arch-peace editorials

16 September 2007

Regenerative Design

Several months ago I wrote an editorial titled ‘Just Sustainability’ that discussed the emerging social imperative within sustainability discourse. In a similar vein, in this editorial I would like to explore another area of concern that is gaining increasing momentum. ‘Regenerative design’ is founded on the contention that sustainability is insufficient to address the scope and urgency of our current planetary crisis. Sustainability is not tantamount to efficiency. However, the use, misuse and consequent renegotiation of this term has resulted in a reduction of its potency. In particular, its connection with the conceptually divergent goals of economic growth and production under the popularised Brundtland definition of ‘sustainable development’ has led to scepticism of the value and meaning of this term. Furthermore, the framework of minimising impacts, or perhaps even more problematically offsetting impacts, is seen as both ineffective and presumptuous since it continues to grant indulgences on behalf of the planet.

A variety of terms, including regeneration, resilience and symbiosis, have emerged to challenge the perceived inadequacies and stasis inherent in the concept of sustainability. This is not a particularly new approach. William McDonough has been championing this approach for well over a decade. In his 1998 article ‘Declaration of Interdependence’ he describes sustainability as a ‘shibboleth’ arguing that it is pointless trying to do a bad thing better.[1] Janis Birkeland echoes this concern in her critique of building environmental rating systems when she argues, “If we labelled cigarettes the way we label buildings, people might smoke more ‘lite’ cigarettes to improve their health.”[2]

Birkeland is attempting to lift the bar even higher than McDonough’s popularised ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach. She contends that the abolishment of the concept of ‘waste’ through closed loop cycles does not go far enough and what is required is a reverse linear system in which ‘wastes’ become resources. Scientists may dismiss such assertions as naïve, with the mighty weight of the second law of thermodynamics to bolster their resolve. However, I think the point raised by Birkeland and other proponents of a regenerative approach to design is not so much the application of intentions and their end results, but rather the framework within which those intentions are conceived. The shift in thinking from sustainable to regenerative design is subtle, yet significant. To appease the scientists, we might cite Einstein’s well-known insight that we can’t use the same thinking that got us into the problem in the first place.

So what is ‘regenerative design’? There is no definitive answer or universally agreed definition. As with ‘sustainability’, regenerative design is a contested concept with a common horizon of intent underpinned by a diversity of meanings and applications. From my own perspective, regenerative design diverges from sustainability in three key ways. Firstly, it shifts the frame of reference from minimal to positive impact. Secondly, it questions human/environment relations based on the Cartesian separation of subject and object. Thirdly it attempts to reconnect environmentalism with a socio-political dimension, which has been lacking in much sustainability discourse.

It is perhaps only the first of these three points of difference that is universally shared amongst all proponents of regenerative design. The premise is simple – that our actions should result in net benefits to our ecological and social environments. The application is more complicated, but it is based on what Bill Reed has described as building capacity rather than things. It requires us to think along Isaiah Berlin’s terms as foxes rather than hedgehogs; the latter being an endearing, but nonetheless critical term for the single-minded thinking typical of much urban planning.

Regenerative design looks for inspiration in the complexity and symbiosis of nature. However, it is necessarily more than biomimicry. Herein lays the second point of difference to sustainability in which regenerative design attempts to reconcile the historically constructed division between humans and nature. It is interesting to contemplate that the word ‘nature’ can have such multiple meanings that extend from our intrinsic characteristics and our relationships towards things to a concept that is premised on our very separation from the ‘natural’ world.

Many proponents of regenerative design invoke an ethic of care and a connection with the spirit of place as a necessary condition to challenge our current position. Not everyone is comfortable with embracing this perspective for fear of being labelled a new age hippy and dismissed as ‘flaky eco-la-la’, to use Murray Bookchin’s condemning term. But then again, the dominant mechanistic and reductionist attitude towards our world is something that regenerative design seeks to challenge. Of course, much of this thinking has aided the environmental movement by providing scientific ‘proof’ of planetary changes such as global warming. However, sometimes I am shocked by the extension of this attitude to the way we act in the world. If the Great Climate Change Swindle that was aired recently on national television wasn’t bad enough, the ensuing debate in which an Australian scientist dismissed the entire precautionary principle on the basis of our inability to adequately and accurately determine risk was astounding.

