$ Factor: Can We Make Regenerative Futures Viable?
If the goal is regeneration and strategies have been laid out — how do we get there?
Businesses say the most common barrier to entry is a lack of information on how to implement circular and regenerative principles into practice (see ACE Hub 2021 Circularity in Australian Businesses report for an example).
Circular and regenerative efforts sometimes do not even stack up from a financial or environmental perspective. Just earlier this year for example, Lego famously gave up on its ambition to replace traditional plastic bricks with a new material made from recycled plastic bottles (Science Alert, 2023).
“When Lego assessed the project’s environmental impact throughout its supply chain, it found that producing bricks with the recycled plastic would require extra materials and energy to make them durable enough.”
And while Lego’s transition to regenerative futures continues, the road may look different for each organisation or practitioner. Here’s my take on it.
After spending the bulk of the 10s as a strategic/futures practitioner, I did the climate quitting thing, somehow joined academia again, and spent the last five years with the trouble finding out what would work for me.
The output of all that messy head-and-hand tinkering is a new practice that is transdisciplinary by nature and based on a more-than-human approach to designing. It also aims to avoid the traps of human-centred design and technological solutionism while adopting circular and regenerative design methodologies. Finally, it relies on pluriversal design thinking and material-driven design principles.
This seems like a lot (and it is) and I do not believe there is a need to expand on the cost of inaction but, considering the reality of the world we live in, can we make regenerative futures viable?
I’m currently using this new practice framework on two research questions:
1- What circular, regenerative and scalable bio-based materials can we make out of existing pre-consumer organic waste?
2- And how can we design affordable climate resilient and regenerative urban public spaces when thinking about spatial design through the lens of both materials and experiences?
More on this later but, how did I land here?
My gut feeling always was that sustainability is so multi-faceted, systemic and complex that there was no point waiting to feel ready to start producing work. There was always going to be something else to think about.
Here goes my first attempt to summarise the logic of this madness. 2018–2023: five years of transition in under 1,500 words, academic speculative loops and industry-partnered practical detours included.
EARLY EXPLORATION: RETHINKING DESIGN
I’m a Western urban man from the late 20th century, meaning that I have been brainwashed to believe that the future was technological and universal — an Orwellian dystopia where global businesses as opposed to states are in full power.
On the plus side, I had the privilege to be exposed to multiculturalism from a very young age so the first thing that I questioned when I embarked on my change journey was the universality of most of the works we see everywhere around us. Check these articles in The Atlantic and Dezeen, or this opinion piece by Alex Murrell, if you’d like to read more on the topic.
In the video below you can see me speak — a bit fast I know, I spent most of 2018 on high-dose corticosteroids for medical reasons — about the need to include cultural considerations when thinking about the future of our cities. This was my first attempt at discussing the need to adopt pluriversal design thinking in practice although I had no idea what it was called at the time.
Having watched this video again, I stand by what we said because our sustainability transition is also a social innovation.
A few months later, I started working full-time at RMIT School of Design where I ran a biodesign studio for a few years, sometimes as part of the international Biodesign Challenge. Working in partnership with local and international colleagues, we trained a couple hundred students to think about design through the lens of biology and sustainability — a great way to conduct early research in the space.
And we got pretty successful at it!
In 2019, students' projects Symbiome and Enzer were finalists in the challenge and project Enzer won the ORTA special prize for textile bio-innovation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
A year later, student project Aegis won the Victorian Premier’s Design Award in the student category whereas T’wine won a finalist position at the Taiwan International Student Design Competition. That year, I also won the 2020 Biodesign Challenge Outstanding Instructor Award.
THE OTHER PLACE: A PANDEMIC PROJECT
This exploratory work on biological approaches to design and fabrication and pluriversal design thinking — the latter continued through the Melbourne Speculative Futures network that I co-led with my colleague Sarah McArthur between 2018 and 2020 — led me to the formulation of two broad questions:
1- What would it take to retrofit inner-city skyscrapers into triple net zero (energy, water and waste) mixed-use towers catering for the needs of both human and nonhuman urban species?
2- And, how can we reimagine the public plaza for a world impacted by deteriorating environmental conditions and extreme weather events?
Cue The Other Place. A project I’ve worked on for nearly 15 months from the start of 2020 until mid-2021. Truth be told I’m not a huge fan of this piece of work.
It’s a pandemic project, full of escapism and idealism. Through it, however, I started to accumulate some knowledge of urban systems and infrastructures and even started to play with parametric modelling. My conclusion on the latter is that parametric design is a great technology to minimise the use of resources in design and manufacturing, but it is definitely better left to the expert (and now perhaps generative design, too).
