Regenerative Design & Innovation… for Happier Communities – UXA 2023

Dandelion shedding seeds at sunset. Text: Regenerative Design & Innovation... for Happier Communities. Ben Pecotich

I gave this presentation as the closing half hour talk of day one at UX Australia (UXA) on Thursday, 24 August 2023. My purpose with this talk is to help people who design, build, launch, and run product, service, and business ideas – and lead these teams – to design for regeneration and increase our wellbeing while we do it. And I want it to be helpful in an applied way.

UXA is a conference focused on UX, product and service design, and the surrounding disciplines of research, content, operations, management, and more. This year there were about 400 attendees – at the in-person event at the Shangri-La in Sydney and online. I love being part of the community and I’ve been at pretty much every UX Australia since 2010.

This post is a longer form version of my talk with links to resources and more detail…

Video Recording

Thanks to UX Australia for recording the conference.


Here are my slides for this presentation…

Regenerative Design & Innovation… for Happier Communities

Every day we’re bombarded with messages .

Climate crisis. Cost of living crisis. Modern slavery. Deforestation. Water & air pollution. Loss of species & biodiversity… and many more.

These messages are important to raise awareness and create urgency. And we need to face reality.

But if this is all we focus on – it can leave us feeling fatigued and burnt out. We can feel overwhelmed and helpless… and that leads to people disengaging.

To move forward in a healthy way, we need a clear and compelling vision… and we need specific ways to take action and help make it happen.

So what’s this compelling vision for the future?

How do I get from aspiration to reality?

What next?

These are the three questions I’ll cover.

What’s this compelling vision for the future?

That’s not really up to me. I’m keen to hear what you want…

Take a couple of slow deep breaths and think about the future you want. What do you really care about? What’s the future you want for yourself?

Cast forward a few years… What are you doing? Who are you with?

Imagine all the other life on our planet is healthy and thriving. How’s the air, the water, the soil, the food?

Imagine doing work you love, that energises you, that you find meaningful. How are you spending your time?

What’s the future you want for your community? What about society more broadly? What’s the economy like to support this?

Make it real – rather than being an abstract thought. Bring it to life. Hold on to that vision.

How do I get from aspiration to reality?

How do we take this high-level aspiration of creating great outcomes for people and our planet, and turn it into practice and organisational culture? How do we design for regeneration in our own lives and design practice?

Human-Centred Design

The very first thing is I think we continue being human-centred designers. We’re good at building empathy with people, understanding complexity, and working with people to design better futures.

We’re used to working at least one context broader than the one we’re focused on. And we have the tools. We’ve got the powerful simplicity of the double diamond. We bring together the three lenses and perspectives of what is desirable, viable, and feasible. We have journey maps and experience blueprints.

Over the years more systems thinking approaches have come into our practice, including system mapping. We’ve progressively designed for larger scales and more complexity, thinking not just about the people but hopefully about our impact on all life on our planet. We’re evolving.

We also have a great opportunity to embed more purpose and positive impact into how and what we design. A framework I find really useful for this is Theory of Change.

Theory of Change

A theory of change describes the vision, impact, and outcomes we’re working toward, but takes it a step further. It also outlines our theory of how we’ll create that change. The specific actions we’ll take.

It helps us get clarity of purpose. When we have clarity of purpose, we make better decisions. It’s easier to prioritise and filter options. When we know the “why”, it’s much easier to work out the how and the what.

Theory of change logic model

The way we generally approach drafting a logic model is to start with the two ends – on the right, the vision, impacts, and outcome we’re working toward. Think about your vision for the future you want.

And then to the other end. What’s the problem? Why isn’t that vision a reality today? What’s the problem you want to work on to help create the positive change? Who experiences this problem? In what context? What do you know about the systemic causes of this problem?

The Vision, Impact & Outcomes

Using Dynamic4 as an example, the change or vision that we’re focused on is:

Organisations and leaders solve problems that matter in more empathic and innovative ways – and measure success in outcomes for people, our planet, and prosperity.

So that… people and communities have increasing quality of life, are happier, and live on a planet that is cleaner and healthier.

