You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. — R. Buckminster Fuller
[…] the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do. — Steve Jobs
In the end, it comes down to asking ourselves: Will we continue to strive towards out-competing each other, and in the process unravel the thread that all life depends on? Or will we learn to collaborate in the healing of the whole, through transformative innovation and regenerative design, creating vibrant cultures and thriving communities for all?
In early 2010, my friend Samantha Sweetwater, an evolutionary activist in the Bay Area of San Francisco, invited me to contribute to an experiment in co-creation. Jean Russell had the inspiration to start a collective inquiry into the meaning of a word with transformative agency: Thriving. “What does thrivability mean to you?” Around this question, Jean curated the co-creation of Thrivability—A Collaborative Sketch. Seventy of us, from a variety of places and all walks of life, were invited to write a short reflection on the meaning of 60 words and phrases that relate, like a broad map, to this magnetic notion.
My contribution to the ‘collaborative sketch’ was about ‘integrity.’ I found myself inspired to write:
Integrity is all about wholeness. […] Integrity is about living in congruence with the insight that as co-creative participants in the world we live in, we can all contribute to the transition towards a sustaining, resilient and thriving culture, moving from the mess we are in, beyond sustainability, to the thrivability of the whole community of life. – Daniel Wahl in Russell (2010: 15)
The short answer to why we should aim to create regenerative cultures together is simple: choosing the path of regeneration and cooperation will create a greater level of wellbeing, health, happiness and equality for everyone and all life; and in the process of co-creating a better future together, our lives will be more meaningful, fulfilling, creative and fun.
The Narrative of Separation
For too long, the narrative of separation has conditioned us to the knee-jerk response of competition in the face of perceived scarcity. Local and global collaboration in the co-creation of regenerative communities, enterprises, economies and cultures can unlock a very different future for humanity. Collaboration in regenerative practices can change our experience of reality; turning a resource-constrained planet, which is on a path to ecological collapse, into a thriving patchwork of socio-ecological systems. Such systems would generate an abundance of renewable resources, restore vital ecosystems functions, nurture solidarity, create community cohesion and resilience; all while effectively mitigating—and adapting to—climate change.
The creation of regenerative cultures is also rooted in a shift from seeing ourselves only as separate individuals, communities, nations and species, to understanding our deep interbeing as fundamentally interconnected expressions of life itself. By shifting to a relational perspective and paying attention to the ways that life creates conditions conducive to life, both the need for, and promise of, regenerative cultures become apparent.
As we recognize ourselves as participants in the evolution of life and consciousness, we come to understand ourselves as creative expressions of a natural process. The path of exploitation leads–via increasing separation, disintegration, and competition–to the early demise of our relatively young species. The path of regeneration, through conscious interbeing, integration and collaboration, opens up the possibility of a thriving future for humanity as a mature member of the community of life. If we choose to, we can generate abundance for all by consciously creating conditions conducive to life. Let us ask:
What If We Choose Regeneration Over Exploitation?
What if we choose to thrive together, rather than compete against each other?
The future potential of these transition times invites us to explore in community how we can co-create diverse regenerative cultures with sensitivity to place and scale. Global-local collaboration, based on knowledge and technology exchange, can help us to value diversity in the process of creating increased self-reliance and redundancies at multiple scales. Transformative innovation applied to redesigning the human presence on Earth requires global cooperation in the process of building circular and regionally focused economies, in support of resilient communities and the regeneration of their ecosystems. Thriving regional economies, supported by scale-linking collaboration and global solidarity, are the basis for collaborative abundance for all.
We can all start cultural transformation and seed regenerative patterns simply by asking the kind of questions explored in my book and inviting others around us to explore them with us. Questions can initiate conversations that will lead us to re-examine the relationship between nature and culture. In these conversations, we can learn to value the importance of whole-systems health and help each other to understand our interdependence.
