Regeneration is a useful and practical discipline that offers a way to navigate the ambiguity of broken systems and build better, more compelling pathways forward.
The term originated from medical and biological sciences, where it was defined as, “the natural process of replacing or restoring damaged or missing cells, tissues, organs or even entire body parts.” It has since evolved and expanded as a concept with relevance to social and environmental concerns. At its core, it is about rejuvenation and renewal but as we will discover, it’s also about integration, ecosystems and holistic design.
Regeneration is not about plugging the gaps or fixing one part of the whole. It is fractal and systemic in nature and operates on a spectrum between micro and macro levels. Systems are everywhere and can take any form; nations, culture, governments, businesses, products, services, buildings, districts, communities and people. Thinking on a systems level can easily get overwhelming, so let’s take a step back and look at two frameworks that describe what ‘regenerative’ means.
This framework describes how any single or cumulative change might be seen in terms of its impact on a system. Change is measured by how much it gives vs. how much it takes from the systems it is nested within. Toward the upper right we see more regenerative change; toward the lower left, we see more degenerative change.
The bottom left quadrant of the diagram is ‘net negative’, where the change you’re designing or implementing is taking more than it’s giving and doing more harm than good to the system. If the change suddenly stopped, it would leave a footprint of harm, damage or insufficiency.
An upward move in this quadrant means it is offsetting or restoring some of the harm to the system (but less than 100% of it).
Examples of net negative impact might include:
If we follow the diagonal line upwards to the center of the graph, we enter the ‘neutral zone’ of net zero impact; which means the change and system are sustainable.
The change we are designing or implementing is taking just as much as it’s giving and the harm and good it is doing exists in equilibrium. If it suddenly disappeared, it would leave no footprint (negative or positive).
Examples of net zero or sustainable impact might include:
Note: When it comes to living systems, e.g. habitat and community, the notion of any impact being truly net zero is highly questionable, realistically falling into either net negative or net positive zones given the deep, systemic connections we exist within.
To the upper right quadrant of the diagram, we move into the net positive impact zone.
This means the change you’re designing or implementing is now giving more than it is taking and is doing more good than harm to the system. If it suddenly disappeared, it would leave a beneficial footprint behind, what some practitioners call a ‘handprint’.
The initial step beyond sustainable (but before regenerative) is restorative. Restorative change essentially makes up for any lost ground, creating benefits at a rate that moves a system from net negative to net positive. It not only restores any damage or harm, it exceeds it.
When we reach the regenerative change zone, we not only restore, but continuously evolve to maintain the regenerative capability in and beyond the system. Regeneration is not only about the impact, or change it creates now, it is about how it can organically adapt and evolve in the future.
Examples of net positive impact might include:
The second framework of regeneration is more integrative and draws from living systems design and developmental theories.
This diagram consists of three circles (representing systems) that are nested within each other; called nested wholes. The innermost circle represents the self, the second circle represents those who you impact directly, and the third circle represents the wider community or those who you impact indirectly.
The idea behind this framework is that there is a line of sight and connected relationship between the three nested wholes. Regenerative practitioners work along this line of sight, across the nested wholes simultaneously.
This framework draws attention to the way we see and experience ourselves with others. In an organisational context, it considers how people work together in ways that either enable or disable professional and personal development. It considers our relationship with clients and customers, and the extent to which our products and services serve them, us and our communities. In a school context, it considers how students learn and develop by self agency, curiosity and imagination.
Examples of regeneration in human growth and potential may include:
• Designing products and services with and for community and customers. Aiming for value that serves both business needs, and individual and collective perspectives. Delivering for some bigger than ourselves.
• Codesigning working relationships that meet the needs of those impacted. Aiming for personal agency, internal locus of control and the ability to challenge with stretch goals and significant growth which are outside of comfort zones. Advocating for unique and developmental growth and supporting autonomy.
Regeneration is incredibly complex, and in our experience, requires high levels of commitment, collaboration and awareness to achieve. While it may always be the goal, we feel it is important to have patience in the journey and celebrate the value that lower levels bring on your way to regeneration.
At MAKE Studios, we are creating ways to act on our ability to create regenerative change through internal team work, client work, customers and communities.
We have a flat team structure with a focus on self-management. MAKERs are encouraged to shape and drive how they add value to the organisation and by extension, to our clients and the community. This structure is supported by ways of working, communication and decision making principles that enable team members to practice personal agency.
With clients, we co-design in blended core teams. Blended core teams are a mixture of MAKERs and client team members. Everyone is encouraged to regularly communicate and actively participate in design direction and shaping outcomes. We collaborate with customers and community members in prototyping activities, using a range of ideas and generative possibilities to provoke discussion and co-creation.
Through our partnership with social enterprise STREAT, we design and run projects specifically related to regenerative systems such as food systems, environmental impact and waste loops. Current project examples include Moving Feast, Open Sauce and the Victoria University Regenerative City Living Lab.
We believe that a focus on regenerative practices and outcomes is long overdue. With this overview, we hope to inspire you to look into the potential of your own organisation to adopt regenerative practices to achieve greater social and environmental impact.