Sustainability does not seem to be enough to ensure survival anymore, let alone the flourishing of our planet.
“… sustainability means trying to extend something while protecting the environment and improving social conditions. We’re trying to sustain something like… our unsustainable lifestyles.” (Gonçalves, 2021)
That sustainability is not enough is a difficult situation to come to terms with. Not only have measurable goals given the world something to align around, but they’ve also mobilised an incredible pool of scientific expertise into a societal transformation. So, if this isn’t enough, then what is?
In recent literature, the idea of regeneration has emerged as a concept that could push us forward in how we think about the planet and how we act on it.
What is regeneration?
In biology, regeneration is defined as “the process of renewal, restoration, and tissue growth that makes genomes, cells, organisms, and ecosystems resilient to natural fluctuations or events that cause disturbance or damage.” The three core ideas of renewal, restoration, and resilience, defined in biology, hold true to regeneration on a broader scale and demonstrate current discourse on the concept.
A term typically associated with agriculture, its applicability to all facets of modern life requires experimentation and imagination. For sustainable practices to become regenerative, we have to think beyond the issue at hand and approach it more holistically. For example, a sustainable product can become regenerative if production, shipping, and the product itself, participate in creating renewal, restoration, and resilience.
As a step beyond sustainability, the concept of regeneration urges a shift from our current anthropocentric oriented perspective (people-oriented focus) towards an ecocentric approach, in which the environment is placed at the centre of the solution and people are secondary to the benefits. This idea of regeneration relies on the continuous growth of our natural ecosystems to allow for our other ecosystems to flourish. In this, regeneration then allows for a proactive approach to be taken in decision-making processes to create long-lasting change.
There are two key areas of regeneration that need to coexist with each other: social/cultural regeneration and ecological regeneration. We explore what these mean through the example of infrastructure.
Where regeneration and infrastructure meet
Historically infrastructure has not been considered a tool for transformation by institutions and decision-makers. It has been an economic or technical form of investment.
However, in the 21st century, it has become evident that infrastructure is inextricably embedded in our daily interactions. Instead of only serving our behaviours and actions, it actually shapes them — including how we connect with the people, material, and information around us. This new empirical understanding of infrastructure highlights the need for people to have more autonomy over the structures that are embedded in their lives.
There are primarily two types of infrastructure that are currently being used within the terminology: physical and digital.
Physical infrastructure is self-explanatory, referring to the man-made structures that surround us. As our populations and needs grow, our infrastructure is also growing at unprecedented rates to cater to this.
Digital infrastructure, on the other hand, is a newer type of infrastructure that has emerged alongside the technological revolution. It has the ability to transform how our population is governed, for example through blockchain or applications. In some aspects, it can also control physical infrastructure and how it is used by the population.
Are these infrastructures currently contributing to renewal, restoration, and resilience? Are they forming a culture of community?
Regenerative infrastructure and why we need it
Regenerative infrastructure is not just answering a crisis: it is a new way to approach current issues on a wider scale.
Regenerative infrastructure has a net-positive impact on the climate and biodiversity (environment) and improves the long-term capabilities and wellbeing of communities (society).
- Social regeneration enables people to be at the forefront of the development of physical and digital infrastructure. This area provides more autonomy over infrastructures and gives people independence that was not previously possible. In turn, infrastructure should also increase people’s agency to shape their environment on both individual and collective levels.
- Ecological regeneration takes place alongside social regeneration. Infrastructure should be giving back to the environment it is in, being built with nature and the environment in mind.
For infrastructure to be regenerative, it must be built and renewed in a net-positive way using existing resources available. During its lifecycle, the infrastructure must create proactive regenerative practices, cultures, and systems. It has a net-positive impact on the climate and biodiversity (environment), while also improving the long-term capabilities and wellbeing of communities (society).
What regenerative infrastructure can look like
Craft et al. 2021 touch on the core needs in regenerative infrastructure or regenerative design that we see as a starting point in this discussion of regenerative infrastructure as a concept.
- Living system thinking –> Developing a project on holistic thinking, understanding complex interactions and relationships in our thinking
- Place-based regeneration –> Understanding how a place sustains and organises itself within the network it exists in
- New collective processes –> interacting with both ‘traditional’ and non-traditional stakeholders to create together
- Co-evolutionary and transformative –> Understanding that the end of a project marks the beginning of regeneration, accepting that it will evolve further
- Adding positive value –> Thinking about how the project creates a positive and beneficial impact on all ecosystems and stakeholders that exist around it
These concepts drive the development of how to approach this new concept of regenerative infrastructure can be imagined.
For example, this could be seen in a regenerative construction process shown in the diagram below.
By familiarising ourselves with this concept and shifting the current paradigms towards a proactive, collaborative approach, we can propel ourselves towards an ecologically safer and inclusive future together.
Want to read more?
- Infrastructure: The overlooked tool for societal transformation
- 21st-century infrastructure must be regenerative
- Humble Timber
- Building Vitality
- Ylva shapes the Helsinki of the day after tomorrow
Written by Ella Davidson
Feature Image: High Steel Bridge, Shelton, US by Greg Rakozy/Unsplash. The bridge is not meant to serve as an example of regenerative infrastructure.