All you need to know about regenerative design

By Sujata Burman

'Abundance' Short Film by Arup

Global sustainable development consultancy Arup has long been committed to using imagination, technology and rigour to shape a better world.

Now, the firm is using strategic foresight to help other organisations radically rethink the future. While we cannot predict the future, we can shape it through the decisions we make today. A long-term transformation towards regenerative design is needed, where we combine the needs of humans with those of the planet. The theme of this year's work is 'Regenerative Futures', which ties in with Arup's vision for the built environment. The Foresight team showcased a short design fiction film, Abundance, proposing a vision of the future of regenerative London. Here, Josef Hargrave, Arup’s Global Foresight Leader in London tells us more.

How would you describe regenerative design?

Regenerative design enables human and natural systems to co-exist and co-evolve in harmony, restoring social and planetary health, revitalising biodiverse ecosystems and renewing natural capital. Going beyond 'sustaining' or 'restoring' natural environments, regenerative design requires us to rethink business-as-usual, implementing holistic and whole-system solutions for net- positive outcomes.

Regenerative design seeks to build nature-led systems that are resilient, dynamic, adaptable and restorative, providing enrichment and opportunity for humans and other species to thrive. Achieving sustainability is no longer enough. The damage is already done. We need to repair and restore our planet and ecosystems. Once this is achieved, regenerative design enables the continuous co-evolution of humans and nature. This is about solving the climate, energy and equity crisis all at once. It is about achieving an endgame for humans to live on this planet in a truly sustainable manner for centuries to come.

‘Regenerative cities would be circular, with their various services and systems operating in loops, using design to rethink how materials and resources flow across natural and human-made systems’. - Josef Hargrave

Zero Emissions Utility Vehicle from 'Abundance' short film by Arup

What does a regenerative city look like?

In a regenerative future, we imagine that cities and settlements could foster harmonious relationships between society and the natural environment, ensuring people live as part of nature (rather than separate from it), conserving and enhancing natural assets. Regenerative cities would be circular, with their various services and systems operating in loops, using design to rethink how materials and resources flow across natural and human-made systems. The built environment should be resilient to climate-related shocks and stresses. Collaboration embeds regenerative thinking and practices across all systems and scales. A truly regenerative city should consider the needs of different user groups and promote equitable access to opportunities through inclusive and participatory design and planning processes.

How can we think regeneratively?

Shifting to a regenerative mindset requires individuals to recognise their impact on wider societal, economic and environmental systems, and see that this shift is an opportunity for positive change. At a local scale, connecting with grassroots organisations serves as an educational mechanism for individuals to appreciate and grow their own spheres of influence. We can also learn from indigenous communities who, for thousands of years, have taken a nature-centric approach to their relationship with the environment.

Regenerative design envisions holistic solutions that ensure all systems are nature-positive. This is where strategic foresight – a combination of future-thinking, design-thinking and its practical application – can help identify trends and emerging issues in the transition towards regenerative design. Foresight can be instrumental in negotiating uncertainty, building strategic alignment, identifying opportunities for innovation, designing robust policy and developing an equitable, participatory vision of a desired regenerative future.