Applying regenerative practice to systems beyond place — some thoughts

Applying regenerative practice to systems beyond place — some thoughts

By way of introduction: spiky fruit

It’s the first of October, and I’ve been writing this piece for over half a year! Yesterday this cactus caught my eye. The spiky leaves and the ripe fruit spoke to me of the necessity to take these unpolished thoughts and offer them up. If handled carefully and peeled, the juicy prickly pear can make a great salad. It’s painstaking and potentially irritating work. The flesh is not as flavorsome as other fruit, but it’s what grows and abounds here and now. So perhaps you can enjoy the thoughts that follow in that spirit!

Rising to the challenge

Our societies and our living planet are struggling to survive with the threat of climate change, mass extinction of species, depletion of the living resources of soil on all our continents — the list goes on. In the face of this regenerative work offers the hope of enabling the extraordinary capacities of living systems to adapt and create the conditions conducive to life.

There is an active community of regenerative practitioners supporting change-makers the world over to work from the principles of living systems in order to revive and evolve the places and the systems they are working with. Living systems are grounded in places, adapting to local conditions and contexts, evolving strategies to thrive in the myriad diversity of environments, from hot deep sea vents, to estuaries where sea and land intermingle, to cloud forests of the tropics, to green ‘deserts’ of grassland. The source of regenerative practice is found in the dynamic relationship of life and place, and the inevitable relationship of people to and within other living entities. People, human societies, are living systems, and as such we are deeply connected to the places we live and depend upon.

However, as human societies have evolved over the last few hundred years into a global civilization, and many of the challenges we face are playing out on the scale of the whole planet, regenerative practitioners are called to find ways to apply our living systems approaches to activities that seem disconnected from “place”. When we look to change international business supply chains, when we design digital services, when we think about what sustainability means for huge global retail corporations, how can we bring regenerative practice to bear? In an age where the shift to online working has been accelerated through the Covid-19 pandemic, and I write this from a co-working space in the south of France as part of a team with people across four continents, how can the potential of life-regenerating work step into and beyond hyper-local “place” as a contribution to a societal shift so needed this decade?

What follows are a few thoughts, deeply influenced by my work and dialogues with RegenesisFuture Stewards and other regenerative practitioners. These thoughts have formed as I apply this practice to the School of System Change, an international endeavour to support change-makers navigate the field and practice of systems change, growing their capacity to work with complexity and uncertainty, and to contribute to great shifts in business, civil society, government, communities and philanthropy.

Disconnected from place?

I deliberately speak of activities that seem disconnected from placeOur human capacity to understand ourselves as disconnected from nature, from living systems, from place, has been honed over several hundred years of Western mechanistic thinking. Those of us who have learnt to understand our world in this way continually develop constructs — both physical and conceptual — that reinforce this premise of separation or non-dependence on life. We build global digital platforms with remote-working teams. We manage supply chains from warehouse to container to truck to logistic platform to supermarket in a complicated chain through multiple built environments made of concrete, metal, tarmac. We speak of dematerialised banking, and have decoupled finance from the “real” economy. We manage agricultural production through sterile seeds and petrochemical fertilisers.

I have learnt to see how all of these activities are nested within the living systems of our planet. The people working behind their screens or their steering wheels are alive, they need food to nourish them that is alive too (or at least was recently!). Our businesses, communities and cities are complex living systems with the same needs and metabolic functions as a forest ecosystem: nourishment for energy, clean water, purification of waste, temperature control… The people and places impacted by “dematerialised” activities may be widespread and seeminging disconnected, however they are indubitably alive, and in many contexts in need of activating their regenerative potential to tackle increasingly difficult issues of physical and mental health, pollution, soil degradation, and adversity.

Pretending that a human activity has no grounding in living systems and places — because of its digital or global nature, because it involves commodities sourced via intermediaries and their warehouses — carries a high risk of creating harmful externalities to the living systems that are inextricably linked to these activities but remain invisible in our designs. This decoupling of our activities from the living systems we operate within perpetuates the deep-seated pattern that has led to the crises we are living into today, from climate change to the global pandemic.

