A popular quote that has made the rounds in recent years has been Peter Drucker’s claim “If it cannot be measured, it does not exist”. Spin-off iterations have followed along similar lines: “if it cannot be measured, it cannot be managed”. Implied within this is the proposition that, as a society, we place a value in what can be measured, and this is particularly true regarding improvement. Progress in any sense always hinges on the possibility of comparison, as terms like “better” or “worse”, “more” or “less” explicitly denote. Metrics—the method of measurement—enable us to capture outcomes and progress in quantifiable terms. In theory, metrics offer a quantifiable solution supported by statistical evidence to measure and track accountability, benchmark performance, and create directional energy toward a given end goal.
As sustainability has matured and become more ubiquitous, metrics have provided legitimacy to the industry as a resource to demonstrate progression towards a more desirable social, economic, and environmental end condition. For example, any given sustainability plan identifies metrics in different topic areas, such as reducing single occupancy vehicle miles traveled to X, reducing raw water demands by X%, decreasing trash landfilled to less than X pounds per capita per day, and so on. Inherently, sustainability metrics look backwards—difference is measured according to previously existing states at an arbitrary snapshot in time. In other words, movement—positive or negative—for a given sustainability metric is benchmarked from a selected baseline in relation to a pre-determined goal. Progress is understood as distance from how things were. For instance, we measure the reduction in single occupancy vehicle miles traveled by evaluating a baseline for year t, then comparing vehicle miles driven during years t+1, t+2, etc. All subsequent measurements taken are in reference to the baseline year, t. To put this in simpler terms, “sustainability” means little more than “more sustainable than how things used to be”.
Regeneration and regenerative development, which initially arose out of the concept of sustainability, has emerged to address “the process of cultivating the capacity and capability in people, communities, and other natural systems to renew, adapt, and thrive” (CLEAR, 2017). Thus, regeneration is inherently focused on capacity-building toward self-generating evolutionary improvement or renewal. Fundamentally, a regenerative approach is cyclical, seeking to optimize viability through a natural renewal process supporting an ever more thriving and livable future.
In the application of regeneration, from theory to practice, metrics are underdeveloped. . . . . we need new methods and approaches—unique to regeneration—in order to address regenerative metrics, particularly for the legitimacy and maturation of the concept in practice.
In the application of regeneration, from theory to practice, metrics are underdeveloped. At present, regeneration lacks metrics that are distinguishable from sustainability, and yet conceptually the two are markedly distinct in their intention (as the above definition illustrates). You can’t achieve a regenerative outcome if the methods and approaches used are borrowed wholesale from sustainability. Therefore, we need new methods and approaches—unique to regeneration—in order to address regenerative metrics, particularly for the legitimacy and maturation of the concept in practice. Fundamental questions that need greater scrutiny in academia and industry alike include:
- Is regeneration measurable?
- Are metrics necessary to measure regeneration?
- What is a regenerative metric?
- What are the defining features of a regenerative metric in comparison with other metrics (i.e., sustainability metrics)?
Regeneration, in my view, calls for a radically different mode of measurement—one that looks forward, is fundamentally aspirational, and captures the notion of continual improvement codified in the definition of regeneration. One particularly promising mode of measurement, employed to great effect by Aristotle, Kant, and even Benjamin Franklin, is known as a regulatory ideal. A regulatory ideal is an inherently unreachable goal or state that is used to guide progress. In this sense, a regulatory ideal is intrinsically aspirational: it’s something to be continuously chased but never quite caught, much like an asymptote that always approaches its limit.
The challenge of a regenerative metric is that it focuses on the intensive, rather than extensive, differences. Extensive differences are differences of extension, like tape measures, clocks, and so on. Intensive differences are differences of intensity, and so include and envelope their previous states, like turning up the dimmer on a light switch. In other words, regeneration is a matter of renewed developing and overcoming, and, thus, a continuous – non-discrete – difference. In sustainability the distance matters, the change that has occurred in comparison to the baseline, t. In regeneration, the forward-striving aspiration matters, not past states.
This necessitates that we, as human beings, have to be better to then make this possible. The closer in the approach to the ideal, the more frequent reinterpretation and characterization of the ideal.
Sustainability metrics essentially ask the question “how far have we come?” whereas a metric based on a regulatory ideal will ask “how far have we yet to go?”. Measurement according to the regulatory ideal then amounts to a continual reinterpretation of the present state in reference to the ideal, aspirational state.
A regenerative metric, built on the concept of a regulatory ideal, is a tall order. Unlike sustainability, regeneration and the regulatory ideal requires that we be better. It would ask that we continually re-evaluate and re-characterize our understanding of the ideal, of our place in the environment, of what we owe the natural world, and how we can live and thrive amongst its creatures as one member among many. This, I believe, can be done. But it requires that we consider what we mean by progress and the ways that we measure it.
About the Author
Engineer, Brendle Group
As an engineer at Brendle Group, Ellie supports a range of projects spanning the disciplines of energy, water, climate, and sustainable and regenerative planning and management. She has worked with public and private sector clients to develop action-oriented strategies while translating complex technical concepts and datasets to inform effective decision making and actionable implementation. Ellie holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering and B.A. in Liberal Arts from Colorado State University.
Brendle Group is a consulting firm working to solve complex sustainability challenges through practical planning, robust engineering, and actionable implementation.