The Problem

What’s the problem and cause? Over the past 250 years since the industrial revolution, business has transformed our societies, our economies, and our planet. During this time life expectancy has more than doubled and quality of life has increased dramatically for many – but not for all.

The way businesses have operated has been central to creating or worsening many of the problems we experience today. The profit motive has continued to centralise power and wealth and there’s a tragic track record of business exploiting people and polluting our planet to maximise profit – to the benefit of a small number of executives and shareholders.

The Action

What do we do about it? A way we frame the challenge is how might we help leaders and organisations create great outcomes for people, communities, and our planet – while being financially successful and increasing their wellbeing?

The inputs, activities, outputs outlines our theory of how we’ll create that change – and the specific actions we take.

If you’re curious, here’s more about Dynamic4’s theory of change and impact.

A key part of this is regenerative design and innovation. Everything we do is focused on using regenerative design and innovation to help create the conditions for happier communities.

Regenerative Design & Innovation

What’s regenerative design even mean? A definition I’ve synthesised from many sources is:

Regenerative design is an approach that actively works to restore and transform social, environmental, and economic systems to enhance resilience and wellbeing so all people, places, and life on our planet thrive.

Rather than just reducing harm, it’s about creating a positive impact.

Sustainability & Regenerative Design

Hang on, I thought we were doing sustainability? Unfortunately we’ve passed the point where we can just sustain what we’re doing – even if that means not doing additional harm.

We’re coming from the conventional way of doing business which has been degenerating our living ecosystems and often causing negative social and environmental impact. Over the past couple of decades some improvements have been made to for greener and more sustainable solutions and business models.

We need to do better than sustainable though. Our planet can’t sustain how we’re currently doing business and living. We need to head into more restorative and regenerative ways of doing things. This means taking a living systems approach to design and innovation, that’s collaborative, and creates the conditions for all life to thrive.

Earth Overshoot Day

Earth Overshoot Day is an organisation who calculates the date humanity’s demand for the Earth’s resources in the year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. The date this year was 2 August 2023. We need about 1.7 Earths to make our consumption sustainable.

And in Australia we’re much worse. If everyone in the world consumed like we do in Australia, the Earth Overshoot Day is 23 March 2023. We’re the sixth worst in the world.

We need to rapidly transition to regenerative ways of doing business and living.

What’s Good Business Mean Now?

Over the past decade there’s been a trend that operating ethically and sustainably has become the minimum baseline. I feel confident that we’ve made progress and optimistic that things are trending in a positive direction.

There are still protections for certain industries and the incumbents, but especially when we’re bringing a new business, product, or service to market – the expectation is that we’re doing good things for people and communities, including our staff – that we have a social license to operate – and that we’re doing the right things by the planet.

Increasingly, it’s about designing our business models, products, and services to be regenerative… because customers want to buy from companies doing good things, talented people want to do meaningful work and work with companies doing good things, and investors know that it’s lower risk with better returns – we’re seeing a massive shift in capital flows.

We have an awesome opportunity to use the power of design and business to help create a positive impact. Hopefully that’s the future you want to be part of.

This means changing we think about and measure success. Triple bottom line is all about measuring success not just in profit but equally in the outcomes we create for people and our planet.

Adaptive Leadership

We’re working on complex challenges. There’s a lot of complexity and we can’t do these things on our own. We need collective action and adaptive leadership.

As designers and leaders, we make decisions everyday about our businesses, products, and services. Decisions that can move us closer to the future we want to see. Or not.

We also need to keep learning. This is experiential learning. Learning through action. There are a few action learning principles that I really love. The first is that learning starts with not knowing. Which pairs nicely with the phrase that when we know better, we can do better.

Another couple of action learning principles I find empowering are that there are no experts in complex challenges… and that the people who choose to take responsibility in a challenging situation have the best chance of having a positive impact.

The good news is there are plenty of people already working on it. There’s a lot of great work done in the regen space for a long time, and the movement is growing. There are a bunch of great books I find really useful for thinking about the different scales of regenerative design.

