The need for a regenerative approach
“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein
Most of today’s sustainability efforts, while commendable and of critical importance, are based in a mindset of reducing negative environmental and social impacts caused by human behavior. We have an opportunity, if not a pressing need, to move beyond a mindset of being “less bad.”
The paradigm of regeneration has been gaining momentum as a different, powerful approach for thinking about the challenges of the 21st century. Regeneration, as a mindset, is focused on developing the capacity and capability for systems evolution. It is not about maintaining what is, or restoring something to what it was. Rather, it is about creating systems (e.g. places, companies, and communities) that have the capacity to evolve toward increasing states of health and vitality over time.
When creating change, mindsets and paradigms matter. Too often, perhaps, we focus on what to do differently (e.g. turn off lights, get regular exercise, or restore riparian areas). At times we work on changing what we or others think about (e.g. saving energy, health, or ecological restoration). Rarely do we actively work on how we think (e.g. examining paradigms, recognizing and choosing frameworks to structure our thinking, identifying the values and beliefs that drive our actions). Realizing the potential for local and global regeneration requires that we upgrade our how we think, not just what we think about or what we do.
As Pamela Mang and Ben Haggard noted in the opening pages of their book Regenerative Development and Design, “Most of the technologies needed to address [global] problems have been developed and are well understood, and yet [the problems] persist because their causes are systemic and can’t be solved at a technical level…The technology might be simple, but managing the complex interactions among political, economic, and ecological dynamics to put the technology to use? That’s another matter.”1
The skills and capabilities required to do regenerative work can be defined as regenerative practice, and the growing group of people engaged in this work call themselves Regenerative Practitioners. They are people across a variety of fields who are interested in catalyzing regenerative systems change. Catalyzing system level transformations demands that practitioners, whether architects, community activists, or business leaders, develop not only a new mindset, but new capabilities. Systems level transformation is difficult, complex, and demanding work, requiring that practitioners engage in a substantial amount of personal development related to on how they think, how they identify potential, and how they engage with others.
Introduction to regenerative practice
Becoming a “systems actualizer” is the ultimate aim of a regenerative practitioner.
Regenerative development is about building the capacity and capability in people, communities, and other natural systems to renew, evolve, and thrive.2 A fundamental requirement of regenerative work is that we constantly regenerate our own thinking, comprehension, and connection to the health of living systems as a whole. Strengthening our ability to sense what is emergent, what is essential, and where potential exists, enables us to evolve ourselves, our communities, and all living systems in the present moment and into the future. The practice of leading regenerative development, or becoming a regenerative practitioner, calls for a diverse and expansive set of capabilities around five core practice areas: Systems Actualizing, Framework Thinking, Self-Actualizing, Developmental Facilitating, and Living Systems Understanding. Together, these competencies offer a variety of pathways for a regenerative practitioner to develop over time. The journey to becoming a regenerative practitioner necessitates both conscious and continuous commitment to all five practice areas. This paper offers the first stepping stones to a life-long devotion to regenerative practice.
The regenerative practitioner framework
Each of the five practice areas described in this paper contributes to a larger framework—together, the five practice areas introduce a robust landscape for exploration in your personal journey to becoming a regenerative practitioner.
The aim of a regenerative practitioner is to become a ‘systems actualizer’ – to help realize the unique, value adding potential of a place, an organization, and/or an ecosystem.
Systems Actualizing is the ultimate aim of a regenerative practitioner. It is the process of awakening the regenerative capability embodied in all living systems to create increasing levels of vitality, viability, and capacity to evolve within the systems they are a part of. Developing one’s capabilities in the other four areas of the Regenerative Practitioner Framework is in service of this higher purpose or aim. In essence, tending to Systems Actualizing as a regenerative practitioner means constantly reckoning with the questions, “What am trying to bring into being as a result of my efforts,” and “how will that work be in service of the greater whole?” A fundamental requirement of this work is that we constantly regenerate our own thinking, strengthening our ability to sense what is emergent, what is essential, and where potential exists, which in turn, enables us to evolve ourselves, our communities, and other living systems.
