This article was originally published at the Network for Business Sustainability's Thought Leaders blog

Cut back. Reduce harm. Do without. Use less stuff. Be less bad.

Stripped down to these blunt phrases, the prevalent narrative surrounding sustainability — one based on ideas about constraints, limits and damage mitigation — is painfully demotivating. No one wants to jump on the bandwagon of sacrifice.

The narrative of constraint is also problematic because it doesn’t go far enough. The logical extension of less impact and less damage is net zero. And that isn’t good enough. We need to restore and regenerate the environment and human quality of life.

Regenerative sustainability

An alternative approach — one being explored at The University of British Columbia (UBC) — is called regenerative sustainability. This may be best explained with a question: To what degree can human activity actually improve both environmental quality and human well-being?

If actions can be regenerative in this way, then the agenda shifts from constraints and limits to opportunity and the achievement of net positive results. The goal is not to minimize human activity but to direct it in positive ways.

Regenerative sustainability is framed as a question for a reason. It’s not clear whether, or what kinds of, human activities can be regenerative. Buildings? Industrial processes? Transportation systems? Cities?

Many people are working on making buildings net positive, though usually only in environmental terms. The next step is to extend that thinking to social outcomes and to the design and analysis of larger systems. Could a neighbourhood produce more energy than it consumes, clean the water in its location, and improve the productivity and creativity of its inhabitants? These are the kinds of questions we need to explore.

See the video above for more on regenerative sustainability.

Taking action

The challenges of sustainability are real and urgent and it is not enough to simply pose regenerative approaches. They must be articulated, implemented, and evaluated.

That, surely, is the role universities should play: the clarification and analysis of what is meant by regenerative activity and whether, when and how it can be achieved. This is an important research agenda, and one being vigorously pursued at UBC. The university’s entire physical plant will become a testing ground where the institution and private, public and NGO partners test, study, teach, apply and share in the wider world lessons learned, technologies created and policies developed.

A regenerative building

A hub for this research effort is the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS).

The CIRS building has been designed to be net positive in six ways: three environmental and three human. The 60,000-square-foot building will reduce campus energy use and carbon emissions and improve the quality of water flowing through the site.

On the human side, CIRS is intended to make its inhabitants healthier, more productive and happier by providing benefits including natural light on all working surfaces and significant control over the physical work environment — temperature, lighting and ventilation and more. It will be a few years before it’s clear whether the building has reached net positive goals.

A challenge to you

Meanwhile, I encourage you to consider how you might take steps to move closer to regenerative sustainability in your offices, product development labs, construction sites or wherever your expertise situates you. In what ways can you move from doing “less bad” (using less energy, producing less waste) to actually improving the human and physical environment through your actions?

John Robinson is a professor and associate provost for sustainability at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Robinson, the leader of the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, was named Canadian Environmental Scientist of the Year for 2012 by Canadian Geographic. Robinson was a report co-author and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, awarded the Nobel Prize with Al Gore in 2007.

A Canadian non-profit established in 2005, the Network for Business Sustainability is a powerful and growing network of international academic experts and business leaders, produces authoritative resources on important sustainability issues. NBS Thought Leaders offer guidance on sustainable business models for the 21st century. Thought Leaders are leading academics and practitioners: world experts on sustainability issues.

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