“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

“Nature uses human imagination to lift her work of creation to even higher levels.” – Luigi Pirandello

 “Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done.” – Robert A. Heinlein.

Most of us have been educated and trained to solve problems. We’re all pretty good at it . . . but imaging and manifesting potential? Not so much . . . yet effecting change requires building our capacity to do so.

How many project meetings have you attended that were designed and aimed at solving a problem? Think of the last such meeting you attended with a group of folks with whom you were working on one of your projects. What was the aim of that meeting? What happened in that meeting? What parts of your brain were being activated? What were you feeling? What role did your heart and spirit play? What energy was operating? What level of energy were you seeing and feeling? What did you find yourself caring about (or not)? What resulted?

Now image that same meeting if it had been designed and aimed at imaging how the project might serve as an instrument for manifesting deeper and meaningful living system potential? In what ways would your thinking and feeling have been different? What systemic change or transformation would you and the project team have been imaging and seeking to manifest? What would the effects of manifesting that potential change be? What would be the value of that transformation? What would you find yourself caring about?

When our minds are engaged solely in problem-solving mode, these are not the questions we ask; rather, we find ourselves stuck in the same existence that created the problem in the first place. Very little systemic change or transformation is possible; rather, we become trapped in seeing the continuation (or incremental improvement) of what already exists as the only possibility. Another potential world doesn’t exist. In other words, our problem-solving mind alone is incapable of imaging potential because it fails to even ask about the particular systemic transformation the project seeks to manifest. We fail to ask about the potential effects on the larger whole in which the project is nested (ecological and socio-economical). We fail to notice the inherent and unique qualities of that larger whole and the project’s role in expressing them. We fail to see how those enduring qualities are being called upon to be expressed in a continually changing/evolving world. In short, we fail to see Potential; therefore, manifesting such potential is not possible because we can’t even image it.

Even worse, we focus on what’s not working, what’s broken, what’s malfunctioning. We find ourselves working on fragments and how to fix them . . . and if we fix them, we essentially find ourselves back to where we were before the problem emerged. We fail to notice that we are failing to notice an entirely different set of possibilities. We remain stuck below (or merely return back up to) the “flat line of existence”, and nothing truly new or transformative can emerge into a new three-dimensional potential world above that line.

This is not to say that addressing and solving problems is bad. Sometimes that level of thinking is exactly what is needed in order to adjust to shifting circumstances with agility. It’s just insufficient when seeking meaningful change. Without a larger aim of manifesting potential, nothing truly new can emerge . . . which requires a different mind, which in turn calls upon us to work on building our capacity for developing that mind.

Think of a project you are currently working on that is just beginning (or is in its early stages) and that you care about deeply. Close your eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and be completely present as you image working on that project. Bring into your consciousness the “observing you” in addition to the “you” that is working on answering the question below. From this observing perspective, notice what’s happening in your mind and body – how you are thinking/feeling – in exploring for a few minutes the following question:

  • What is the single greatest area of unrealized potential in my work on this project?

Now ask the following question . . . again, from the perspective of the observing you. See if you can notice any observable differences in your mental/physical state while answering this second question versus the first question above:

  • What is the single greatest problem I face in my work on this project?

Pause and reflect: What was the effect of focusing on potential versus problems in the context of this particular project? What shifts in how you are thinking about the project and its role when imaging its potential? What transformational potential begins to emerge that the project can serve to manifest? What would the effects of manifesting that potential be? What would be the value of that transformation? What do you find yourself caring about now? How does imaging potential affect your Will to play an active role in that transformation?

Again, this is not to say that addressing problems is bad; rather, quite the opposite . . . so long as we can begin to see “problems” as restraining forces pushing back against the activating forces of imaging potential. This requires a different mind – a mind that calls upon us to see restraints not as problems but as our friends. It requires seeing this dynamic interaction not as conflict but as a creative opportunity for transformation by seeking and discovering reconciling or harmonizing forces aimed at manifesting that potential. It requires us to see that all three forces are necessary for anything new to happen.

Considering the above framework suggests that not only does this “Law of Three” underlie every creative act in human history, it also reveals how everything in nature works. Think of a rock in a stream. Gravity (as an activating force) is pulling water down towards sea level. The rock (as a restraining force) slows down the flow of the water, so that the nutrients in that water can drop down into the sand and gravel stream bed in order to feed the insect and fish larvae that in turn feed the larger fish and insects that then feed the birds and mammals along the side of the stream who take those nutrients back upstream (in defiance of gravity) and re-nutrient the whole living system with new potential.

Part of our role as regenerative practitioners, then, can be seen as building our (and others) capacity to serve as rocks in a stream . . . by imaging the project’s potential effects on a greater, larger living whole: To slow down the flow for the purpose of augmenting the quantity and quality of nutrient exchange (between the project team, stakeholders and the larger whole system we are seeking to transform), in a way that harmonizes potential with restraints by shifting our minds into a value-adding, capacity-building paradigm, so that each project serves as an instrument for expressing and manifesting meaningful potential more strongly.