Solve Problems That Matter

I play at the place where design, regenerative innovation, and wellbeing meet. Everything I do is focused on helping accelerate the transition to more regenerative ways of doing things. My approach is integrative and transdisciplinary.

I practice these things myself with Dynamic4 as a business and our products and services… and I spend my time coaching founders and leaders to solve problems that matter in more regenerative ways

I wrote my book Solve Problems That Matter a couple of years ago as a guide of how to design, build, and launch business, product, and service ideas that are regenerative and help create positive social and environmental impact.

We Have Frameworks

I hope everyone is familiar with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and seen the colourful set of 17 tiles. My favourite visualisation of the SDGs is by the Stockholm Resilience Centre which shows how integrated they are. It groups them into goals focused on the biosphere, society, and the economy. This also shows how food brings them all together.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre also did some really important work showing nine planetary boundaries “within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come”. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

These two frameworks are at the planetary scale.

At a national scale, Australia’s first wellbeing budget called Measuring What Matters was released last month. A framework and dashboard that will track what it looks like for Australia and Australians to be more healthy, secure, sustainable, cohesive and prosperous.

Then we have the economic scale.

Circular economy principles have been around for a very long time and it’s great to see the momentum that’s been building over the past few years. It’s an approach and economic system based on the reuse and regeneration of materials and products. A lot of this is about closed loop systems.

Then we have Kate Raworth’s Doughnut from Doughnut Economics. This is all about how we design for and live between the social foundations we need so all people can thrive… and the ecological ceiling, which brings together the SDGs and the planetary boundary. This starts at the planetary scale.

I love how this work has then been downscaled to the city level. It’s worth checking out the global Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) community and tools. We’re lucky to have Regen Sydney and Regen Melbourne actively working on this in an Australian context. Both have mapped the doughnut for our two biggest cities. It’s worth checking out the two reports: Sketching a Sydney Doughnut and Towards a Regenerative Melbourne.

Scales of Design & Systems

Without tumbling down the integral theory rabbit hole (we can do that over drinks), a core concept is holons. It’s the reality that every whole is made up of other wholes, and is also part of a large whole. As each holon emerges, it transcends but includes what has come before.

Without necessarily calling them holons, it’s a familiar concept.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with The Five Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett back in 2000. Below is the iceberg illustration of this by Trevor van Gorp (2007). It shows the different layers of UX design. There’s also the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model by Bryan et al (2006) showing the different layers of systems thinking.

It’s not about doing away with other design practices, but evolving to design for the bigger picture.

It’s the same with regenerative design. You already do it. I want to help you do it more and more consciously. It’s like when you first started learning and doing design and realised you’d been doing many of these things forever, but now you had language and models for it and could do it more intentionally.

That’s why I really like the scales of regenerative design diagram from Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Wahl (2016). It shows how the products and services we design every day relate to the whole system and the larger scales. This is the real context we’re designing for.

So, how do I design for regeneration in my own life & design practice?

Happiness Habits

I want you to be happy.

“When we are happy – when our mindset and mood are positive – we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it.”

Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

I’m a big fan of Shawn Achor’s happiness research. A key finding from his research is the belief most of us hold that we’ll be happy when we achieve a particular goal and experience success. It’s inherent in many of the things we’re taught and we often over-index for goals.

As he talks about in his energetic, insightful, and hilarious TED talk our brains actually work in the opposite order. “…if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. We’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier”. This was a powerful but profound reframe for me.

To quantify that… in a range of contexts it was found that we are 30%+ more effective and productive when we are positive. One of the things I love about Shawn Achor’s work is his focus on the practical things we can do to create positive mindset habits… to increase our happiness. He talks about it as a work ethic. Happiness is something we need to create… and keep creating. It’s a practice.

I recommend Greater Good In Action as a great resource to help build our happiness habits.

Inner Development Goals (IDGs)

I love the Inner Development Goals work that’s been emerging over the past couple of years. The has come from the insight that for us to have any chance of progressing the SDGs and to do things in more regenerative ways in response to our increasingly complex environment and challenges, we need to do inner development.

