The goal of regenerative design

In this post we describe the goal of regenerative design and explore how it is different from how engineers might approach design in our day-to-day contexts.

Many definitions for design exist. My preferred definition comes from Nobel Prize for Economics winner Herbert Simon.

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones

Herbert Simon

This definition of design doesn’t limit design to people with the word ‘design’ on their business cards. It is inviting: it allows everyone to be a designer. Simon’s definition also gives us a goal: that through design, existing situations become preferred ones. Our goal is to make the world better.

Actually making things better

Think about it. What if every time we designed something, the world actually got better? Not just on site, or in the hands of the person holding the product, but throughout the myriad supply chains and social systems touched by that design and production process.

If we did so, we’d be acting like beavers, who, when they move into an area and start building their dams, lead to an increase in the abundance of the world around them.

The climate and biodiversity emergency is our strongest indicator yet that far from making the world better, human activity is destroying the biosphere on which we depend on for life.

The Goal of Regenerative Design

It is in this context that regenerative design emerges, providing us with a much clearer definition of what Herbert Simon’s ‘preferred situations’ might be. Accelerating ecological collapse and the knock-on impact on human wellbeing, and even our survival, show us that there can’t be ‘preferred situations’ in which the ecosphere is not enhanced as a result of our actions. In short, the world is not better if the ecosystem is poorer.

The climate and biodiversity emergency teaches us to be more holistic in our thinking. To recognise that we are connected to one-another and the vast web of life that surrounds us, penetrates us and sustains us. Drawing together the ideas of different writers on the subject, James Norman and I defined the following goal for regenerative design

The goal of regenerative design is for human and living systems to survive, thrive and co-evolve.

Broadbent, O. & Norman, J., 2024. The Regenerative Structural Engineer. London: Institution of Structural Engineers.

Let’s pick out some words from this definition.

  • Human and living systems – this phrase emphasises that it is not just about us, folks.
  • Survive – the very basic requirement is for human and living systems to be able to surive
  • Thrive – and not just to survive but to live well.
  • Co-evolve – this is the key part, enabling humans and the rest of the living world to weave together and adapt together to future changes. So that in future, there is no separation between ‘humans’ and ‘living world’.

Regenerative design on the systems bookcase

Framed in this way, regenerative design represents a new goal for engineering. In our Systems Bookcase model, regenerative design sits right at the top, beneath the paradigm of holism.

In the Library of Systems Change, holism and regenerative design are the top of the bookcase of the future.

Returning to Herbert Simon

Let’s put this goal of regenerative design back into Herbert Simon’s framing. Anyone is a regenerative designer who devises courses of action aimed at taking existing situations and turning them into ones in which human and living systems can survive, thrive and co-evolve.

From the Library of Systems Change we can see clear three distinct courses of action for the regenerative designer:

  1. Planting the seeds – growing patterns and approaches that genuinely enable human and living systems to survive, thrive and co-evolve.
  2. Creating the transition – designing approaches that enable this thriving future to emerge.
  3. Managing out the present – actively dismantling current destructive practices to create the possibility for a thriving future for all life.

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