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Architect and pioneer within biomimicry and regenerative design, Michael Pawlyn, discusses the difference between sustainability and regenerative approaches, how to adopt a planetary perspective, and what it means to be a possibilist about the future.

The British architect Michael Pawlyn has been described as an expert in regenerative design and biomimicry. He has worked on projects such as the Eden Project, the Sahara Forest Project, and has established the firm Exploration Architecture. Furthermore, he has co-initiated Architects Declare, provides advice to national governments and large companies on transformative change, and is the author of two books. One of them Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency was published earlier this year with co-author Sarah Ichioka.

In connection with Michael Pawlyn´s Science Talk at BLOHXUB on regenerative design and biomimicry, we have caught up with him to discuss his approach to design, the systemic change needed to counter the climate and biodiversity crises, and how sustainability is no longer enough:

“It’s increasingly coming into focus now that the challenge is for humanity to integrate everything we do into the web of life. As a result, there’s a huge amount that we can learn from how life on earth functions and how it has evolved to be the way it is. So that’s why I think biomimicry is such a powerful source of solutions. I see it as a way to overcome the dualistic separations from humans and nature and to achieve a much more holistic way of thriving on planet earth,” says Michael Pawlyn.

Regenerative vs. Sustainability

Ever since he was a teenager, Michael Pawlyn has been passionate about design, biology, and the environment, and since the late 1990s, he has been combining those three interests in his work life through regenerative design and biomimicry. The regenerative approach is a reaction to the worsening climate crisis and related crises, and an acknowledgement that what we have been doing so far hasn’t been enough:

”The point I realized that normal sustainability was nowhere near enough, was when the IPCC issued their report in October 2018, because that showed just how seriously off-track, we were. It was shocking to see just how close we are to the collapse of our societies, and the real possibility of seeing civilization go into reverse in all sorts of ways,” he says and adds that most of what we have been doing in sustainability is still relevant, but we need to transcend it.

“Sustainability has tended to be very anthropocentric, and we now know that we need to adopt a planetary perspective that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all lifeforms. Another thing is that sustainability has all too often been framed as being about being less bad, about trying to mitigate negatives. It’s now very clear that that’s not going to be enough. We need to go beyond that. We need to find ways to get into a positive realm in which we have a regenerative effect on ecosystems and our communities, and really aim at delivering net-positive impact across a whole range of issues,” he says.

A regenerative approach is also a way to expand from a mechanistic perspective to a systemic one, which is necessary to get the bigger picture, says Michael Pawlyn:

“I sometimes worry that the climate debate has shrunk a bit in the built environment, and now it seems to be almost exclusively about carbon. And of course, carbon is essential to get under control, but if that’s all we focus on then we’re going to miss some really important things that would be more than enough to bring about collapse if we don’t address them,” he says.

As an example, he mentions how – according to a mechanistic view – it might seem like a good idea to put a dam across a forest river to make renewable energy but in reality, that could end up deteriorating the forest ecosystem. The latter is what a more systemic view represents – seeing the bigger perspective. That is what a regenerative approach tries to incorporate, and that is going to “involve a lot more than just sustainability with all the knobs turned up, it’s going to involve quite a fundamental change in thinking,” says Michael Pawlyn.

Getting Everyone on Board

The overall idea of regenerative design – that we need to give back more than we take and not just mitigate negatives – seems easy to accept. But one thing is to agree in theory, but how do you make a regenerative change as a professional within the built environment for example, and how do you get the whole value chain on board?

“There’s a certain amount that you can do in trying to push ideas as much as possible on any one project. To do that, it is essential to have everyone on board: to have a client that is aligned and motivated, a design team that understands the ideas and knows how to turn them into buildable, feasible designs, and a contractor that is keen to make it work and is willing to explore new approaches. But I think that’s only a fairly limited way to bring about the change we need because what we really need is systems change. That requires a very different way of thinking and different places in which we need to intervene in the system,” says Michael Pawlyn.

He references the systems thinker Donella Meadows, who argues that the most influential way to intervene in a system is to try and change the mindset or paradigm that drives that system.

Everyone can help to bring about the systemic change needed to overcome the climate and biodiversity crises, says Michael Pawlyn. Photo: Kelly Hill Photography

This is also what Michael Pawlyn is trying to focus on in his and Sarah Ichiokas new book and in his work with Architects Declare – an initiative that strives to create a collective momentum and push for systemic change at a political level. He mentions several ways for this to happen: For more countries to join the Wellbeing Economy Governments, implement economics that works within planetary limits like Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, creating a legal obligation for governments to consider the impact on future generations, or change company law to accommodate a wider set of stakeholders that doesn’t just include shareholders.

