Sustainability is one of the biggest talking points when we discuss ecological balance. However, the state of the planet has gone beyond sustainability. This is evidenced by world leaders gathering every year for summits, including COP27. Corporations invest in initiatives that align with environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. As well as the growing rise of more environment and ethnic consumers shifting their purchase habits to brands with high social and environmental standards such as the B Corp movement.
It is great we live in a time where there is more awareness of issues around sustainability. The way we deal with problems doesn’t cut it anymore. Our current problems call for a more restorative or regenerative approach to climate action. As such, there must be a huge shift in both service and product design approaches.
We waste approximately 91% of what we produce, and we will eventually run out of materials altogether. This happens because we do not respect the boundaries of the planet. The use of regenerative design can help shift how we think about the problem and take action from a local, national and global level.
How can regenerative design change that?
Regenerative design is informed and inspired by the Doughnut Economics — a term coined by author Kate Raworth. The doughnut economy is a framework for sustainable development that is based on respecting the planet’s limits while fulfilling humanity’s needs.
A regenerative way of doing business means having an economy that doesn’t go beyond the ecological ceiling but also ensures that everyone has food, water, education, and safety, among other needs. This can be achieved through a circular economy.
The circular economy offers a new approach to a regenerative economy where value is sustained longer, and waste is minimised. This model is about creating as much as possible and keeping things in a loop, decoupling growth from material input to reuse and reimagine things as often as possible.
A circular economy is centred around creating a balance between people, the organisation, and the planet. It’s also about seeing how we can all thrive together.
What role can design play in this?
We have huge potential and responsibility as designers. According to the European Commission Circular Economy Action Plan, 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design phase. This means we must rethink how we design products and services.
Doing business more regeneratively doesn’t mean cutting down or that things will go downhill. There is a potential to grow without damaging the planet. Granted, circular design is a fairly new concept, meaning there’s a lot we still don’t know. However, a circular economy does not just involve a single organisation doing a loop. It’s about an ecosystem approach; and very often, someone’s waste is someone else’s input.
Although great in the grand scheme of things, we need to find ways to ensure that regenerative design does not come from a privileged standpoint. Some communities have experienced systemic challenges that make it difficult to practice restorative or regenerative habits in their daily lives.
Because of these challenges, which sometimes include limited education around the subject, underrepresented communities may not be able to shift towards a more regenerative way of life. And so, we need to find ways to support these communities without seeing ourselves as their saviours.
In a project I did recently, we looked at how we could reframe an organisation’s whole funding model to focus on supporting underrepresented communities. The grant money was also targeted towards climate action and regenerative causes within those communities. These kinds of projects ensure that design has a long-term positive impact, both socially and environmentally.
The need for a change in perspective
As designers, we tend to look at things from a “problem” perspective. But regeneration calls for a shift in our mindsets.
For instance, plastic is hazardous to marine life, meaning we automatically see it as a problem. However, a regenerative mindset sees plastic as a resource that can be reused to generate something else. In repurposing plastic, we are saving marine life. That is the core of regenerative design — seeing resources where others may see a problem.
If we see the plastic as a problem, we’ll be inclined to eliminate it. And not only is that nearly impossible, but it also has fewer benefits than finding creative ways to repurpose plastic. This may look like a tiny bit of change, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.
Another perspective we need to change is our relationship with nature. Even as designers, we tend to detach ourselves from nature. In so doing, we disregard the fact that we’re part of it. And when we’re separate from nature, we cannot act within it.
Detaching ourselves from nature has led to the current problems we face. Therefore, we must actively remind ourselves that everything we do has an impact on the environment. When we see ourselves as part of nature, it then becomes our responsibility to restore the ecological balance. However, we don’t do so because we are superior but because we are responsible for it. It’s our responsibility to get back to being custodians.
Identifying a common language
Our diverse social, economic, and cultural backgrounds mean we all see problems differently. As such, sustainability and regenerative design may look different for everyone. It is, therefore, our responsibility as designers to look at what regeneration looks like at both a local and a national level. Only then can we think of ways to work together as a global society to share stories and understand what works best.
I did some work with OpenIDEO a couple of years ago, where we looked at the future of food systems. We were able to learn from different chapters of the world, including places in Nigeria, Asia and South America.
We understood the cultural differences of what food systems meant to these communities, but we also developed a common language. That’s one of the key things we need to start with. A problem can impact us all at different levels. So, we must first identify a common language before we start thinking about what problem we’re trying to solve.
As designers, we also need to start thinking more about the long-term social impact of our design and where we want to go. And because the problems we face are much bigger than us, we need to have the right actors at the table to define our desired future. A common understanding of where we need to go will help us define that desired future better.