Regenerative Design Principles

By Tre' Cates & Jeff Su

The industrial, hierarchical, mechanistic model for organizations is failing us, our communities, and our planet. We treat organizational management as if we are operating vast and complicated machines that need constant oversight, energy inputs, tinkering, and fixing. We treat our employees as expendable parts of this machine and we drive for efficiency and productivity as our number one goal- And it is not working: only 34% of US employees consider themselves engaged with their work (Gallup Poll, 2018) costing the an estimated $550 billion a year in lost productivity. On a global scale, 77% of the world’s 3.2 billion workers are working in part-time, temporary, vulnerable, or unpaid jobs and 76% of workers report that they are struggling in their physical well-being at work (World Wellness Institute 2016, The Future of Wellness at Work).  



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There is a growing movement of leaders, managers, and designers, including nRhythm, exploring how to envision our organizations as complex, regenerative, living systems as an alternative to this mechanistic model. On the surface, the rationale for this “new” idea is bluntly obvious. We, as humans, are living beings, so, of course, we should design and manage our organizations as a living system. When we go for a hike in our local forest or by our favorite stream, we experience that living systems function in a way that the machines in our lives do not. We don’t have to recharge the battery in our favorite tree every night or change the oil in the stream behind our house every three months. When we study any living system, from the incredible mycelial network that runs under our feet to a single celled bacterium, we recognize a level of function, complexity, diversity, and resilience so far completely unmatched by any human-created machine.  


However, when we begin to go deeper and think about how to redesign our organizations, economies, and governments like a living system, we need to ask what we really mean by ‘life:’ Which aspects of living systems are we modelling? The light reflection of a hummingbird’s wing? The Fibonacci sequence pattern of snail shells and fiddlehead ferns? Or is it the ecological relationships, symbiotic mutualism, keystone species theory, or predator prey relationships? This question is more than just an academic or philosophical one. We cannot just pick and choose one inspiring example or quality of life and design for that in a vacuum.  

While this approach has led to some inspiring new product designs, such as Interface’s random pattern carpet tiles inspired by a forest floor which allows the replacement of a single carpet tile instead of whole carpet when we spill some red wine on it), the application of a single, out-of-context idea inspired from life to human organizations and societies has led to some disastrous results. This approach was used to justify the horrors of eugenic experiments and twisted the theory of natural selection into “social Darwinism” around the world. To avoid repeating these mistakes, we need to study living systems as a whole and learn from the patterns, structures, processes, and design with these learnings in mind. If we are modeling our organizations, economies, and societies after living systems, we need as comprehensive and robust an understanding of life as possible. 

What is a Living System?


In popular culture, there are a number of different notions of what life is. One of the most common (mis)conceptions of life is ‘The Circle of Life’ idea, solidified into popular thought in Disney’s The Lion King. Perhaps, because it is a movie with kids as the target audience, we likely never questioned what assumptions about living systems are being depicted in the famous scene on Pride Rock where Rafiki the baboon is presenting the new lion cub, Simba, to all the animals of the African savannah gathered below. We never asked ourselves why all of these animals, particularly the prey animals like gazelles and other African antelope, would all be celebrating the birth of the new “lion king” that could easily choose any one of them for dinner once it grows up. The loose explanation in the movie is that it is all part of the “Circle of Life.” When asked by curious children what the “Circle of Life” is, all of us as parents have been caught in a conversation with our children to explain Disney’s model of life that may have gone something like this: 


Parent: “Well, there is a Circle of Life that maintains a balance in nature, and every animal has its special role ...”  
Child: “So, the antelopes’ roll is to volunteer to be eaten?” 
Parent: “Well, I don’t know if they volunteer but ...” 
Child: “And, what is so special about the lion?” 
Parent: “Well, their role is very special because they are the KING OF THE JUNGLE, which means that they rule over all the animals and maintain the balance in the Circle of Life and...” 
Child: “By choosing who to eat? Do the antelope have a say? And don’t lions live in the savannahs? I think tigers live in jungle.” 

The point is not to satirize the Lion King but to recognize that not all models of life are equally valid. If we are looking to life as an inspiration for our organizations, we must use the most accurate models we have to date. While the term ‘biology’ (Greek for the study of life) is said to have been coined in 1799, there is still no strong scientific consensus on the definition of life. However, some seminal research in the last 50 years in the fields of microbiology, ecology, and atmospheric sciences have provided some key insights into a systemic understanding of life which have profound and exciting opportunities for organizational design. (For a more comprehensive treatise of much of this research, see Capra and Luisi, 2014 - A Systems View of Life – A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press.) 


