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Regenerative design is a process-oriented systems theory based approach to design. The term "regenerative" describes processes that restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of energy and materials, creating sustainable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature. The basis is derived from systems ecology with a closed loop input–output model or a model in which the output is greater than or equal to the input with all outputs viable and all inputs accounted for. Regenerative design is the biomimicry of ecosystems that provide for all human systems to function as a closed viable ecological economics system for all industry. It parallels ecosystems in that organic (biotic) and synthetic (abiotic) material is not just metabolized but metamorphosed into new viable materials. Ecosystems and regeneratively designed systems are holistic frameworks that seek to create systems that are absolutely waste free. The model is meant to be applied to many different aspects of human habitation such as urban environments, buildings, economics, industry and social systems. Simply put, it is the design of ecosystems and human behavior, or culture that function as human habitats.
Whereas the highest aim of sustainable development is to satisfy fundamental human needs today without compromising the possibility of future generations to satisfy theirs, the end-goal of regenerative design is to redevelop systems with absolute effectiveness, that allows for the co-evolution of the human species along with other thriving species.
During the late 1970s, John T. Lyle (1934–1998), a landscape architecture professor, challenged graduate students to envision a community in which daily activities were based on the value of living within the limits of available renewable resources without environmental degradation. Over the next few decades an eclectic group of students, professors and experts from around the world and crossing many disciplines developed designs for an institute to be built at Cal Poly Pomona. In 1992 the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies was built over two years and opened in 1994. In that same year Lyle's book Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development was published by Wiley. In 1995 Lyle worked with William McDonough at Oberlin College for the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies completed in 2000. In 2002 McDonough's book, the more popular and successful, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things was published reiterating the concepts developed by Lyle.
Lyle saw the connection between concepts developed by Bob Rodale of the Rodale Institute for regenerative agriculture and the opportunity to develop regenerative systems for all other aspects of the world. While regenerative agriculture focused solely on agriculture, Lyle expanded its concepts and use to all systems. With regenerative agriculture, the concepts are very straight forward and simple but Lyle understood that when developing for other types of systems, more complicated ideas such as entropy and emergy must be taken into consideration.
Swiss architect Walter R. Stahel developed approaches entirely similar to Lyle's also in the late 1970s but instead coined the term cradle-to-cradle design made popular by McDonough and Michael Braungart
Regenerative versus sustainable
Regenerative and sustainable are essentially the same thing except for one key point: in a sustainable system, lost ecological systems are not returned to existence. In a regenerative system, those lost systems can ultimately begin "regenerating" back into existence. Put more simply, regenerative systems create a better world than we (humans) found it, now and into the future.
There is also a linguistic problem with the word "sustainable." The use of the word "sustainable," by experts in the field, is meant to mean "self-sustaining". However, an attempt to change this definition to mean self-sustaining is not faring well with the general public. Because the root word "sustain" means only "last" or "endure," the general public and even many non-experts in the industry define the word only as "able to last" or "the capacity to endure." In popular usage by designers and product manufacturers, "sustainable" has become a relative term referring to any material, process or product (including a building) which is less toxic or environmental harmful than those conventionally used. A product that contains 75% recycled material is often considered "sustainable", but is in fact merely MORE sustainable than a comparable product that contains no recycled material. A truly sustainable material would be one made of 100% recycled material that can, in turn, be completely recycled into a comparable new material or product. This is rarely the case.
"Regenerative" also has a linguistic problem, however a very different one, the term is still competing with the biological community in terms of its use for the re-growth of limbs. However once the word itself gains wide usage, it may become a non-specialized word and thus be applicable to all fields, much like the term "sustainable" has experienced. When this occurs it may not suffer the same fate as the term "sustainable" because a system or item must be renewable in order to be regenerated. Regenerative's root words are "re" and "generate" respectively meaning "again" and "to bring into existence." Thus the base meaning of regenerative means the "capacity to bring into existence again." So if an item or system is regenerative the item or system has the capacity to bring itself into existence again. Using the example above, a truly regenerative product would not only be 100% recycled and recyclable, but it would also improve the environmental conditions at the factory where it was made, the business where it was used and so on throughout its life-cycle (creating habitat, filtering water, catalyzing nitrogen-fixing processes in the soil, etc.).
Preservation versus conservation
Regenerists place more importance on conservation than on preservation. It is recognized in regenerative design that humans are a part of natural ecosystems. To exclude people is to create dense areas that destroy pockets of existing ecosystems while preserving pockets of ecosystems without allowing them to change naturally over time. By incorporating people into ecosystems all inputs are pulled from local areas and all outputs are accounted for creating a waste-less system. When human systems cease to create waste, what would once have been considered waste becomes a resource for the input in which the output comes from.
Regenerists call for the creation of demand on agricultural systems to produce regenerative foods. This is often compared to the creation of the demand for organic food. Organic foods have a relation to regenerative foods in that regenerative food is all organic, but not all organic food is regenerative. Organic food is not regenerative if the byproduct of the food crop is not a resource for the next seasons crops and if other inputs for the crop did not come from other resources within the farm which it is grown in.
Size of regenerative systems
The size of the regenerative system effects its regenerativity. The smaller a system is designed the more likely it is to be stable and regenerative. Multiple small regenerative systems that are put together to create larger regenerative systems help to create supplies for multiple human-inclusive-ecological systems.
No system can be absolutely regenerative, in other words there can be no system that is 100% regenerative. Due to evolution and the continuing and largely unpredictable changes that occur over the lifetime of Earth, it is impossible to create a 100% regenerative system. One can only reach 99.999% efficiency, the ultimate goal. However, with the energy material interchange, it is possible to create enough energy to potentially create the equivalent amount of material used to create the system in the first instance. See example below.
A completed object (an object with emergy, or embodied energy) can however create more energy than was used to create it. I.e. a solar panel outputting more energy than its given embodied energy. However the system used to make up the solar panel: the inputs such as the materials for the object (silicone) and the solar radiation can only be regenerated if enough energy is produced to generate the materials used to make up the solar panel. However, the solar energy absorbed by the solar panels is still lost or at the very least converted into something else.
- Design for Human Ecosystems
- John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies
- Regenesis Collaborative
- Soil Symbiotics
- Harmonic Ecological Design
- Regenerative Design Group
- Regenerative Design Institute
- Regenerative Architecture
- Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems
- Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development