With his book Designing Regenerative Cultures, Daniel Wahl makes a strong case for a viable world being in reach and worth working for. He offers a myriad of solution and action-focused perspectives on today’s most pressing cultural and environmental problems. Rooted in realism, he refers to people, fields and organisations giving you a comprehensive account of the doers and thinkers of a regenerative culture.
You can read single chapters independent of each other, even though following the order will provide more depth and structure. While some parts are pretty dense and theoretical one will understand other chapters still well enough on their own because the general principles apply across the board. Therefore, I wanted to give you a good overview so you know if and where you would like to jump in, or whether you want to read it from the beginning.
And if you don’t have the time to read it, like the book itself but on a smaller scale, the chapter summaries aim to give you a sense of the very active and diverse world of the people who are working for a viable world. For this, I also list a good amount of the people mentioned with their occupations after the summary of the first chapter (linked to Wikipedia; following order of appearance in the book).
Table of Contents
- Structure of the Book
- Living the Questions Now: Why Change the Narrative Now?
- Why Choose Transformative over Sustaining Innovation?
- Why Do We Need to Think and Act More Systematically?
- Why Nurture Resilience and Whole-Systems Health?
- Why Take a Design-Based Approach?
- How Can We Learn to Better Design As Nature?
- Why Are Regenerative Cultures Rooted in Collaboration?
- Final Thoughts on the Book
Structure of the Book
Wahl’s book is guided by questions because the complexity of the problems we face asks for dynamic, deep and flexible solutions rather than quick and rigid answers. He starts by discussing what the problems are and why we should work on solving them. In chapters three and four he discusses what we need to know in order to make change and follows up with how to do it.
While the first three chapters are denser than all the rest, understanding them will provide you with powerful insights and enable you to flow with ease through the following chapters of the book due to the abstract and generally applicable character of the discussed principles.
Living the Questions Now: Why Change the Narrative Now?
In the first chapter, Daniel Wahl stresses the importance of rethinking and reshaping our cultural narrative. He says that in the urgency we find ourself in while facing ecological, social and economical collapse we should not be trying to come up with quick answers but rather live and love the questions together which “are the pathway to collective wisdom”. The challenges we face are too deep, complex and dynamic for quick answers.
Our outdated economy believes in the win-lose mindset that brought us countless atrocities throughout history and led us to irretrievable drastic damage to all life on the planet. We invented the rules and we can change them to collaborate and heal the global social unjust relationships we created – we can create a win-win scenario. However, we need to push further and nurture the natural environment we live in (win-win-win).
“Just as teenagers coming out of age must learn not to just demand from family and society but to contribute meaningfully, humanity can no longer continue to draw down the natural capital stores of the Earth.”
Even though he points out that taking care of nature is in our self-interest he finds it crucial to abandon a worldview in which we distinguish ourselves from other beings, feeling isolated and privileged. In fact, he states, feeling disconnected from other people and the world is where many of our problems result from. We need to understand ourselves not only as part of nature but philosophically contemplate our consciousness and its subjective narrative to self and world. Wahl connects this to our ancient worldviews that some indigenous tribes live by. Two of many questions he asks in this chapter are:
"Is it wise to mass-deploy all technologies that are technically feasible, or should we choose more carefully how and for what we employ our technological capabilities?"
"Which cultural, social, and technological innovations and transformations, will help us bring human activity and planet's life support system into a mutually supporting regenerative relationship rather than an erosive and destructive relationship?"
- Rainer Maria Rilke (poet, novelist)
- Vàclav Havel (Czech statesman, writer)
- Buckminster Fuller (architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, futurist)
- Robert Costanza (ecological economist, professor)
- Carme Pigem (architect)
- Paul Hawken (environmentalist, entrepreneur, author, activist)
- Arundhati Roy (novelist, essayist, screenwriter, activist)
- Charles Eisenstein (writer, public speaker, activist)
- T.S. Eliot (poet, essayist, publisher, playwright, literary critic, editor)
- Kenneth E. Boulding (economist, educator, peace-activist, philosopher)
- Paul H. Ray (sociologist) & Sherry Ruth Anderson (psychologist)
- William Blake (poet, painter, printmaker)
- Werner Heisenberg (physicist)
- Brian Goodwin (mathematician, biologist)
- Graham Leicester (director of the International Futures Forum)
- Maureen O’Hara (founding member of the IFF, psychologist, professor)
- Richard Tarnass (cultural historian)
- Humberto Maturana (biologist, philosopher)
- Francisco Varela (biologist, philosopher, neuroscientist)
- Gerda Verden-Zoller (co-author of “Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love”)
- Owen Barfield (philosopher, author, poet, critic, member of the Inklings)
- Clare W. Graves (psychologist, professor)
- E.O. Wilson (evolutionary biologist, naturalist, writer)
- Erich Fromm (social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher)
- Arne Næss (philosopher, father of deep ecology)
- Satish Kumar (activist, speaker, co-founder of Schumacher College, editor)
Why Choose Transformative Over Sustaining Innovation?
