Regenerative Development: Concept and Practice

The emergence of regenerative design comes at a crucial time in human development. We seem to live in a world where the problems and challenges we face are so increasingly complex that even when we make progress in one area we do more damage in another, where the interrelated network of global issues can't advance in any one direction without compromising significantly in another. Every step forward yields two back, and our victories spell disaster for others. What if we could change our thinking about specific problems in a way that achieved progress for those affected and also for the entire environment around them?

A look at our traditional model of development over the last few centuries will begin to identify the disconnect between our relationship with the earth, and the health of the planet. Our current model of development relies on single direction waste streams and industrial processes to produce the goods and services we need. As a result, we regard nature and our own people as products to be exploited for economic gain. We are no longer citizens, but consumers. We try to eliminate competition, problems, and inconveniences rather than learn from or accommodate them. Even after all of this, the system relies on an economic model of unlimited growth, which is impossible on a finite planet. The problem is even worse when coupled with such consumptive practices. In turn, any system of development that operates this way prioritizes short term gains over long term development. Often we see corporations and people making even riskier choices for instant gratification.

In the last few decades we've seen a small shift in attitude; sustainable development has attempted to solve many of the problems within the traditional model, but falls short for a few key reasons. First, it assumes that the only effect that humans can have on the planet is a negative one, and needs to be minimized. That idea, if taken to it's logical extreme would mean we'd have to ban human interaction with all our ecosystems. Secondly, its main focus is to do “less bad,” eventually reaching the point where humans are no longer damaging the earth in any way. This is a noble first step, but one that paints us into a corner. For example banning water pollution doesn't achieve the same effect as cleaning our lakes and rivers. If we only stop the negative without adding or increasing the positive, we are still left with the initial deficit we created. When earth's resources are depleted, sustainability leaves us limping onward with the planet's diminished capacity. Lastly, nowhere in nature does a “steady and stable” system exist. Every environment is constantly changing and evolving, and a balanced “sustainable” state doesn't take these fluctuations into account.

Regenerative Development is the first design system that seeks to expand the capacity of all life support systems on earth by considering the effects of any action on a whole world and long term scale.

It takes the next step beyond sustainability by operating on the following principles:

  • Making best use of the earth's resources

We can achieve this by closing open loop systems. This means eliminating waste streams by either repurposing materials, or modifying them to be completely included in another process. A big part of closing the loop begins with using resources more efficiently. For example, the US agricultural system that consumes fossil fuels and delivers it's products to a consumer base that throws out more than 25% of food before consumption has a lot of opportunities to improve efficiency. Once we've learned to use our resources to their full potential we can focus them on improving society's well being in a way that builds the capacity of the earth's support systems that are needed for future development.

  • Long term and large scale thinking

    Thinking far ahead doesn't mean there can't be any short term gains, just not at the expense of long term development. In many cases it's possible to make a short term profit without compromising the potential for your business to continue to operate in the future. This shift requires us to problem solve, and design in terms that consider every aspect of the interconnected life support connections of this planet.

  • Transparency

    The ability to see sources of funding, statistics of pollution, and motives of those involved keeps everyone informed and accountable. Many of the destructive practices that pervade in the traditional economic model are enabled by opaque business and political practices that prevent citizens from becoming involved or being educated.

    • Customization

      Any regenerative solutions should be customized for the people and ecology that they affect while taking global scale into account. The different populations, climates, and ecosystems throughout the world require unique consideration, but are ultimately all connected and need to progress in a way that contributes to the health of the whole.
    • Development not Growth

      As the pioneer of systems thinking, Russell Ackoff succinctly put it, “Growth is an increase in size or number. Development is an increase in competence.” Growth in size or number is also mathematically unsustainable in a finite world. We as a species need to redefine our goals and aim to make best use of the resources at hand, not only for ourselves, because by sharing what is available we create an abundance that pays back dividends in our own development.

      • Bio-mimicry

        Luckily for all of us there is no need to reinvent the wheel. We need only to look at existing natural systems to see how our own processes could function. We can see elegant solutions and closed loop systems in every process of the natural world, and by emulating these, we can shape new and existing industries into symbiosis.

        • Everybody Wins

          Successful design means that everyone in the equation, and every system on the planet benefits. In Regenerative Development there are no solutions that exclude a portion of our environment, no waste streams that flow into another community, or industries that exploit any resource to benefit only a few. When everyone is included in the decisions toward development, everyone shares in the abundance.

          Growth is an increase in size or number. Development is an increase in competence.
          — Russell Ackoff

          Regenerative Development also indicates a mentality shift in the way our species interacts with the world we live in. Human interaction with the planet is often treated as if it can only be detrimental, but with Regenerative Development human interaction is essential to the health and resilience of all life support systems. Preserving land from human influence isn't the only way to assure its health. When we set out to improve the places that we steward, and act to the benefit of every link in the chain, we can facilitate and expand on natural processes.

          A solution in isolation from the larger whole is an incomplete solution. A muscular body with with a strong heart couldn't be called healthy if there is cancer in the lungs. Such is the relation between solutions that only benefit a single industry, economy, or population. The success of a few is no indication of progress. Inclusion of everyone, and every community is needed to make lasting improvements. If certain demographics are left out of the development, the solution is incomplete.

          We at Abundant Edge believe strongly in the ethics of Regenerative Development and use its principles in each stage of our work. We stand apart from other development companies by creating designs, buildings, and landscapes with these principles in mind. Our teams work closely with clients to customize the structures and landscapes we build for them, their environment, and their community. We select materials based on the needs of the project as well as the impact on the local ecology and economy. All of our designs consider the long term impact of our projects in all the systems in which they interact. We also use the process of design and building to teach others to build for themselves, and develop their goals.

          Though the scope and ideas in this new way of designing may seem daunting, there are many things you can do for yourself to move toward a regenerative future. The principles of Regenerative Development can be applied to any project or challenge. Even small steps can make a difference if taken in the right direction. Take a look at your projects from as large a perspective as possible, and consider every life form and process that your actions may affect. Together we can change the direction in which humanity develops.