Exploring Regenerative Design — Panel Recap

Engineering for Regeneration Panel, April 20, 2021: Ben Preston, Amanda Sturgeon, Elliot Stuart, Lindsey Brown and Dr Robbert Van Oorschot.

Imagine driving past a traffic accident that blocks both Eastbound lanes on a busy highway. Those behind the accident are stuck and as you drive past in the other direction, it becomes clear that your 10 minute errand is going to take a lot longer. Driving home via a very long detour, all the roads are now painfully slow.

As you sit in traffic, it occurs to you just how interconnected everything in our world is. Two cars collide on a bridge and all of a sudden thousands of people are impacted.

This very common problem illustrates a point. The roads we drive on, the assets we rely on to provide water and energy, the bridges that connect us from one side of town to another, none of them are isolated and discrete systems.

Which brings me to the topic of this post: Regenerative Design.

We’ve been part of many conversations on Regenerative Design in the past few months, starting with a podcast conversation with regenerative practitioner and engineer from Motif, Ben Preston and GHD’s Victoria Water Market Leader, Lindsey Brown.

Plus, recently AquaLAB hosted a panel discussion on Engineering for Regeneration with Preston, Brown, WSAA’s (Water Services Association of Australia) Liveable Communities Advisor Elliot Stuart, Mott McDonald’s Head of Regenerative Design, Amanda Sturgeon, and GHD’s Senior Technical Director, Water, Dr Robbert van Oorschot.

What intrigues us so much about this concept is that Regenerative Design encourages a different way of approaching how we build things that goes beyond the goal of sustainability. As Preston points out in the webinar, it’s not a method or technique but a way of being in the world that considers the interconnection of every living thing in the design and development process.

Today’s post recaps on the key takeaways from the webinar and leads you to the edge of the rabbit hole that is Regenerative Design. What is regenerative design? Why does it matter? What are some examples and how do you get started on exploring regenerative design in practice?

What is regenerative design?

Traditionally engineering and architecture tackles distinct, site-specific projects from afar, usually from an office building in a city. For centuries our built environment has been imposed upon different environments, and often with little regard for a place’s uniqueness.

According to Preston, a Regenerative approach “requires that we, as individuals, are actively engaging our bodies in a deeper relationship with our environment.”

“Regenerative Design fundamentally is about how we engage in the living process around us in a way that increases the vitality and the ability for living environments to renew in response to dynamic changes in their environment over time,” says Preston.

Sturgeon says, “Regenerative Design, for the moment, I think for the next decade is about putting nature first at the top of our triple bottom line and acknowledging that that’s very challenging in an economically driven and growth culture that we’re within.”

According to Regenerative Development and Design Pioneer Bill Reed, there is a huge difference between sustainability and regeneration. He explains that with sustainability the focus is on the project. However, with Regenerative Design, the focus is on the larger system the project sits within.

In an introductory series on Regenerative Development and Design, Reed offers the following four guiding principles for how Regenerative Design works:

Regenerative design works with wholes. Wholes are made up of nested systems. So, at a base level, an asset sits within a site, which sits within an environment, which sits within a community. Within a community there are nested social, physical and cultural systems and they all sit within a larger set of regional systems and so on.

Sturgeon says: “We have to just have in our mind that we’re designing not just for people, but for all species or river systems and all species that share this Earth with us. And I think we have to primarily support indigenous leadership in this space and we need to be guided by that.”

Regeneration deals with potential, not problems. The language of regeneration is around what can we do, rather than what is getting in the way. It’s about possibilities, not obstacles. Regeneration considers that every person and every place has unique potential.

Sturgeon believes a vital aspect of this is being guided by indigenous knowledge.

“I think we have the opportunity in Australia and New Zealand to actually do that really well and to allow our indigenous communities to lead us into a relationship with our place and with our natural systems,” she says.

Regeneration develops capability in people, places, communities, the environment and within structures themselves.

Regenerative Design considers the place, the context for development and the communities therein and then empowers people to contribute to the project in a meaningful way.

Sturgeon believes that an understanding of place must come before any solution is conceptualised.

Regeneration is collaborative. Nothing is built in isolation or in an ivory tower. A regenerative practitioner works with the environment and the people in it to develop and create.

Preston believes that there will be a shift in the way infrastructure is developed and resourced. “It’s not allocating 100 percent of your resources to this one centralised bit of infrastructure. It’s actually a series of much smaller interventions in working with the community, engaging more people, having a broader understanding of the system,” he says.

