Why regenerative design is more relevant than sustainability

Sustainability felt like a pretty impressive benchmark several years ago when it first entered the public consciousness as an umbrella for “reuse, recycle, reduce”. But today, it doesn’t go nearly far enough in describing the urgent changes we need to adopt to deal with the escalating environmental crisis.

What we need is a total rethink of how we consume and how we live in the world. Enter regenerative design. This holds more water than sustainability because it doesn’t just seek to do less bad; it aims to pivot design from resource-exploitative to net-positive. Think ‘forest cities and green urban developments that consider human structures as part of a larger natural ecosystem.

We really love the word “reciprocity” when it comes to how we think about designing products and projects here at Volume.

Reciprocity suggests a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship between humans and nature whereby both parties benefit from the exchange. We’re one and the same, after all! So regenerative design is a concept that chimes with our values. We’re already embedding some of its principles, and we’re busy working on the long game. But there’s a way to go yet.

So, what do we mean by regenerative design, and why is regeneration more relevant today than sustainability?

Four key principles of regenerative design

  1. It goes way beyond sustainability– “sustainability” has been bandied around so much now that it’s lost a lot of its power. It could just mean 10% more sustainable than the least sustainable option, and it’s still opaque and subject to greenwashing. In contrast, regenerative design seeks to be not only transparent but net-positive in all areas; materials, energy, water, communities, biodiversity, etc. It’s a post-industrial, post-consumerist design concept that aims to mirror the way other natural systems work together for mutual benefit.
  2. It’s about restoration– moving beyond recycling, reusing and reducing, regenerative design focuses on replenishing our natural world. Up until now, we’ve only considered how we can use less and more effectively, but the culture of design needs to change to embody things like how we clean the air of pollution, how we regenerate forests, how we eradicate waste, purify Earth’s water and so on so that humans, non-humans and planetary systems are all benefitting from the design.
  3. It considers every little design detail – regenerative design acknowledges that every design decision has an impact, from the space and orientation of a building and the choice of materials used to local biodiversity and societal structures. It’s resilient, innovative and underpinned by the notion that design needs to enable a better future.
  4. It aims to reconnect humans with the natural world– embodying the principles of biophillia, regenerative design seeks to bring the outside world in and vice versa. This way of approaching design, rather than just extracting resources and effectively removing nature from our spaces, is about changing how we perceive our place in the world and understanding that human beings are one part of a larger whole.

Here at Spared and Volume, we’re already designing with a whole-system mindset; challenging the concept of waste and building in waste-management strategies, understanding our carbon footprint and using biophilic design principles to align human-nature needs. But regenerative design is a massive shift for the industry – still only in its conceptual phase – and we’re not there yet.

Until we live in a world where what humans create positively impacts the health and well-being of all species and the planet alike, we’ve got to keep scrutinising the purpose of design and aiming beyond sustainability.