Editor’s Note: In past issues of Trim Tab, Jason F. McLennan and Bill Reed have collaborated on two articles that focused on the subject of regenerative design (Regenerating the Whole and Falling in Love with Life)


In our past articles we introduced aspects of the different thinking required to engage in the practice of living system development or regeneration; how this thinking is different from the left-brain, piecemeal, technical efficiency approach to sustainability; and why this shift in thinking is essential to achieve a sustainable condition. Many green projects are generative in nature: people get very excited about the techniques, technologies, and new ways of thinking that result in positive contributions to the health of ecosystems and a reduction of human impact. The big question is how this work can continue in the face of societal inertia and the surprises of evolutionary change. Certainly, a single developer, institution, architect, or planner cannot determine or dictate an effective, long-term result. All living systems of a community and watershed are the only organisms that can influence wholesale, long-lasting and purposeful engagement, and so design should be thought of as a framework or vessel that is supportive of this engagement.
The first article focused on Living System Design Truths, emphasizing five principles inextricably connected to living system regenerative design and development. The second article emphasized the necessary shift in our state of being—the right-brain, heart, and consciousness aspect of human being. The greatest source of leverage for this needed shift is within a human being’s inner development: developing the understanding of why, and the practice of how, to be in the right relationship with the world and each other.
This article addresses some processes to practice living system design and development and ways to bridge the world of things and relationships into re-engaging in the wholeness of life. The re (which means to do again, afresh, anew) in regenerative is the ultimate focus. How do we build the desire, the capacity, and the capability of a group of people to continually engage in a process of rebirthing their relationship with the evolutionary processes of life so that, overall, all life benefits? What does practicing regeneration look like? What are the leverage points that can serve as entry points to practice this way of doing and being?

Broad Aspects of the Practice

Regenerative development and design is a living systems approach to design and construction processes, inviting us to consider our full potential as human beings, understanding that we can be in a co-creative role within nature, helping to nourish and be nourished by all of life.
Holding the complexity of the whole of living entities (a person, the land, a community, an organization) is accomplished by working from the core identity (essence or uniqueness) of that entity. Carol Sanford, an expert in regenerative business, describes this as “working essence to essence.“ This is a design process that engages and focuses on the evolution of the whole of the system of which we are part. Logically, our place—community, watershed, and bio-region—is the sphere in which we can participate. By engaging all the key stakeholders and processes of the place—humans, other biotic systems, earth systems, and the consciousness that connects them—the design process builds the capability of people and the ‘more than human’ participants to engage in continuous and healthy co-evolutionary relationship.
Much like yoga, or any body-and-mind practice, a regenerative approach works at multiple levels in the individual and in the collaborative space. And it works much like a developing relationship between two people or a group. It is not a mechanistic or “cookie cutter” methodology. The practice responds to what is real and live in the here and now, not through reading words and manuals, but through action and experience. So, as a way of working, a regenerative approach calls for the kind of reciprocity and engagement between the participants, other people and the living system of a place. It is an ongoing tending, aligning, developing, and deepening of relationships—to bring the (birth, life, death, rebirth) process alive in a meaningful and fiercely pragmatic way that benefits life in each unique place.

Regeneration is a practice; it is ongoing, just as with evolution.
It is real work.
Just like life, one can’t go on automatic and expect to accomplish much. To be most effective in life, every step we take, asks us to be conscious of taking the next step.

Aspects and distinction of this developmental systems practice

Regenerative design is not a cookie-cutter, step-by-step, or linear process. As in any holistic practice, it is important to simply begin, and then you are in a position to practice and learn. This may seem to be an intimidating way of launching into this work, yet there are several schools of thought and practice to support the learning curve and help the practitioner engage in the process of socio-ecologic development along with the development of their own lives. For example, the two of us belong to different yet synergistic schools of thought relative to regenerative design. Working with actual projects in this way is one of the most effective ways to engage in large-scale transformation processes toward deeply sustainable, resilient, and regenerative systems.
There are many ways to structure whole, regenerative or integral practices. The important point of this work is to shift your client’s approach and assumptions as well as your own (even if you think you have all the right answers) and to start from what is core to the life of that client and to the place and culture in which you are working. This is the shift from doing things to developing the being relationships discussed in the second article. This discovery process of relatedness—between each other, and the whole living organism of the place we are addressing—is the source of compassion and care and therefore of the will to create tremendous change.
From practical experience, we have found that there are some basic aspects and distinctions that are useful to shift a project into this “becoming state.” This state of being generates the will to significantly change the way we do things. A master plan, building, or project emerges as a synchronous outcome of these deeper relationships.