Putting living systems back in the equation isn’t easy work, but it is possible, and deeply rewarding. Where might we start?

I am offering three sets of practices that can support a regenerative outlook, even when working with systems that seem disconnected with place:

  • Seeing life in everything
  • Working with specificity not generic outcomes
  • Starting with the care we hold for our fellow living beings

Seeing life in everything

The first set of three practices are helping me develop my ability to see living entities — people, organisations, places — as alive.

Working with qualities of aliveness

One of the ways I have learned to do this is through noticing three qualities of aliveness (from Regenesis):

  • evolution — organic development and unfolding, where things aren’t going to plan, but are moving and adapting to uncertainty and complexity, and there is no going back!
  • viability — relational dynamics that are necessary to survival over time, relationships to wider ecosystems, be they food webs or markets or fields of shared endeavour; and
  • vitality — the spontaneous expression of life force, uniqueness, purpose and energy that can be felt when a person or an organisation is flourishing

These qualities are interrelated — the vitality of a living system needs nourishment to be viable over time, and continuously adapts and evolves as the world changes around us.

Noticing these qualities helps me engage with living systems — including human systems seemingly disconnected from the living world — as inherently alive. It is also a way into identifying which capacities might need enhancing to ensure ongoing life in these systems.

Changing metaphors

Our mechanistic ways of thinking are deeply anchored in metaphors we use all the time! So I practice changing the metaphors and looking for life-sourced images to describe what’s going on. How might we grow capacity rather than build it? How might we look for nodal interventions rather than leverage points (a node refers to a place in a living entity where many flows come together, whereas a lever is a component in a machine)? How might we seek evolution not scale?

Sometimes the more ecological or metabolic metaphors can seem a bit too hippie, and I don’t always adopt them, however the conscious practice of identifying which paradigm I’m thinking from through the language I employ is very insightful. I have noticed how comfortable it is to revert to terms that imply predictability and the ability to control outcomes! (building capacity, driving change, measuring impact — just some examples) Adopting life-sourced metaphors implies leaning into uncertainty, working with what is emerging, and thinking of what I do as a contribution to wider work.

Looking for connection to place

The third exercise is trying to ground the systems I’m working on in place — even if these places are multiple and seemingly disconnected, like across a supply chain. Reminding myself that life is rooted. That even hydroponic agriculture relies on nutrients that have come from the living earth — somewhere! Our office sites have footprints on the ground, and are situated in complex ecosystems.

Envisaging the ways in which our activities are connected to and dependent upon living places, and then questioning the impacts on the vitality, viability and evolution of these places — at multiple scales — can yield insights both devastating and full of opportunity for change. Devastating because we might notice how much life has been destroyed as we create an inert built environment for ourselves, for example pouring concrete over the earth so that the microorganisms beneath will be disconnected from the flows of water from rain and nutrients and energy released into the soil through plant roots. Full of opportunity because we can amplify the extraordinary qualities of life which will continue to evolve and regenerate, through multitudes of human innovations that work in symbiosis with the living world.

Looking for this connection to place in the history of the organisation is often a good place to start, as the identity and culture — however international in its operations — may well be imbued with the unique characteristics of the ground it sprang up from in the beginning.

Working with specificity not generic outcomes

This set of practices is helping me work with the unique characteristics of the systems I’m involved with to identify differentiated and coherent strategies for action, producing unique and positive outcomes.

I often hear the ask for a definition or catalogue of what might be “regenerative outcomes”. In the face of the crises we’re experiencing, and with the best will in the world to effect positive change, people and organisations want answers, and clear how-tos. I hear the urgency, and the need for simple, actionable responses. However, I am learning to first respond with a set of questions to reach differentiated answers — as living systems are differentiated and there is no one-size-fits-all. The set of questions below can quite quickly lead to answers that in turn will be much more powerful in unlocking life-regenerating processes.

