FuturArc Interview

Mar-Apr 2015


Associate Professor, Sustainable Construction Department of Construction Economics, University of Pretoria

by Dr Nirmal Kishnani

Regenerative thinking is on the frontlines of design. Designing for Hope is a new book on the subject, just out, that communicates this in the language of practice, with illustrated examples of how it might be operationalised at the drawing board. One of its authors, Chrisna du Plessis, spoke with editor-in-chief, Dr Nirmal Kishnani, on why regenerative design is the next big thing. Du Plessis has been both an articulate advocate and a blunt critic of the sustainability movement, a global thought leader often seen presenting keynotes at sustainability conferences worldwide. She has been active on the scene for over 20 years as researcher and practitioner in the fields of housing, construction industry performance, human settlements and infrastructure design. Du Plessis is currently Associate Professor at the Department of Construction Economics of the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

NK: What is regenerative design? What does it represent?
Regenerative design is about going beyond sustainability. Sustainability is not enough; it is just maintaining where we are now. Regenerative design asks how we can create something that is better. It’s about healing; it is also about creating new systems—creating healthier systems. It helps us grow our resources, to create abundance for nature and for humans.

NK: Is this a critique of sustainability? Because, really, one could argue that there is no such thing as a sustained balance; either you are better or you’re worse but you can’t be absolute zero.
Sustainability was very much about achieving equilibrium between what we use and what nature can put back into the system. And as you rightly say, it is a mathematical impossibility. When a living system is at equilibrium, it’s dead. A living system is either degenerating—it’s eating up its environment—or it is regenerating. Here we’re talking about regeneration of social-ecological systems. It is not just about the regeneration of nature; it is also about how we regenerate our societies, how we regenerate people and their psyche.

NK: A criticism of sustainability has been the absence of useful metrics. When we talk about regenerative design, what metrics do we look at? How do we know that we’re there?
CP: The concept of ‘being there’ is one we need to let go of. We’re dealing with an evolving system; an evolving system is never ‘there’. There is always further development, further growth, and further evolution. The way we look at metrics is also starting to change. We are moving away from quantitative metrics that have been debated and negotiated by politicians, NGOs and community-based organisations. These are compromises, often arbitrary. Capping global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, for instance, we don’t know that that is actually a good target. Science suggests that it is not really a good target but it’s a politically negotiated target. We are realising that those things are essentially meaningless because we don’t really know where ‘there’ is. A shift is happening towards more values-based approach. What are the values that we need to put in place? Does what we do foster healthy relationships? Does it give back more than what it takes out of the system? ‘More’ is sometimes not quantifiable. It can be more beauty; it can be more social cohesion.

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