Jo Choukeir, Director of Design & Innovation, shares how and why the time and place have come for the RSA to emerge as a regenerative organisation.
At the beginning of November, the RSA took part in Anthropy; a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of leaders across sectors, coming together to think differently about our collective, equitable and sustainable futures. Anthropy was founded by our very own RSA Fellow, John O’Brien MBE, with the curational support of several other fellows.
There couldn’t have been a better place to host this gathering than The Eden Project, with its mission to build relationships between people and the natural world, to demonstrate the power of working together for the benefit of all living things.
One of the curators, and RSA Fellow and friend Jenny Andersson, who founded The Really Regenerative Centre invited me to join the panel she was chairing, on designing regenerative economies from place. The panel was held in The Rainforest Biome amidst wildlife and a tropical climate.
I spoke about the RSA as place, and our journey towards a regenerative mission; alongside the brilliant Jane Davidson FRSA, author of #futuregen: Lessons from a Small Country and initiator of the Well-being for Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, who spoke about regenerative policy for place; and India Hamilton, founder of Scoop, who spoke about regenerative food economies for place.
In telling the story of how and why the RSA needs to emerge as a regenerative organisation, I shared a timeline of acupuncture points towards our current regenerative mission. In this context, I define acupuncture points as moments, opportunities and interventions across our history, that have acted as important periods of leverage to gradually and radically provoke, stimulate and enable our wider economic, social and environmental systems to start to transition towards a regenerative paradigm shift.
Regenerative organisations: designed for life
But before we go back to the beginning, let’s recap where we are today. In May 2022, we published our new Design for Life vision for a world that is resilient, rebalanced and regenerative where everyone can fulfil their potential. Our new mission, as a unique global network of changemakers, is to enable people, places and planet to flourish. And although this year marks the very beginning of our journey towards this bold and ambitious mission, the journey to getting to today is weaved across our history and takes us back to our roots.
Working in the liminal space across systems
For the last 270 years, we have been at the forefront of social and environmental impact. In fact, at the top of RSA House at 8 John Adam Street in London, if you have visited, you may notice two statues.
The statue on the left is draped with an English broad cloth representing the arts, manufacturing, and trade on one hand (ie our economic system), and warmth and shelter on the other hand (ie our social system).
On the other side of RSA House, you’ll notice a statue representing Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and mother nature (ie our environmental system).
Across our history, our community of Fellows, as changemakers through the industrial and post-industrial revolutions, have worked in this liminal space at the intersection between our economic, social and environmental systems, advocating for doing more good for society and the environment beyond the dominant economic paradigms of the times that passed.
Coffeehouse meetups and challenge prizes
But we didn’t start at RSA House. The RSA was founded in 1754 in Rawthmells coffeehouse in Covent Garden, London where a handful of artists, activists and businesspeople would meet to discuss gaps in the social and environmental issues that wider public institutions were not addressing, and ways to bring people and ideas together to tackle them.
Those who joined the society became Fellows, and their fees contributed to funding one of the earliest forms of challenge prizes, known as ‘premiums’ at the time. An early example is a competition that was launched in 1802, to design solutions that would eliminate the use of small children in the act of sweeping chimneys. It was the hope that this would reduce health risks and child labour.
George Smart won the competition with his invention: The Scandiscope (aka the chimney brush), and the RSA financed the manufacturing and marketing of this innovation firstly to master sweeps who often sourced the children, and when that didn’t result in shifting the market due to reduced profit margins, to the homeowners and housekeepers directly.
Furthermore, the RSA then worked on policy influencing campaigns which led to Parliament banning the use of children under 14 in chimney sweeping. This is an example of how we have worked in a liminal space, bringing people and ideas together, to transform through innovation, economic, social and wider political systems for the better.
