Introduction to the Re:gen-u Project
The re:gen-u project seeks to harness the potential of HEIs to drive positive change and contribute to a regenerative economy. By fostering entrepreneurial mindsets, developing essential technology skills, and encouraging collaboration among academia, businesses, governments, and society, this initiative aims to empower participants with the tools to create sustainable solutions and business models that align with societal needs. Our project lead Ca-foscari University of Venice explore the role that universities should have in this transition and how the re:gen-u project strives to fulfil that role.
Since the industrial revolution, Western societies have based their economic growth on the so-called ‘extractive economy’ model, characterised by the exploitation of labour and resources. The indirect effects of this kind of model are innumerable – from the destruction of natural resources to colonization. On top of this are the social effects, including the gendering of consumption and the particular social organization of consuming groups (Wilk, 2004).
Further proof of the negative impact of an economy based on the extractive model is that non-renewable resources and associated capital are depleted or consumed, converting them solely into product and waste. This approach to growth is also referred to as ‘the linear model’ because a population increase corresponds to a linear increase in the extraction of natural resources. When applied to entire countries and continents, this results in an enormous increase in the consumption and waste of materials (Mazzucato & Semieniuk, 2020; Krausmann et al., 2009). This perpetual extraction is simultaneously polluting and depleting air, soil and water globally, and gradually accelerating climate change.
Policies towards the shift
The devastating effects of this economic model are not solely limited only to the environment, they have significant socio-economic consequences as well. As such, more recently western economies have recognized the need for a transition towards greater sustainability (Andreucci et al., 2021).
This recognition has led the European Union (EU) to implement the “Circular Economy Action Plan” to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy in Europe. At the same time, a stronger, shared vision of the circular economy is needed to boost ongoing efforts to modernise the EU industrial base to ensure its global competitive edge and preserve and restore the EU’s natural capital” (COM 2019/190) (Friant, 2021).
The EU has embarked on handful of sustainability and circular economy policies in recent years, starting with the creation of a ‘sustainable, low-carbon, resource-efficient and competitive economy’ (COM 2015/614), and ending with the conception of the European Green Deal (2019) with the overall goal of making the EU climate neutral in 2050. As well as this came the revision of EU directives for 2030, and the increased involvement of the European Investment Bank (EIB), to enhance the shift towards sustainable practices.
These actions, together with the adoption of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development (2015), demonstrate the EU’s intent to promote and ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. This approach will hopefully lead towards a comprehensive and systematic transformation of the economy, infrastructure and way of life in all EU member states.
Concerning the concept of sustainability, it is valuable to highlight the definitions provided by the RESTORE Working Group:
- Limiting impact. The balance point where we give back as much as we take.
- Restoring social and ecological systems to a healthy state.
- Enabling social and ecological systems to maintain a healthy state and to evolve.
In these terms, to be healthy, an economic system should strive to be “regenerative”, resulting in a deep change, not only for built environment processes and buildings, but for the people and for the planet (Brown et al., 2018). According to Fath (2019), the elements of regenerative economics fall into four main categories: 1) circulation; 2) organizational structure; 3) relationships and values; and 4) collective learning.
The role of HEIs
Higher education institutions (HEIs) involvement in regional innovation systems is vital for fostering economic development, promoting regional competitiveness, and supporting the growth of knowledge-based industries and the development of the knowledge-based economy (Gunasekara 2004). In terms of promoting and developing more sustainable societies, HEIs can play an important role triggering new sustainability values, attitudes, and behaviour in future regenerative societies (Ferrer-Balas et al., 2009; Sonetti et al., 2016; Wright, 2010).
For decades, universities have been stimulating economic growth through industrially relevant research, technology commercialization, high-tech spin-offs, and developing talents. Despite this, there is an emerging need for academia to support a more sustainable action through entrepreneurial activities and policies developed in the regenerative economy field.
Author: Luciana Gualdi, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice