Key Concepts: Regenerative Development, Sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals, Global Compact, International Standards Organization, Social and Environmental Responsibility
The sustainability approach to harmonizing environment, equity, and economies has come under strong critique in recent years. It has been 30 years since the publication of Our Common Future and twenty-five years since the adoption of Agenda 21 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. Yet, environmental degradation continues to threaten livelihoods across the globe; climate change is driving more and more extreme weather events; and inequality between the haves and the have-nots is greater than ever. Environmentalists were notoriously unhappy with the sustainable development paradigm from the beginning, arguing that the emphasis on development and focus on economic growth put the environment in service to an economic system that would eventually make the planet uninhabitable for human beings and destroy cultural diversity along the way.
The data, in fact, show that languages across the world are disappearing at an alarming rate, with approximately 90% of existing languages expected to be dead or unrecoverable by the end of the current century. Biodiversity and ecosystem services are under such serious threat by human activity that geologists have named our current geologic era the Anthropocene. Of the primary forms of capital on the planet – environmental, human, physical and economic, the economic system continues to take precedence at the expense of culture, existing infrastructure, and the natural world. Because of this failure of the sustainability movement, many argue that a new approach is required if we hope to create a better future.
Regenerative Development is a development paradigm designed to push beyond sustainability. While sustainability focuses on development today that protects the ability of future generations to develop, the priority of regenerative development is to apply holistic processes to create feedback loops between physical, natural, economic and social capital that are mutually supportive and contain the capacity to restore equitable, healthy and prosperous relationships among these forms of capital. Creating a regenerative future will require every level of society to adopt a new set of values and to reorganize in ways that facilitate collaboration, evolution, and innovation.
Perhaps the greatest transition needed is to enlist businesses to embrace the regenerative orientation. Therefore, in this article, I will examine the progress that has been made in transitioning businesses toward sustainability. While some progress has been made, there is a significant disconnect between the implementation of sustainability into business policies and mission statements and the extent to which these sustainability goals are manifested and measured in organizational practices. I will then turn to an examination of regenerative development principles and carve a potential path toward the creation of regenerative places, organizations, and ultimately regenerative organization ecologies.
Starting with the Benchmark: Evaluation of Business Transition to Sustainability
Current environmental management systems and associations exist to guide organizations of all types towards principles, practices, processes, and products that reflect a commitment to sustainability. Among these are two sets of standards from the International Standards Organization: ISO14000 and ISO 26000. These set forth a list of principles that should underpin an organization’s actions in order to produce sustainable and socially-responsible practices, processes, and products.
Principles of Social Responsibility
- Ethical behavior
- Respect for stakeholder interests
- Respect for rule of law
- Respect for international norms of behavior
- Respect for human rights
In order to incorporate these throughout an organization – whether business, non-profit, government agency or educational institution, ISO 26000 recommends a set of practices to help organizations reflect on their current operations through the lens of their sustainability goals. These practices generally include: assessment of current achievement of social and environmental responsibility goals; creating initiatives to advance the achievement of these goals; regularly reviewing and improving organizational actions related to these goals; and transparent communication with all stakeholders where the organization stands in terms of achievement of social and environmental responsibility goals.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many organizations with the best intentions are falling significantly short of following the guidance of the International Standards Organization, the Global Compact, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and other respected frameworks for transitioning toward sustainable organizational behavior. The data reported in the 2013 Global Corporate Sustainability Report by the United Nations Global Compact indicate that, while 65% of their member organizations develop and evaluate their sustainability policies at the CEO level, 58% reflect these goals into a code of conduct, 41% articulate sustainability positions within their subsidiaries, and only 35% actually integrate sustainability principles into the parent organization’s strategies and operations. Fewer than 10% of organizations link executive pay rewards to their sustainability performance; only around 20% include sustainability performance standards into employee evaluations. Perhaps most disconcerting is that so few organizations conduct regular reviews of their sustainability goals, whether by measuring their remediation activities, conducting audits by company staff, and even fewer (only 11%) provide any resources for improvement projects related to sustainability goals. There is a significant distance between Global Compact members’ efforts at the policy level and their implementation.
Global Compact drew a variety of conclusions from their review of these data. First, and perhaps most obvious is that “words are ahead of actions” in the field of environmental and social responsibility among their members. They argue that “walking the walk” requires more investment of time, money, and people to transform the ideals of environmental and social responsibility into actionable and measurable practices inside of organizations. Companies are especially lax in their measurement of their organizational practices, which translates into a lack of ROI evidence to propel further investments along sustainability and social responsibility lines. Small companies face more fundamental barriers to implementing these goals than larger ones, in part due to resource constraints but also due to knowledge barriers. Another critical challenge to advancing a collective move toward sustainability and social responsibilities is the supply chain. Organizations tend to focus only on themselves, rather than to require similar standards of behavior from their suppliers or distributors. As the report states: “Supply chains are an extension of a company’s reputation, but not its corporate sustainability strategy.”