Wahl starts by referring to three different kinds of innovation: sustaining innovation, disruptive innovation and transformative innovation. Sustaining innovation keeps “business as usual”, making sure to continue the way things have been. Disruptive innovation is a game changer, causing major change in established systems, like when a company comes up with a completely new product, like an iPod.
This kind of innovation can be classified into two sorts: The sort that brings about profound cultural change that is valuable for a viable future and the sort that is not. Transformative innovation “describes the long-term innovation process of fundamental changes in culture and identity”. Here, the latter is of special interest.
Obviously, we cannot just stop and transform everything. So we need to find ways to think of and simultaneously try out new approaches while avoiding any serious dysfunctions to make “‘business as usual’ obsolete and offer a qualitatively different alternative”. The old but still useful ways should be distinguished and considered to be kept on.
Innovating fields that are useful to evaluate are “‘collaborative consumption, ‘distributed manufacturing’, bio-inspired innovation in industrial product and process design, ‘open P2P innovation’, ‘socio-cratic systems of governance’ and ‘restorative justice’; ‘complementary exchange media’ at the local, regional and global scale; work on ‘the circular economy’ and ‘regenerative economics’; transition (town) initiatives and ecovillages, as well as work on eco-cities and bioregional development plans.”
“Innovation for cultural transformation towards a regenerative culture is about finding the right balance between envisioning and designing our common future and letting it simply emerge while we pay close attention to ourselves, our communities and our world.”
After highlighting various areas in which transformation is happening, inevitable or needed, Wahl introduces the Three Horizons. Three Horizons thinking is a model that helps understanding and realising transformative innovation. Horrizon 1 (H1) represents sustaining innovation, Horrizon 2 (H2) represents “world in transition” (mix of disruptive and transformative innovation) and Horrizon 3 (H3) represents “a viable world”.
The Horrizons, as is innovation, are always depending on a problem to be innovated. So one could say we are at H3 of solved issues of the past or on H2 of issues we are currently working on and H1 at issues we still need to tackle. Among others, one guiding question he raises in this chapter is:
"How do we stay flexible and keep learning from systemic feedback and unexpected side-effects?"
He stresses that we should prefer evolution to revolution and should try to avoid running into new problems when coming up with solutions for previous problems. One way to keep the consequences of any given innovation in check is to keep things local. We have a more direct relationship (reciprocity) with our unique environment and culture on a local level, which is why our knowledge about it can be more specified, feedback can be faster – hence the learning process is accelerated – and ecological limits are easier to detect. Another advantage of the local scale is systemic redundancy, which makes communities more resilient.
“We need to co-create diverse models for systemic solutions at a local and regional scale. Some of them will inform through their successes and others through their failures.”
"How do we discern which issues and problems are best solved at which scale, building local and regional resilience through redundancies and self-reliance while nurturing regional and inter-regional collaboration on national and global issues?"
“The solutions we propose at the local, regional, national and global scales have to be interlinked in such a way that they become mutually reinforcing and supporting.” Wahl also warns not become narrow-minded regionalists and parochialists. We should be “locally adapted and globally connected”.
Wahl refers to social innovation – innovation that aims to create social value – as promising, social enterprise being the entrepreneurial expression of it. He lists the exciting platforms Avaaz and Zopa. The Avaaz team has globally realised a myriad of community-driven innovations with volunteers and crowd-funding. Zopa began as peer-to-peer lending company and is officially a bank now. Collaborative Consumption, peer-to peer consumption, time-banking are further examples.
"How can we promote reciprocity and generosity ('giftivism'), giving and receiving, as pathways to deeper trust and mutual respect between people?"
"What are our new indicators of success, new ways of monitoring progress, and how can we shift what is valued by the market?"
Here I would like to refer to an interview by Daniel Wahl with Tony Hodgson on facilitating transformational journeys:
Why Do We Need to Think and Act More Systematically?
In the third chapter, Wahl comes back to whole systems thinking which is needed to find the right balance between multiple perspectives to shape a desirable reality. He states that science doesn’t offer us the objective picture of reality but is a useful tool. Whole-systems thinking offers an approach that looks beyond superficial facts but aims to grasp the root of the problem, including both exterior and interior aspects of reality.