These aspects and distinctions can be loosely identified as the Five Ps of Regenerative Development

I. Potential (co-discovering the new relationships, adaptation, and harmonization possible as people and place evolve)
• Permission (getting buy in and endorsement to begin a different kind process by those involved)
II. Process (building a web of relationships using Integrative Design, Lean Construction or similar processes)
• Five Capitals and Value-adding Processes (integrating continuously accruing value into a place)
III. Place and People (Place and People are linked in a dance – understand what makes this dance unique, its essence)
• Pattern (the consistent and repeating way a living system adds value to itself and other systems)
• Purpose and Role (understanding and becoming aligned around the unique role people have within this ecology and the      role of this place in its larger ecological context)
IV. Personal Development (practicing and developing a self that can minimize attachment)
V. Perpetual capability building (developing whole systems understanding, participating in feedback systems and opportunities for improvement and discovery as a living process over time).

IMPORTANT NOTE: These aspects and distinctions are experienced as concurrent and parallel threads. They are woven together in a way that is most appropriate for each project and the client’s level of focus and understanding as a foundation for the physical realization of the project.
In other words, these aspects of the work of engaging a whole living system are all done at the beginning of the project and are deepened and iterated throughout. A continual birth, life, death, and rebirth occurs in the project and within the team and each individual at almost every step of the project when working this way.


Even seemingly cataclysmic events are not problems. Nature can only address the present and work toward a future wherein life in that place organizes and collaborates to bring a higher order of diversity and resilience. It is a human perspective that looks at these events as problems; instead, it is more fruitful to think of them as rebirths. For example, a stream is in a continual process of making itself.
Since humans are nature, this means there is a lot to look forward to: the most exciting, powerful, and effective dimension of the practice of regeneration centers on working with the concept of potential; that is, the inherent ability or capacity for growth, development, or coming into being.

The idea of potential may seem to be stating the obvious: life is emergent, it is becoming, it is always evolving; we are part of an inevitable dynamic process. Yet, in general, our design culture has been trained to solve problems and provide “deliverables”—things, master plans, restored ecosystems, and reports—as if the thinking and ideas delivered at the end of a contract will somehow outlast the myriad evolutionary pressures of life. We can easily lose sight of the whole in pursuit of the part.
What is most fun and satisfying about the practice of regeneration is that we are helping people experience and become excited about the processes of life and how any ecological system—all of life, humans and “nature”—can continually organize to bring back a tremendous diversity of healthy relationships and further the ongoing renewing of quality of life. This regeneration includes our own relationship to self.
This work is built on the concept of autopoiesis, or auto-creation, wherein living beings such as bacteria, guilds of animals, plants, and soil, watersheds, and so on are seen as systems that produce themselves in a ceaseless way. Similarly, we need to take the abilities of the organisms we call human beings, help them see the potential of how life wants to work in the places they live, and then give them basic organizational frameworks and principles for how the whole socio-ecological system can be collaborative and healing. With the catalyzing of this co-creative process, whole ecosystems can begin organizing toward a dynamic resiliency in a matter of months and certainly within only a very few years.

