Regenerative Systems by Sam Buckton
We increasingly hear people talking about ‘transformation’ in the context of food system change, with the aim of overcoming the many crises associated with our current food systems, from food insecurity to environmental degradation. Transformation suggests a fundamental, systemic change. But what should transformation aim towards? People find it difficult to envision futures that are radically different from what they’re familiar with, so the risk is that we end up with only superficial or incremental change that fails to transcend the fundamental problems at the heart of food systems. How can we be more ambitious and imaginative when we think about the kinds of futures we want to bring into being?
At FixOurFood, we’ve been exploring the concept of ‘regenerative systems’ to guide food system transformation. In essence, we consider regenerative systems to be those that mutually reinforce wellbeing within and beyond themselves, particularly between humans and wider nature. Being regenerative means going beyond just minimising the harm humans cause, and actively leaving the world in a better state that we found it in. It means encouraging the ‘spiralling up’ of human and planetary health in a positive reinforcing cycle, creating resilient systems. The American biologist Janine Benyus evocatively summarised a regenerative dynamic as:
‘life creates conditions conducive to life’
For example, a regenerative farm would not only employ practices that advance the farmer’s economic needs and regenerate soils and ecosystems on which the farm directly depends, but also regenerate wider social and ecological environments, e.g., by boosting pollinator populations and acting as a hub for community interaction, which in turn support the farm.
Drawing on a wide literature review and workshops, we created the ‘Regenerative Lens’, a framework to help people conceptualise and aim for regenerative social-ecological systems (e.g. communities, cities, businesses, economies and regions). As well as clarifying the dynamics and outcomes of regenerative systems, the Lens identifies five essential ‘qualities’ and associated practices that systems would need to encourage to support regenerative dynamics. These qualities include:
- An ‘ecological worldview’ that recognises how the world is interconnected and made up of layers of systems nested within each other. Such a worldview is prominent in Indigenous philosophies, and could be embodied by practices such as agroecology.
- Mutualism, such as cooperative and reciprocal interactions between humans and between humans and wider nature. Mutualism could be encouraged by more experiential forms of learning and reconnecting people with their local nature, heritage and food production, for instance.
- High levels of biological and cultural diversity. This is important particularly for promoting creativity and resilience in regenerative systems. Regenerative agriculture offers many examples of practices aiming to boost diversity, especially biodiversity.
- Agency, or humans and wider nature having the freedom and resources to act regeneratively. This requires redressing the injustices of colonialism that have sabotaged the land and sea underpinning local and Indigenous livelihoods, as well as the commodification and technological control of non-human nature. More ground-up forms of organisation and less hierarchical kinds of governance arrangements, such as a commons, are important for enabling agency in regenerative systems.
- Continuous ‘reflexivity’, or the re-exploration of values and assumptions, experimentation, learning and adaptation. This includes mindfulness of all the regenerative qualities when acting in the world. Futures methods such as Three Horizons and more reflexive or developmental kinds of evaluation are well-suited to fostering this quality in regenerative systems.
Recently, we’ve been working with futures practitioner and facilitator extraordinaire Bill Sharpe to develop this framework into practical tools that could be used in workshop settings to guide change processes. On 6 December 2023, we held a workshop with a number of researchers and practitioners to test some of these tools. They included:
- Exploration of the definition of regenerative systems, using a variety of different definitions to see what resonates most with different people.
- An exercise to introduce the concept of being both ‘internally’ and ‘externally’ regenerative (or degenerative). A fully regenerative system would have positive effects on its parts (internally) as well as the wider system it sits within (externally), like the regenerative farm example described above.
- A meditative exercise to introduce the idea of ‘mutual qualities of life’ – the feeling of being in flow and harmony with the rest of life. For instance, someone might imagine the feeling of singing in a choir, playing a team sport, or going on a walk in a wild landscape – a situation where you feel like you’re part of something bigger and mutually supporting one another.
- Using some trigger questions based on the five qualities of the Regenerative Lens to interrogate an envisioned future and push its ambition.
- Mapping networks of actors in mutualistic relationships with each other. This could be used in tandem with the Three Horizons method, for instance, to deepen appreciation of what a future food system would look like and the kinds of partnerships needed to bring it into being.
- We were encouraged by the positive responses of participants to the different exercises, and the hope is that they will eventually be formalised and published (e.g. on the Future Stewards website). Ultimately, we hope that these tools can help to accelerate learning about transitioning to regenerative systems at a scale, pace and depth that match those of global crises.