Degenerative Habits of Mind: Changing thinking patterns that block regenerative practices

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ATT00011You want to integrate regenerative design into your practice. You know, from all you’ve read and heard, that it requires a “different way of thinking,” a new world-view, and you’ve read the lists of attributes for both. So now what? At Regenesis, we’ve spent a lot of time helping people shift the way they think, and we fully appreciate the challenges that involves.

The way we think is shaped by patterns that we’ve been taught or picked up over the course of our lives, patterns that are deeply embedded in our culture and institutions. Over time, these patterns have become increasingly interdependent and self-reinforcing and, most problematic, increasingly habitual because they are invisible to us. If we want to change how we think, the first step must be to make visible the patterns that currently shape our thinking. Only then can we decide which are useful when, and which condemn us to degenerative outcomes.

While every person is a unique being with unique ways of thinking, those of us raised in modern Western cultures share a number of patterns that have proven particularly challenging to regenerative approaches. Two of these—Steering from the wake of the ship and the All-Star team fallacy are briefly described below.

Steering from the wake of the ship. We pride ourselves on being problem solvers, and put enormous amounts of energy into getting better and better at it. Analytic thinking is a product of that quest. Now systems thinking is being promoted for its ability to identify the “real” problem. But what if, as Carol Sanford wrote in an earlier post, “problem-solving can be a problem”?

Problems are a product of past conditions and dynamics. When they become our sole or dominant source of guidance and focus, we are condemned to moving forward while looking backward—steering from the wake of the ship. Seems self-evidently foolish, yet if you look at most sustainability goals, even those described as regenerative, they track back to a problem that’s been restated as a positive outcome.

In contrast, working from potential orients to the future by revealing what an entity can become. Identifying potential (vs. defining the problem) requires a very different pattern of thinking however.

The all-star team fallacy. How many times have you heard someone say they wanted to build the “greenest” or the “most sustainable” building or project? Such statements reflect goals set and pursued in isolation from the larger system—neighborhood, community, landscape, in which the project sits.

The fallacy lies in thinking that improving performance of parts of a system, taken separately, will improve the performance of the whole. In fact, as East-West All-star games demonstrate each year, it usually does not improve performance of the system as a whole, and may make system performance worse or even destroy it—in other words, create an ultimately degenerative effect.

An alternative pattern starts by understanding the containing whole or larger system (say a landscape) to see the potential role and contribution the part (the building) can best make, and designs to that.

In subsequent posts, we’ll be writing more about these and other degenerative habits—how they manifest, alternative patterns that enable regenerative work, and new capabilities required.

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