How can we redesign ‘business as usual’ to achieve truly transformative ways to address the ecological, social and psychological divides, and accelerate the transition to a circular and net-positive economies?
There are two twin aspects of a regenerative approach to the future; the regeneration of the human spirit and the regeneration of our planetary resources.
We know we face many existential global challenges — not least how to reverse rampant climate change and urgently reimagine the future of food production. We can agree (I hope) that business has a critical role in accelerating transformational change. We know from research studies carried out by global organisations like Gallup, that employee engagement in their work is at an all time low across most Western businesses.
So we need businesses that pay attention to the quality of the human experience in the workplace and the impact of business design on planetary ecosystems. I think of these as regenerative businesses.
What sort of characteristics might they have?
- They have Planetary Purpose
Not only is sustainability central to their business strategy, but working towards change which has an impact on the existential conditions for humanity and nature are integrated. These may be drawn from their origins such as outdoor brand Patagonia’s commitment to the environment. It may be integrated into how the organisation operates through the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals such as Novo Nordisk or Unilever. It may be designed into the entire purpose of new startups like ReGen Network who are seeking to regenerate land and soil. People earn in two economies: the financial economy and the economy of meaning. Having a clear social and environmental purpose woven into the organisation helps many people feel their work is meaningful. It’s not the only way; but it is a factor.
- They Think Intergenerational Equity
The original idea of sustainability espoused in the Brundtland report held a pre-condition of intergenerational equity as being critical - don’t do anything that would restrict future generations from having the same opportunities you have. Over time intergenerational equity has been engineered ‘out’ of sustainability, but regenerative approaches put it back at the heart of action.
Companies that have been designed with the ancient indigenous wisdom principle of taking care of the 7th generation into the future include Seventh Generation (aptly named) founded by Jeffrey Hollender soon to be launching into the UK and Europe.
- They Design for Creativity & Innovation
How do you create an employee base that is always willing to be entrepreneurial and challenging? A number of pathways arose. Creating an environment of psychological safety in which people are encouraged to think creatively in an open and transparent way without career risk is essential. It’s equally important to design systems that facilitate the rise of the intrapreneur. Organisations need clear pathways for ideas to arise from the collective intelligence, gain approval and be funded. Operating with flatter hierarchies, experimenting with self-managed teams, or systems such as holacracy or sociocracy helps to create a culture of innovation. Introducing rapid re-rethinking techniques like hackathons from agile development and training in critical thinking processes also helps.
- They Think Patiently
A massive transformation in how business is done is not achieved in an instant. Regenerative businesses recognise they must operate on a strategy continuum of change towards becoming regenerative, and that it isn’t particular easy to do, or to sidestep any stage of the development process.
The recognise that the strategy ‘continuum’ includes all businesses at all different stages of development (and even sub brands, departments and silos). They recognise that stages of change include a range from ‘business as usual’ stakeholder and shareholder value, early stage ‘sustainability’, actively transitioning to a ‘circular’ economy; considering net-positive or ‘regenerative’ or to whether they are delivering ‘thrivability’ for people and planet.
Taking a company on such a massive transformational journey requires exceptionally gifted leadership, excellent communications and a framework for that journey.
- They Think, Design and Operate Systemically
They take a systemic approach to operational design. Forum For The Future’s partnership with SIG, a packaging company, is a great example.
Instead of looking at the impact of the company on social and environmental systems, the company takes the view of looking for the systems which support its business — in this case forests — to produce the board its products are made from. For this business to be sustainable into the future there needs to be a certifiable, reliable supply of board and therefore sustainable management of forests. It’s in the interests of the organisation to support the systems it relies on, to ensure there is a greater supply of sustainable board into the future.
By taking that systems approach and by recognising that the business is reliant on a natural ecosystem, SIG then had to collaborate with their supply chain and with the NGOs who are supporting reforestation to that ensure that supply continues.
- They Think Collaborative not Competitive
Shifting from a competitive to a collaborative mindset is one of the hardest challenges. An excellent way to begin are pre-competitive partnerships where organisations are working together on a global issue. Forum for the Future and Ellen Macarthur Foundation have great examples of pre-competitive collaborations where both act as an impartial host for organisations to work together on global challenges like plastic and cotton.
Industrial carpet manufacturer Interface collaborates more with unusual suspects than direct competitors. In the case of the acclaimed Net-Works project that has been the yarn supplier, the Zoological Society of London and local village communities in the Philippines to create new carpet from reclaimed fishing nets destroying coral reefs.
Being collaborative also means seeking the wisdom of many individual perspectives. We need to be able to consider the perspective of the CEO, whose responsibility it is to keep the lights on and people in jobs; the vision of the disruptive innovator — whether entrepreneur or intrapreneur — who says we already have the technologies to move forwards, and the perspective of the visionary who can actually imagine the regenerative future we need.
- They Are Multi-Capitalists
Multi-capitalism asks business to look at and measure returns that are not just financial, but inspirational, social, and natural capitals that are the fundamental basis of value creation in any economy. They are not just building blocks that help companies to have regenerative resources to continue to use for pragmatic value creation, but also to generate the intrinsic value so critical to human psychological development and health. It is a model that could help us to increase the level of consciousness and awareness of being critically dependent on our planetary life support system and health ecosystem functions.
- They seek new Legal Models
Another immediate barrier to progress is the legal forms available for organisations to operate within. The Limited Liability Company, designed over 200 years ago is a model, gave the corporate organisation the ability to operate without recourse to intergenerational responsibility. New legal forms are beginning to emerge. The B Corporation is becoming a highly successful bridge model which weaves multi capital responsibility — including not just financial but natural, social and human capital into the organisation fiduciary responsibilities. Co-operatives and collectives are emerging in grassroots communities in the built environment, agriculture and even finance.
Jenny Andersson FRSA is the founder of We Activate The Future. Jenny curates and hosts global discussions on regenerative strategies and works with business leaders and teams to craft conversations that catalyse innovation inside businesses and organisations.
As the challenges we face in the world are more complex and systemic than ever before, we need radically new approaches to the way in which we view the role of business from extractive to regenerative.