I published a book chapter on this project, which is only scratching the surface of the things I’ve come to realise while doing the work. Very specifically, I find the images uninspiring and detached from reality whereas my message is about pragmatic action for alternative presents. The full truth is that I’m glad the low-fi black-and-white images used in the print version were also used in the digital version!
More importantly, one of my big takeaways while doing this work was to realise the huge potential of pre-consumer organic waste in designing sustainable materials, which is something that is now a core component of my new practice.
BACK TO BASICS: MATERIAL-DRIVEN DESIGN
At the start of 2021, I went from full speculative utopian thinking to sheer rationalism thanks to a circular and regenerative biomaterial project financed by a large chain of Australian supermarkets.
Our goal was to develop a waste-based bio-alternative to shrink wraps — these polluting and toxic single-use plastics used everywhere in manufacturing to protect consumers from product tampering.
To summarise the work done by my research partner at the RMIT School of Engineering, I wrote to the client one day: “Our analysis showed that shrink wraps are 90–95% composed of a synthetic plastic named PVC — an oil-based plastic responsible for carbon pollution and microplastic production. PVC ranks as one of the most hazardous microplastics with strong mutagenicity and carcinogenicity. The remaining 5–10% are composed of plasticiser that gives the material its properties. This plasticiser is made of phthalates, which are highly toxic molecules well-known for their detrimental effect on human health and the environment.”
Next time you peel off a jam jar, a fresh tube of toothpaste or a bottle of vodka, know that this is what we’re releasing in the environment day after day. Nevertheless, this project taught me about the technical aspects of material-driven design.
Pro-tip: partner with a material scientist when conducting this kind of project. Material-driven design is a great practice when materials are well characterised but has some limitations when working on material innovation projects — mainly, access to professional and state-of-the-art equipment for material testing and characterisation.
EMBRACING MORE-THAN-HUMAN DESIGN
When we start designing for circularity and regenerative futures, discussions of values and ethics very quickly come to the table. I started to genuinely question the anthropocentricity of my emerging practice sometime at the start of 2021, which quickly led me to adopt a more-than-human approach to designing.
The thing is, when one starts to read on the topic, the literature can be quite abstract and impenetrable. Ideas that are being discussed such as nonhuman agency or nonhuman labour are somewhat interesting from a conceptual perspective but are not very practical (especially when one talks about nonhuman agents like fungi or bacteria). It took me a couple of years to distil my thinking on the topic.
To make it short, I’ve explained my version of more-than-human design in Designing Conditions for Coexistence, a paper published in Design Studies and co-authored with some fantastic people. This version of more-than-human design is based on five principles:
1- Designing with living systems rather than for the living
2- Adopting an ethics of care
3- Applying circular and regenerative design strategies (see futureemsemble.co for a list of 10 circular and regenerative design strategies)
4- Embracing pluriversal thinking
5- And relinquishing control
I’ve also compared more-than-human design to other sustainable approaches to designing on my medium blog. The only change I’d make to this second piece of writing at this stage is that I now see circular and regenerative design as design methodologies (or strategies) rather than approaches.
FIVE YEARS SUMMED UP: FROM EXPLORATION INTO PRACTICE
Amid all of this, life and a few other things, I also had the chance to apply this new knowledge into practice.
From late 2019 to mid-2023, I worked on a healthcare project trying to answer the following (simplified) question: How can design prevent mental injuries in Victorian Healthcare workers? And what started as a classic design innovation project ended up as a trial of the new practice.
In the last phase of the project, I ended up prototyping two product innovations, with conventional attention to function, experience and cost but also material, fabrication processes, circularity and ecosystem regeneration.
While the prototyping of a pair of tailored and 3D-knitted scrubs made out of a cotton-seaweed blend was well-received and reached a stage where commercialisation is now a consideration, the prototyping of sound-absorbing and biodegradable 3D-printed furniture for a rest and recovery space is still in its infancy.
But no matter the progress made on each front, this project helped me validate my new practice and resulted in a wealth of new insights regarding the importance of pragmatism and commercial viability.
Five years summed up. ~ish. And if the goal is regeneration and strategies have been laid out — how do we ensure these transformative visions become practical and enduring realities?
Dr Olivier Cotsaftis (PhD, MBA) is a post-disciplinary researcher exploring pathways towards regenerative and more-than-human urban futures. At RMIT University School of Design, his work focuses on practical and scalable solutions for sustainable urban development, specifically in the areas of biomaterials and climate adaptation of the public place. Before joining RMIT, Ollie spent 10 years in Industry, engaging with start-ups, not-for-profits, governments and blue-chip companies. He was a design lead at Fjord Design and Innovation and the founder of future ensemble studio. Ollie is also an editorial board member for Research Methods: Biotechnology Design (Cambridge Press, UK).