The overarching starting question here is What is the essential characteristic or nature of what we’re working with?

Some of the ways into this question are

  • What is the unique purpose of this business or endeavour (which may be deceptively different from the mission statement, being more what is alive in the business as a whole, it’s core pattern that repeats across scales from teams to international operations, and configures this organisation’s contribution to a wider sphere)
  • What is the core property of the material / commodity / species we’re working with? How might we work with the inherent properties of aluminum, or cotton, or soap — for example — to work out how these can be expressed in service of life?
  • What are living systems like round here? How have they — people, plants, animals, micro-organisms — adapted to the specific living conditions of this place? What might we learn from these strategies?

Starting with the essential characteristics of what we’re working with is a route to seeing the potential that could be expressed if we lifted these up to serve a living world. It can help us be open and curious. We can move beyond the generic plan to “plant trees”, to question which essences, which combination of context-appropriate species, we might encourage in this particular place.

We can go further to understand that if we’re a clothing company, for example, planting trees is all very well but it doesn’t harness the potential of the core of what we do — the living materials, people and identity that are at the centre of our activity. The regenerative contribution of a luxury brand will be distinctly different from that of a high-street clothing brand. Recognising our unique approach, and going beyond market differentiation to putting this in service of the living systems we’re involved with, will highlight practical actions we can take leading to powerful regenerative outcomes.

Starting with the care we hold for our fellow living beings

One of my recent insights about regenerative work is that it stems from a deep care about the world, which taps into vulnerability, and therefore requires a certain kind of intimacy and attention. When we care, we are in relationship being to living being. We can be curious about what is specific about what is happening here and now, we can be empathetic — feeling from the place of the other, we can work with emotional and intellectual intelligence together, bringing our whole selves to the situation at hand.

It’s difficult to talk about how much we care for the living world in situations where everything around us (our office space, the board room, our managerial practices, our scheduling habits) are designed from mechanistic assumptions and “man-made” materials. Paying attention to what is alive, even in these contexts, can require a shift in how we show up and what we are giving our attention to. Put another way, it’s about being as much as doing.

This leads to a new set of questions around the enabling conditions for some of this work:

  • How might we let ourselves see our fellow workers, customers, citizens as whole people striving to live nourishing lives?
  • How do we move from concern for a statistic (e.g. numbers of mental health-related emergency calls) or worry about a trend (e.g. decreasing yields from ever poorer soils) to care about the living beings — the people, the ecosystems of microorganisms in the soil — we’re so interconnected to?
  • What are the qualities of space we might need to tap into this other way of knowing and deciding what to do in the face of the overwhelming challenges we’re facing?

Bringing regenerative practice home

I know I’m a conversational learner, and I thrive in deep conversations and spaces of inquiry around these sorts of questions. I can see how through these collective moments my thinking about the world is evolving, and informing my work in the long term. I also practice micro-experiments to take my thinking into my daily life in a shorter timescale — these range from spending a whole summer without killing a single mosquito as an experiment in respecting the equivalence of life-forms, to fermenting kimchi in my kitchen, to applying the vitality-viability-evolution framework to all sorts of projects, situations and relationships at work and at home through five-minute sketches.

This may not be your way of connecting with aliveness. At an online team meeting a few months back I was struck by the beautiful diversity of situations when people feel most alive — from on a sea shore, to being in crowded public transport. If you invite yourself into a space of caring for the living world for a moment, what is it you notice? And how might you carry that with you into the big, wide world, as a root to help you with your very unique contribution to systems change?

originally published at School of Systems Change

Laura Winn is head of the School of System Change at Forum for the Future. She works to develop the School as a networked organisation that supports change-makers from diverse backgrounds and contexts, providing them with new capabilities to tackle an increasingly complex set of sustainability challenges. Laura’s own practice stems from living systems and regenerative approaches, learnt and applied across multiple small-scale and large-scale projects.

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