What’s the place of ‘PLACE’ in regenerative design?

Illustration of how people can co-evolve with nature.

I’m taking the Regenerative Development and Design course by Regenesis at https://www.regenerat.es/trp/ and thought I could share some key learnings before I get overwhelmed. The most exciting lesson for me is the concept that Regenesis calls the ‘Story of Place™’, but if you are new to regeneration, let’s start with definitions.

According to Regenesis, regenerative development is about seizing potential to transform our role in enabling thriving places and systems.

  • It’s about designing built environments and human systems that co-evolve with nature.
  • It works to create fields of caring and commitment among stakeholders.
  • It sits at the intersection of understanding and intention to build civic power and systems thinking to design new ways of living in flow with nature.
  • And it does all these by drawing inspiration from the self-healing and self-organising capacities of nature — and restores these when they are disrupted.

While sustainability aims to reduce/mitigate the effects of human activity, regeneration aims to reverse the degeneration of ecosystems caused by human activity.

In basic terms, sustainability sees development through the myopic lense of humans — (So, how do we preserve the environment to support us)? While regeneration sees development through a 360° wholistic lense where humans are (one of the youngest members of) nature — (So, how do we learn from and flow with nature — our mother)?

Here is a short list of differences — that I’ll update as I go deeper into the course.

| | Sustainability | Regeneration |
| General Paradigm | Ego | Eco |
| Design Story | For the individual | For the Place |
| Strategy | Dominate nature responsibly | Flow with nature |
| Develop | Product | Process |
| Work with | Objects | Living Systems |
| Design Paradigm | Solve Problems | Develop Potential |
| Goal | reduce harm | restore & thrive |
| Direction | Scale best practices | harness uniqueness |

I’m a Digital Innovation Strategist and so what I usually work on isn’t rooted in a specific place, so, I set out to question why the course is so much focused on Place. I said to myself, this course is designed by a bunch of Architects, Landscapers, and Permaculturists — so it’s natural that they would glorify place. I gave myself lots of other ‘valid’ reasons, but when I imaged what my current place (community) could be under a regenerative development scenario, I loved what I saw, I wished it was, and started thinking of ways it can be. I’m now a convert — glorifying place too.

To sum it up in one sentence, the duo crisis of climate and inequality is an urgent call to me and you (whether you are a designer, CEO, marketer, PM, policy maker, Strategist, Investor, entrepreneur, communicator, etc) to shift your work from the ‘Story of the Individual’ to what hosts the individual(s) — the ‘Story of Place™’.

In the context of a regenerative project (or business), a place is the right level of scale that a project can influence and be influenced by through its dynamic working relationships. Depending on what you working on, this scale is usually a physical place.

Places are (larger) living systems taking in and out (smaller) living beings. Think of it as your body taking in and out stuff. Places evolve or devolve depending on what comes in and goes out — just like your body’s health evolves depending on what you choose to eat.

A project coming into a place shouldn’t dominate a place by imposing its preconceived (often ego-centric) goals onto a place, rather it should seek to understand what makes the place unique and position itself to be 1) fed by the place and 2) feed the place’s potential to evolve to contribute to its smaller inhabitants and the greater whole.

We love the fruitful parent/child relationship where we support them to become what they are built to become — developing their potential. Regeneration asks us to extend this relationship to the places that host us and our projects and businesses. i.e. Ask what does this place wants to be, and how does my project contribute to it being that?

Why focus on the uniqueness of places?

The premise of lifting place in design and development is that nothing has led us to our current crisis as the paradigm of copying and pasting best practices from one place to another — i.e. scaling without considering the unique potential of a place.

I must concede, some of my initiatives have employed scaling best practices — perhaps because I was working within the problem/solution framework that creates and solves problems in cycles as opposed to the developing potential framework that generates more participatory strategies that enable evolution of living systems.

Importing best practices blocks the unique potential of a place from manifesting — instead, its potential is overpowered by the imported cultures, products, policies, and best practices. It’s like parents who force their children to be Doctors, Lawyers, or Engineers when they want to be sportsmen or dancers.