The Regenerative Development Paradigm
While there is debate over the definition of regenerative development, most scholars and practitioners generally agree that regenerative processes have three primary goals:
- Catalyzing increased prosperity and health of human and natural environments through holistic design and meaningful community participation
- Fostering positive feedback loops where excess human and natural resources are reabsorbed by the system to create mutually beneficial relationships that self-replicate to build inclusive resilience
- Respect and deep consideration to local contexts, whether economic, cultural or ecological, so that development is properly adapted to local ecosystem, cultural and economic circumstances
These goals correspond nicely to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the three primary principles adopted at the United Nations Habitat III meeting held in Quito, Ecuador in September, 2016 as part of the New Urban Agenda document. Those principles read as follows:
To achieve our vision, we resolve to adopt a New Urban Agenda guided by the following interlinked principles:
(a) Leave no one behind, by ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including the eradication of extreme poverty, by ensuring equal rights and opportunities, socio-economic and cultural diversity, integration in the urban space, enhancing liveability, education, food security and nutrition, health and well-being; including by ending the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, promoting safety and eliminating discrimination and all forms of violence; ensuring public participation providing safe and equal access for all; and providing equal access for all to physical and social infrastructure and basic services as well as adequate and affordable housing.
(b) Sustainable and inclusive urban economies, by leveraging the agglomeration benefits of well-planned urbanization, high productivity, competitiveness, and innovation; promoting full and productive employment and decent work for all, ensuring decent job creation and equal access for all to economic and productive resources and opportunities; preventing land speculation; and promoting secure land tenure and managing urban shrinking where appropriate.
(c) Environmental sustainability, by promoting clean energy, sustainable use of land and resources in urban development as well as protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, including adopting healthy lifestyles in harmony with nature; promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns; building urban resilience; reducing disaster risks; and mitigating and adapting to climate change.
These three “interlinked principles” are shared by sustainability and regenerative thinking. However, the regenerative paradigm has at its core a requirement that these three pillars of sustainability are intentionally put into interaction with one another in ways that create abundance for all three. Some might argue that it would be harder to convince business to make this more complex transition toward regeneration, since the sector’s collective transition toward sustainability has lagged. In contrast, I argue that dimensions of the regenerative approach lay a foundation that is more conducive to innovation and evolution than the sustainability paradigm.
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 units. 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”. 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.
The Role of Regenerative Organization Ecologies
One of the most powerful incentive structures provided by local organizational networks and bioregional contexts is the regenerative organization ecologies that emerge in the transition. What does that mean conceptually and how do we manifest this vision into practice?
There are three sociological concepts that help to frame my perspective on the need to develop organizational ecologies in support of regenerative development: the sociology of organizational ecology, organizational fields, and human ecology (more recently expressed as coupled human and natural systems or CHANS). In the sociology of organizations, the study of organizational ecology consists of examining the population dynamics of organizational births, deaths, and distributions into niches. Although the research agenda of organizational ecology has most notably been applied to examine population dynamics within organizational populations, the underpinning assumption of the approach stems from ecological models of species interaction and the availability of required resources to support a diversity of species. In a regenerative organization ecology, businesses, non-profits, government agencies, and educational institutions work together with an intentional awareness of the need to regenerate human, natural, physical, and financial capital in ways that produce abundance for all.
The concept of organizational fields further elaborates this approach through its emphasis on resource flows, inter-organizational partnerships (e.g. public-private partnerships or advocacy networks), and competition. This image of resource flows – including human, natural, financial and infrastructural, again reflects the original definition of ecology presented by Earnst Haeckel in 1866, which referred to ecology as the economy of nature. In this case, we see that scholars have long considered economy and ecology as similar in their processes of structuring resource flows and their characteristics as having operational niches occupied by distinct species – whether biophysical or organizational.
Of course, the critical linkage between these two concepts is human beings, who are at once biophysical beings, dependent upon natural processes to survive, AND socially constructed beings, whose lives are socialized and lived as members of societies, economies, communities, and cultures. Thus, the perspectives of human ecology and coupled human and natural systems (CHANS) research – both focused on the interdependence of humans and nature within bioregional systems, turn our attention to the critical philosophy that must underpin the intentional creation of regenerative organization ecologies: that the socially-constructed spaces that humans occupy, namely cities and towns, are embedded in ecological bioregions, and the health of those bioregions is directly related to the regenerative capacity of our economy, the physical infrastructure that distributes resources (e.g. bridges, electrical grids, waterways), the individual human capital we each bring into the system, and the cultural practices that bind us.
