Why Working Regeneratively Is (R)evolutionary
First published in July 2021 by Sustainable Brands (see link)
In the autumn of 2018, Walter J. Thompson published a report entitled The New Sustainability: Regeneration. Interest in regenerative development had been building for years and the publication of Designing Regenerative Cultures and Regenerative Development in 2016, The Regenerative Business in 2017 and Regenerative Leadershipin 2019 all contributed to broadening the dialogue about its important contribution. However, it was the W.J. Thompson report and John Elkington’s Green Swans that indicated to me that the regenerative (r)evolution was now rapidly gaining momentum.
Already, the legions of consultants who are running the pattern of ‘selling the new’ are archiving their folders on ‘integral,’ ‘lean,’ ‘smart,’ ‘circular’ and ‘sustainable,’ while busily studying up on how to sell the new trend: regenerative. In the process, the danger is that novices pretend to be seasoned practitioners and the deeper transformative agency of the work gets lost. Also, in ‘selling the new’ much useful and necessary work is in danger of being devalued. In over 20 years as a professional in the field of sustainability, I have met many practitioners who were working on sustainability in a regenerative way.
Sustainability is an important bridge we have not yet crossed. Working regeneratively will help us cross that bridge faster and move beyond avoiding negative impacts to healing the damage done and building capacity for place-sourced regeneration. Framed appropriately, the SDGs can serve as a platform of conversation to introduce working regeneratively to more and more people. So, let us not dismiss ‘sustainable’ — nor let us continue the old pattern and just change the label to ‘regenerative!’
After decades of pioneering work by people such as Carol Sanford, Pamela Mang, Ben Haggard, Joel Glanzberg, Bill Reed and others, the genie is now out of the bottle of carefully curated communities of practice. The deep practice of regeneration operating from a profoundly different and at the same time ancient worldview is meeting the current mainstream accustomed to dumbed-down soundbytes and demanding instant gratification and ‘sexy’ sales pitches. It is our responsibility not to lose its essence and hence the unique contribution in the process.
I celebrate that organizations such as Sustainable Brands™ or the Spanish sustainability platform Quiero are helping to take the dialogue about regenerative practice to many more companies. And I enjoyed contributing to the curation of the Regenerative Pathways platform developed by Future Stewards “to accelerate a regenerative future.”
During a fascinating conversation with Lachlan Feggans — Asia Pacific director of sustainability at Brambles — on “The Regenerative Revolution” podcast, we explored how to find a nuanced, ‘glocal’ approach to re-regionalising production and consumption; and hence, decentralising supply chains. These are important questions; and how we work with them depends on how we understand our participatory agency within nested living systems.
At the heart of regeneration is realignment with the developmental and evolutionary impulse that has not just sustained life as a planetary process for 3.8 billion years, but has revealed life itself as a regenerative community across scales generating and regenerating the abundance, diversity, and vitality of a magnificent variety of places, bioregions and the planet as a whole.
Regenerative practice starts and continues with personal development. It is not a tool but a practice of conscious participation and co-creation. Living in right relationship and practicing the art of transformation, we are realigning with life itself. Working regeneratively is working in an evolutionary way. In a problem-solving and solution-scaling-oriented culture, it is revolutionary to invite a more humble approach by catalysing and revealing the potential of people as regenerative expressions of place.
Working regeneratively fore-grounds our collaborative journey of learning and capacity building. Our projects, products, solutions and answers are stage posts of a continuous apprenticeship, as we are practicing to manifest the inherent potential in ourselves and in teams, businesses, communities and places. Working regeneratively is about revealing potential, rather than disappearing down the rabbit holes of solving problems in isolation.
The systemic and participatory worldview that informs regenerative practice carries a central lesson: Helping to manifest the unique contribution of an individual, team, community, business, bioregion or of humanity not only becomes more possible but actually requires being in service to the ‘adjacent whole’ — the industry, community, bioregion, ecosystem, and ultimately to humanity and all life.
From this perspective, success is not measured in corporate internal ecological balance and loss accounting, or scored against a regenerative certification scheme; it is subtly reflected in the health and vitality of the communities, ecosystems and bioregions the business operates in. Ultimately, the measure of success is the improvement of local and regional capacity to face an uncertain future creatively and be of healing influence in the nested contexts in which we operate.
Maybe a good way to start the journey is by letting go off the habit of asking ‘what can regenerative do for my company’ and inviting a wider inquiry into how can we as human beings orient this company towards a thriving future in service to community and place?
Another useful way of describing what working in a regenerative way means is to start with articulating first principles. Carol Sanford suggested seven foundational principles of a regenerative approach: i) wholes, ii) potential, iii) essence, iv) development, v) nested, vi) nodes, and vii) fields. I like the way Bill Reed presents these in relationship and condenses them to four ways of working, which I built on here:
- Working with whole systems as conscious participants in and expressions of those systems-created, co-evolutionary pathways into the future
- Manifesting inherent potential invites place-sourced approaches informed by the bio-cultural uniqueness of particular localities and their inhabitants,
- Developing capability of people in place to become regenerative expressions of that place enables long-term response-ability in the face of complexity and uncertainty,
- Building a field of collaboration through embracing diversity while sharing meaning, purpose and practice enables individuals and the collective to express their unique contribution in service to self and community, as well as, place and planet.
So, if you really want to embark on the journey of working regeneratively, you better be prepared that the learning never stops and both the practice and you yourself will transform over time. Then again that is precisely the point. As my friend Bill Reed once pointed out to me: “The delivery is capability.”
Beyond serving the project, the company, the industry, or the nation state is being in right relationship with the dynamic living planet upon which all of them depend. Being in right relationship is primarily about nurturing the dynamic health and resilience (including the capacity to transform and the capacity of anticipation) of the nested systems (or dynamic wholeness) in which we participate. Working in a regenerative way is about appropriate participation!
To me, this ‘capability’ Bill calls the deliverable is about the capacity and lifelong practice to consciously participate in one of life’s core patterns: regeneration. As Janine Benyus summed up the core lesson of biomimicry so expertly: “Life creates conditions conducive to life.” The delivery is in living in right relationships. Such relationships create shared abundance rather than competitive scarcity, and improve the health and vitality of the whole.
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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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