Recently, I was home and spotted a monkey dodging piercings atop a barbed-wire fence, and the first thing that came to mind was, “I wish it wasn’t school time so my kids could see a monkey live — not on TV cartoons!”

This is a rare urban scene, the first I’ve seen in a neighborhood I’ve inhabited for years and it revealed a great deal about the ecological history of this place. Once a swampy valley stretching over 2 miles with birds, monkeys, squirrels, and other species, it’s now reclaimed to maximise urban settlement on one end and factories on the other. Trees and other plant life were cut down, biodiversity destroyed, animals sent packing, and fertile soils locked off with compounds of concrete interlocking blocks and chocked with polythene bags in walkways.

If we went back in time before (let’s call it Kiwatule Valley) fell prey to the imported dynamic pressures of urbanisation, and if regenerative development was the norm — this would be a healthy ecosystem for both nature and people.

It would contribute space for urban wetland farming, fresh foods (sugarcanes, yams, fruit trees, etc), fishing, public parks for natural recreation, natural drainage, clean air, and cool weather, and for the aesthetics of the place, an urban corridor with lush green vegetation that is also a high carbon-sink sucking up CO2 from neighboring factories.

And of course, it’s a wide valley so there is still lots of space to maximise settlement with storeyed apartments along the slanty hills on either side of the valley.

People don’t love being around factories and highrise buildings as they do natural ecosystems, so communities around the valley would love their place back and would be more willing to adopt lifestyles that contribute to its thriving. In fact, a growing body of research shows that nature increases happiness, reduces stress, and improves health.

Happiness Professor Catherine A. Sanderson says, “People who simply walk past clusters of greenery in a city show spikes in happiness, suggesting that even flower beds, trees, and small strips of green in an urban environment make us feel good.”

I thought I could illustrate what I imaged, but I’m no landscaper, so these are illustrations from the internet. They’re ~35% close to the image I loved about Kiwatule Green Corridor in a regenerative scenario.

I would definitely pay a premium to live in an apartment along one of the hills of such a green valley. And this is the crux of the crises we face. The development paradigm today is premised on maximising value/wealth by importing practices and cultures that destroy natural ecosystems. Place-sourced design & development helps us see and activate the uniqueness of a place and seek value/wealth by regenerating natural ecosystems to their full potential.

As a living system, it’s obvious Kiwatule Valley didn’t want to become dense with human settlements on one end and factories on the other. Rather it wanted to become a bio-diverse corridor dense with nature (not excluding people). In climate-change terms it didn’t become the carbon sink it could be, instead, it’s now a net emitter of GHG emissions.

But of course, this can’t happen within the chaos of individual property, so perhaps you would need an active government to gazette the corridor as off-limits for construction projects.

As we transition from looking for happiness from material possessions to looking for mental and spiritual well-being from nature, access to nature will increasingly become a human right.

So, in the midst of accelerating economic development, is it possible to reverse the spontaneous developments we’ve imposed on places and free them up to their natural potential?

I think so.


By buying their freedom.

Nature is self-healing, so if the structures along the wetland of Kiwatule Valley are removed, in less than a decade it can be back on track to being the lush green corridor it wants to be.

Look at it this way. If under the Kiwatule Valley, there was Silicon or Nickel to power EV batteries, if there was oil, if this was a pipeline route, funds would be budgeted to compensate land owners of such development projects. In the same spirit, funds can be available to compensate property owners to make way for regenerating places — especially those with high potential for biodiversity, and carbon sinking.

For example, on estimate, property compensation to bring back life into the Kiwatule Valley can take up between $10M to $30M. This cost increases with time as more building projects are filling up the wetland with concrete, and more are planned on the remaining green parts of the valley, which further destroys and pulls the valley toward negative potential.

Again, we can seek value/wealth from regenerating natural ecosystems — and there’s more common value in doing so than in destroying them or keeping them below their natural potential.

