Continuous place based design

Continuous place-based design is a model that creates a transition towards regenerative design.

The key elements of continuous, place-based design:

  1. Design should exist as part of a long-term connection with place.
  2. Design that starts with and regularly returns to a practice of deep observation.
  3. Design that respects the complexity of the human-living system.
  4. Design that tried to work with what is emergent – with what the system is trying to do.
  5. Design that humbly seeks to unlock the potential of place.
  6. Design that is always learning from its actions through long-term repeated practice.

I first proposed the model in 2021 as a way for engineers to recognise that regenerative design requires us to work with systems of much greater complexity than we are necessarily used to. As James and I describe in the Regenerative Structural Engineer, continuous place-based design is an approach to design that can help us create a transition to a more regenerative approach to engineering. It supports the goals of regenerative design by encouraging designers to think as part of living systems, in line with the Living Systems Blueprint.

Recognising interconnection

Living systems are incredibly complex. This complexity arises from their high-levels of interconnection. If we want humans and the rest of the living world to thrive together then we need to find a way of working with the living world that respects this interconnection.

Complex systems are very difficult to predict. The best approach is to spend a long time observing – listening to the ‘song of the system‘. This requires us to connect with the systems we are designing in. Connection in turn requires a much deeper relationship with place.

Once we recognise the patterns of behaviour, we can begin to experiment with how the system will respond to changes we propose. This approach gives rise to the continuous approach. We need to be observing, listening, acting and then listening again. Our connection with the system will grow – we will become interconnected. Our system wisdom grow too, but the system will surprise us – so we need to stay engaged.

Unlocking symbiosis

Living systems create thriving through symbiotic loops that feed off each other and grow the richness of the ecosystem. Our role as continuous place-based designers is to serve the thriving of humans and the rest of the living world together. We do this by working with and adding to these mutually beneficial symbiotic loops.

Renewing cycles such as these are necessarily cyclical. There is a time for growth, there is a time for harvest, a time for decay, a time for rest and a time for regrowth. Identifying and growing symbiotic systems takes time. But as we gain the wealth from one harvest, we can feed it into the next. And that harvest can be wisdom as much as it is energy or materials

Enabling self-organisation

The third component of the Living Systems Blueprint is the capacity of living systems to self-organise in response to changing conditions. Thriving living systems find a way to reach the best solution to the conditions they are operating in. One of the goals of regenerative design is for human and living systems to co-evolve. So we need to find a way to work with, rather than against, the capacity of the living systems to self-organise and adapt. This is design that seeks to work with what the system is trying to do, rather than what we want it to do.

Continuous place-based design puts us in the frame of mind to work with, rather than against, the system by starting with an extended period of deep observation and then repeatedly returning to observation as part of the design process.