What are the benefits of Regenerative Design?

A regenerative design approach can have cascading benefits. These include improved:

  • asset longevity
  • site and regional ecosystem health
  • community health and wellbeing

It can stimulate culturally valuable projects and create social and economic benefits well beyond the borders of an infrastructure project’s site.

An example of this in action that both Preston and Reed refer to is the Lion’s Gate Dam project in Vancouver, Canada. The project went from a focus on saving money to a focus on producing cascading benefits to the community and saving the waterways.

Stuart adds that an additional cascading benefit is in creating alternative revenue streams from non-regulated revenue to align infrastructure development with consumer and regulatory expectations for healthier environments and addressing climate change.

“For me, it’s really about resilience. It’s about building our resilience which supports our business. So investing in our natural capital supports our business model. We’re here to provide and manage water. And if we don’t build resilience in our natural capital, we won’t have that resource to provide so that’s why we’re really putting efforts into regenerating these systems,” he says.

Sturgeon adds: “I do think Regenerative Design has the potential to address climate change. Lack of social cohesion and biodiversity loss are a nested system of issues which I also see people grappling with currently in silos.”

“And I think I think the challenge of that is we could solve carbon issues, but actually cause more biodiversity loss, so a key thing to a regenerative approach is thinking in systems and thinking about the interconnection of things.”

Preston believes that the cascading benefits to Regenerative Design could lead to a 20X return on investment over traditional approaches.

What are the barriers?

Aiming for 100% Regenerative

Sturgeon believes one of the barriers to a regenerative approach is in looking for that benchmark or perfect example of regeneration in practice.

“I don’t think I can give you an example of where we’re fully regenerative, even though I’ve worked on hundreds of buildings that are working towards regenerative. I would say not even all of those are fully regenerative. I think it’s also something that evolves over time,” she says.

She also adds that regeneration is not a singular path or method. “It’s not about one path with Regenerative Design, but it’s about looking at where the opportunities are for that particular place and looking at how you can have place-based positive outcomes for ecology and people.”

“I think you’re going to have to pick your battles and you’re going to have to figure out where you can have the positive outcomes of where you can pull the levers, especially when we look at large scale infrastructure, large scale projects,” she says.

Focusing on the tools over the process

Another barrier is focusing on the tools and methodologies. Preston warns that too much reliance on tools and methodologies like circular economy and biophilic design can be an inhibitor to regeneration.

“Often when we use a tool or we rely on a tool to give us the answer, we actually block the flow of information and energy because we assume we already have what we need to come to the correct conclusion.” he says.

“So it actually blocks us from being in relationship with our environment and therefore blocks the processes of regeneration from really happening.”

Sturgeon believes this a natural inclination for infrastructure development. “I think we do want to put our arms around things when we’re applying them to projects, no matter what sector. We want to have a map of what it looks like. We want to have a tool that shows us,” she says.

The policy landscape

Stuart says that governments can enable as well as inhibit progress in infrastructure development, particularly when it comes to circular economy initiatives and taking on a new approach to design and development, such as regenerative development and design.

An example Sturgeon points to is in promoting carbon offsets.

“I think often the offset habit we’ve gotten into of late …can actually really work against us achieving some regenerative outcomes as well.”

Preston adds: “Offsets are one of those things that can just take us out of relationship with the players. So they just allow us to not need to engage with and understand a place.”

Stuart believes the landscape is changing, however and that, over time, linear policy models will be replaced by more circular ones.

How to get started with Regenerative Design

One of the best ways to get started with Regenerative Design is to explore the body of knowledge on this topic.

You can watch the webinar with our panelists, and we’ve listed some terrific resources from them to further explore regenerative design. We’ve added some additional resources, as well.

Kiss the Ground Documentary on Netflix. Kiss the Ground explores how the earth’s soil may be the key to combating climate change and preserving our planet.

Ever the Land explores the sublime bond between people and their land through a landmark architectural undertaking by one of New Zealand’s most passionately independent Maori tribes, Ngāi Tūhoe.

Introduction to Regenerative Development and Design. This webinar is a great introduction to the concept of regeneration and how it is being applied in large scale projects and communities in the US and Canada.

The Regenesis Group. The Regenesis Group, founded by Bill Reed, offers resources and training programs on regenerative development and design.

In Summary

What is clear is that Regenerative Development and Design has an exciting future in how we design, build and develop infrastructure and the places we live. Where can you see regenerative practice being applied to great benefit in the water sector?

AquaLAB is shaping the digital future of water.

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