It has five dimensions with 23 skills and qualities. There are so many I love here. We need an openness and a learning mindset and we need to build our critical thinking. We need to come to this work with humility and empathy. And if this doesn’t turn into action, nothing changes. This means we need our courage, creativity, and optimism… and we need to be able to persevere.

Personal Wellbeing Plan

It’s really important to look after our wellbeing when doing this work. It’s easy for our work to become all-consuming and lose perspective and balance. I encourage people to have a written wellbeing plan and this is a key action I included in my book Solve Problems That Matter (page 47 if you’ve got the book).

The first question is what do you currently do that helps keep you feeling happy and healthy? Here are some things to think about. These are the positive things to keep doing:

  • Physical Health. What positive things do you do for your physical health?
  • Mental & Emotional Health. What positive things do you do for your mental and emotional health?
  • Relationships. Who are the important people in your life? Especially people you have healthy relationships with and who energise you
  • Social Connection. What are the important groups of people or communities in your life?
  • Play. What do you love doing? What do you do for fun? What really brings you joy?

It’s also really important to have a backup plan. Everyone’s “normal” is different. It’s natural to have days when we’re feeling down or a bit overwhelmed. If this lingers for days or weeks, it might be part of an unhealthy pattern that’s developing. I encourage you to think about the red flags or signs you’ve observed in yourself that indicate you’re heading in an unhealthy direction. The goal here is to identify the pattern early and take the right action.

Backup Plan

  • What are the patterns of thinking, feeling, or behaving that indicate you’re heading in an unhealthy direction?
  • Over what time period?
  • What will you do, or stop doing, when you notice this pattern?
  • Who will you talk to for help?
  • How will you know you’re back in a healthy place?
  • I encourage you to take a few minutes to reflect on these questions and actually write them down so you can refer to them… and keep doing the things that help you feel happy and healthy.

Dynamic4 Design Principles

I created these design principles for Dynamic4 back in 2010. They’re guiding principles and at the core of what Dynamic4 is about. They guide decisions in everything we do, from top level strategy through to daily operations… and design decisions. As designers, we design business, product, service, experience ideas across all sorts of contexts.

I wanted these to be principles that work in any context. And I want to keep them simple. A lot of the regen work has listed out a great set of pinciples but most of them are between seven and 15, which I personally find too many to use in a practical way.

All of these principles are interrelated, and you’ll hopefully see holons and the scales at play here too.

  1. People first. Design with and for people to deliver great experiences
  2. Positive impact. Be positive, reliable, and trustworthy. Work with positive people. Be regenerative
  3. Perspective & context. Keep sense of perspective. Remember the context of what and why. See the big picture but execute the detail
  4. Dynamic & adaptable. Always be learning. Identify and respond positively to change

As a way of sharing these principles and to help bring them to life, here are the types of questions or prompts I ask myself. I ask similar questions with a lot more context and specificity when I’m coaching people and teams. I encourage you to reflect on these principles and questions when making design decisions and integrate them into your practice – adapted for your specific context and thinking about the broader ecosystems you’re interacting with.

I’ve been a human-centred designer forever. For me it all starts with the people and our relationship with all other living things. Ultimately this is what regenerative design is all about.

People First

Design with and for people to deliver great experiences. The way I think about this is three concentric circles:

  • Personal people: my family and friends
  • Dynamic4 people: my team and collaborators. People-centred design with and for our clients
  • Community & society: people-centred design with and for the people our clients serve… and to help create the conditions for people and communities to be happier

As designers we often talk about empathy and recognise it as the bedrock of good design – so we’re pretty experienced here and it tends to be a core to what we do – at least designing for the users of our products and services… and more recently I think we’ve collectively got better at actively designing for the staff experience. The trend toward designers being embedded in multi-disciplinary teams has also increased awareness of the many factors and considerations.

There’s also been shift to more co-design and recognising the value of designing with the people we hope will use and pay for our solutions, and inclusive design practices are part of this. I hope we keep these positive improvements.

I hope we’ll keep expanding this to being more mindful of how our designs fit with and impact the broader ecosystems.

