Regeneration is a word that is becoming another ‘buzzword’ and is used in many companies’ attempt to market their products or services. In some cases, to Greenwash us. Companies that are now throwing around ‘regenerative’ needs to first study what it is before using it as a marketing tool.

Let’s define Regeneration

The Latin roots of the word comes from ‘Regenerare’ – or ‘create again’

The current definition is the process of regrowth or renewal or restoration after being damaged to bring it back to its original state.     

“Original state” means the state it was in before human or natural disaster intervention. In other words, the state that was present or existing from the beginning.    

The opposite of regeneration is waste, corrupt, deteriorate, degenerate, decrease, stagnation, unchangeability, immobility, fixedness, un-productivity, inefficient.   

To be regenerative can mean different things dependent on where you apply it, as it is place based – local regeneration is the path to global impact. Regenerative design is aimed at having a positive impact on the ecosystem in which the designed components will be placed.

Just to clarify, sustainability is in general aimed at making things less bad, reduce energy and water and waste consumption or make CSR contributions to organizations. The final sustainability goal is net-zero but unfortunately, I think we are way past making things less bad, we have to start designing and developing new projects to have a positive impact, not just a less negative impact. The step up from sustainability is regeneration.

A new mindset

Regeneration requires a new mindset, one that sees the world as built around reciprocal and co-evolutionary relationships, where humans, other living beings, and ecosystems rely on one another for health, and shape (and are shaped by) their connections with one another. Without this mindset, it will be very hard to develop regenerative systems, designs, communities, and lifestyles.  

We must become eco-literate in order to change our mindsets.

“Ecoliteracy” is taught by Nature.  We are currently in a climate crisis that will require more than having a less negative impact of the environment. Regenerative approaches are holistic and systems focused and are intended to discover how a project can make a contribution to the whole and be a positive participant where it is situated.        

The first step in the regeneration design process is to start mimicking nature or look at nature as our teacher.

The next steps will be to restore the natural systems and then tend to them, but true regeneration is once we see ourselves as “nature”, as a part in the ecosystem, not in control of it or trying to manipulate it. This is the ultimate goal of regeneration.

But where do we start? They reckon that most of the buildings currently in the world would still be here in 50 years. Still not having a positive impact. Therefore, we have to start designing with regeneration in mind. Regenerative design is a whole systems approach to design, a process that restore, renew, or revitalize their own resources of energy, materials, and community.  

It is being influenced by biomimicry, permaculture, biophilic design, ecological economics, circular economics, cradle-to-cradle, and the blue economy.

Interactive wholistic system

There are three interactions to consider in a regenerative design: Place, Harmony, and co-evolution.   

• Place
Most projects fail to have a regenerative effect because it is focused on an element or a problem without seeing how it fits into the ecosystem in which it operates. Some fail because they are trying to fit into human ideals but fail to align with the essence of a place and the larger patterns of nature that make it work. A design prerequisite is to develop an “Essence of Place” through an integral assessment of cultural, economic, geographic, climatic, and ecological systems and impacts as it affects the living system in of the place.

• Harmony
We are talking about the harmony between human and natural systems. The natural ecosystems include wildlife and vegetation, local climate, mineral and other deposits, soil, water geologic structures, etc. Human ecosystems include distinctive customs, expressions of values, economic activities, forms of association, ideas for education, traditions, physical artifacts such as buildings and constructed infrastructure, etc. The ultimate effect every regenerative project seeks to achieve is a long term beneficial relationship between the human and natural systems in a particular place.

“When you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the large world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”
Alexander C (1997) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Center for Environmental Structure Series.

• Co-evolution
The definition is “the influence of closely associated species on each other in their evolution”. A good solution today may become a bad one in a few years, so solving for pattern harmony requires a progressive rather than one-time harmonization, a continuous re-patterning. We call this co-evolution. The Australian aborigines have a saying that they are planning for the 7th generation from now. This is what co-evolution is all about. When the building comes to the end of its lifespan, will its removal still have a positive impact or will it have a negative impact?

We have to ask ourselves as designers:

• WHY – is this ecosystem here (essence of place)?
• HOW are we going to protect it or regenerate to the original?
• WHAT are we designing to make it positive for the ecosystem – for generations to come?

Less emphasis needs to be placed on an isolated element and focus more on the evolution of the whole system.
Regenerative Design and Development Pamela Mang Bill Reed Encyclopedia Sustainable Science & Technology 2112

Photo credit: HDR Inc

A regenerative system/structure would ‘give back to nature and society more than it takes’ over its life cycle.
As far as existing buildings go, they may last a hundred years but few are designed for upgrading/adaptability, so they will soon need retrofitting to a higher standard. And the retrofitting process should ask the same questions as for a new design.


In conclusion stating your project or design or business is regenerative is not something that can be stated lightly. Regenerative design is an involved wholistic connected system-focused process. Not what is currently designed as “free standing and separate of its surroundings”. There is no such thing.

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