This underpinning framework guides us to create organization ecologies that intentionally collaborate to constantly replenish the regenerative capacity of each form of capital within our shared bioregional system.
Change Through Social Durability
Some might suggest that, given the weak implementation of existing standards of sustainability and social responsibility, we can hardly expect businesses to adopt practices that move beyond sustainability toward regenerative organization ecologies. However, I would argue that the failure of these approaches lies with, first, the failure of the “indicators” approach to incorporate social durability into their frameworks. While there is some evidence that referencing global norms and needs provides pressure on peers to adopt universal principles, there is often a similar tendency for actors in these global networks to decouple their adopted principles from their daily practices. The incentive structure that emerges in local networks is likely to produce a tighter coupling between talk and action.
My review of several groups of indicators found little if any emphasis on the bioregional and local contexts of organizational principles, practices, processes or practices. Rather, an emphasis on global priorities and principles was the dominant orientation advanced in these frameworks. Local and bioregional collaboration is easier to produce than at larger scales, in part because there is a synergistic sharing of the benefits that result from local contexts. The interdependence of local companies, government agencies, non-profits and educational institutions that come together to expand public transportation, develop district energy systems, or support nature walk projects produces a shared pride, but also shared financial gain, shared infrastructure, and shared advantages for surrounding ecosystems. The tendency for regenerative development projects to provide benefits in all four capital systems is much more compelling than the incentive to incorporate a general, global set of values into one’s organization.
The organizations participating in the Global Corporate Sustainability Report survey are arguably good organizations, because they are explicitly trying to incorporate sustainability goals into their organizational missions. The explicit disconnect between the incorporation of these principles into their missions vs. implementation and evaluation of outcomes indicates an overall lack of motivation to follow through with real change of organizational policies and practices. Could it be that the vision of a sustainable future has failed to capture our imagination in ways that inspire evolution and innovation?
I would argue that translating global goals, like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into a bioregional context and a local network of collaborative organizations is an important first step toward an innovative and regenerative future. Furthermore, the decoupling of sustainability goals from implementation suggests that another vision is needed to propel us – a vision of a regenerative future that provides abundance for everyone, rather than a vision related to limits to growth. It is only with a profoundly transformative vision that we can make the paradigm change advocated by John L. Knott, Jr. 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.”
Footnotes and references
 Roland, Ethan C. and Gregory Landua. 2013. Regenerative Enterprise: Optimizing for Multi-Capital Abundance.
 Carrington, Damian. 2016. “The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth
 ISO 26000: Guidance on Social Responsibility. https://www.iso.org/standard/42546.html
 Caniglia, Beth Schaefer. 2016. “Introduction to the Regenerative Development Blog.” https://regisseedinstitute.com/2016/11/22/introduction/
 You can read the full version of the New Urban Agenda at this URL: https://www2.habitat3.org/bitcache/97ced11dcecef85d41f74043195e5472836f6291?vid=588897&disposition=inline&op=view
 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.
 Knott, John L., Jr. 2017. “Why Regenerative Development?” https://regisseedinstitute.com/2017/10/24/why-regenerative-development/
 Roland & Landua
 See for example: Hannan, Michael T. and John Freeman. 1993. Organizational Ecology. Harvard University Press.
 See for example: DiMaggio, Paul J. and Walter W. Powell. 2000. “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and the Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” in Joel A.C. Baum and Frank Dobbin (eds.) Economics Meets Sociology in Strategic Management. Emerald Group Publishing Limited; Dingwerth, Klaus and Phillipp Pattberg. 2009. “World Politics and Organizational Fields: The Case of Transnational Sustainability Governance,” European Journal of International Relations; Fligstein, Neil and Doug McAdam. 2015. A Theory of Fields. Oxford University Press.
 Odum, E. P.; Barrett, G. W. (2005). Fundamentals of ecology. Brooks Cole. p. 598. ISBN 978-0-534-42066-6.
 See for example: Caniglia, Beth Schaefer, Manuel Vallee and Beatrice Frank (eds.). 2017. Resilience, Environmental Justice & the City. Routledge; Frank, Beatrice, Daisha Delano, and Beth Schaefer Caniglia. June, 2017. “Urban Systems: A Socio-Ecological System Perspective,” Sociology International Journal (http://medcraveonline.com/SIJ/SIJ-01-00001.pdf); Walker B. and Salt D. (2006) Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World Island Press, Washington; and Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications New York: George Braziller.
 See for example: John Boli; George M Thomas, eds. (1999). Constructing World Culture: International Nongovernmental Organizations Since 1875. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0804734226.
 See for example: Meyer, John W., and Brian Rowan. 1977. “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony,” American Journal of Sociology, 83: 340-63.