Buying the freedom of places is a radical idea that needs not just lots of money but also political coercion. Here is a simpler idea that I can work on over weekends. It sees urban waste not as a problem but as organic material with the potential to feed a thriving urban farming ecosystem.

It’s a community center that seeks to erase the idea of waste from people’s minds and nurture the idea of the natural flow. We’ll convert an existing dumped piece of land in Kiwatule Central Zone into a nursery bed that germinates and provides seedlings for urban farming.

We collect discarded organic material and composite it into organic fertiliser for the nursery bed. Seedlings include trees, shrubs, fruit trees, vegetables, foods, tea spices, herbs, etc. On top of providing seedlings, we’ll guide households on how to set up and manage urban farms with limited space. As another way to shift minds, instead of wooden coffins, we’ll prepare organic burial pods allowing a tree to grow from the dead body.

It’ll employ the many job-seeking youths to collect these organic soil inputs using bicycles and containers designed for reduced energy. Along with organic material, they’ll also collect dumped plastics, and paper and prepare them for recycling so they aren’t dumped around the village.

This is to experiment that instead of poorly managed landfills collecting “waste” from hundreds of communities, each community can decentrally collect and reuse materials in a circular flow.

It will also prove that, if enabled, communities can be powerful centers of sharing and innovation. It’ll be a center for sharing unused materials like clothes that we keep unused on shelves for years, and foodstuffs before they rot. Community members with these items can bring them to the center where those that need them can find them.

Instead of buying and keeping, members can also share less used items like lawns, carpet cleaning machines, other electronics, books, etc.

In the near future, it will be exciting to experiment with sharing mobility as well. There’s little reason for five people to drive five cars (read 5 exhaust pipes spewing pollutants) from the same neighborhood each with 3–5 unused car spaces to go to work in the same city (within a 5km radius).

If a social app is designed to coordinate shared mobility to/from communities/villages, we can effectively reduce the number of cars on roads, reduce consumption of fossil fuels, reduce the number of exhaust pipes, and thus the amount of pollutants going into the atmosphere.

If adopted by other communities, this comes with invaluable spillover effects like reducing traffic jams and thus more working time, fewer resources deployed to maintain or expand roads and build flyovers, and more parking space can be freed up for planting trees that suck up pollutants that cause respiratory and heart diseases.

But most importantly this will build close-knit resilient communities that love, care and protect their places. In the end, the best security is not in building high fences but in building caring communities. As Umair Haque says “A society in which social bonds and ties don’t exist anymore isn’t really one”.

And yet, well-intentioned as all this sounds, it still has egoistic project-centric aspects — until a proper Story of Kiwatule Central is co-developed with the community — highlighting the geological, biological, and human patterns operating through time and how those will influence the project to influence the place. Only then will community stakeholders feel high energy and spirit to participate in enabling Kiwatule Central’s potential to evolve into what it ought to be.

If the project/business is everywhere, then which specific place is it regenerating? This is the question that comes up when you think about global digital platforms.

Like me, one learner, questioned the focus on the physical ‘Place’ arguing that essence is from belonging and you don’t need to be in a place to belong. I can belong to a village, but also to a professional group, a workplace, a school, belief in an idea, cause, or culture, religion, political group, and other forces of belonging that may transcend even continents.

Am not sure if the hearts and minds of plants, rivers, and mountains agree — especially when they are the most in need of regeneration in their specific places, but I agree, individual human roles can be rooted in the hearts and minds of beholders regardless of where you are geographically.

For example, before the world cup match between Senegal and England, immigrants from Senegal who had lived in England long enough to attain citizenship were asked which team they supported. Their hearts were with their roots — Senegal. Then their children were asked the same question. And for them, their roots were with the place they grew up in — England.

From a regeneration context, the question here is, how does this (diaspora) sense of belonging translate into contribution to regenerating that place that is still deep in your heart and mind? What’s your agency? What role can you play even when you are so far away?