Sustainability is Not Enough
A relational perspective of interbeing makes the objectives ahead seem quite clear: Create conditions where all life can thrive by nurturing the health of communities and ecosystems functions everywhere. Sustainability is not enough. We need to do more than just sustain. We need to regenerate the vitality and bio-productivity of the planetary life support system. We need to nurture and regenerate the pattern of socio-ecological interdependencies that support human and planetary health. It is this pattern of health that allows us to stay responsive, adaptable and resilient in the face of change.
To improve the regenerative capacity of communities and ecosystems we need to pay close attention to the effect of our actions at multiple interconnected scales, developing a participatory, living-systems perspective. We also need to develop a future consciousness that can guide wise action in the face of an unpredictable future and humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and capabilities. This includes processes that help us decide more wisely which technologies to employ at what scale and in which place. Not all that is technologically possible creates conditions conducive to life.
The socio-cultural transition ahead will require a move towards participatory democracy, which depends on a widespread culture of learning and radical responsibility. Co-production of vital community services can help to ensure that life-long learning–enabled by ongoing, community-focused design conversations–will also inform participatory governance. An ‘open source everything’ approach would enable learning to take place throughout the whole system (rapidly) and offer vital decision support, education and technological capability to all of humanity.
Education for ecological and social literacy will play an important role in spreading the understanding that we are participants in a fundamentally interconnected physical, chemical, biological, ecological, social and psychological process. By living the questions together, we can begin to educate each other in our communities and businesses about how to participate appropriately in this process—and nurture our capacity to access collective intelligence and wisdom. Since we cannot predict with certainty what kind of disruptions and unforeseen consequences of our actions might challenge us in the future, the best preparatory action is to create resilient communities, at multiple scales, networked for mutual support. This will create the basis for widespread collaboration as a path to increased wellbeing and meaning, solidarity and social cohesion, healthier ecosystems, more vibrant local economies and, thus, to thriving communities.
Regenerative Design–Designing As Nature
Regenerative design, including education as regenerative meta-design, driving worldview and culture change, can drastically reduce and reverse the negative human impact on the planetary life support system. Eco-social resilience and health can be restored at a local, regional and global scale. Global collaboration, based on open knowledge and technology exchange, can unite local and regional regeneration projects into a worldwide and systemic response to climate change and the converging crises we face.
Biologically and ecologically inspired design and innovation offer an opportunity to root regenerative cultures in the ground of 3.8 billion years of life’s intelligence and ingenuity. The creative challenge of redesigning our material culture, our systems of production and consumption, our lifestyles and economic systems, offers countless opportunities for transformative innovation and design for regenerative cultures. In weaving the multiple opportunities for synergy and symbiosis into cooperatively integrated mosaics of diverse regenerative eco-social systems, we are designing as nature.
Pioneers in areas such as green chemistry, material science, bio-inspired technologies, product design, architecture, and industrial ecology, along with community, urban and regional planning, are already living the questions of regenerative design inspired by life’s principles. They are actively engaging with the most important and meaningful creative challenge of the 21st century.
How do we design for the emergence of regenerative cultures everywhere?
How do we co-create health, wellbeing, and happiness in thriving communities?
How do we nurture human and planetary health by redesigning the human presence on Earth?
Pathfinders on our collective pilgrimage are already applying ecosystem mimicry to the creation of regenerative business ecologies, new financial and economic systems, as well as ecosystems restoration and regenerative agriculture. All of these communities of practice are now forming networks of active change agents (evolutionary activists) who are beginning to link up across scales and disciplines.
Social innovation, peer-to-peer collaboration, open knowledge and technology, the spread of maker culture, additive manufacturing, circular economy initiatives and diverse online and off-line community networks, are all powerful enablers and catalysts in the creation of collaborative and regenerative systems structures that will nurture regenerative cultures. In many places and cultures, people are already living the questions together and transforming the world one place at a time. Another world is possible. If we pay attention, we can already see this world taking shape all around us.
