Regenerative design is a concept based on process-oriented systems theory. The word “regenerate” means “to create again.” A regenerative system makes no waste; its output is equal to or greater than its input; and part or all of this output goes toward creating further output — in other words, it uses as input what in other systems would become waste.
It may be helpful to define it first by what it is not. Although regenerative design is a part of sustainable living, it is not the same as sustainable design. Sustainability implies something that endures over time without degrading, but it does not regenerate itself or create anything new. A plastic bottle sustains; a plant regenerates. Sustainable design aims to provide for fundamental human needs; regenerative design goes further in that it plans for the future co-existence and co-evolution of humans and other species.
The regenerative approach uses biomimicry, or the study of ecological systems to find solutions to human problems, to model patterns for industry, agriculture, and human habitats. Just as in nature, organic and synthetic materials are not only metabolized (used) but also metamorphosed (changed) into another vital element of a closed system.
One element of biomimicry is the use of all species within a system. Much of environmental action today focuses on preservation by segregating wild areas from human habitation. A better system, according to the regenerists, is conservation: recognizing that humans are a part of the ecosystem and need to be incorporated into it.
This is closely related to permaculture, another model for sustainable living that relies on synergy, or the idea of separate components forming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It emphasizes patterns and groupings that occur naturally. Food crops are not only organically and sustainably grown, but part of the harvest can be used to support the next year’s crop. A holistic farm model uses the outputs from one crop or animal to grow another; one crop need not necessarily be self-recreating, but the farm as a whole would require no additional input, nor would it generate any waste products. Permaculture relies on polyculture, or the use of multiple crops instead of a single crop, in imitation of natural biodiversity. It is permanent, or continually renewing, agriculture. In addition, the crops themselves and the materials used to build the farm would already exist in the area and would therefore be ideally suited to the climate.
Another regenerative concept is natural building, which, like permaculture, seeks to use natural materials and relies more on human labor than industry to produce living spaces that are ecologically and aesthetically harmonious. Natural building emphasizes sustainability and minimal environmental impact without sacrificing the health or comfort of the human inhabitants. It too makes use of the site’s climate and conditions to reduce the amount of energy required for ventilation and temperature control. For example, native shade trees are planted next to buildings to cool the interior; windows are placed to take advantage of breezes. Simple wind turbines can provide the building’s energy, and rainwater is collected for drinking and washing.
All these ideas combine to create patterns that mimic nature so that humans can take a symbiotic role in their environment rather than a destructive one. Obviously, a perfect closed system that regenerates itself 100 percent is not mathematically possible, so the current goal is 99.9 percent regeneration. Even that goal is a challenging one, but the process of attempting it is viable, and the result of not adapting to a changing environment is very clearly demonstrated in history: it is extinction.