Insight #1 – Life Can Only be Understood as a Holistic Property


In most introductory biology textbooks, a definition of ‘life’ will include a sentence with some combination of the following criteria to define life: respiration, metabolism, response to stimuli, growth, capable of reproduction, development, and movement. However, these “definitions” are all recognized in these same textbooks as imprecise and inexact. This is because one can easily find exceptions to any one of these criteria and there is no set of criteria that successfully separates life from non-life in all contexts. For example, if one chooses “capable of reproduction” as a criterium for living, then a woman after menopause would be classified as non-living. If one chooses “growth” as the defining characteristic of life, then a crystal would be considered living. Both of these examples violate most of our common-sense definitions of life.  


A new approach to the question of “What is Life?” was taken by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970’s. These two scientists from Santiago, Chile, were the first two take a systems-based, holistic approach to answer this question. Rather than looking for a single or limited set of criteria to define ‘life,’ they attempted to understand the whole living system as a total phenomenon. They chose a simple form of life, the E. coli bacteria, and mapped every metabolic, biochemical, and biophysical pathway in the cell. Once they achieved this, they discovered something unexpected and remarkable: when viewed as a whole system, the complex set of all of these pathways interact and regulate one another in a deeply interdependent, non-linear set of relationships. The culmination of all of these interactions allows the cell to self-repair and self-maintain all of the functions it needs to continue to live. Maturana and Varela called this process ’Autopoiesis’ (from the Greek meaning ’self-making’) and recognized that autopoiesis is in fact what separates living systems from non-living systems. From this discovery, Maturana and Varela offered this definition of life: “Life is an organized system capable of maintaining itself within a boundary of its own making.” 


This definition provides the first precise, scientific definition of life that successfully separates living from non-living systems in all contexts. If we revisit the exceptions described above, then a woman after menopause is clearly still living as her body continues to self-repair and regenerate after her reproductive years are done and a crystal would never be classified as living because it never has the ability to self-maintain and regenerate even though it grows. 

Insight #2 – Only Living Systems are Regenerative ('Autopoietic')


The term “regenerative” has been gaining popularity in a number of different contexts ranging from sequestering soil carbon in regenerative agriculture to healing the wounds of structural racism in regenerative community development. While all of these usages are valid and important, Maturana and Varela’s work demonstrates that “regeneration” is more than a powerful narrative or metaphor. According to the Santiago School’s theory, autopoiesis, self-maintenance, and regeneration are synonymous with living.  In other words, the only systems we observe today that are regenerative are living systems. 


Insight #3 – Life and Regeneration are Emergent and Decentralized


Maturana and Varela’s research also examined where the ability to regenerate is located in the cell. They discovered that the regenerative process is not centrally located or controlled by any one part of the E. coli bacterium, but is instead dependent on all of the interconnected and interdependent energetic pathways in the cell. While each pathway can be recreated on its own in a laboratory, it can only self-maintain and regenerate when it is interdependently operating with all of the other pathways within the cell wall. Life is a property that emerges from all of the interdependent relationships in the cell and functions in a decentralized fashion in all parts of the living system. 

Insight #4 - Life Creates Conditions Necessary for Life


Maturana and Varela also examined an individual organism’s relationship with its environment. They recognized that the cell constantly exchanges materials and information across the cell wall (a boundary of its own making) and both responds to changes in its environment and also actively affects its environment. Ecologists have studied in great detail how living organisms, their populations, and distributions are affected by changing conditions, such as nutrients, food, sunlight, and water availability, etc. This approach assumes that the living organism is a passive entity that is acted upon and reacts to its environment. However, when Maturana and Varela examined the nature of the interaction of an E. coli bacteria with its environment across its cell boundary as a total phenomenon, they concluded something very different: they recognized that a living cell is not just a passive actor dependent on its environment, but it also actively creates and affects conditions in its environment. “There is no ‘environment’ in some independent and abstract sense. Just as there is no organism without an environment, there is no environment without an organism. Organisms do not experience environments, they create them.” (Lewontin, 1991, p. 109, as quoted in Capra and Luisi, 2014 - A Systems view of Life – A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press p141)  


