I started articulating some thoughts in the last newsletter about a triad, in the fashion of fragile–robust–antifragile (from Taleb’s 2012 book) , which contained the states of unsustainable, sustainable and regenerative.
The main thing bugging me was that making something sustainable, and moving towards a regenerative version of it, aren’t necessarily in the same direction.
I started sketching out this in a variety of ways, looking for a representation that showed that the sustainable being the same shape and size as the unsustainable, but just constituted differently. Below is a more formal version of that.
Where the central unsustainable model has fragile elements to address, moving to sustainability allows the same model to persist, just with differently parts in place of those unsustainable ones. Though whether anyone ever gets to true sustainability is a bigger point.
N.B. Whilst sustainability might commonly understood as being environmental, it’s also helpful to think of it in other ways. It could be values based – how do people perceive what you’re doing, and judge accordingly – or politically bound by imminent regulation, and so on.
Moving in the other direction, you peer into the gaps in the fragility of your current model, and exploring what breaking these apart would do. What do these constituent parts look like as part of a larger, emergent future? What else to the pieces mix with, which other actors? What grows when you encourage it?
It feels like these two things are moving in opposite directions… but only perhaps in certain circumstances. And we’ll come back to the context thing shortly.
But one key thing for me around the language used to describe the relationships between unsustainable, sustainable and regenerative, is just how directional it often is.
For instance, you read people describing “moving beyond” sustainability and towards regeneration. This language has a spatial dimension, and suggests that should you get to sustainability first, then the distance left to travel towards a regenerative state will surely be closer.
But that’s certainly not always the case; this Regenerative Design Framework diagram below (Daniel Christian Wahl, adapted from Bill Reed) gives a hint towards the direction.
So perhaps, I thought, the right word is not beyond, but maybe after? A temporal understanding, rather than a spatial one.
Once you’ve been through the place where you can make an organisation think about sustainability, then perhaps they’re ready for regenerative design?
However, this is where context comes in. It depends. On the company, the culture, the effort requires, the industry standards, the customers and communities, and, well, everything.
As always, I’m interested in the how. And in this case, how do you work out which the right thing is to do?
I felt it was worth sharing an early stage version of something that might help with that which for the time being, I’m calling it Regenerative Triangulation.
The same three states exists; unsustainable, sustainable, regenerative. The starting point, where you are today, is unsustainable in some regard.
You then need to articulate two images of the future.
The first is what it means to get to a sustainable future, and whether or not that is above or below the line in Bill Reed’s original work.
The second point is what a regenerative future would look like for you, and how you might get there.
Now place each point at a distance which represents what it takes to get achieve those states; likely some combination of time, resources, mindsets, conditions that tells you how hard each will be.
(I suspect there’s a rough and ready formula which can help here that I don’t have quite yet.)
Now you can draw two lines from your starting position, to each of the two places on the map. The length of line x takes you to sustainable, and the length of line y takes you to regenerative.
But here’s the rub; if you stop off at sustainable first, you (or those who come after you) also have to traverse line z at some point in the future.
My initial hunch is that mapping out these context specific relationships will help organisations think about some indicative short and medium-term strategies.
In the example on the left here, if feels that sustainability might be in the same general direction as a regenerative future. It’s probably worth aiming for in the short term. Whereas the example on the right feels like sustainability would definitely mean taking the long way round.
I also think you could make an argument for saying that if you do stop at sustainability first, it changes the final destination point; in some cases because you’ve built in more resistance to achieving it, in others you might bring it closer as the journey has been started.
More to think about for sure. Drop me a message if there are other things you think I should look at, or you want to just discuss it a bit more. I might host an open session at some point if enough folk are interested in contributing.