Permission – Finding the client who is ready to engage in exploring potential—to move beyond expected outcomes

  • From residential construction to whole cities and cultural groups within nations, the size of the project doesn’t matter. It is important to identify the client’s motivating factors in order to deepen the regenerative design process. In our experience, there are a few reasons that clients are inspired to engage in this different nature of design process:
  • A desire to leave a legacy compared to their previous work;
  • An aspiration toward higher levels of sustainability and restoration;
  • Need to address large-scale, human-caused ecological system damage;
  • Fear of community backlash and lack of support;
  • An awareness of the benefits of systems thinking and integrative processes;
  • Collaboration and alignment with multi-stakeholder constituencies and/or large design teams;
  • A desire to add value to the system they are working within;
  • A desire to systematically address multiple and concurrent issues.
    Despite the client’s motivation, the general approach to the regenerative design and development process is intended to help them recognize and understand the core of their reason for considering engaging a practice that explores new thinking. The basic way of starting a co-creative relationship is to help clients see themselves and recognize the (likely unspoken) core purpose for their work. This occurs through asking them gently destabilizing questions for which you (and them) do not have an immediate answer. These questions may be entered on identifying the client’s distinct purpose for doing this work. The important point to remember is that this is all about them, not about your expertise. One thing is certain: you cannot force this way of being on a client; it is something they recognize when they engage with it.

Building a web of relationships

At its most basic level, practicing regenerative development is about the process of inviting and helping the stakeholders in an ecological system to be in a continually enriching relationship around a unifying purpose. People, in general, are social beings who want to be in healthy relationships with each other. Fragmented issues and groups of people working in silos and managing their own fiefdoms will only exacerbate the problems in a living system. The most practical and well-developed practice modes come from the world of System Integration. Your “gateway practice” may be built on one of a number of different modalities of group process alignment: community organizing techniques, organizational development, lean construction, integrative process, integrated project delivery. Each of these management technologies has strengths and weaknesses. The most important attribute to be embraced is the idea of organizing around a co-creative or integrated process and avoiding the command-and-control mentality that sponsors the tyranny of the expert. The integrative process is an absolute and basic foundation to realize regenerative development. A core group of people in an organization or community must be able to contribute to a process of creativity in order for them to eventually take responsibility for the health-giving evolution of the place. If the team that the core group is working with is not integrated, there is not much hope or practicality in thinking that a bad example will somehow inspire the opposite.

A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations. However, diversity is a strategic advantage only if there is a truly vibrant community, sustained by a web of relationships. If the community is fragmented into isolated groups and individuals, diversity can easily become a source of prejudice and friction. But if the community is aware of the interdependence of all its members, diversity will enrich all the relationships and thus enrich the community as a whole, as well as each individual member. In such a community information and ideas flow freely through the entire network, and the diversity of interpretations and learning styles-even the diversity of mistakes-will enrich the entire community.
—Maturana and Varela (1987) The Tree of Knowledge as cited in: Fritjof Capra (1996) The Web of Life. p. 330

A unified team is much more intelligent and effective than any individual.

Five Capitals and Value-adding Processes – Building a web of relationships also means we are building capital, or adding value, to the system in all the essential domains of life. The Forum for the Future, an independent non-profit specializing in solutions for sustainability challenges, identifies at least five domains that require value to be added on a continuous basis: Natural Systems, Human Development (spiritual/intellectual), Social Development, Economic Development, and Built Environment. Engaging with and developing all five capitals as the design process progresses is why it is vital to “design the design process.” If we do not intentionally hold multiple places in the schedule to continually iterate around these domains many opportunities for synergy will be lost.

Place and People

Expand the opportunity in order to understand the ecosystem at its core; in other words, the core living patterns of place and people are observable in their larger context.

An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.

—Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution
Start with universe.
—Buckminster Fuller
If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.
—Dwight Eisenhower

We cannot reduce a problem to the point at which it can no longer stay alive. Once a problem is disassociated from its living and supportive context, it cannot sustain itself. Thus, we need to enlarge the system with which we are working:

Place – enlarge the project. “Place” is the smallest unit of effective living development.
A living system self organizes most effectively when it comprehensively encompasses as many aspects of evolving life as possible: a watershed, agricultural land, relatively undamaged habitat, and urban and rural human habitation.

place and people

People – Interestingly this work also ‘expands’ into the inner human dimension of self – our own evolving development.

Regeneration is foremost a developmental practice, a process of internal becoming, a process of relationship-building between people-to-people and people-to-nature. The “deliverable” of a project emerges out of this new and deeper exploration and understanding of necessary interrelationship, the unique relationships between the people and the environment, and the unique ecosystem in each place.

