Regenerative Futures: Redesigning the human impact on Earth
RSA Bicentenary Medal 2021 Award Address, 07.12.2021
Good evening everyone and thank you so much for choosing to celebrate this award with me today. I am deeply grateful to the RSA for creating the Regenerative Futures programme. It is a powerful invitation to the global fellowship of cultural creatives — who are united by this over 260 year old institution — to take time to consider regenerative development and design and its significance to all our future. More importantly it invites culturally creative discourse, creativity and experimentations with pathways that may bring about such a future.
Personally, I am deeply touched and humbled by the honour of being awarded the RSA’s Bicentenary Medal 2021. Thank you! Acknowledgment from established institutions is rare for the many people around the world who are already finding purpose and deep meaning in reconnecting to life’s regenerative impulse.
This award is for the many generations before us who knew how to “walk into the future in beauty” as the Navajo advice their children. Without our shared indigenous ancestors we simply would not be here now.
This award is also to all of you out there who have kept alive the ancient traditions of living in right relationship with the community of life.
This award is to all the pioneers who have tried in different ways to bring the insights of science and the power of design and technology into service to life itself again.
And this award is to many of you listening today who are already part of the rising ReGeneration. To all those who have dedicated their lives and are using their creative agency in service to regenerating the Earth and her people.
There will be no regenerative futures for many species — ours included — if we do not take on the massive design challenge we are now faced with.
The practices of a relatively small proportion of humanity have severely damaged the planetary life support systems. Collectively — as a species — we are undergoing a rite of passage triggered by the real possibility that business as usual will lead to our premature extinction.
I firmly believe that we are not destined to be a destructive species. I know we have the potential of healing the Earth and her people by co-creating diverse regenerative cultures everywhere.
The pathways into a regenerative future are as diverse as the regenerative cultures that will be an expression of that future.
Walking the path of regeneration is not about solutioneering to solve global problems and scaling them up in a copy and paste mindset without sensitivity to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place.
Walking the regenerative path is about reconnecting with and manifesting the inherent potential of people in place to thrive individually and collectively as expressions of that place.
Walking the regenerative path is about understanding that in order to fully be able to share the unique gift each and everyone of us holds we need to put it in service to the larger context we are embedded in.
Walking a regenerative path is about building the individual and collective capacity of people and communities to humbly face an uncertain future by aligning with life’s inherent impulse to regenerate, evolve and transform individual by indivdiual, community by community, bioregion by bioregion.
The generations alive today are called to fundamentally redesign the human impact on Earth from being predominantly exploitative and degenerative to becoming healing and regenerative again.
This will not come about through envisioning one ‘ecological civilisation’. It will require a ‘cosmopolitan bioregionalism’ (Mitchell Thomashaw) of diverse ‘place-sourced’ (Regenesis Group) regenerative cultures in glocal collaboration and solidarity. Only this diversity and sensitivity to ecological and cultural context will contribute to our collective capacity to keep evolving, transforming and regenerating.
A daunting challenge! Impossible! Utopian! You might say.
Well, that would certainly be true if you base your judgment on the common cultural discourse about who we are and our history. What if we broaden and deepen our historical perspective beyond the 8–5 thousand year period that we commonly base our historic story telling on?
What if we pay attention to the mounting evidence that many highly productive and diverse ecosystems — for example, large parts of the Amazon rainforest, the old growth forests of the Pacific North-West, and the ‘lost forest gardens of Europe’ — are in fact the results of careful and appropriate participation of indigenous cultures in these ecosystems. To this day 80% of the world’s biodiversity is found on land inhabited by indigenous people who have acted as custodians of that biodiversity for millennia.
The creation of the Regenerative Futures programme is a celebration of the renaissance of a regenerative cultural impulse that has its roots in our common ancestry as a species and beyond that our identity as temporary expressions of life’s own pattern of evolution.
When we look at the evolutionary journey of life as a planetary process, rather than employing exclusively an individual or species lens to evolution, we begin to understand what Janine Benyus to poignantly summarised as the central lesson of Biomimicry: “life creates conditions conducive to life.”
Over 3.8 billion years life has evolved toward increased abundance, productivity, diversity and complexity. What’s more, each mayor jump in the complexification and creativity of life has been enabled by new patterns of collaboration rather than competition. That is the core pattern which made us possible and why we are here. Anything else de-futures rather than futures.
The record shows those species who do not contribute to the health of the whole, but erode it, may bring down many others with them for a while, but they do not have an evolutionary future.
The nested regenerative community which maintains planetary health, ecosystems health, population health and individual health creates its own systemic immune response to any particular species that falls short of ‘creating conditions conducive to life’.
