Regenerative by Design
Photo — Nacho Velasco
Written by Annette Lin
We are approaching the biggest ecological collapse in 65 million years. The urgency of this moment demands a different kind of thinking — one that puts life at the centre of every decision. In conversation with Standard Deviation, we explore visions for a regenerative future, and what it means to give back much more than we take.
We are living in a time of emergency. Since the dawn of industrialisation, we have been racing through our planet’s finite resources as if they were limitless, depleting and destabilising the very ecosystems on which we depend on for our livelihoods, economies, food, health and quality of life. In only 50 years, we have lost more than half of the world’s wildlife. Right now, the Earth is on track to warm beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists warn is a hard planetary boundary for the Earth’s existing ecosystems. This is a ‘code red for humanity,’ as outlined in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. Continuing on our current path will mean irreversibly damaging the very conditions which sustain life on this planet.
We should take our role in this mess seriously. If the human species have single-handedly changed our planet’s ecosystem for the worse, then we are more than capable to enact repair on a planetary scale. This time, by design.
Video — Nacho Velasco
What is regenerative design?
It is time for designers to set our sights beyond sustainability and consider regeneration. Sustainability is an important concept in a time of widespread environmental destruction. It has made us aware that our planet’s resources are finite, and helped us envisage practices to sustain our current resources. But on its own it does not fix what is broken.
‘What are we trying to sustain — the fires, the tornadoes, the mass extinction? We don’t need to be sustainable, we need to be regenerative.’
Regenerative design seeks to not merely do less harm when designing, but rather to put design to work as a positive force that restores, renews or revitalises. A concept that’s inherent in nature, regeneration should be the approach for how we interact with the planet. It is a way of thinking that’s focused on giving back much more than we take.
We can apply regenerative philosophy to design and ask: how can we put life — human life, the planet, and everything it sustains — at the centre of everything we do?
For one, we can listen more closely to nature. ‘Nature, by default, is regenerative,’ explains Mawuena Tendar from Standard Deviation. For millions of years, our global ecosystem renewed itself through processes of life and decay, decomposition, and fertilisation. Thanks to the work of many different species, processes such as pollination, water and air filtration, and carbon sequestration all contributed to the biodiversity, health, and resilience of ecosystems. These ecosystem services laid the foundation for regeneration. It’s not nature — it’s us. ‘It’s the way we, in industrialised societies, engage with our ecosystem that’s degenerative,’ says Tendar.
It may sound hard, but some pioneering companies have shown that it’s possible. In 2015, carpet manufacturer Interface was on target to hit zero-impact status by 2020. However, the company decided that being sustainable wasn’t enough. They wanted to be more generous — they wanted to contribute to the ecosystem around them. The company looked at the local habitat of one of their factories, a flat river plain ecosystems on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, and analysed how this habitat would naturally function, and what ecological services it would provide. How would it clean water? How would it clean the air? And how much carbon would it store?
The answers became the benchmarks not just for what the factory would do, but what it would give to the surrounding ecosystem while supporting business too. With design changes, like installing a rainwater collecting system and treating it to mimic the natural water treatment behaviour of the area, an otherwise nondescript industrial building was transformed into a place that restored nature.
Carbon is not our enemy
We need to redesign our approach to carbon. Currently, we treat carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as an issue that can be solved only if we have a multi -million-dollar incentive. But carbon is not the enemy — consider that our bodies themselves are 12 percent carbon. In fact, it’s a ‘building block of life, and its presence is essential to the health of soil and the oceans,’ says Tendar. Both of these need carbon — without it, soil becomes infertile, and ocean habitats need carbon to thrive.
The problem is that we’ve broken the healthy cycle of carbon by emitting too much of it into the atmosphere. At the same time, we’ve been destroying the most efficient carbon sinks our planet has: land, forests and oceans. As we’ve burned fossil fuels, cleared land and extracted minerals, nature has responded — and not favourably. But, as Tendar points out, we don’t have to be stuck in the role of being degenerators. Instead of causing the decline of our ecosystem, we can think about ways we can contribute to, and even accelerate, its renewal.
Towards a regenerative future
‘As humans, we have a role in accelerating natural regeneration,’ explains Lara Pagnier of Standard Deviation. In fact, regeneration should be at the forefront of all human and organisational systems. Rodale Institute calculates that moving towards regenerative practices, we would be able to sequester more than 100% of current human emissions of CO2 — by using it as a nutrient of life. We can contribute to the health of the planet and move towards a regenerative relationship between us, as a species, and the ecosystems we depend on.