As such, regenerative design, at its core, asks practitioners to do three things:

  • Ensure that each project serves as an instrument for manifesting potential by building the vitality and viability of the surrounding socioeconomic and ecological systems in each particular place.
  • Align stakeholders around the potential of these transformations and help them build their capacity as agents for actualizing this potential.
  • Explore how teams can develop processes that continue to serve stakeholders beyond the project building and site.

There’s no such thing as a regenerative building, but there is regenerative design and development. Essentially, it’s about using the built environment as an instrument for enabling larger living systems to thrive by thinking big picture – what is the potential of manifesting what your clients care about deeply beyond just the project itself?

So, how is this practical? Below are brief examples from two recent 7group projects where such regenerative practices of imaging and manifesting potential (along with being guided by the other six First Principles of Regeneration) produced extraordinary results.

RE Farm Café:

The story of RE Farm Café is told in our prior “Regenerative” blog. This example of a small-scale regenerative project began when the Owners (Monica and Duke Gastiger) wanted to create a farm-to-table restaurant that would serve delicious, locally-sourced food. Slowing down the flow (aimed at imaging and manifesting potential) helped the Owners shift their thinking from building a farm-to-table restaurant on a farm, to creating a regenerative farm that happened to have a farm-to-table restaurant on it . . . so they bought a farm. As explained in a recent article for AIA, author Stayton Bonner writes:

“Thinking beyond the restaurant itself, 7group helped the owners plan how to reach out to local farmers and the surrounding agricultural community (as well as Penn State) to create a new type of marketplace tied to the endeavor. Ultimately, everyone worked together to create a co-op, a community-supported agriculture initiative (CSA), a farmers market, an educational venue for learning about regenerative agricultural practices, and, of course, the restaurant, all of which sparked a new agro-economic hub in the region. ‘The shift happened when the owners transitioned from just thinking about the café’s success [as a restaurant] to seeing its development as a way to embrace the broader goal of revitalizing the community’s fooding system,’ Boecker says. ‘The farm became the central node for everything else, with the restaurant an essential part of that. And now it’s a great success. When you engage everyone and align around potential, you can actualize remarkable systemic transformations.’”

Remarkable Reinvention is a short 12-minute video that tells the story of RE Farm Café.

Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant:

The story of the Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, a massive $4 billion dollar infrastructure project located in Vancouver, BC, began in 2009. 7group (John Boecker and Bill Reed) met with officials at Metro Vancouver to discuss the design of the first of two new wastewater treatment plants to serve Vancouver, the Lions Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant to be located along the Fraser River on the north shore of the city. A recent article for AIA by author Stayton Bonner reports the following:

“The Lions Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant would become an early example of meeting the country’s new legal mandate for treating primary sewage without dumping it directly into a body of water. In an effort to rethink the traditional concrete and razor-wire layout of a plant, Reed and Boecker helped Metro Vancouver, the project team, and the community co-create something ambitious: a treatment plant that produces energy [and fresh water] while using the nutrients from the purification process to create a new park [where people want to go to get married].

In 2019, Metro Vancouver approached 7group again with a larger project – the Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, to be sited where the Fraser River meets the Salish Sea. Looking at the location, Reed suggested including the local Musqueam First Nations population in the development process, since they had been fishing and navigating the region for millennia. . . . ‘When the team began to really understand the wisdom about the place that Musqueam people possessed, we saw a shift in momentum,’ Boecker says. ‘In fact, we held the third workshop on Musqueam land, and indigenous thinking became an integral part of design thinking, helping to shift the project’s transformational potential.’ 

Metro Vancouver representatives [along with] Musqueam representatives reimagined the project through a regenerative lens, realizing its potential to reconnect the river with the sea, preserving and enhancing native bird habitats, and invigorating the depleted salmon and orca populations. By pinpointing how to develop the plant and correct previous developmental missteps in the area – including a series of land bridges, built in the 1960s, that blocked the river from connecting with the sea – the project team [integrated into the overall project] 20 ecological projects [at specific nodal points] to regenerate the larger ecosystem. The first phase of the plant is slated to be completed by 2030. ‘A project involving massive infrastructure like wastewater treatment is one of the longest engagements [project teams] have with communities,’ Reed says. ‘Because of that, we can really work actively with a community. There are always thousands of issues no one can agree on initially, but when you talk about [the potential of] what the place can be, that brings people together. It’s [fertile] territory to start a regenerative conversation.’

How can you help build your current project’s capacity for producing similarly extraordinary results? What capacity are you being called upon to develop in yourself in service to building your project team’s capacity for imaging and manifesting potential systemic transformation? What would it feel like to play a meaningful role in developing and manifesting that potential?