Beyond Sustainability: Embracing a Regenerative Future

Confronting an unsettling truth that sustainability alone is not enough.

Posted: 3 Jul 2024

As sustainability practitioners, it’s impossible to ignore the alarming evidence of climate breakdown. Coupled with the continuing rise of economic inequality in the UK and beyond, it forces us to confront an unsettling truth: sustainability alone is not enough. At Useful Projects, we have been dedicated to championing sustainability, but despite these efforts, our planet and society more widely, continue to face escalating crises.

Recognising the insufficiency of the dominant sustainability-focused approach, our Senior team challenged each other to think deeply about what moving beyond sustainability means in practice. Not only for our business but also for the work we do with our clients. This has led us to explore the principles that underpin regenerative business and regenerative places, and how through our work we can help create systems that restore, renew, and revitalise the planet and our communities.

In the first of a series of blogs, we are sharing the insights and perspectives that emerged from these conversations;  exploring why sustainability is necessary but not sufficient, and highlighting the fact that we need a more fundamental shift in the principles that underpin how we approach climate change and inequality if we are to move towards a regenerative future.

Sustainability: necessary, but not sufficient

One thing that we could all agree on was that while sustainability as a concept has been crucial in addressing the challenges we face, alone, it is not going to be enough to solve them. Sustainability has in essence aimed to minimise harm and get us to a point where we are no longer creating a negative impact. However, we all concluded this wasn’t enough. The shift required to move from merely mitigating negative impacts to creating positive impact is a substantial leap and requires a significant shift in mindset. We all agreed that sustainability should be viewed as a midpoint on this ongoing journey. This is further to understanding that we would need to adopt radically different approaches, embrace different mindsets or a different set of operating principles, if we want to work towards a genuinely regenerative future.

Understanding the principles that guide the system

During the discussion, our thinking around the principles that defined a regenerative approach emerged and, by comparing them against the principles of the current ‘extractive’ era, we felt it helped enable a better understanding of the mindset shift needed.

A key theme that emerged was that the principles that underpin sustainability still share more in common with the principles of the extractive era, rather than a regenerative era. This led us to the realisation that, unless there was a shift in the principles that are guiding action, we will still fail to move beyond sustainability and towards a more regenerative future. For us, this was the key reason we agreed that focusing on sustainability will not be sufficient to create the change we need to see.

We recognised that one of the key shifts that needs to happen is the shift to thinking about the whole system. By this we mean, really getting to grips with and understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges we face and not trying to simplify it, or ignore the complexity to focus on one part. It also requires us to recognise that the solutions we need will also be similarly complex and interconnected.

“The transition from a fragmented worldview to a whole-systems perspective is essential for creating regenerative cultures. This shift involves recognising the interconnectedness of business, society, and nature as one integrated system.” – Claire Brady, Associate Director

Becoming vocal advocates for this transformative shift, was seen by all of us as vitally important to the role we play as leaders, and especially when it comes to how we approach our work with clients.

Tools and frameworks that can enable this mindset shift

Another common theme that emerged was that we aren’t starting from scratch. There are already several tools and frameworks that can support the shift to regenerative thinking. The two that we kept coming back to were Doughnut Economics and the Circular Economy.

We are part of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) community and registered as an organisation in action. We all agreed Doughnut Economics, and the Circular Economy can immediately provide us and our clients with valuable insights. Additionally, they enable us to develop practical strategies for how we can start to use whole systems thinking, which is going to be critical if we want to create solutions that genuinely restore and enhance both human and environmental wellbeing.

Useful Projects are keen advocates of Doughnut Economics, having used this concept with clients for years, as it helps us to communicate clearly about both planetary limits and essential human needs. It is a great tool for ensuring that the ethical and societal dimensions are not overlooked in the understandable rush to address the climate and ecological crisis we face.

The Circular Economy was also viewed as a vital principle of a regenerative future because it fundamentally reimagines our relationship with resources and waste. Unlike the traditional linear model of ‘take, make, dispose’, the Circular Economy forces us to prioritise the continuous use of materials and products through reuse and repair, before we think about recycling, and is by its very nature a ‘systems thinking’ approach as opposed to a fragmented approach.

And whilst the Circular Economy is predominately focused on the flow of materials and shifting away from a linear approach to resource use, it also has significant potential to impact our economic systems. The shift from linear to circular business models provides the need for new services, for sharing products, for repairing and upcycling, to enable products and materials to be kept in circulation. The positive social impact of these new economic models also has the potential to be as important as the impact on material use as we shift beyond sustainability towards a more truly regenerative future.

Moving towards regenerative business models and regenerative places

Regenerative principles apply equally to the creation of places and cities as they do to the operation of businesses and organisations. In urban planning and development, these principles advocate for designing cities that restore and enhance natural ecosystems, promote social equity, and foster resilient, thriving communities. The concept of the walkable neighbourhood (aka the 15-minute city) sits at the heart of this.

“A regenerative place is one that gives back more than it takes – it is aligned within planetary limits and contributes to a thriving society by meeting the needs of humanity, today and in the future.” – Carrie Behar, Head of Sustainability

Similarly, businesses and organisations that embrace regenerative approaches must focus on how they can actively create positive environmental and social impacts not only through their operations, but also through their products and services, and across their entire value chain. It forces the organisation or business to think through their impact from multiple lenses simultaneously and take responsibility for the wider system impacts of their activities. It will also require a more collaborative approach to addressing challenges and creating solutions as it will become clear that acting alone will not be sufficient to solve the complex challenges that we collectively face.

Working with clients to integrate regenerative thinking

At Useful Projects, we believe that embracing regenerative principles is essential not only for our own operations but also for the way we collaborate and use our codesign skills with our partners. At one level, our approach hasn’t changed, we still start by aiming to dig deep and understand the specific challenges and opportunities our partners face. However, when co-creating solutions, we are committed to expressing the challenges and solutions using a wider systems context and will proactively use clear frameworks and principles such as Doughnut Economics and the Circular Economy to help bring regenerative thinking more deeply into our work.

Our clients often come to us with a specific challenge, like carbon emissions however, through the approach of contextualising challenges within the wider systems context, we aim to encourage our clients to take a step back and reflect on the bigger picture and the interconnectedness of the challenges we face. Ideally this will enable our clients to adopt a more holistic perspective that integrates circular principles, reduces resource use, and considers social impacts alongside environmental ones.

“We actively seek out clients who are interested in accelerating their approach to be more regenerative. We combine the use of consultancy tools with technical insight and experience with systems change to develop transition plans that ensure long term success.” – Jo Dobson, Director

When we reflected on the skills that we can bring to the table to help our clients, we zeroed in on our deep thinking and creativity skills, our ability to drill down into specifics as well as zoom out to understand the wider system. When coupled with our ability to co-create bespoke strategies and transition plans tailored to each partners unique context we believe we have a unique ability to help our partners to move beyond sustainability thinking and start to truly engage with regenerative approaches.

Useful Projects is actively testing out our own path towards embodying a regenerative practice, and we therefore understand the monumental challenges involved. This makes us well placed to help others navigate this challenge. If this is something you are seeking to understand better, then we are always open to sharing our experience.

We are fully committed to helping organisations, and places not only envision what a regenerative future means for them, but also help them implement the transformative changes needed to bring it into reality.

In the second part of this blog, we will explore the challenges and opportunities that the shift towards a regenerative future pose and share our thoughts and our vision for the future.

If you want to find out more about how we can help you, please get in touch.

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