Perhaps the most profound example of this view was postulated by James Lovelock in his Gaia Theory, developed independently of Maturana and Varela’s theory on autopoiesis. Lovelock, a NASA atmospheric chemist, searched for evidence of life on other planets by examining the unique composition of Earth’s present-day atmosphere (79% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.03% carbon dioxide). Earth’s atmosphere is drastically different to our closest planets, Venus and Mars (both with 98% carbon dioxide, 2-3% nitrogen, 0% oxygen). Prior to Lovelock, the dominant theory for Earth’s unique atmosphere was the so called “goldilocks” hypothesis: that the Earth happened to be the exact distance from the sun so that it is not too hot and not too cold, and with the exact amount of abiotic conditions (such as the amount of water and land) to form our current atmosphere that all of life depends on. This dominant theory was dependent on treating the atmosphere and life as separate entities and deeming life to react or adapt to the atmosphere.  


Similar to Matura and Varela, Lovelock questioned this separation and recognized that it is in fact the existence of life on Earth that maintains the atmosphere at its current composition. He ran computer simulations and observed that if one were to remove life from the Earth, the Earth’s atmosphere would look remarkably like that of Venus and Mars. He also recognized that Earth’s atmosphere did not contain any oxygen for the first 4 billion years of its history, and all of early life did not depend on oxygen; in fact, oxygen was a toxic substance. Similar to Maturana and Varela, Lovelock proposed that the Earth operates as an interdependent system that maintains itself (Lovelock used the term ’homeorhetic’ as opposed to ‘autopoietic’) and that life actively creates conditions for life to persist. 

Insight #5 – Life is Dependent on a Diversity of Interdependent Relationships


Ecosystem ecologists have long recognized that there is a strong relationship between the diversity of species and their related functions in an ecosystem and the resilience and stability of that ecosystem. While the role of competition, predation, parasitism, natural selection, and Darwinian evolution is well known, it is also clear that all types of relationships between organisms and species are equally important. Specifically, there is a growing body of research demonstrating that mutualism and symbiotic events in life’s history may be just as significant, if not more significant, than competitive relationships. For example, it is clear that over 95% of current plant species are dependent on mutualistic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi. 


Perhaps the greatest demonstration of mutualism’s importance for the history of life was demonstrated by Dr. Lynne Margulis’ work on the origins and evolution of life, specifically the eukaryotic cells; these are the cells of multi-cellular animals such as humans. It is now widely accepted that each of the organelles in our cells (such as mitochondria, nucleus, golgi bodies) that work in a complex and interdependent fashion to maintain living functions and replication, were once free-living single-celled organisms. At some point in the Earth’s history, these single celled creatures began to live together (endosymbiosis) in interdependent communities forming a new self-maintaining, autopoietic system. In complex organisms such as humans, these communities of cells work in deeply interconnected systems to form organs such as a heart or lungs and are interconnected by further networks that we call the nervous system, immune system, circulatory system, etc. Margulis’ work demonstrates that a single, symbiotic, mutualistic event is one of the greatest contributors of new life forms in Earth’s history (Margulis and Sagan 1995, What is Life University of California Press). 


Based on Maturana and Varela’s observations, Lovelock’s theory, and Margulis’ work on endosymbiosis and ecological research, it is clear that system level resilience and function emerges from a diversity of interdependent relationships and types of relationships. 

Designing with Principles


When we build and operate our organizations like machines, we begin with blueprints and create operational instructions and manuals, industry standards, and best practices. On the other hand, if we fully embrace each organization, economy, government, and community as a unique living system, then we need a new design approach. We need to observe and learn from the patterns, structures, and processes of living systems and design and manage with these learnings in mind. The result is not a set of blueprints, best practices, or Ikea instructions to follow to assemble a living system. There is no Allen key we can create to make our organizations more living. Instead, we offer these Regenerative Design Principles based on the foundation of key insights from living systems science to frame our questions and guide our design, decisions, and day-to-day management or our organizations. These principles are themselves interdependent and inform one another and therefore are not presented in any specific order. 


Regenerative Design Principles

  • Holism: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. We recognize that in living systems, regeneration, and life can only be understood when viewing the system as a whole. We design and operate in a way that values the entirety of the system and creates conditions for abundance, resilience, and impact to emerge from the interdependent contributions of all team members, clients, and partners. 

