Regenerative Development and Design

Leen Gorissen, Karla Bonaldi, Piet Haerens, Lénia Rato

Every generation sees itself reflected in Dickens’ famous words written more than a century and a half ago. They certainly ring true for our present moment, highlighting the central question that has been raised in this report: What does it take to move forward to the best of times? What does it take to actively create the wisdom, willpower, and capability to become co-creators of a brighter future, rather than being victims of the mistakes of our past? The aim of this study has been to explore, define, and unpack the concept of regenerative development, the next step of sustainability, which includes and transcends the idea of sustainability because it aims for thrivability; the potential of qualitative growth that supports full prosperity of the human and more-than-human world in full co-creative partnership between people and planet.

In this report, we show that regenerative development (RD) has been practiced and evolved through the discipline of regenerative development and design (RDD) with roots going back 50 years and more, and that its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is not about sustaining what is or restoring what was. Rather, it is about creating thriving living systems—social-ecological systems such as places, organizations, communities, and ecosystems—that have the capacity to evolve toward increasing states of health, vitality and abundance over time. RDD calls for a new role for humans: to become agents of new vitality and evolutionary capability and to live
in conscious alignment with living systems principles of wholeness, nestedness, relationship, and reciprocity, harmonizing human development with the way life works. These are the principles that Indigenous wisdom keepers have taught since time immemorial.

The understanding that this is possible, and an essential and desirable next step for humanity, is based on recent scientific insights from biology, quantum physics, systems theory, complexity science, developmental change theory, psychology, and neuroscience, among others. The shift in perspective that RDD represents comes from a new integration among knowledge systems that brings together modern Western science, ancient Indigenous science, and Eastern spiritual traditions and philosophies. While much of the focus of Western thought has been on the science of entropy, or increased disorder, Indigenous cultures have specialized in the science of negentropy, reverse entropy or increased order—the inherent capability of living systems to grow into new levels of spohistication, complexity and thrivability. That is because, although subject to the law of entropy, living systems are also governed by the countervailing processes of evolution.

Living systems don’t just run down; they also grow up and become more able and sophisticated over time. This evolutionary drive has been key to life’s 3.8 billion years of success on planet Earth.

The concepts that inform regenerative thinking thus have long-established philosophical underpinnings, including from Indigenous, Eastern, and Western thought, and are still embodied in the practices of certain Indigenous cultures around the world. However,
regenerative approaches for social-ecological systems are mostly unknown and unfamiliar in Western societies as they require fundamentally altered ways of thinking, acting, and relating among people and nature. In a world where planetary boundaries have been pushed out of their safe operating space and processes of degeneration are scaling exponentially, it will be critical to accelerate learning to transition to regenerative systems at a scale, pace, and depth to match the current crises.

Regenerative development builds on the understanding that a fragmented approach that deals with multiple intertwined crises separately will inevitably fall short, that our current theory of change is ineffective, and that the modern Western worldview and way of living is depleting humans and the planet. It builds on the understanding that our current meta-crisis requires a meta-response, and this is what the meta-discipline of regenerative development and design aims to bring. It is anchored in living systems understanding, which forms the basis for a distinctive thinking technology that can be used to develop, maintain, and promote value
adding processes designed to benefit both people and their environments. It is negentropic (entropy-reversing) in its aims; that is, it seeks to enable systems to become increasingly ordered, resilient and sophisticated—one of the hallmarks of living systems. It focusses on (re)learning how to think like natural systems so that we can act accordingly.

RDD offers a comprehensive way forward. It integrates modern and ancient science and practice with essential but often neglected components of sustainability—ecological, social, cultural, spiritual, and geophysical dimensions. At the same time, it addresses the root causes of unsustainability: our ways of thinking and views about how the world works. To the best of our knowledge, RDD offers the most in-depth and detailed body of knowledge and practice currently available to advance the purposes of regeneration in a holistic way.

