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Regenerative design not only restores what humans have destroyed. It can also make a positive contribution to the environment and society. In order to achieve this, we need to establish cross-species cooperation.

by Martina Metzner

Fernando Laposse works with corn, agave and loofah from Mexico | Photo: @Fernando Laposse

At the home textile and industrial textile fairs in Frankfurt am Main, there was much to talk about regarding regenerative design. The textile industry, which moves to the rhythm of fashion, has always been an early seismograph for new developments. Fashion designer Stella McCartney admits: “We believe that regenerative agriculture is essential today to protect our planet for tomorrow’s generations – starting with one of our most widely used fibres, cotton.

Regenerative design can be applied to many areas, including agriculture, fashion, architecture, design, business and culture, and takes a nature-positive approach: how can we not only take from nature, but also give back to it? It is still in its infancy. But regenerative design could soon rival buzzwords such as circular economy and sustainability. Central Saint Martins University in London will offer a Master of Arts in Regenerative Design from 2022. In Sweden, the global architecture firm White Arkitekter is promoting regenerative architecture. And Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts is currently hosting the exhibition ‘Imagine: Coral Reef. Regenerative Design (until the end of June). Of course, one wonders whether this is just a new label – as the Guardian recently discussed. Or is it really any good?

Imagine: Coral Reef’ Exhibition | © Institute of Design Research Vienna

Beyond Sustainability

However, regenerative design is not a new concept. It has its roots in the early days of the ecological movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The American landscape architect John T. Lyle is regarded as one of the pioneers: in his book Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development (1994) he describes how human activity and behaviour can be integrated with natural processes to create living, self-sustaining systems. Regenerative design thus goes far beyond the concept of sustainability. While sustainability aims to minimise the ecological footprint and use no more resources than can be regenerated, regenerative design focuses on restoring and enhancing natural systems. In other words, repairing damage AND making a positive contribution to the environment and society. This is also referred to in business as being ‘net positive’.

@ Fernando Laposse
The designer Fernando Laposse promotes the biodiversity of traditional maize seeds in Mexico and thus enriches the communities living there | Photo: Moritz Bernoully, © Frankfurter Kunstverein

Copied from Nature

In a regenerative culture, people are guided by the principles of nature, creating systems that renew and sustain themselves. Regenerative practices have a long history, particularly in agriculture. Approaches such as biodynamic agriculture and permaculture are regenerative – in other words, they work in harmony with nature, mimicking its processes to restore soil fertility, increase biodiversity and improve water and energy management. 

Ferdando Laposse is a prime example of regenerative design. In 2015, the London-based designer returned to his hometown of Tonahuixtla, Mexico, where the introduction of industrially bred and genetically modified maize seeds since the 1990s has led to numerous problems including soil erosion, biodiversity loss, unemployment and emigration. He launched Totomoxtle, a project to replant indigenous maize varieties by local farming families with the help of an international seed bank. Within four years, more than 50 people had been employed and six endangered maize varieties had been reintroduced. Laposse made veneers and inlays for furniture from the colourful leaves of Criollo maize, a by-product of the harvest. Laposse’s work was recently featured in the ‘Bending the Curve’ exhibition at the Frankfurt Art Association.

Reciprocal Relationships

There is no universal definition of regenerative design, but rather a variety of theories, practices and schools. In the German-speaking world, William McDonough and Michael Braungart are best known for popularising the circular economy with their “Cradle to Cradle” concept (2002) – a key element of regenerative design. In the US, the discourse is dominated by Pamela Mang and Bill Reed, who have been applying the principle of regenerative development to communities since 1995 through their consultancy Regenesis. Daniel Christian Wahl’s work is more recent: in his book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ (2016), he addresses the crucial role of design in creating conditions conducive to life. Delving deeper into the subject, we inevitably come to the theorists Fritjof Carpa, Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour. They proclaim that humans are in a constant reciprocal relationship with non-human beings, that there can be no separation between nature and culture. The authors repeatedly refer to the Gaia hypothesis, which sees the earth and the biosphere as a living organism – it became famous in the 1970s in the hippie movement and is currently experiencing a renaissance. All these models oppose a way of thinking that has brought about the Anthropocene with its multiple crises. Buddhism also recognises this principle of interdependence, known as “interbeing”, expressed in the mantra “this is because that is”. New approaches such as multi-species design, which could compete with human-centred design, take up this way of thinking and include not only humans but also animals, plants and minerals in their considerations.

There are still very few companies that operate in such a holistic and regenerative way as the Fair Furniture Group in the Netherlands. For this family-owned company with seven furniture brands and five production sites, ‘fair’ means ‘fair to people, society and the earth’. All products are manufactured in its own factories; all waste materials are recycled; sourcing takes place in the Netherlands, the UK and other Western European countries – and explicitly not in low-wage countries; employees are trained and share in the profits; young people who are difficult to place are given apprenticeships; a 30,000 square metre garden in front of the factory in Emmen serves as a trial cultivation area. And on and on. One of the flagship projects is the “Hemp” chair collection, launched in 2020 by Vepa, one of the Group’s brands. The shells of the chairs and stools are made of purely vegetable, compostable hemp and organic resin. The steel for the frames comes from the company’s own recycling programme. The Fair Furniture Group makes its supply chains 100% transparent. The latter is often a blind spot for many companies that call themselves sustainable.

Coexistence of man and nature – like here the MFO Park by raderschallpartner and Burckhardt + Partner Architekten in Zurich, 2002 | Photo © Jakob Rope Systems
The Fair Furniture Group works regeneratively – like here for the ‘Hemp Fine’ collection made of hemp fibres from the Vepa brand | Photo: © Vepa
With ‘Kiki’, Berlin-based designer Rasa Weber has created an artificial reef in the Mediterranean. ‘Kiki Prototype’. Design: Rasa Weber. PhD Project: ‘SymbiOcean’. Research Project: SNF ‘Interfacing the Ocean’ – ZHdK. Location: STARESO – Calvi (FR). Diver: Noémie Chabrier. Photo: Stéphane Jamme @stepp_aquanaute 2023. all rights reserved: Rasa Weber.

So how do you design regeneratively? 

We are already well on the way to a regenerative culture if you look at topics such as the circular economy, biomimicry, resilience, adaptability, fair trade and sustainability. But that’s not enough. Because we are often only “a little bit good” in some areas. We need to bring everything together and think and act holistically in order to make a positive contribution.

The nine principles for regenerative design from the futurologists at FranklinTill or the guidelines from the Institute for Design Research Vienna in cooperation with EOOS offer initial orientation. The REGEN tool for regenerative design from the US architecture firm BNIM is somewhat more complex. To name just a few common aspects: Thinking and acting systemically and holistically. Promote local, traditional cultural techniques and communities. Preserve the oceans, atmosphere, soil fertility and biodiversity. Orientate ourselves towards the processes of nature. Remain creative and adaptable. Circular economy instead of resource exploitation. Above all, we – society and creators – should endeavour to always consider humans and nature together, in a system of coexistence and co-evolution – and not hierarchy. Ultimately, we need nothing less than a paradigm shift, a departure from centuries-old world views and values. For, as Einstein said, we cannot solve problems through the same way of thinking that created them.

The Hardwick Planting Company farm in Lousiana/USA produces regenerative cotton. | Photo: © Taylor Cooley Photography

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