This post is an excerpt from the book Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability by our friends and colleagues at Regenesis Group. The book presents a coherent process for applying regenerative thinking to any project through a series of principles and premises you can use to evolve your work. It is a wonderful compliment to Carol Sanford’s books as it presents some of the same frameworks but applies them more from an ecological rather than a business perspective. The specific examples in the book really ground the work in the realities of development and design projects. One of our projects, Lion’s Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant in Vancouver, BC, is featured in this excerpt. Changing outcomes requires a new process; changing the process requires a new mind. This book helps to show you how.
More information on the book can be found here.
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In 2012, Metro Vancouver, the water authority for the multiple municipalities that make up Vancouver, British Columbia, was on a tight schedule to build an urgently needed sewage plant. The project, Lions Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant, was required to meet ambitious environmental and sustainability goals, and it was almost guaranteed to attract opposition to increased utility rates from a variety of community organizations (Figure D.1).
Figure D.1 Location in British Columbia of Metro Vancouver’s Lions Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant. Copyright The Miller Hull Partnership
John Boecker, a member of 7group, and Bill Reed, a member of Regenesis Group, were asked to facilitate a process to reconcile the competing interests and agendas that could sink the project. Boecker and Reed, sustainable design pioneers, knew that a radically different outcome would require a radically different design process. This project offered a rare opportunity to take a new approach.
Boecker and Reed had frequently argued that the processes we use determine what we work on and how we work. They committed to hold firm to a process that could deliver transformative results, knowing full well that they would get pushback from both the design team and Metro Vancouver.
The project contract spelled out approximately 320 distinct deliverables, all of which had to be completed within 18 months. In the face of this pressure, Boecker and Reed made the bold decision to rein in the designers and slow down the process. Under their leadership, the team invested four months in a deep exploration of the project’s real potential. Very early in the process, one of the project architects had the realization, “We’re not doing sewage treatment, we’re sourcing freshwater!”
With this image as an anchor, the team was able to articulate a common purpose. They explored the ecological and social dynamics that made the site unique and created shared principles that were later embedded in the design. Out of this intense effort came nine evocative “themes” that inspired the design team to develop nine entirely new approaches to municipal waste-water treatment.
Each of the themes described an approach that was simultaneously pragmatic, holistic, creatively stimulating, and compelling to local stakeholders. For example, one theme, Ant Colony, emphasized the potential for synthesizing ecology and industry on the site. The idea was to provide “social and technical resources that [would] . . . support an entrepreneurial and interdependent business district.”2 Another theme, Urban Garden, described the potential for a highly productive site that would make the nutrients in sewage available for agricultural uses “in a manner that is inspiring, educational and behavior-changing.”3 The ultimate goal was to merge all nine themes into one synergistic and unified concept.
While this preliminary work was going on, the engineers had been chomping at the bit. Treatment technologies were well known to them and they could see no reason to overthink obvious solutions. But they astonished themselves. By the end of the process, they had come up with nine new engineering approaches, each responding to one of the larger themes. Although earlier they had questioned the usefulness of the process, they were now fully on board.
On the face of it, Boecker and Reed’s initial decision to slow down seemed counterintuitive. But they knew that the predesign phase was critical, if the team was to break out of the box that its high-level professional experience had created. Their insistence paid off. In the end, the process yielded on-time delivery of a massive and complex project, with almost none of the anticipated change orders, and rare unanimous approval by the Metro Vancouver board.
This was possible, in part, because the client team understood that this plant needed to be more than a conventional industrial site, surrounded by a gray concrete-brick wall, crowned with concertina wire, and emitting offensive odors. They envisioned a beautiful object, a building perhaps. Eventually, the design process helped them see the plant as a node, an active and dynamic member of the community with an important role to play.
Along with the designers, the client team wrestled with how to make the plant a source of freshwater for the nearby creek and an island of green within the surrounding industrial zone. They wanted it to provide useful raw materials. Little by little, they developed the image of an attractor point, a place where people would come together to learn, interact, and build community. One of the designers joked that the sewage plant should be a place where couples would come to get married. “Why not?” responded other members of the team, “It’s a worthy standard to hold ourselves to!” (Figure D.2).