Adept use of frameworks helps to bring ordered thinking, and ability to act effectivly within complex systems.
Mastering Framework Thinking has the potential to elevate and amplify the practice of regenerative development. Why frameworks? We cannot think without them. Everyone uses them. In other words, the mind needs to associate things with frameworks in order to understand the world. Some frameworks help group and structure the world, so we can engage, think, and create order. Other frameworks are dynamic, helping us see how an entity or situation is working and how it is structured. One of the critical skills in Framework Thinking is being able to differentiate between frameworks. As we practice using frameworks, we become more attune with those that are needed and helpful at any given time, thereby enabling and amplifying the practice of regenerative development. To learn more about frameworks, consider The LENSES Framework from CLEAR, The Regenerative Practitioner Series by Regenesis, Theory U, design thinking, and books and blog posts from Carol Sanford, all of which can be found in the Additional Resources section of this paper.
The LENSES Framework is a process guidance framework that consists of three lenses. Each lens, and the whole framework together, has a specific purpose, process, and intended outcome. Using the LENSES Framework helps practitioners organize and order their thinking, and to design subsequent actions within the context of their project or work.
The ongoing ability to develop capacity and capability within yourself is essential for participating in regenerative development work.
In order to draw out the collective potential in others, it is vital to begin awakening the inherent potential of oneself. The work of Self-Actualizing involves taking full responsibility for oneself and one’s role (having an internal locus of control), recognizing the needs and motivations of others within the system (external considering), and protecting the space needed to realize potential (source of agency). Developing these capabilities allows for a strong sense of personal agency informed by a deep understanding and care for the system you are working in. One key outcome from Self-Actualizing is the ability to hold the oftentimes uncomfortable space that is needed for evolving, growing, and realizing full potential. In other words, system actualization becomes the source of agency for a practitioner, which is typically not the same as assuring that everyone is comfortable. In a more general way, Self-Actualizing is about is about realizing the potential of one’s true self to create and manifest benefit through one’s work in the world. Self-Actualizing is often the limiting factor in a practitioner’s ability to participate as a systems actualizer, and requires constant attention.
Developmental facilitating is a dynamic and adaptive process for helping groups evolve their sense of purpose and their ability to realize potential together.
Developmental Facilitating is a dynamic and adaptive process that creates opportunities for groups to transform their thinking and understanding and to grow their capacity to realize potential together. The medium is often through events and meetings, but the point is to catalyze an ongoing developmental process that has the ability and generates the will to endure and evolve over time. Developmental facilitators identify what to focus on, how to evolve individual and collective thinking, create and hold space for group transformation, lead divergent and convergent thinking, and help establish systems for action planning and ongoing management. Effective Developmental Facilitating results in deep caring and shared commitment toward realizing potential. The will and ability to realize potential is generated through co-creating new thoughts, experiences, and connections. This process often centers on reflection and connection to identity and purpose. Developmental Facilitating brings together Framework Thinking and Living Systems Understanding, while drawing on the work of Self-Actualizing. The ultimate aim is to design and deliver group activities and processes that build capacity towards System Actualizing.
Living systems understanding
Living systems understanding enables us to see where and how to engage, based on life’s principles.
Working from an understanding of living systems aligns our efforts with the principles and reality of how life actually works. Such understanding aligns work efforts with the basic patterns and tenants of all life and enables a greater capacity to see where to intervene and how to transform the human relationship with living systems. The integrity and wisdom of living systems is at the heart of the evolutionary processes, which, in turn, is the heart of regenerative practice. At its core, regenerative practice is about coming into attunement with the life world through understanding and being able to work within the larger context in which we exist. In this way, Living Systems Understanding informs and nourishes regenerative practice. A significant aspect of Living Systems Understanding is a heightened understanding of how life is constantly patterned and engaged in nested systems. Living systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” Systems thinking is a sensibility — for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character. When we see life and patterns in systems, we can co-create new patterns and enhance life.
