I was recently asked to give a talk on the importance of bringing a regenerative mindset into neighbourhood design for an international architecture and design conference. Here I share the essence of my talk:

What is ‘regenerative’

‘Regenerative’ is essential about working the way life works; attuning with nature.

As social scientist Gregory Bateson observed, ‘The source of all our problems today stems from the gap between the way people think and how nature works.’

Regenerative Architecture seeks to close that gap by shifting from a mechanistic reductive mindset toward a regenerative mindset.

Why is a regenerative mindset important for neighbourhood development?

Humanity is facing its largest macro-change programme ever: halving emissions by 2030, reversing nature loss, improving prosperity while reducing inequality, tackling a deepening mental health and wellbeing crisis, all while system-shocks and widespread volatility increase.  No organisation or neighbourhood is sparred.

As the management guru Peter Drucker elucidated, ‘In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil itself but in facing it with yesterday’s logic.

The challenge we face today, in our neighbourhoods and our organisations, is not the volatility itself but the need to shift our way of thinking from a mechanistic narrowed-down reductive perspective that breaks things down into parts, atomizes, compartmentalizes and polarizes, toward a regenerative mindset that celebrates the rich diversity of relationships interweaving across myriad nested systems within our neighbourhoods.

Can you give an example of the systems we find in our neighbourhoods?

Let’s start with three main groupings: Technical, Social, Ecological

Technical – These are the economic systems involved with manufacturing and delivering goods and services, and the associated trading and information flows involved.

Social – These are the rich non-linear human relationships pervading our living and working lives – throughout the meeting areas, offices, cafes, park areas, pathways, market places, galleries, museums and such like.

Ecological – These are the more-than-human patterns of relationships – throughout the watersheds, atmospheric cycles, migratory patterns of animals, keystone species, soil cycles, and such like.

All these systems interrelate in myriad interconnected ways with complex patterns of feedback and emergence. We can learn to listen-to and sense-in to these rhythms and patterns, as well as comprehend the feedback loops and flows.

How do we address these systemic challenges in our neighbourhoods?

We need to bring ourselves INTO the system – to ‘immerse’ ourselves within the system, rather than feeling separate from it.

This is the fundamental difference between systems-thinking – mapping the system ‘out there’ – and systemic-awareness – immersing in and attuning with the co-participatory nature of the system.

With systemic-awareness we get under the skin of the system, so as to gain a full-bodied experience of how the system behaves and responds to change.

A powerful tool I use for cultivating systemic-awareness is ‘Systemic Enablers’ (which I write extensively about in my latest book Leading by Nathttps://gileshutchins.com/leadingbynature/ure).  We identify diverse actors from across the system – for instance, council workers, market stall holders, community leaders, etc. while also giving voice to the more-than-human relationships throughout the system.  Through regular Circles of Dialogue, these Systemic Enablers intentionally listen-in to the system, sharing diverse perspectives of how the system emerges through times of change.

Then, with this diverse group of Systemic Enablers, we can ‘dare to dream’ – to explore the art of the possible in terms of what regenerative futures might look and feel like. Through forecasting tools and then backcasting, we can start to work with the emerging future in the present.

How can the architect balance the future plan with the present in a regenerative way?

It’s important to engage diverse actors in a participatory way while exploring the future, as this gains buy-in and also emancipates the system from status quo constraints and lethargy.  It’s also important to build empathy and respect between the three horizon perspectives (Horizon 1 = business as usual, Horizon 2 = innovations breaking out of the status quo, Horizon 3 = desired regenerative futures for the neighbourhood).

However, it’s also important to not super-impose desired futures ‘on to’ the system.

This is where ‘Demonstrators’ come in.  Architects can design test-and-learn prototypes, with the Demonstrators acting like live-labs, where the Systemic Enablers can sense how the system responds to the prototypes. Are there any unintended consequences, or feedback loops that we need to be aware of before scaling the design? These can be explored in the Circles of Dialogue while listening-in to the system.

Notice the habitual tendency to step-outside the system and then assert something into the system from outside – the shift to a regenerative mindset involves a respectful and patient listening-in to and working with the system. It asks for a sense-respond dynamic rather than a control-manage dynamic (see Leading by Nature for an explanation of what this means in practice).

Any final words of advice to the architects in the room?

This is humanity’s hour of reckoning. We can either adapt and evolve our thinking to become more in-tune with the way our neighbourhoods really work, or we can hold-back and stick to the old mechanistic mindset that created our problems in the first place. The time has come for architects and designers to consciously work with the grain of nature rather than against it.

Here is a youtube video clip covering off this talk:

Giles Hutchins is an author, speaker, business transformation leader and CEO coach. He has written 5 books on regenerative leadership and how organisations can learn from nature to become more resilient and future-fit. He is a senior advisor for a number of leading organisations and business schools on the future of business, and has worked in organisational change for over 25 years. His international practice is anchored at Springwood, 60 acres of ancient woodland in Sussex, UK.

You can find his latest book Leading by Nature and podcast series here: https://gileshutchins.com/leadingbynature/

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Here is a short 1min video about Leading by Nature with Giles Hutchins