What opportunities could a transition to a regenerative economy offer environmentally, socially and economically? What role can universities, businesses and governments have in this transition? We have reached a key moment in which we need to act; we are already seeing the effects of climate change and we must quickly mobilise and make alliances to minimise the damage and work towards a sustainable and just future. As part of the re:gen-u project, UIIN have been in conversation with regenerative economy experts from across the Netherlands to find out what first steps we can take in this transition. The following insights are taken from these interviews.
What is the regenerative economy?
and even green growth. Whilst the definitions explored in our interviews were multivarious, they each shared a common characteristic: placing life at the centre of our socio-economic activities. Rather than the typical focus on quantitative growth and GDP, the regenerative economy focuses on qualitative growth in ecosystems, communities and individuals.
At present in the Netherlands, the concept of the circular economy dominates the political and research agenda for sustainability, and the country has ambitious plans to be fully circular by 2050. Government-wide plans for circularity tend to focus most thoroughly on ecological and raw materials aspects of sustainability, and relatively less on financial and human aspects.
The Netherlands still has a neoliberal capitalist economy, that places value on the continuous pursuit of economic growth; this is simply not sustainable. Perhaps our biggest challenge, therefore, is how to change the deeply ingrained growth-oriented mindset towards a regenerative one and engage actors from government, higher education, and the private sector.
There is currently a crisis of imagination in our governments; they are suffering from an inability to challenge the status quo and imagine anything other than the current system. However, this is a key moment for policymakers to reassess what they are doing and for what purpose. They have a large role to play in not only in policy-making but also in raising awareness to nurture the mindset shift towards the regenerative economy.
The reality is that we need to employ a full range of diverse policy instruments that target different intended outcomes, whether its behaviour, technological uptake, upscaling, R&D, etc. Governments must break down institutional silos and set ambitious and explicit regulations, targets, and incentives to create a clear picture for the private sector of what they must be doing to comply with the transition. Governments must also stand their ground in the face of resistance to sustainability policies from big corporations. However, though strict targets at the top level are needed, policy should simultaneously also allow for flexibility and experimentation on the smaller scale, providing the leeway for people to try alternative models.
Higher education (HE)
The HE sector also represents a key intervention point in the transition to a regenerative economy as they have direct access to talent and shape their future. etc. The role of HEIs, according to one interviewee, is ‘’to function as amplifiers of knowledge creation, transfer, and accessibility so that the diffusion of key concepts and exchange of ideas in society at large can be accelerated.’’
At present, the HE system is focussed on individual gains (e.g. publications), and often hinders collaboration and knowledge exchange. It would help if universities offered more teaching- or engagement-centred career tracks. HEIs also need to break down silos to stimulate cross-disciplinary and systematic thinking about these challenges.
Furthermore, our interviewees expressed how disciplines such as law, economics, and history are taught from a very classical perspective. These disciplines should instead offer courses with pluralistic perspectives that teach theories outside the mainstream, e.g., doughnut or degrowth economics that take into account planetary boundaries. Interviewees argues that courses should also become more engaging for students. They should expand on theoretical and practical relevance, utilising innovative pedagogies such as challenge based learning, hackathons and industry involvement in curriculum design and delivery. Topics of sustainability and politics are often very polarising and thus students should be equipped with not only the facts but the skills to communicate their point of view.
The private sector is perceived among interviewees as both a help and hindrance in the regenerative transition. The sector makes up a large share of the world’s biggest polluters and large corporations have often lobbied against environmental regulation on the national and international scale, standing firm in the way of progress. However, for the sustainability and viability of their future business, corporations need to show genuine care about the sustainability transition, as young people have shown that they do not want to work for companies who are not addressing the topic.
At the same time, the private sector has a massive opportunity here and can channel their focus on developing products and services to change consumption and social behaviour and provide people with regenerative alternatives. One interviewee listed the path forward for companies thusly:
- First, companies must understand their impact
- They then must account for this impact in a way that is not just financial but that accounts for other forms of capital (social, natural etc.)
- Thereafter, companies can think about measures of internalizing those costs and reducing their negative impacts over time
In the transition, there are plenty of business opportunities; we need innovation from both old and new players, both entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship. The ‘learn as you go’ mindset within the sector means there is a lot of energy and scope. This energy is crucial to driving the regenerative economy forward. We need to burst the current “endless growth” bubble that holds us all captive.
One way the priorities of the private sector could be pivoted is by adopting a ‘stewardship’ business model, as seen in the much-publicised actions of Patagonia. In this way, the focus shifts from trying to maximise profit for shareholders to actively contributing to the mission of the company.
Resistance to the transition is largely about fear; a fear of change and having to give up one’s current lifestyle, and also fear that quality of life will worsen. Awareness raising, knowledge and best practice sharing is therefore crucial to demonstrate the benefits and the necessity of the transition.
In order to successfully transition, we need commitment from all sectors, be it universities, businesses, governments or wider civil society. We must build a coalition of the willing across these sectors and collaborate to achieve a regenerative and just future.