Salutogenic Design helps us move beyond sustainability to regeneration

Daniel Christian Wahl


The most critical intervention point to affect design at and across all physical scales (see graphic below) is to pay attention to the processes and patterns underlying their physical manifestations. It is critical to follow design up-stream and pay attention to how different worldviews, value systems, organising ideas and mental models shape our perception of reality. Together they inform how we ‘bring forth a world together’ (Maturana & Varela, 1992).

The Scales of Design & Scale-linking Design for Whole Systems Health (reproduced from ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’)

I believe it will be the upstream change in the stories we tell about (literally) what matters and how we make meaning together that will be the most effective catalyst in the transition towards diversely expressed and bioregionally adapted regenerative cultures everywhere. Only once we learn to assume our own potential for healing and being agents of healing will the Salutogenic Cities we participate in realise their potential as patterns that contribute to bioregional and planetary health.

In my 2006 doctoral thesis on ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ I helped to coin the term ‘Salutogenic Design’ and link Antonovsky’s salutogenic approach to health with design theory and practice. The thesis also explored the upstream end of the design process under the notion of meta-design: the design that affects worldview and value systems and hence the why of design — and through that what we design and how.

One example for a powerful Metadesign shift is the change from the arrogance of claiming dominion over nature while understanding nature as divorced from culture and only of instrumental value to human beings, to understanding nature and life as a planetary process of which we are emergent properties and in which we are co-creative agents, dependent on the health of the whole.

The Regenerative Design Framework (based on and adpated from the work of Carol Sanford, Bill Reed & Regenesis Group, and Ethan Roland)

In acknowledging our inescapable agency in nested complexity we begin to understand that “everything is an intervention” (Gerald Midgley) — all our thoughts, words and actions matter!

This insight invites us to take responsibility for how we individually and collectively contribute to the emergence of health as a scale-linking emergent property at and across all the fractal scales of dynamically transforming wholeness.

I see the ‘regenerative design framework’ developed by Regenesis Group and Carol Sanford as another example of salutogenic metadesign. It invites us to think beyond sustainability by exploring our individual and collective potential to have restorative, regenerative and healing agency. I first came across this work in an article by Bill Reed (2006) entitled ‘Shifting our Mental Models’. By putting conventional practice, green, sustainable, restorative and regenerative on one spectrum we can learn to value all of them as steps on a journey.

We have done so much damage to the systemic health of the biosphere and to our communities and societies that simply being sustainable — while still representing an important bridge we have not crossed yet — will no longer be enough. We need to restore ecosystems and planetary health and regenerate the patterns of relationship that enable our communities and cities to flourish while driving the regeneration of the bioregions and ecosystems we inhabit.

The ‘reconciliatory’ step which reintegrates humanity into life as a planetary process is possibly the crucial Metadesign shift that will enable us to understand our action not as something we are doing to nature, but rather to pay special attention to how our doing and being are expressions of design as nature. As parts of and participants in nature we can learn to nurture health, resilience and adaptive capacity within the Socio-Ecological-Systems we participate in.

Graphic reproduced with permission from John Stewart (2014), ‘The direction of evolution: The rise of cooperative organisation’

Evolution is a process of diversification and subsequent integration of diversity at higher levels of complexity. Such integration tends to occur as life evolves new patterns of cooperative organization (see graphic above). Cities are an example of such integration at high levels of complexity. Every day there are many more cooperative than competitive interactions in the world’s cities. The challenge now is to reintegrate cities into the living fabric of their bioregions within the context of regenerating ecosystems and planetary health.

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

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Note: this was the final sub-chapter of a longer book chapter I wrote for the edition of Urban Hub 20 (see page 37–45)- you can download a free pdf of the book in this link:



Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures