Startled by the Clarity of Regeneration

Several years ago, my friend and Capital Institute Advisor Simon Rich introduced a group of us to the hauntingly poetic wisdom of T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– “Little Gidding” from the Four Quartets

Put into the context of our work, exploring for an economy that serves people while respecting planetary boundaries, Eliot’s comforting words remind us that the answers are already in front of us if we can only learn to see.

At first slowly and steadily, and then recently with the rush of overwhelming force, I feel we too are arriving where we started and getting a glimpse of this “place” of regeneration – and indeed, the potential of a regenerative economy – and truly “knowing it” for the first time.

Our particular “exploration” is comprised of two complementary and reinforcing streams.  First is the practical discovery of regenerative initiatives and practices manifesting in the real world through the “Field Guide to Investing in a Regenerative Economy,” a project conceived and directed by my highly intuitive colleague Susan Arterian Chang, and through my own impact investment practice of Level 3 Capital Advisors, together with close investment partners and collaborators such as Armonia and RSF Social Finance.  This practice-led work is complemented and augmented by our intellectual quest for an over-arching conceptual framework, in collaboration with trans-disciplinary scholars and practitioners too numerous to name here.  What is emerging from this “practice informing theory” exploration is an alternative conceptual framework for an economy, grounded in a holistic, living systems worldview, that works for both people and planet over the long run.  We call it a Regenerative Economy.

Regeneration is not a new theory; it is not a political philosophy of the left or the right, nor simply a new name for an old idea – “sustainability.” Regeneration defines the evolutionary process itself, and it is our task, now, to bring our economic system into alignment with it. When we do, like turning a canoe downstream after a long struggle against the current, our journey will be lightened, our destination assured.

Please make some time – now or perhaps over the holidays – to explore with us the regenerative economy emerging in plain sight, here, through our Field Guide microsite, which we’re launching today.  Please, too, embrace our invitation to share your own regenerative stories with us and our community.  By creating a dedicated place for the Field Guide, we hope our audience will better be able to experience the interconnectedness of each of the initiatives. Like us, we expect you will see, and perhaps know for the first time, how they all become part of a greater whole, one story, the story of the emergent regenerative economy.

Two recent experiences exemplify the sudden rush of clarity we have experienced.  The first came from reading a beautiful new book, Two Birds in a Tree: Timeless Indian Wisdom Tradition for Business Leaders by strategy consultant Ram Nidumolu. Susan Arterian Chang’s must-read companion blog  beautifully connects the wisdom of the allegory of the two birds to the “Levels of Work” regenerative design framework we use in our forthcoming paper “Regenerative Capitalism.”  A summary excerpt of the two birds allegory from Ram’s book can be read here (see Chapter 1, page 15).


Ram’s illumination of the Hindu wisdom that he applies to business, if applied to the economic system as a whole, is unmistakably in alignment with our regenerative economy framework.  Indeed, as we discovered in our 3rd Millennium Economy project, the key insights of all the world’s wisdom traditions are remarkably in alignment with our modern scientific understanding of how the universe works, including the regenerative process that defines evolution, adding strong validation to the vision of a regenerative economy.

The second experience came through an awe-inspiring connection recently facilitated by friend and colleague Leo Burke, professor at Notre Dame’s business school, with the brilliant and truly remarkable Dr. David Martin.  You need to read his bio.

I will only touch on one aspect of Dr. Martin’s astonishing breadth of work, namely, his conception of “integral accounting,” [1] a community (or business) self-assessment that attempts to identify that community’s value attributes beyond the financial, and harmonize them into a balanced system of wealth recognition and development.  Integral accounting moves us away from the habit of neo-liberal economics that views the world through a lens of “scarcity,” to a new way of recognizing the astonishing “abundance” that exists if we can open our eyes to see it.

David described to us a few of the extreme examples of his group’s integral accounting initiatives, such as their work with the descendants of the horrific “Rape of Rabaul” (Papua New Guinea) where a population suffering from unspeakable pain (virtually the entire female population was raped during the war) underwent a regenerative transformation. The “regenerative process” of integral accounting has catalyzed over ten thousand self-organizing, self-empowering projects around the world over the past ten years – utilizing the previously unmanifested potential that exists all around us if we can only shift our mindset to one of abundance.  Note how similar this sounds to Yorman Nunez describing to us the work of the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (for more about this project see our Field Guide Incubator story):

We are often cited as the poorest urban county in the country, with all these negative statistics.  But if you look at our potential, what we could potentially be… It is easy once you change the framework you are using to look at these things.

– Yorman Nunez, MIT CoLab’s Just Urban Economics

Once again, a powerful affirmation of the regenerative idea, and most importantly for me, the realization that the reason this framing resonates so strongly with so many people when they come into contact with it, as it did when Bill Reed and Anthony Sblendorio introduced it to us at Capital Institute, is that it already is.  Regeneration is simply the description of the evolutionary process itself, never static, ever emergent.

By naming it, and telling the story of the emergent regenerative economy made possible only with our growing collaborative community, we aim to accelerate its manifestation in the world.  By highlighting the positive and vital role finance must play in service of its emergence, we hope to support its scaling up.   Through this process, we have begun to see clearly a new and positive purpose of capital – dare we say the essence of capital – so desperately needed, right now.  And…

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

[1] Not to be confused with the also important “integrated reporting” work in progress under the leadership of IIRC and SASB.