions or information in the form of ideas pulled together. Those combinations of decisions and information are what make up the organisational culture. 

This means we approach regenerative organisational design by asking ‘what is regenerated?’ What is being regenerated is the ideas and thought processes that come together through the decisions we make and the actions we take with each other within the system. Because the interdependent members of an organisation are people, what we need in a healthy system is energy and information to flow through those people.

“Exploitative and degenerative cultures tend to have economic systems focused around notions of scarcity and competitive advantage. Whereas, regenerative cultures understand how collaborative advantage can foster shared abundance. Win-win-win cultures ensure that life can continue to evolve towards increasing diversity, complexity, bio-productivity, and resilience.”

— Daniel Wahl 

4 Regenerative Organisational Design Features

We can look at growing a thriving organisation like we are building healthy soil. For land to be regenerative, people must be regenerative. We must shift our mindset to think of ourselves, our businesses, and our communities as living systems, where abundance and resilience are the outcomes of a healthy structure. The equivalent of a water cycle or solar cycle or nutrient cycle in an organisation is first and foremost, thriving people. 

1. Energy Flow

For your people to thrive, the system must cultivate their passions and allow them to develop and express their individual genius within the organisation.

2. Communication Cycle

Information needs to be exchanged in a way that each member can use that information in context, apply it, integrate it, and then pass it on in context.

3. Network Connections

Like biodiversity in Nature, in an organisation, it’s about the diversity of ideas, thoughts, people, and backgrounds as well as the diversity and types of connections you have with your partners, your clients, and even your competitors.

4. Information Life Cycle

Old ideas need to die. This is not so much analogous to predator or prey as it is to the nutrient cycle. We know in nature that if things cannot decay, nutrients get stuck. For instance, in grasslands, if there are no grazing animals then all the nutrients simply oxidise and the grass becomes grey. Those nutrients are not reincorporated. Soil needs to be grazed upon to bring those nutrients to decay. Individual blades needs to be consumed by the grazing animals for the nutrients to be reorganised into the soil and give birth to new life. It’s the same with information. If ideas, processes and decisions are not digested by an organisation, allowed to evolve or when they simply get stuck, they are not able to be reorganised and give energy to something else.

“Design intentionally shapes interactions and relationships. It can do so in ways that favour the collaborative creation and sharing of abundance, or in ways that reinforce the narrative of separation.”

— Daniel Wahl

Coming Home

How did Kodak not take advantage of digital photography? How did BlackBerry not take advantage of smartphones? They couldn’t reorganise their inherent information in a new way to take advantage of a changing market. We also see it within organisations in meetings, structures, and decision making. So, how do we keep things fresh? How do we continue to ask ourselves the questions, “Is the reason for this still relevant? Should we allow this to die so we can reorganise those ideas, that energy, those resources into something else?”

As we cultivate integration within ourselves across these 4 areas, we journey towards wholeness and reconnection. In doing so, we open up into our deeper truer nature and the nature of reality. We become more human, more conscious, more purposeful, more in harmony with life.  This is a process of ‘becoming’, not a neat-and-tidy change-management plan or 10-step process. In fact, it’s messy, full of undercurrents, trip-wires, and shadowy cul-de-sacs. It’s a challenging, exciting learning journey that is well worth enduring. It’s a labyrinth that liberates us into who we truly are. ‘Becoming’ is not a logical process. It is an emergent and creative one. To create is to experience the pains of becoming. To be in the process of becoming is to experience creative pains. As we evolve, we change. As we change, we leave behind old shells. As we reconstruct within, we suffer a temporary dislocation of our identity. As we suffer the inner dislocation, we are in pain. All this is a natural and inevitable part of individual growth and of evolutionary growth. It’s up to conscious leaders to catalyse the necessary regeneration, not just catch up, but to lead the world into the 21st century. It’s up to us to light the way home.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

— Buckminster Fuller

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