For me and Dynamic4, before we get involved in an initiative, the question I ask is does this help create the conditions for people and communities to be more empowered, inclusive, and live in more regenerative ways? If it does, I move to the next of the four steps I use for these decisions.

Some prompts I find useful for this principle are:

  • Who are the people involved and what are their perspectives? (family & friends, team & organisation, users & customers, communities & society)
  • Whose voice is missing from the conversation?
  • What are the strengths and assets of the people and communities?
  • What problems do the people involved experience, and what are their aspirations, desires, and motivations?
  • How will we build empathy and genuinely “design with”?
  • What are the power dynamics at play?

Please never see people as problems to solve. Deficit thinking is harmful to the people involved – and it doesn’t address the real problem and its causes. We need to approach these problems with humility, empathy, and an understanding of the systems at play.

I reflected more on this principle in People First. Dynamic4: The 20th Year.

Positive Impact

Be positive, reliable, and trustworthy. Work with positive people. Nurture long term relationships. Be regenerative and look after the environment.

In general, we all design for positive impact in the sense that we actively design for people to have a good experience when interacting with our products and services.

We have an opportunity to take this further and design, build, and launch business models, products, and services that are regenerative. That create great outcomes for people, communities, and our planet – while also being financially successful and increasing our wellbeing.

To do this we need hold on to that vision and make design and business decisions that get us closer to it. From aspiration to action. These things don’t happen in one leap. They’re created by all of the little things we do every day.

For me and Dynamic4, I ask does the align with our purpose, theory of change, and strategy… and does it help us get closer to our vision?

Some prompts I find useful for this principle are:

  • What do I personally care about – the vision I’m working toward?
  • What’s my purpose – my driving why?
  • What’s our theory of change?
  • What are my values – and what do they look like as behaviours?
  • What are the values and purpose of my team, the solution we’re working on, and my organisation?
  • How can I contribute to a positive impact on all life and our planet?

I find Ikigai is useful to help reflect on my purpose. I’ve used it for myself and in coaching conversations with others. It’s a four circle Venn where the intersection of the four circles is said to be “your reason for
being”. I cover some actions on articulating your personal why in Solve Problems That Matter (page 136 if you’ve got the book).

If your team, product, and organisation’s purpose and values aren’t aligned with your personal purpose and values, you’ll very likely find it exhausting and over time it is more likely to lead to burnout.

Imagine doing work that you love, find meaningful, and energises you. Work that is valued by your team, organisation, the communities you’re part of… and society more broadly. Maybe your work already gives you this, maybe sometimes, maybe not yet.

I encourage you to find ways to embed more purpose and impact in your work. Treat it as a design challenge. I reflected on some things I’ve learnt about this in Purpose & Happiness. Dynamic4: The 20th Year.

I reflected more on this principle in Positive Impact. Dynamic4: The 20th Year.

Perspective & Context

Keep sense of perspective. Remember the context of what and why. See the big picture but execute the detail.

As designers we’re used to researching at least one context wider than what we’re focused on. This is an active reminder to be mindful of how we look at and see things, and the meaning we make – all through the lens of our purpose… the driving why of what we do.

Without getting hung up in what’s UX versus service design and all of the other labels, there’s been a positive trend over the years to design for the full lifecycle including designing for the end of the lifecycle – Joe Macleod’s Endineering work is a great example. We need to extend this to see the big picture but execute the detail.

This principle is about considering all of the scales from personal wellbeing through to the planetary scale and ecosystems. Some prompts I find useful for this principle are:

  • How will I look after my wellbeing and be open, curious, and playful – while designing for the wellbeing of others?
  • What is the full lifecycle of our solution from concept to disposal, and how can we apply circular design principles?
  • What are the cultural, local, national, and planetary perspectives?
  • What are the social, living, economic, and tech ecosystems and who are the groups of people involved? (system boundaries, interactions, power dynamics, incentives, feedback loops, tipping points, root causes, trends)

I reflected more on this principle in Perspective & Context. Dynamic4: The 20th Year.

Dynamic & Adaptable

Always be learning. Identify and respond positively to change.