. . .The future is not just about firefighting and tinkering with the surface of structural change. It’s not just about replacing one mindset that no longer serves us with another . . . It’s a future that requires us to tap into a deeper level of humanity, of who we really are and who we want to be as a society. It is a future that we can sense, feel, and actualize by shifting the inner place from which we operate . . .
This inner shift . . . is at the core of all deep leadership work today. It’s a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart. It is a shift from an ego-system awareness that cares about the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well-being of all, including oneself . . . When operating with eco-system awareness we are driven by concerns and intentions of our emerging and essential self – that is, by a concern that is informed by the well-being of the whole.
—Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer, Katrina Kaufer, 2013

Pattern – Story of Place©

When the uniqueness of a place sings to us like a melody, then we will know, at last, what it means to be at home.
—Paul Gruchow

Patterning is how we hold any complex idea. It identifies the consistent and repeating way a living system or living entity adds value to itself and to other systems and entities.

“The world around us can be understood as structures, or as patterns. We can see objects or we can see the exchanges between those beings. Both are valid and useful views, but as a culture, we tend to the myopic view of a formal world. We are highly literate in the languages of symbols like letters, numbers, codes, and icons, and largely illiterate in the language of patterns. Life is process, and processes are patterned. This shortsightedness is why we damage the living world and cannot seem to stop it. We stumble without the balancing view of the pattern perspective.”

This pattern work is done through a process of working from pattern understanding to identify key leverage points:

“We are looking for what Gregory Bateson called “the difference that makes a difference.” That difference is not a thing: it is a place and time—a relationship—a small change that changes everything. To play a song well, tune your instrument . . . To topple the arch, remove the keystone . . . Bread rises from adding a timely pinch of leaven . . .It is not a new technique or technology that is called for, but understanding when and where efforts can be effective . . . To be effective, shift the underlying patterns. This is the key to systemic change . . . The trick lies in seeing it.’

The Story of Place® is a process developed by the Regenesis Group to engage communities in an essence understanding of how the core patterns of life work in the system they live within. Understanding the essence of the place inspires people to work with the system by harmonizing their actions with its core nature. This process builds ‘will’ in people by helping them relate to, understand, and love the unique way life works in their place. The Story of Place® is not just a narrative of history; it is a narrative that identifies the key nodes of exchange and transformation and the collection of patterns that make a place unique, as all places are. The story is really about the essence of the place and its people. The power of working with a community comes when people are asked to think into the patterns that are being discovered. When they feel the resonance (that “sings to us like a melody”), you know that their heart is being spoken to. Now, the reconciling work can begin between people and the place they know as home.
The International Living Future Institute began pioneering some work to create both “child-centered patterns” and ecological patterns that are based loosely on Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language.


Purpose and Role- understanding and becoming aligned around the unique role people have within this ecology

When exploring a working relationship with a client or consultant, it is useful to shift the conversation from the normal telling and teaching to helping them experience the additional dimensions that need to be considered when working with living socio-ecological systems. By participating and experiencing the work required to move the conversation beyond the normal “what we are going to do for you” or what is wanted, new insights emerge, and the participants are excited about new areas of discovery.
Typically we work with what we are going to do. This is the checklist approach. When we add the dimension of how it is going to be done, and what the purpose is, the conversation and learning are more relevant at a deeper level.
One framework that is used to explore and experience these additional dimensions is the Five Whys. Edwards Deming used this problem-solving tool in his work with the Japanese auto industry. Any decision made should be questioned to at least five levels of why. This framework demands that we examine levels of understanding and relationships.
“What,” “How” and “Why” are the questions all journalists are expected to address to create a whole story.
Patterning, the Story of Place®, essence understanding, and identifying purpose are ways that help us to get to the core of the issues. This is a kind of tracking process. Trackers are expert at recognizing related and repeated essential patterns at different scales. This kind of training helps us move past all the extraneous white noise and get at what is truly important and repeated over time. By getting to the core, we then have the flexibility to move beyond fragmented wishes and expectations. This is a very effective way to discover new potential.
All life can be seen as an activating force and a receiving or restraining force. For example, a developer wants to build a building, and the receiving force may be the reduced health of the social and natural systems of a community and its habitat. If we compromise, the building may cost a little more, but the local system of nature may still be damaged with a mechanical approach to the problem. By taking the time to find out what is core to the developer and core to the community, we can find multiple ways to identify new potential rather than compromise around what we think we need or the answers we have used in the past.