However, there are so many things for which science cannot account. In particular, the socio-political dimension, which is the focus of the third point of difference and the subject of my previous editorial on ‘just sustainability’, requires value judgements which can never be quantified. Sustainability does not exclude the socio-political dimension, but it defines it as a distinct realm; one of the four ‘pillars’ or three ‘legs’ depending on how the pie is sliced. Conversely, regenerative design is concerned with the complex web of relationships that form an integrated whole that cannot so easily be dissected. This is an aspiration rather than a reality and unfortunately social relationships are too readily glossed over or presented as universal and homogenous. One notable point of difference is Steven Moore’s treatise on regenerative design through an analysis of the Laredo Blueprint Farm in Texas.[3] It takes some resolve to wade through all the academic lingo, but Moore makes some really good points about the inter-relationships between the success of environmental initiatives and the politics of ownership, production and education.

Regenerative design is still evolving and maturing in its ideas and applications. Unlike sustainability it is not premised on an idealised end point but rather recognises the necessity of the process of development along variously divergent and convergent paths. Who knows exactly where these paths will lead, but with so many of the pioneers of sustainable design now working in this area, expect to hear more in the future ……

Dr Ceridwen Owen
Architects for Peace, September 2007



[1] McDonough, W. (1998) ‘Declaration of Interdependence’ in Scott, A. (ed.) Dimensions of Sustainability, London: E & F Spon.
[2] Birkeland, J. EDG (2007) ‘Positive Development’, Building Design Practitioners Environment Design Guide, Melbourne: RAIA (in publication).
[3] Moore, S.A. (2001) Technology and Place: Sustainable architecture and the Blueprint Farm, Austin: University of Texas Press.


arch-peace said...

Ceridwen this is an important, challenging and beautifully written editorial which presents an option for a more holistic way to understand our relationship with nature—past practices and possibilities. I am one of those who are uncomfortable with the word ‘sustainability’. It has been used and misused. Or perhaps, as a term, it does not have a real potential for depth. The separation between environmental and socio-political agendas has been a real concern and as our decisions have a socio-political origin, this separation is in my view constructed and deceptive.

I am glad to learn that there is another way to approach the ‘sustainability discourse’ and that this may consider the latest two points you mentioned: questioning human/environment relations and “attempts to connect environmentalism with a social political dimension”. These are key issues which are also particularly relevant to the work of arch-peace.

Another aspect that I find promising in your definition of what ‘regenerative design’ is that it considers the framework in which systems operate: “regenerative design is not so much the application of intentions and their end results, but rather the framework within which those intentions are conceived”. This is a crucial issue in our approach to the environment and can be extended to almost anything we do.


James Greyson said...

Great article. Regenerative design, or positive development, is spot on. Less bad is not good enough. As we've seen over recent decades, just trying to cut emissions does not cut emissions. Shift the goal-posts to cutting greenhouse gas concentrations - then you've really got a framework for creative and ambitious solutions. As it happens, this is what the latest climate science on positive feedback dynamics tells us is now necessary.

Most people will have enough to grapple with just figuring out how the economy can be reshaped from the linear system to a circular one, working within nature's cycles - not against them. However let's not discount turning wastes into resources. Evolution managed to do this for rather a long time, without upsetting the 2nd law of thermodynamics, until civilisation came along with its own ideas. In a world which is running out of everything, mining wastes is easily more productive than mining mines.

Yes, accurately determining risk is impossible thanks to global complexity. Fortunately risk can be determined sufficiently to support political decisions. Is it a good idea to run a linear economy which allows increasing concentrations of thousands of waste substances in the land, water and air? Is it a good idea to steadily dismantle the natural basis of all economic activity and life? Duh.

Of course the wrong political decisions continue to be made not because of lack of data about risks. We screw-up as a global society because we make extraction and dumping free and because our economic growth calculations lump together spending on things going wrong with productive spending. But this can change anytime. Janis Birkeland's 'Positive Development' book (being published June 2008) has a case study of an economic tool for switching to a circular economy which could achieve regenerative design.

You can also see this on my site; look for the link to a 'summary' on the home page. For those who would like to be more sure of a positive future, two further economic reforms are proposed; please see the 'United Nations contribution'.

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