To fully comprehend the depth behind the concept and practice of RDD, it is important to understand that the approach is not merely a combination of the concepts regenerative, development, and design but a fully integrative and inseparable union of all three: regenerative development and design is a meta-discipline that builds on clearly defined definitions of what regenerative,
development and design means. In other words, there is a coherence and integrity behind the approach which implies that one cannot pick random elements and mix and match. It only works in integrality. It refers to a lineage of theory and practice that aims to more appropriately bring entropic technologies into alignment with negentropic processes. This is what makes it distinct from and also additive to other sustainability approaches.

Understanding RDD in practice, rather than only in theory, builds on three essential key ideas: regeneration as enabler of evolution, working in place, and developmental processes.

Regeneration, as a mindset, focuses on developing the capacity and capability for living systems evolution. Given the nested nature of all living systems, this implies that to be regenerative, one must develop the ability to take direction from a higher-level system and
develop ways to add value to that higher level. To achieve this, Western societies need to internalize and embody the understanding that any living system—an organism, business, ecosystem, bioregion—can maintain its health only while there is a balanced economy of interests between parts and whole. For example, no part of a healthy human body gains its health at the expense of other parts. As long as the body is healthy, the body’s ecology and economy are one, there is no conflict.

There are no rich and poor organs. The wealth and vitality of your body, as in any living system, is in the whole, not the parts. In a healthy body every part adds value to the bigger system it is part of, and all the elements operate in harmonious relationship with each other to flourish as a whole. And this applies to any healthy living system —a body, a place, an organization, an ecosystem, a bioregion, a society…

Humanity can only thrive on a flourishing planet. Vital for any regeneration process is thus living systems thinking, a discipline for seeing wholes, interdependencies, interrelations, and higher order potential.

Working from place is a fundamental starting point in RDD because working at the scale of local communities, cities, and bioregions is where our individual and collective behavior can make the difference that is needed in terms of regenerative development. Place is the right scale for most people to think and care about as it offers a common ground for people across diverse ideological spectra. Place is what people share in common and recognition of that commonality is what invites them to be a community. Regenerative development also builds on the premise that place-sourced and people-sourced potential go hand in hand as illustrated by multiple examples shared in this report. This means that the outer development of urban and rural places must always be matched by an inner development of those that inhabit them.

The transition to regenerative sustainability requires us to become indigenous to our places again. Policy-making can be an important lever to create the appropriate enabling conditions for regenerative development. RDD can help local governments to understand, acknowledge and treasure the living systems they depend on. It can help all kinds of governance to harmonize human and living systems development in ways that ensure longevity and security over the long term. This is especially important when it comes to biodiversity as few people understand that species richness is pivotal for the survival of the living systems that underpin the life support system of our planet. Biodiversity is not only vital in terms of the food webs on which we depend, biodiversity is also crucial when it comes to essential planetary processes like oxygen production, carbon draw down, climate regulation, nutrient cycling and soil formation.

Dwindling species richness can therefore destabilize the planetary processes on which life depends. Our analyses of existing EU legislation and expressed ambitions shows that these provide a sound foundation to evolve future legislation and ambitions towards regenerative development, a developmental approach that fosters thriving living socio-ecological systems that are beneficial for all life on Earth.

To conclude, a benefit of working regeneratively and developmentally, of evolving place- and people-sourced potential, is the enrichment that it can bring to the sustainability field and the world at large: the regeneration of spirit and land, the growth of understanding and capability; the will to become a co-creator rather than a victim of change; the inspiration to step into the
essence of who we are and who we need to become and the willpower to turn break-down into break-through. The all-encompassing nature of an RDD approach evolves our consciousness and competency to serve as instruments for a better future for every living being on Earth.

It enables our becoming and our homecoming as a contributing species within a family of species that share our unique planet. RDD is not an endpoint and not a solution. It is a process-in-progress that both supports and depends on our continuous evolution toward becoming a better keystone species, the enablers of increased vitality, viability, and wealth generating capability in ways that serve the ongoing evolution of life. Because real change will only begin when we realize that we are the Earth regenerating herself.




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