Reconnecting social and environmental health
For the last 50 years or so, we have led several programmes and commissions that have rejoined the dots and trailblazed radical approaches to rebalancing economic, social and environmental outcomes. For example, in 1964, The Industry and The Countryside report considered for the first time the co-existence of increased food production alongside a thriving natural environment – where both can flourish hand-in-hand when leaning into permacultural farming approaches.
Then between 2012 and 2016, our Great Recovery project explored the role of design in disrupting our industrial processes to be fully circular and transitioning our manufacturing economies to do less harm to the environment. From 2017 onwards, we led the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission which brought experts and people with lived experience together across the UK, to bring new ideas that started from place to social and environmental challenges. The commission spun out of the RSA in 2020 and continues to run independently.
From sustainability to regeneration
Building on the scaffolding across our history, 2021 marked the launch of the Regenerative Futures programme led by Josie Warden, with a mission to help create a future where people and planet flourish hand-in-hand for the long term.
The programme challenged our community to move from extractive approaches that depleted, deforested and degraded, and beyond sustainability approaches that reduce, reuse and recycle, towards regenerative approaches to rethink, restore and replenish.
The work of trailblazing regenerative practitioners across our community inspired and supported the programme, such as Kate Raworth, Janine Benyus and Daniel Christian Wahl. During that year, the programme team also participated in Jenny Andersson’s Power of Place learning journey exploring the wider question of what the RSA might look like as a ‘regenerative place’, where regeneration isn’t simply a programmatic theme, and where that ambition transforms who we are, what we do and how we do it as a social change organisation.
A new era to design for life
The time and place came to be with Andy Haldane joining us as our new CEO in 2022, with a bold provocation to reimagine the role the organisation should play in the 21st century. Andy’s challenge to trustees and the leadership team was:
If the RSA had to do one thing, a single impact programme, what might that be and why?
I worked closely with Al Mathers, Andy, wider teams and Fellows to understand the world as it is now; fragile, unbalanced, and extractive, and to set a vision for the world as it should be; resilient, rebalanced, and regenerative.
There is no other viable future than one that is regenerative, and it was not sufficient for regenerative futures to be the mission of one of many siloed programmes of work that treated our social, economic and environmental challenges as if they were separate, mirroring our siloed and broken social institutions.
With the launch of the new Design for Life mission at Fellows Festival in May of 2022, we committed to mobilising all our assets, networks and programmatic activity towards enabling people, places and planet to flourish.
The role we see the RSA playing, through the Design for Life programme, is one where we support changemakers through seven pathways, across their life, and across the system, to grow their agency, capabilities, ideas, and connections to create more resilient, rebalanced and regenerative futures.
The pathways are:
- Early years
One of the most exciting transitions for us on our journey to becoming a regenerative organisation with a regenerative mission is how we’re embedding the following Design for Life perspectives (ie perspectives that are conducive to all life on earth for the long term) across our work, and into who we are and how we work:
- Systemic: we see and change systems in nested and interconnected ways. Economic systems that benefit social systems that benefit environmental systems.
- Imaginative: we draw on our capacity for imagination to create hopeful alternatives to the reality that we know.
- Adaptive: we recognise that change is living as we design, iterate, grow and decompose to improve ways forward.
- Collective: we bring the power and wisdom of the collective from human to beyond human, to lead change, with the welfare of all people, places and planet at the heart in equal measure.
- Good ancestry: we hold a long-term view of success and consequence beyond this generation, with intention to leave the world in a better place for the generations and ecosystems to come.
- Local for global: we start with the citizens, assets, heritage, culture, climate and context of place to impact (bio) regionally and globally.
The RSA, through the potential and reach of our fellowship network, change capabilities and platform, is the right place from which to lead on this bold mission, and the time to take this plunge from next to best practice is absolutely now. 270 years later, we are still learning and are just at the start of this new acupuncture point towards a regenerative journey.
In our second Anthropy round-up blogs, Head of Regenerative Design, Roberta Iley, links the discussions she took part in at the Eden Project with our new capabilities enquiry.