In different ways, he points out how interconnected the realities are and how anything is interconnected and interis. One way is to work with the four quadrants to connect the different realities between individual-collective and interior-exterior. For example, individual interior realities, i.e. thoughts and emotions of one person, are interconnected with the realities of the exterior collective making up organisations, the environment etc.
Furthermore, he stresses how important it is to be aware of one’s own perspective as an individual or collective. It is merely a perspective, not reality. A perspective is more like a map and reality like the territory. He explains how the perspectives are formed and influenced using The Ladder of Inference that describes how we interpret selected data and take action based upon them.
Systems can help us understand and organise different perspectives, elements and their possibly complex relations to make sense of the whole.
The word “whole” in whole-systems thinking emphasises the inclusion of “the diversity of elements, the quality of interactions and relationships…”.
“Whole-systems thinking is living systems thinking. I believe that a systemic understanding of processes by which life continuously regenerates conditions conducive to life offers a pathway to creating regenerative businesses and organisations within a regenerative economy as enabling factors of a regenerative economy.”
Intervening into a complex system can have unforeseen negative causes. He asks :
"How can we act with humility and future consciousness, applying foresight and transformative innovation in the face of the unpredictability of complex dynamic systems?"
He gives reference to the IFF World System Model that explores appropriate responses to the current crisis considering the complexity of the situation.
Why Nurture Resilience and Whole-Systems Health?
In chapter 4, Wahl taps deeper into resilience and system health. System health can be viewed “as a comprehensive, multi-scale, dynamic, hierarchical, measure of system resilience, organization, and vigor.”
He argues we should aim for eliminating Earth overshoot day – the day on which we have used more resources than one planet can provide in a year. It first occurred in 1970 and in 2015, it was as early as 13th August in 2015.
Whenever a stable system is disrupted there is the opportunity of fundamentally changing the system, hopefully for the better. It could also bounce back to the previous stage but that is not the kind of resilience that is needed now. As many disruptions are going on now we should aim to implement transformative resilience – which enables a system to transform in response to dynamic changes and disruptions.
It is a cycle with stages of stability (rigid), breakdown and regeneration. It is not only ecosystems we should consider but social systems as well.
Panarchy is “a scale-linking perspective of systemic transformation”. It connects small systems to large systems, like the local scale with the national. As previously stated, smaller scales have the ability to receive faster feedback. Connected through free information flow the small scale can support, collaborate and inspire each other. Systems like this are being implemented already in the EU and UN and other initiatives are happening.
Why Take a Design-Based Approach?
In chapter 5, Wahl defines design in the broadest sense as “human intentionality expressed through interactions and relationships”. By focusing on how we create, change and plan something we end up with design, an intersection of theory and practice. Design has increasingly gained relevance in the fields of transition and ecology. In his own words, he refers to Ian McHarg (1969):
“When we design for sustainability and human survival and flourishing, what we are effectively trying to do is to support the systemic health of the whole system health upon which we depend.”
He introduces the concept of emergence which highlights the unpredictable and uncontrollable properties of complex systems. So as we try to influence the system positively, we need to learn to participate, not control and be guided by our design. Emergence and design are interconnected.
First, we need to envision a future together, then think about how to co-design the emergence of a better future.
In this chapter, Wahl gives a particularly interesting insight into his practical knowledge as he discusses how he contributed to achieving a regenerative Majorca. Here, we can get a sense of how to make use of the theory.
How Can We Better Learn to Design As Nature?
In this chapter, Wahl goes into detail how our design should look like. We should try to understand the long-lasting and effective principles of nature. One of them is using the long-term available energy of the sun for any energy needs, in transformed form or directly (current income). Fossil fuels won’t meet our needs in the long-term.
Our use of materials and chemicals is unsustainable, however, transformation is on its way.
“We are on the brink of a materials revolution that will be on a par with the Iron Age and the Industrial Revolution.”Mehmet Sarikaya
Wahl states the chemical industry is the most powerful lobby in the world and indicates the profound transformation that will come with this revolution. Moreover, he mentions the need to participate and learn from (our) nature because we cannot but design as nature. There are two choices: a dead-end in our evolution or we can try to persevere.
“Ecoliteracy is the ability to understand the organization of natural systems and the processes that maintain the healthy functioning of living systems and sustain life on Earth.” He asks similar questions to the previous chapters but this time adapted to the perspective of design. He lists the ecological principles taught at the Centre for Ecoliteracy:
- networks (interconnectedness)
- nested systems (systems within systems, scale-linking)
- dynamic balance.