But what does it mean to design regeneratively? Like Interface’s Factory as a Forest project, we can take our cues from nature, and design to simulate the regenerative processes around us. We can also consider what ecosystem services our particular environment offers us, such as cleaner air or water, and how we can, in turn, give back to our environment. Architect Michael Pawlyn suggests thinking of building materials not just as components to build a structure, but as nutrients that contribute to the building’s ecosystem, and to our wellbeing, too. In Iraq, the Al-Tahla Floating Islands of the Ma’dan culture use a single reed species to construct biodegradable structures that work in symbiosis with the local water ecosystem. Not only does this six-thousand-year-old technology offer shelter, it also improves local water quality.
At its heart, regenerative design is about life. What are we designing for, if not for our own health and planetary well-being?
We also need to regenerate our communities through our relationship to place. Choosing to listen to nature can help us build back and restore the ecosystems we’re a part of — allowing our communities to thrive. As designers, we can accelerate this process by changing the way we think and put design into practice.
And regenerative projects can be small, too: in the U.S., Soul Fire Farm and Fresh Future Farm have successfully used Afro-Indigenous agroforestry and silvopasture to create thriving community farms on 30 hectares and less than half a hectare, respectively. Both of these farms are committed to giving back not just to the land, but to their neighbours too, through access to food, community, and knowledge-sharing.
‘We’re seeing more and more examples that natural ecosystem regeneration actually works, and it doesn’t take millennia — it takes decades, sometimes years,’ says Pagnier. This should be more of an incentive to start acting now.
We are part of nature
Crucially, we need a new philosophy. We need to put aside the idea that humans are separate from nature, and see ourselves as part of the planet’s systems. Thinkers such as Julia Watson are calling for a ‘new mythology’ in which we see the human-built environment as part of the natural environment, not separate from it, and re-evaluate Indigenous and ancestral ways of building with nature. Because what nurtures nature, nurtures us. ‘As cells and organs of Earth, we strive to fulfil our roles as her caregivers and caretakers. We often describe ourselves as ‘weavers’, strengthening the bonds between all beings,’ says an open post from ten different Indigenous organisations, including the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development.
Taking on a holistic approach to design and systems’ thinking can help us understand how different elements relate to each other — and helps us remember that the world is an interconnected web. Everything we design is part of a whole that has a wider social and ecological impact. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes,
‘In Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our families. Because they are our family.’
Practising active hope
By listening to nature, we can start seeing ourselves as part of a whole, and practise ‘active hope’: hope as an action. According to eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, active hope includes understanding the situation, setting the aspiration, and taking steps in that direction.
Right now, the world is the hottest it has ever been in the history of human civilisation. If we continue on our current path, we’re looking at a 5-degree warming in the upcoming century — a threat to human life on our planet. The time to act is now. Regeneration implies enhancing an ecosystem, and leaving it better than we found it. By applying active hope towards regeneration, designers have a unique opportunity to look for ways to encourage life to thrive.
So what now? As humanity is urgently trying to reverse the climate crisis, we need to be more ambitious in our plans. We should want to do more than survive — we can choose to thrive, by giving back and working together to regenerate our planet. We can let nature, and thus life, guide our thinking. At SPACE10, we believe that regeneration is the only way forward. That’s why we have decided to embark on the journey of exploring what a regenerative future would look like.
If you want to join us in learning, here are some of our recommended resources:
Carlo Sanford, The Regenerative Business
Decolonizing Industrial Design
Dominique Hes and Chrisna du Plessis, Designing for Hope: Pathways to Regenerative Sustainability
Indigenous Regenerative Economic Principles
John Fullerton, Capital institute, 8 Principles for a Regenerative Economy
Julia Watson, Lo—TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism
Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics
Laura Storm, Regenerative Leadership
Leah Penniman, Farming While Black
Paul Hawken, Regeneration
Paul Polman, Net Positive Manifesto and Net Positive Organizations
RSA Regenerative Futures
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About Standard Deviation
Standard Deviation is a consultancy focusing on supporting organisations in their understanding of the ecological and social crises, their role as a driving force, and the opportunities that lie in regenerative models.