  • Interdependence: Inherent value of all relationships. We recognize that in living systems regeneration, resilience, and abundance emerge from the diversity of interdependent relationships of all kinds in the system. We design and operate our organizations in a way that recognizes the complexity of our deep interdependence with our clients, suppliers, partners, and even competitors.   

  • Uniqueness: Original and the possibility of individual genius. We recognize that each living system and every member of the system is unique and expresses their individual genius. We design and operate our organizations in a way that fosters the expression of the genius of all members within the greater context and purpose of the organization. 

  • Evolutionary: Maintains a dynamic balance with ever-changing environmental conditions. We recognize that life creates the conditions for life. We design and operate in a way that both responds to and also creates change in our organizational environment to maintain a dynamic balance with constant change. 

  • Nodal: Decentralized and distributed. We recognize that living systems are not centrally controlled and organized and that resources and functions are distributed throughout the entire system. We design and operate our organizations in a way that does not rely on centralized command and control structures and allows all members of the system to be resourced, empowered decision-makers. 

  • Developmental: Growth and health of all members. We recognize that all members of living systems are in constant growth and development and that the health of system is dependent on the health of its members. We design and operate our organizations in a way that creates the conditions for all members to grow and thrive in conjunction with the health of the system. 

Shifting from Machine Design to Living Systems Design


If we replace the word “machine” with “organization” in a common definition for machine the result is,


“An [organization] is a structure that uses power to apply forces and control movement to perform an intended action.” 


If we do the same with the model of living systems summarized in this article, the result is: 


“An [organization] is a holistic system capable of self-regeneration and self-maintenance that emerges from each of the unique, developing members of the organization and their interdependent relationships.” 


Which of these organizations would you prefer spending 40-60 hours a week working with or in? 


We know in our hearts and minds that we are living beings and we long to not be treated as expendable parts of a machine. However, the machine model of our organizations has become so pervasive that it has infused our everyday language: for example, we encourage our teams with sayings like “we need to work like a well-oiled machine;” we reassure our coworkers by saying, “I’ve got that dialed in;” if we are feeling pressed for time and energy, we compare ourselves to finite internet speed with sayings like “I don’t have bandwidth for that.”   


Designing our organizations as living, regenerative systems will require significant shifts in our perceptions, operations, and management. We need to shift from machine-based best practices and operational instructions to using Regenerative Design Principles based on key insights from living systems science to frame our questions and decisions and guide our day to day management of our organizations.  


Concluding Thoughts - A Humble Offer


Don’t confuse the moon with the finger’s pointing at the moon.

 – Traditional Buddhist Teaching


All of the great experiential wisdom traditions recognize that practices, rituals, and methods to recognize wisdom should not be confused with Wisdom with a big “W” itself.  In this spirit, we recognize that these Regenerative Design Principles co-exist with other sets of principles from our contemporary colleagues, and alongside a lineage of thought leaders who are co-creating a living, regenerative approach to managing our organizations, economies, governments, and communities. We also wish to recognize that scientific research is only one of many ways of knowing and that many indigenous peoples and wisdom traditions have deep knowledge and practice concerning living systems and how to operate and manage with life. We also recognize that science is a powerful and convincing narrative in our world today for the current domains that the organizations we are hoping to redesign operate within. Therefore, we humbly offer these Regenerative Design Principles, grounded in a foundation of living systems science, with the recognition that they are one set of fingers pointing at moon, but not the moon itself. We hold a wish that we can all collectively create organizations that regenerate ourselves, our communities, and our planet.  

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Dr. Jeffrey Su

Jeff has led a diverse and international career as an ecologist, academic, executive director, consultant and psychotherapist in the USA, Australia, Europe, and Africa.Throughout his career Jeff has applied systems thinking and holistic approaches to help organizations address the most pressing environmental and social issues of our time. Jeff applies systems thinking to his own life experience and development through a dedicated Buddhist practice and holds a degree in Holistic Psychology.

Tre' Cates

Consulting with organizations in a variety of industries across 6 continents and 35 countries, Tré has proven to be indispensable in designing, developing, and implementing an organization’s purpose for the future. His industry experience is very diverse from the development of faith-based community organizations, a publicly-traded technology company, to a multinational organization working in 20+ countries. He is active in his community by serving on the board of several companies including multiple non-profits. Tré has a BA in Philosophy from Ouachita Baptist University and a MA in Theology from Southwestern seminary.

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