Indigenous Wisdom and Deep Listening
He urges us to learn from the indigenous wisdom of the tribes of today’s world. Having lived closely with nature for a long time, they can offer their traditional knowledge. This knowledge can also be found in the Western world, just a few generations away.
Ancient wisdom and science should be complementing each other. One practice indigenous wisdom can enrich our predominantly reductionist worldview is deep listening. He asks:
"How can we re-indigenize and carefully adapt to place (home), while maintaining planetary awareness and global collaboration among all of humanity?"
Biomimicry inspired many technological and chemical innovations that were inspired by nature, either by general principles or specific observation (of an animal for example). He refers to many innovations as examples. He then moves on to green chemistry, architecture and city design. Lastly, he writes about community design. He comes back to and connects previously mentioned principles of whole systems health and design for a regenerative culture on a community, urban and regional level.
The fact that the book is repetitive has a positive point. It shows how the same few principles can be applied to many different fields and encourages the reader to apply it to his own field if not himself or herself – which gives hope because understanding the principles once will take you a long way.
Why Are Regenerative Cultures Rooted in Collaboration?
In the last chapter, Wahl reiterates the incompleteness of neo-Darwinism and states that every part of the system is nourishing it. He quotes Andreas Weber, who writes about our competition-focused perspective on economy and nature: “This metaphysics of economics and nature, however, is far more revealing about our society’s opinion about itself than it is an objective account of the biological world.”
Wahl highlights the necessity of a collaboration-focused perspective. An individual is “being in and through relationships”. Our perspective, design and reality are reinforcing each other as discussed previously.
Food and Agriculture
When writing about localising food movements, he mentions Slow Food and Via Campensia as positive examples.
He turns to agriculture quoting The Synthesis Report of the UN “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment” (2005) which reports agriculture is “the largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function in any single human activity.” The Rodale Institute writes “we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices”.
Less aggressive intrusive methods to work the soil, an increased focus on perennial plants and Holistic Management of grazing animals are three examples of biomimicry applied to agriculture. Forest gardening, Analog Forestry, Agroecology and Permaculture offer approaches to a regenerative agriculture.
Wahl emphasises that we need to redefine growth and value. Today’s value creation process is linear and wasteful: Sourcing, production, consumption and disposal, not respecting the restrictions of the resources.
Walter Stahl writes a circular economy is characterised by
- smaller loops (smaller scale local economies)
- loops have no beginning and end
- stock management more efficient, flow speed decreases
- “reuse, repair and remanufacture”
- “functioning markets”.
Open-sourcing is a collaborative form of value creation that should become more important. Wahl revisits some of his previous points in his concluding chapter to bring them together to a cohesive whole.
Final Thoughts on the Book
The book is a wonderful introduction to transformative change for a better world – in theory and practice. Any aspiring social innovator or anyone who wants an uplifting read will find much value in there.
Many of the discussed principles are applicable to a great variety of areas. I found myself often imagining the word “food” in front of “culture”. With the different models and all the rich sources, this book gave me much more depth in my approach in helping to design a regenerative food culture. You see a shift towards holistic movements in many different fields, including nutrition (theory) and cooking (practice). If you look through my post on holistic nutrition you will recognise very similar patterns to the ones in the book. I love the general feeling of the book: Urgency is there but let’s just slow down for a bit and make sure we walk into the right direction.
One thing that I need to point out is that the causality in the book often seems like “we cannot sustain things as we are doing them now so we need to transform our culture” (no quote), which is exactly the shallow causality he wants to avoid. Wahl clearly promotes a deep worldview. However, I think he would have been more effective in doing so if the causality “the way we live is not in harmony with our nature (so we cannot sustain things as we are doing them now) so we need to transform our culture” had been more present in the general discussion. The worldviews corresponding to each causality are drastically different from each other.
I also liked how this book embodies collaboration. Every person, organisation or discipline Wahl referred to seem like promising rich sources on their own so that you are almost overwhelmed by the material you want to go back to after finishing the book. I am left in gratitude to Daniel Wahl for this beautiful piece of work.
Designing Regenerative Cultures Review
With his book Designing Regenerative Cultures, Daniel Wahl makes a strong case for a viable world being in reach and worth working for. He offers a myriad of solution and action-focused perspectives on today's most pressing cultural and environmental problems. Rooted in realism, he refers to people, fields and organisations giving you a comprehensive account of the doers and thinkers of a regenerative culture.
Author: Daniel Christian Wahl