Personal Development

Let him who would move the world first move himself.
Practicing personal leadership begins with the “self” rather than the “other.”
—“Personal Leadership,” Schaetti, Ramsey, Watanabe, pg. 14

How do we develop caring relationships with others in our organizations, communities, and of course, with our inner selves? This work is holistic, and the practice of regeneration asks us to engage ourselves, our clients, and the communities we are involved with in the challenging work of human development in order to effectively work with the collaborative nature of nature.
When we work this way with any group of people, the way of being and becoming will naturally unfold as we challenge ourselves to think in new ways with the places we inhabit. The discipline of sustainable design requires this of us. This is why the term regenerative development is used: as long as life evolves, we will need to evolve with it. This is a conscious process, and working on projects with a diversity of people is one of the best ways to develop new capacity and capability as individuals. It is up to each of us to find a way to intentionally bring this practice into the projects we are working within. Doing so will allow us to be inspiring and powerfully effective with those who hunger for greater meaning in the work of sustaining life.

“External regeneration cannot occur without internal regeneration. Find a way, or an ecology of ways, to heal your inner self. This could include traditional therapy, peer-to-peer counseling, group work, or a commitment to one of the many schools of human potential and personal development. A spiritual practice can be included, but is not enough to fully heal the wounds that each person carries from the current oppressive society”
—“Regenerative Enterprise,” Roland and Landua


Perpetual capability building

Sustaining ourselves and the living systems that support us is a dance of reciprocity, very much like a permaculture food system, or how a gardener engages with her backyard vegetable patch. This attitude and relationship are built upon in order to “garden” the whole system that we live within, and the attitude and practice expand to all living entities.
Regeneration is about engaging in a process of continual adjustment and change based on how natural systems are responding—as well as engaging our willingness to change and adapt by consciously working on our individual selves and the larger social system.
The ultimate deliverable for a regenerative development project is to leave the place, the community, and the ecosystem with a core group of people who have the capability to continue evolving this developmental process into the future, in order to ensure that the project lives into its potential.
This core team may be a newly formed group representing the various domains or interest areas that form the subsystems (energy, water, mobility, social, governance, and so on) that are part of the whole system. The purpose of this team is to “hold the whole,” bringing together or informing others who are working in the subsystems so that they are working in support of the unique nature of that particular place.
Based on change and transformation experience (and common sense), this core team will typically need some guidance and support over a period of three to seven years. It takes that long to develop new patterns of relationship that have staying power. This does not take extensive time; it is a matter of consistency, with coaching visits every six to eight weeks to keep the plates spinning and the depth of understanding developing. In other situations, we have seen the process of feedback systems actually teach the community about right relationships. If you have stormwater runoff pollutants draining into the lake your children swim in, the motivation and constant awareness of cause and effect are obvious and compelling.

Regeneration is another term for rebirth in all its dimensions. After all, a whole is composed of everything. Regeneration can start with anyone hoping to make a change for good in the world. Whether we are engaging with a human, a building, a stream, or a whole ecosystem, the relationships are equally complex and always evolving. No matter where we begin, it always comes down to human development; humans are both the source of degradation and the conduit for the greatest expressions of love and co-creation.
One final word on this work as a practice comes from Wahiduddin, a website with a variety of resources for inner exploration and inspiration.

. . . simply reading the words are not the point . . . The goal here is mastery. It is the act of practicing these ideals in every moment of daily life (that) is the challenge, and for most of us that takes repetition and effort, day after day, year after year.

Written By

Jason F. McLennan

Jason F. McLennan is the Chair of the Board for ILFI.