And it’s not difficult to imagine such a role in the digital world today. It could be through knowledge or motivation, partnerships, or investment in regenerative projects.

From a design perspective, if you’re designing a remittance app/project the living system you are looking to build a close relationship with is obviously the diaspora, and the relationship involves enabling their potential to contribute to impacting another living system across the continent.

No doubt, place-based focusing on regenerating the land, plants, watersheds, fauna, insects, and human communities, in a specific place is king. Because at the end of the day, they are the essence of regenerative efforts and can have a big impact on the thriving of the whole.

However, I think when it comes to playing a role, someone outside a place can still contribute to its regeneration.

Digital platforms may not necessarily be place-sourced enablers but they enable people to bond around other forces of belonging to regenerate physical places.

We can look at this through layers of regenerative action and impact from the individual level to the community, and then the ecological.

A business like Zoom enables me to connect to this regeneration course that’s building the regenerative skills I intend to use to contribute to regenerating my community. Zoom and indeed the course by Regenesis may be located in New York or New Mexico, but their impact — reverberates across the world.

So, the potential of digital platforms in regeneration is to coordinate people to self-organise (with high energy and spirits) to contribute to regenerating physical places irrespective of geographic location.

There is a nascent evolution in the design space in which designers and corporations like IBM are experimenting with non-human personas (like a bee, a river, frogs, trees, or chimps) to inform product decisions.

This is a step in the right direction, however, it neglects the fact that a bee, a river, trees, or chimps, are nested within a place with other beings.

It also risks conforming to the HCD process where the design is centered around enabling one entity (the human) to succeed at the expense of others.

Also, the needs of bees, chimps, a river, or trees in one place, may not be the exact needs of the same entities in another place.

On the other hand, Place-centred design aims to understand the unique geophysical, biological, and human organising of a place, generating patterns, and creating a story of that place that then informs design decisions. So, how about unique personas for a place to learn how your project or business will influence and be influenced by the place in which it is nested?

Place-centered Design represents a shift in what we focus on when designing or developing strategies, projects, programs, or policies.

When we center humans as in HCD, we neglect other species hosted within a place. We neglect the interdependence and nestedness of humans with the natural world — sooner or later to the disadvantage of humans as we see in Climate Change and inequality and their violent outcomes.

It also entraps us in a neverending cycle of problem-solving — developing solutions to problems we created with previous solutions.

Instead of seeking moral solutions, it makes us seek material solutions to moral problems —for example, I’ve never understood sleeping pods. The root problem is that people are incentivised to work overtime. The moral solution is to incentivise full circadian sleep, instead, already scarce materials go through high emissions processes to build products that solve problems we could have dissolved without products!

And when we center Place, we are invited to engage people to contribute to the whole by caring for and protecting the unique beings (including people) and ecologies in their place — which reconnects them to the human purpose of service to life.

An essential paradigm shift is required in the development and design space, whether the project is a building, an organization, or a change initiative. The focus must move away from the ego of the project to the eco of the place or the whole it seeks to influence and be influenced by — “so that we are imaging it in the same way we image a person’s heart within her circulatory system within her body”. Regenesis

It also means designing for the individual through the lense of a place — or more bluntly focusing on optimising common interests as opposed to incrementally maximising individual comfort.

80% of injustices occur at the design stage because, for the most part, Design and Innovation have focused on enabling the ‘Story of the Individual’, regeneration wants us to shift to — the ‘Story of Place’.

So, for example, what kind of vehicle would Tesla design, if it designed for community mobility more than it did individual mobility?

What kind of platform would Facebook/Twitter be if it were designed for self-organising citizens towards civic agency as opposed to individuals poking each other and following random trends?

What kind of Fintech would PayPal or Stripe be if it was designed to give businesses and communities of customers agency to influence funds to flow to regenerative projects?

What if the Bitcoin crypto network was designed to accelerate the volume and velocity of money from the commercial system towards grassroots climate action as opposed to volatile hoarding?

Categorized as UX Tagged

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