Collectively envisioning a regenerative future, and designing conversations at the community scale about how to implement these visions, are powerful processes of cultural transformation. Conversations like these are beginning to take place everywhere–in community groups, boardrooms, town halls, universities, government think tanks and within the UN system. Together—as one humanity—we are capable of responding to the converging crises and are offering culturally transformative responses to them. By forming networks of collaboration, we can begin to heal divisive ideologies and old habits of competition driven by the outdated narrative of separation.
Only seeing separation, and therefore competition, rather than also seeing the underlying wholeness of our interbeing with all life, has caused a cultural myopia that created many of these crises in the first place. Now, we are beginning to see the relationships of our ‘belonging-together’ rather than seeing only isolated individuals and objects. We are overcoming modernity’s ‘crisis of perception’. The future possibility of thriving communities and ecosystems providing a better life for all of humanity is within our reach, if enough of us commit to creating such a future together.
Change is Happening
New models that make the existing ones obsolete are already taking shape. Transformative innovation and regenerative design act like viruses of infectious health, nurturing regenerative cultures everywhere. Our species can take the path to becoming a restorative and regenerative presence on Earth. Caring for Earth is caring for ourselves and our community. We can collaboratively create abundance in thriving communities that are intimately and elegantly adapted to the uniqueness of each place.
Art, music, poetry, dance, story and the sciences celebrate the process of life. Through them, we can celebrate our diversity in the unity of interconnection and joyous cooperation.
By asking appropriate questions, we can respond wisely to change, knowing when to persist, when to adapt and when to fundamentally transform. We can learn to appreciate disturbance and breakdown as an enabling constraint and a design opportunity for systemic transformation and breakthrough.
Together we can design for positive emergence and whole-systems health. Let’s spread greater wellbeing, thriving community life, deeper meaning, cooperation and solidarity outwards from the already existing ‘outbreaks of infectious health’ in business, governance and civil society around the world. Let’s continue to reconnect to our profound interbeing with each other and the community of life. Let’s continue to regenerate healthy ecosystems functions and planetary health. Let’s continue to co-create the regenerative communities, enterprises, economies and cultures we want to see in the world. Let’s continue to live the questions together.
Cooperation is Our Natural State
We are relational beings who come from cooperation, are cooperation, and can choose to co-create a thriving and regenerative future through cooperation. As beings who are blessed with the miraculous gift of a self-reflective consciousness, our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity is not to know the meaning of life, but to live a life of meaning. That is why humanity is worth sustaining.
As humble pilgrims and apprentices of life, we can begin to live our way into an uncertain, yet potentially thriving, future. I am confident that increasing collaboration will unleash newfound creativity and innovation that will shape the transition towards regenerative cultures and thriving communities.
Intellectually, this seems the only viable way through the eye of the needle. Emotionally, it gives me meaning and nourishes me. Intuitively, it feels right and has opened up a path full of synchronicity. Somatically, it gives me an embodied experience of belonging to many communities, to life, and to an animate and intimate Earth. Spiritually, my interbeing with life’s continuous exploration of novelty and the evolution of consciousness has simultaneously taken away my fear of death and increased my love for life.
The intention to act as a cultural creative, a transition designer and an evolutionary activist in the co-creation of regenerative cultures is something that deeply informs my being and my doing. I am excited about the times ahead. Despite all that is still ‘wrong’ in the world, I am confident that we are capable of co-creating regenerative cultures everywhere. What about you?
What did you do once you knew?
It’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake… because my great great grandchildren won’t let me sleep. My great great grandchildren ask me in dreams,
What did you do while the planet was plundered?
What did you do when the earth was unraveling?
Surely you did something,
when the seasons started failing?
Surely you did something,
as the mammals, reptiles, and birds were all dying?
Surely you did something?
Did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?
What did you do once you knew?
(Excerpt from ‘Hieroglyphic Stairway’, a poem by Drew Dellinger)
This article is an edited excerpt from Designing Regenerative Cultures, republished here with permission.