Contexts and perspectives are always changing. We live within adaptive systems full of adaptive challenges. To thrive, we always need to be adapting to the dynamic nature of life. Identifying trends and anticipating the likely change gives us more time to respond positively.

When adapting, it’s still really important to leverage the strengths and assets you already have, and continually be building new ones. Recognising how your skills and experience can be applied in new and changing contexts. A regular rhythm of iterating helps keep you nimble.

Some prompts I find useful for this principle are:

  • What are my strengths and assets, and how do I nurture my growth mindset?
  • What trends are emerging, what will this likely change, and how?
  • How will this impact our vision, theory of change, and strategy?
  • How will I respond to the changes I’m anticipating (and surprises) and how will I adapt and apply my skills and experience?
  • What do we need to learn, adapt, and improve? How will we do it?
  • How will we design our workflow for learning and continual improvement? (feedback loops, measurement, insights, strong governance)

I reflected more on this principle in Dynamic & Adaptable. Dynamic4: The 20th Year.

What Next?

I’ve shared a lot of resources and models in this post. It’s a big topic, so I haven’t been able to go too deep. I hope the concept of the scales of design and ecosystems has resonated, and it’s clear that everything we do gets us closer to the future we want – or not.

I also hope that no matter where you’re at in your journey, you’ve got some things to try and some practical actions to help get from our high-level aspirations to reality.

I encourage you to pull on those threads. But please remember, we can’t it on our own.

Find Your Community

Regen is a team sport. We need to collaborate. To share and learn.

There are so many communities be part of. I’m an active part of these communities and a co-founder of a few too. Not all of these will use the term regenerative design but it’s core to the approach they take.

Sydney Design Thinking Meetup (SydDT)
SydDT is a community of 8,500+ members who explore the world of design thinking as a human-centred approach to innovation, solving complex problems, and contributing to a positive impact on people, our planet, and business. I co-founded SydDT in 2015 and we had our 84th meetup this month. We’re one of the largest design thinking meetups in the world.

Social Enterprise Council of NSW & ACT (SECNA)
SECNA is the member-led peak body representing and connecting social enterprise in NSW & ACT. I was a founding board member for four years, until the end of my max term in May 2023. I’m still actively involved as an industry member and volunteer. Every state and territory in Australia now has a peak body you can get involved with.

Social Enterprise Australia
SEA is the national-level peak body for social enterprise. They connect the ecosystem to plan, act, and learn together.

B Corporation
Certified B Corps are companies that meet high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Dynamic4 has been a B Corp since March 2016 and proud to be part of the global movement for an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy.

Catalyst 2030
Catalyst 2030 is a global community of social entrepreneurs and social innovators who collaborate to progress the UN SDGs. I’m proud to have been a member since March 2021.

SME Climate Hub
The SME Climate Hub is a non-profit global initiative that empowers small to medium sized companies to take climate action and build resilient businesses for the future. In 2019, Dynamic4 were one of the 533 B Corps who publicly committed to net zero emissions by the year 2030 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid. We’ve been climate positive since 2010.

Interaction 24
Interaction Week 2024 (25 February-1 March 2024) – IxDA’s annual global conference – will be hosted in Sydney. This is the first time it will be hosted outside Europe and North America. Our theme for IxD24 is Revisit. Reframe. Regenerate. I’m proud to be part of the small volunteer team who put the winning bid together and the volunteer organising team who are designing and delivering this world-class design conference. I’m lucky to be co-chairing the Education Summit as part of the week with Martin Tomitsch.

Share your vision… and make it real

I hope you will share your vision… and actively work to make it real. Remember the bigger picture and get really clear about the “why” you’re designing for… that will drive how you design, and also what you design. Our worldview shapes our design.

Let’s embed purpose and positive impact in the work we do, and make decisions that get us closer to that desired future.

Let’s collaborate to solve problems that matter, problems that matter for our teams, customers, and life on our planet – we can do this with our regenerative business models, products, and services that are financially successful and also increase our wellbeing while we do it.

And most importantly, have fun solving problems that matter