I am confident that despite the converging crisis of the extinction emergency, climate chaos and the obscene levels of inequality within and between countries, we are capable of healing our relationship with place, our relationships with each other, and our relationship to the community of life. This is because we have a powerful ally: Life herself.
Regenerative Cultures are nothing new, rather it is high time we learned to recognise that our species evolved as bioregionally focussed regenerative cultures everywhere. Indigenous cultures on six continents have demonstrated over many millennia how to be good custodians and to nurture the health and abundance of the ecosystems they inhabited.
One thing most of these cultures had in common is that they understood themselves not as owners but expressions of place. Rather than the land belonging to them, they belonged to the land. All decisions of importance were made with three questions in heart/mind:
Does it serve the individual?
Does it serve the community?
Does it serve life?
These questions offer a reliable guidance system for navigating wisely into an uncertain and unpredictable future. How would we redesign the human impact on Earth with these questions in mind?
Historically the Bicentenary Medal has been awarded to individuals “who applied art and design in great effect as instruments of civic innovation.” So allow me to make a few comments about design.
Putting the word regenerative next to the world design can be somewhat misleading depending on how we think about design. Too often designers think of themselves as ‘problem solvers’ through the delivery of their design — an object, a building, a neighbourhood … a physical, material outcome in space and time.
The notion of regeneration is all about flux and transformation and not about fixing things through somewhat final solutions. In this perspective all design can ever do is create prototypes on our way towards deeper learning and insight which will help us to discard, transform or replace these prototypes in response to changing context.
Consequently, it is worth highlighting that regenerative design invites us to pay more attention to design as a process of engagement with people and place, as a culturally creative conversation of how to create a regenerative human presence in that place.
The deliverable of regenerative design and development is much more the capacity of people in place to journey regeneratively into an uncertain future and creatively adapt to changes in context, then it is a designed object or process.
In my 2006 PhD on Design for Human and Planetary Health I suggested that all good design should be Salutogenic Design. That is to say, we should judge good design by the extent to which it contributes to human, community, ecosystems and planetary health. We urgently need a Hippocratic oath for designers and technologists!
Health in its Salutogenic conception, as developed by Aaron Antonovsky, in the 1960s is not a static state which needs to be restored after falling out off that state when we are ill and begin to show symptoms of disease. Rather health is understood as a dynamic capacity of coping, evolving and transforming in response to inevitable perturbations. Salutogenesis is about nurturing the systemic capacity and potential for positive health.
Through a complexity lens, health can be understood as a scale-linking emergent property of the nested complexity we participate in and are expressions of. Good design should pay attention to how the health of cells, organs, individuals, communities, ecosystems and the biosphere are all fundamentally interconnected and interdependent.
We should ask how do we design for systemic health?
To do so we need to pay attention to the fact that ‘design goes on designing’ as Tony Fry has put it, or in Winston Churchill’s words ‘first we shape our buildings and then they shape us’. This is to say, we need to question past design decision and become more aware of how our dominant worldview shapes how we design and in turn the resulting designs have shaped our worldview.
We need to redesign our economic systems, our food systems, our transport and energy systems, our systems of governance. Nearly every aspect of the human impact on Earth is open for redesign in accordance with life’s regenerative impulse to evolve and transform in order to create conditions conducive to life.
As the RSA’s Regenerative Futures programme invites you to #JoinTheRegeneration you are invited to rediscover your own agency as a Salutogenic designer in service to life.
Before I end, I need to name at least some of the many people who I have learned from and worked with without whom I would not be here today.
I want to thank my parents for their support of my often unconventional path, my wife Alice and my family for believing in me. I actually made a whole map of gratitude in preparation for this event and realised there are simply too many people to be able to mention them all so I will share the map on Facebook and Twitter.
Nevertheless I need to thank Schumacher College and what I learned 20 years ago while studying with Brian Goodwin, Stephan Harding, Henri Bortoft, Fritjof Capra, Satish Kumar and many oft teacher and mentors I met there.
The single most influential person on my work and path is Professor Seaton Baxter who as my PhD supervisor between 2003 and 2006 helped me build the foundations for all of my work since. Thank you Seaton!
My time at the Centre for Alternative Technology and as the co-director of Findhorn College and Head of Innovation at Gaia Education have shaped my understanding significantly, and so have my work with the International Futures Forum, H3uni, and the Global Ecovillage Network.
Thank you David Orr, John Todd & Nancy Jack-Todd, Joanna Macy, Mari Hollander, May East, Anthony Hodgson, Graham Leicester, Bill Sharpe, Gigi Coyle, Bill Reed, Palmela Mang, Ben Haggard, Jenny Andersson and my fellow regenerative practitioners. Thank you to the RSA, to Josie Warden and her team in particular. Thank you to all of you!
In deep gratitude and with a renewed commitment to design in service to life. ReGeneration Rising! Trim-Tabs Unite!