Figure D.2 Copyright The Miller Hull Partnership
Through its visionary sense of purpose, especially as portrayed through the themes, the project helped align 21 diverse but interrelated communities. It created a shared direction that allowed them to work together, while orienting them to how the plant could be much more than simply a functional way to process waste. At the same time, the project’s vision was supported by sophisticated metrics that demonstrated its ability to deliver both quantitative and qualitative value.
As a result, the community engagement process generated far less conflict and controversy than would otherwise have been the case. For example, some citizen watchdog groups that had been strongly skeptical of the cost/benefit ratio, came to see the plant as a multifaceted community asset. As a result, permitting and community approvals were completed 18 months ahead of schedule.
The project purpose also created alignment among the design and client teams’ diverse members, most of whom were accustomed to carrying out their tasks within their professional silos. For example, the engineers had seen this as a mechanical problem, while the architects saw it in terms of aesthetics and design. This fragmentation, which is characteristic of the development industry, was the reason why the contract had originally spelled 320 distinct deliverables.
By organizing the planning process around a series of workshops, as well as a carefully constructed work plan, the team was able to leverage its efforts. The architects and engineers together set such high standards that they had no choice but to join forces in order to achieve them. This level of integration across disciplines ended up significantly reducing the number of deliverables (by at least 50 percent), while increasing the project’s overall coherence and intelligibility.
Such a powerful process inevitably had an impact on participants, many of whom were transformed. One of the project managers, an engineer, had always measured success in terms of “getting things done.” But by the fourth workshop she was holding people accountable for the quality of their conceptual thinking. She had come to see the power of moving thinking upstream in order to create better design downstream.
Figure D.3 Metro Vancouver’s public engagement process for the Lion’s Gate project built overwhelming public support, resulting in a decision to embrace transparent public involvement in all future projects. Copyright The Miller Hull Partnership
The board of Metro Vancouver had always worked through proxies, taking a hands-off approach to the design and execution of projects. “Show us the design and we’ll let you know if we approve of it,” had been the management philosophy. Boecker and Reed tried mightily to break this pattern by inviting the board to work with them in order to evolve its aims and visions for Lions Gate. They were soundly rejected, but by the time the project was completed, the board had evolved its governance and become more participatory.
One of the project’s most powerful effects occurred within Metro Vancouver’s Public Information Department (PID). Because large public infrastructure projects often generate controversy, PID had traditionally managed public engagement very tightly. Communities were invited to comment on designs after the fact, and information was shared on a need-to-know basis.
Boecker and Reed, on the other hand, saw public engagement as an opportunity to grow collective intelligence about the potential that this project could realize. In the first public meeting, they laid out the purpose that the team had developed for the project and the process by which they hoped to accomplish it. Community members were disarmed by this transparency, and expressed relief and excitement that they were invited into the dialogue. After the session was over, Boecker and Reed were told in no uncertain terms that they would be leading no more community meetings. They had inadvertently violated every rule for working with communities and created a situation that felt to PID abnormal and inappropriate.
However, their inadvertent error also made it difficult for PID to go back to business as usual. The community had been invited and there was no way to uninvite it. Project architects and PID stepped up and engaged in an unfolding process that included the public in a series of open meetings. Together they explored community needs and potential. This developmental approach built overwhelming public support, an effect that was not lost on PID. As a result, it changed its policies to embrace transparent public involvement in all future projects (Figure D.3).
Perhaps the most enduring changes occurred within the design team members themselves. The importance of the project had attracted professionals of international stature, including Miller Hull and space2place, who led the Architecture & Community Integration team, along with AECOM and CH2M-Hill, who led the Engineering team. These designers said later that this was the greatest project they had ever worked on. It engaged them in profoundly meaningful collaboration with one another, which gave them more strength and creativity than they could possibly have had individually. A number of them have continued to pursue a regenerative approach to development and have themselves become pioneers in the field.
2. Miller Hull Partnership, LLP, “Concept 4. Ant Colony: A Synthesis of Ecology and Industry” (unpublished concept board, Lion’s Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant project, n.d.).
3. Miller Hull Partnership, LLP, “Concept 2. Luminous Breathing Organism: A Constantly Variable Resource (unpublished concept board, Lion’s Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant project, n.d.).