1 Carol Sanford developed the Seven First Principles of Regeneration. See the resources page for further reading.
Developing the capacities and capabilities of regenerative practice is demanding, yet rewarding work. It requires ongoing attention and diligence to develop one’s effectiveness as a “systems actualizer.” Mastering framework thinking, focusing on self-actualizing, increasing ability for developmental facilitating, and drawing on the principles of living systems, transforms not only how we think and what we think about, but it increases our effect in the world. With regenerative practice, new potential becomes visible and is accompanied by increasing ability to realize or manifest that potential.
Through the paradigm and practice of regeneration, we have the potential to not only address the pressing social and ecological imperatives of our time, but it may bring us one step closer to fulfilling our role as a contributive, life-enhancing species on this planet.
1. Pamela Mang and Ben Haggard., Regenerative Development and Design: A framework for evolving Sustainability. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, 2016) p. XIV.
2. Center for Living Environments and Regeneration. www.clearabundance.org
The regenerative development field is brimming with a host of unique terms and concepts.
Below, we offer a set of terms to get you started and fully acknowledge the steep terrain to become fluent in the language of regenerative practice. Our definitions may not be unanimously embraced across the field, but we hope they provide a thoughtful starting place.
Developmental Facilitating: Guiding individuals and groups toward increased capacity and capability to engage in regenerative work (systems actualizing)
External Considering: Consciously and proactively seeking to understand what others are trying to create and contribute
Framework Thinking: Developing the understanding, discernment, and discipline for utilizing frameworks to enable and amplify the practice of regenerative development
Internal Locus of Control: A sense of personal responsibility and agency for the outcomes of one’s actions
Living Systems: Whole, self-organizing life forms that interact with their environment. All living systems are distinguished by a unique essence, and all have an inherent potential which they are moving toward or away from, depending on their state of integrity and vitality or health1
Living Systems Understanding: Seeing and being able to apply the patterns and principles of living systems in service of systems actualizing
Regeneration: To bring new and more vigorous life; the process of creating increasing levels of health, vitality, and capacity to evolve in people, places, fields, and organizations
Regenerative Development: Building the capacity and capability in people, communities and other natural systems to renew, evolve, and thrive 2
Regenerative Design: The art and process of planning and creating, based on a deep understanding of local socio-ecological systems, using technologies and strategies that result in enduring capability for co-evolution
System Actualizing: The ongoing work of realizing the unique, regenerative potential of a system, such as an organization, a project, or a community, to increase vitality, viability and capacity to evolve.
Self-Actualizing: Developing the internal capacity and capability as an individual to lead regenerative development
Source of Agency: The sources of potential, including external considering, that impact our sense of personal agency and direction toward systems actualization
Systems Thinking: Rooted in biology, engineering, and ecology, systems thinking offers the perspective that the world must be seen holistically, and as dynamically interdependent and interrelated
1 Definition adopted from Pamela Mang and Bill Reed’s paper “Designing from Place: A Regenerative Framework and Methodology” (2012)
2 Definition courtesy of Center for Living Environments and Regeneration
The ideas and content for this paper were inspired by diverse people and groups working with a regenerative approach. Many of the specific concepts regarding regenerative practice laid out here were first introduced to me in 2013 when I participated in The Regenerative Practitioner series, offered by the Regenesis Group and furthered by work with Carol Sanford through her Change Agents Development program. These concepts draw on a lineage of thinking and practice that has sourced the burgeoning field of regenerative development since the term was first defined by Regenesis in the mid-1990s. Contributors to that lineage include Regenesis and its nonprofit arm the Institute for Regenerative Practice, the Carol Sanford Institute, and, through the second half of the 20th century, Charlie Krone’s Institute for Developmental Processes.