Many people now agree that sustainability has failed to provide the transformational vision needed to propel significant innovation in the evolution of cities. The concept of regenerative development has captured the imagination of those seeking a pathway to more culturally vibrant, environmentally resilient, and equitable cities. This vision puts people, prosperity, and planet into interaction in ways that create abundance for all three. Now, how do we get there?
Regenerative practices require a systems orientation, a bioregional context, and an emphasis on place-based solutions. We know from the study of coupled human and natural systems that urban socio-ecological systems are complex systems, consisting of a nested patchwork of ecological and socio-cultural units1. The systems that are best able to innovate and evolve are classified as complex-adaptive systems. Based on this vast literature, I argue that the following characteristics provide a fertile foundation for the development of regenerative places, organizations, and ultimately organization ecologies. This list is a starting point, rather than exhaustive.
- Collaborative organizational culture
- Transparent and participatory governance systems
- Non-silo behavior – positive and abundant interactions among public, private, non-profits, foundations, and educational institutions
- Forward-looking, long-term vision
- Openness to change and creativity
- Innovative organizational forms – B-Corporations, Co-Working spaces, Social Enterprises, Impact Finance
- Publicly-Engaged Universities that enthusiastically partner with start-ups, government agencies, and spark innovative approaches to solve community challenges
- Creative, collaborative, project-based approaches to finance community development, including slow money; impact finance; federal, state and local grants from government agencies, foundations, and NGOs.
- Information dissemination structures that speak to and reach diverse segments of society
These are organizational and network conditions that enable innovation and evolution, because they facilitate trust, collaboration, diversity, inclusivity, knowledge transfer, and creativity. However, what are the baseline requirements to transition the priorities of a local system (e.g. a city, town, neighborhood) toward regeneration?
John L. Knott, Jr. – arguably one of the most respected practitioners in the field of regenerative community development, wrote in a recent blog that central to making the shift to regeneration “is a paradigm shift from short term to long term, anonymity to awareness, aggregation to diversity, extraction to investment, linear to holistic, end state to evolutionary, competitive to collaborative, building things to building community, knowing to unknowing, starting with questions not answers”2.
These orientations include some of the transitions posed by the sustainability paradigm, but they go much further and they emphasize local contexts as the foundation for regeneration.
Knott is one of a larger group of practitioners who have articulated the values and approaches that underpin a transition toward a regenerative community culture. These include:
Critical Worldview Components
- Prioritization to regenerate all four capital categories: natural, social, physical, and financial
- Commitment to put these four forms of capital into interaction with one another in ways that create abundance for all citizens and sectors
- Holistic, bioregional frame of reference that emphasizes feedback loops among sectors and forms of capital
- Changes must articulate with existing cultural priorities and expression to build socially durable evolution
- Focus on health and wellbeing for people and ecosystems
- Commitment to heal the social, economic, and environmental injustices that exist in the system
These values and orientations provide incentives for businesses, government agencies and local non-profits to walk the walk of regeneration much more than the current frameworks designed to transition industries toward sustainability.
Because they are locally-focused, the power of personal networks based on both mutual trust and peer pressure serve to catalyze synergistic efforts and collective feedback loops.
While existing voluntary certification programs, such as ISO 14000 and 26000, provide measurable indicators, they do not provide the same kinds of motivation that local networks and bioregional contexts produce.
Regenerative development offers a vision of development that creates widespread wellbeing on a healthy and prosperous planet. Rapid urbanization, our advancing climate crisis, and truly shameful levels of global inequality have joined forces to require a new vision for the future of cities. Focus on innovations that produce shared wellbeing in local bioregional and social contexts can increase government, industry, non-profit, and citizen investment in regenerative development.
About the Author
Beth Schaefer Caniglia (bio)
Professor & Director
Regis University SEED Institute
College of Business & Economics
1 See for example: Meadows, Donella H. 2008. Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Publishing; Jianguo Liu, Thomas Dietz, Stephen R. Carpenter, Marina Alberti, Carl Folke, Emilio Moran, Alice N. Pell, Peter Deadman, Timothy Kratz, Jane Lubchenco, Elinor Ostrom, Zhiyun Ouyang, William Provencher, Charles L. Redman, Stephen H. Schneider, William W. Taylor. 2007. “Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems,” 2007. Science 317:1513-1516.
2 Knott, John L., Jr. 2017. “Why Regenerative Development?” https://regisseedinstitute.com/2017/10/24/why-regenerative-development