Where does that leave someone who wants to do something regenerative, but might not have the power or spare time to bring about the sort of changes mentioned above? Anticipating skeptical attitudes, Michael Pawlyn and Sarah Ichioka devotes part of their book to addressing these sorts of questions:

“Sometimes the most you can do is to just identify one thing that would be regenerative and try to incorporate that into the project: it might be a particular material, or it might be a kind of connection to nature. Just take one thing and push that as hard as you can, learn from that, share that knowledge, and then take it forward to the next project. That’s a valid way of trying to bring about change. It’s also important to think about when and where the greatest opportunities are for change, and on a building project that’s nearly always in the earliest stages,” says Michael Pawlyn.

The book also offers tools for getting into the mindset of a more systemic change. These include thought experiments on what it means to be a good ancestor and exercises to give people a longer-term sense of time. One such exercise is thinking of your oldest relative and the kind of experiences they would have had as a child, and then thinking of a young child in your life and what they might be experiencing 90 years from now:

“Immediately you can see that we do have a quite close connection with nearly a 200-year timescale, and yet too often we plan over an incredibly short timescale – sometimes just a quarterly one, or sometimes just a few years,” says Michael Pawlyn and continues that imagining a child you know 90 years from now, and what they might think about you can help people face important questions:

“What is your legacy? What is your long-term purpose as a person? How do you want to be remembered? When that’s combined with an explanation of the difference between sustainable and regenerative it leads people to the conclusion that sustainability has been degenerative, and would anyone really want to be remembered for being degenerative?”

Being a Possibilist

The work of Michael Pawlyn might make you think of him as an optimist – someone who believes that the future will turn out all right. But that is not a term he uses about himself. Instead, he prefers the term possibilist, a word also found in the writings of the late Swedish professor and author, Hans Rosling.

“Hans Rosling argued that it’s not enough to be an optimist or a pessimist because both of those imply some sense of inevitability about the future. The idea with the possibilist is that you see the future as something that can be influenced. You set out to create the future that you want, and that needs to be a very participative process. So, I wouldn’t really describe myself as an optimist exactly, but as a determined possibilist,” says Michael Pawlyn and goes on to explain the impact of the possibilist approach:

“It probably makes you more resilient when you suffer setbacks, and you don’t see those as the end. You see those as a challenge to think of a new way to overcome obstacles, and very often that involves working with others and encouraging them to see how they can maximize their agency,” he says.

The notion of agency runs through a lot of the discussion. As previously stated, systems change is bigger and needs to happen on a higher level than i.e., individual building projects. But everyone can join in, and what is needed for the change is a moderate coalition, says Michael Pawlyn:

“We live in a system that is becoming more and more resistant to change, so the key question is how do we change this? I think there are three things we need: we need to show that we’ve got the solutions, that we’ve got the skills to deliver them, and that there’s sufficient demand to bring that change about. We’ve got those first two. We haven’t yet quite got to the sufficient demand, but I think we will achieve this through a moderate coalition,” he says, referencing a theory by the philosopher Rupert Reed, which argues that radical groups make it easier for more moderate groups to demand the necessary change.

“In the UK we’ve got more and more small groups regarded as extremists: people gluing themselves to roads, interrupting sports events, gluing themselves to old master paintings in art galleries, and so on – annoying people. What we need to complement that with is this moderate coalition of a large group of civil society organizations saying: what we need now is systems change. Nothing less than that is going to be enough. And I’m actively trying to do that,” he says.

A way for people to become more engaged and maximize their agency is by changing the way we perceive ourselves. We need to start thinking of ourselves as citizens instead of consumers, according to Michael Pawlyn, who thinks future generations will think it insane, that we allowed ourselves to be identified like that:

“If we stop thinking of ourselves as consumers, that gets us into a much more purposeful mindset. Essentially anyone who works in an organization has some potential to try and change that organization, to try and transform it and demand a more inspiring purpose than just making money. Heads of companies particularly need to think of themselves as possibilist and to think about how they can maximize their agency. History will judge them very harshly if they don’t.”

About Michael Pawlyn:

Michael Pawlyn established his firm Exploration Architecture in 2007 to focus on high-performance buildings and solutions for the circular economy.

Before setting up Exploration, he worked with Grimshaw for ten years and was central to the team that designed the Eden Project.

Michael jointly initiated the widely acclaimed Sahara Forest Project. In 2019 he co-initiated ‘Architects Declare a Climate & Biodiversity Emergency’ which has spread internationally with over 7,000 companies signed up to address the planetary crisis.

Since 2018 he has been increasingly providing advice to national governments and large companies on transformative change. He is the author of two books, Biomimicry in Architecture and Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency, co-authored with Sarah Ichioka.