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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Full Circle:
Why Place-Making Strategies Are the Next Sustainable Innovation Frontier

To unlock a self-sustaining, regenerative local system, an ecosystem of co-beneficiaries invested in the place and bound by a system of co-benefits is required.

The story of many large corporations is the story of growth from a local business to a global business. Now, risks to brand and business value from degenerative and wasteful practices are creating opportunities for businesses that embark on a place-based innovation strategy as part of their portfolio.

Many global businesses that depend upon natural ingredients (including General Mills, Nestlé and Unilever) are exploring ways to stimulate a regenerative agricultural system — which will help increase crop resilience to climate change and reduce supply vulnerability to the risks posed by biodiversity loss and the erosion of soil health caused by industrial farming. At the other end of the supply chain, risks to value for the incumbent corporations come in the form of circular businesses stealing share of pocket by circulating products and materials post sale. This is particularly obvious in the fashion industry, for example — where for many years, fast-fashion retailers (who saw unattractive displacement revenues), stood by as new-to-market resellers grew in market share and now threaten the sales of the incumbents in key demographic segments.

Switching to circular and regenerative systems can help secure value; but nevertheless, the business case for acting soon and the task of executing these systems is challenging — particularly when incumbents are conservative about their market role and want to apply traditional, industrial models of command and control and scale-up. Innovation at the beginning and end of a value chain, by definition, requires innovation within distributed local systems. Effective local ecosystems of regeneration leverage the uniqueness of place and community and work at a local economic scale. An incumbent, linear business may wish to benefit from this circular infrastructure but may not want to take on the risk and cost and be deeply involved in operating a business it isn't familiar with. You need others to step in.

When we reference effective, regenerative systems such as forests, we see that no single actor can as effectively circulate and regenerate value as a system of different actors working together. Equally, diversity is key to effectively feed off the value that regen ag or circular product systems offer. To unlock a self-sustaining, regenerative local system, an ecosystem of co-beneficiaries invested in the place and bound by a system of co-benefits is required. So, how might we catalyse that in an effective way — maximising benefits and minimising risks?

Adopting a multi-capital approach to circular ecosystem design enables designers to see and develop the link between the regeneration of natural capital or manufactured capital and the importance of regenerating human and social capital. For example, a social platform that enables the connection of people to people (discovering, learning, empowering); people to place; people to nature’s abundance; and people to craft and culture (designing and making stuff) is a great way to build an ecosystem of actors invested in the regeneration of natural capital or manufactured capital. For example, a fashion ecosystem might bring together local customisers/upcyclers, repairers and resellers (ex: the RCA’s Regenerative Fashion Hub); in food — perhaps organic food producers, regenerative farmers, local residents and eco-developers. A social platform helps create the enabling conditions for regeneration through the stimulation of market demand, investment and innovation. Building a place-based social platform that allows for the regeneration of social value can create a completely different way for regenerative systems to compete with the incumbent, linear systems of industrial agriculture or fast-fashion culture — a model that allows those emergent, regenerative systems to compete for the citizens’ (and other relevant parties’) attention and investment.

As well as potentially securing future value chains or growing your slice of circular pie by growing the circular pie, regenerating places responds to a growing social need. When so many of our experiences as consumers are transactional — driven by remote, globalised systems or isolated within digital media — local goods and services platforms have the potential to address these structural deficits in our lives if they can be a vehicle for more social and relational ways of interacting, co-creating and discovering in a community setting. It’s through the social setting — a place to interact with and appreciate local people, culture, craft and collaboration — that we can build more of a system for circularity and regeneration; the social platform is a Trojan Horse for regeneration.

As brands are increasingly under pressure to be ‘net positive’ — more regenerative than degenerative across natural, social and human capitals — social licence and brand value is on the line; and brands that produce a surplus of social value will in turn produce a surplus of brand value. This is backed up by a recent report from Accenture that highlighted people’s growing need for connection to others and looking after places. A brand that can help people feel connected to supporting social purpose would be rewarded by growth in its social licence.

At Regenovate, we passionately believe that we need to find a different way to activate these systems than the traditional top-down or one-size-fits-all model beloved by global corporations. This is about making systems that work at a local and global scale. It’s scaling deep in a few places to figure out the enabling conditions for a social platform that can be replicated elsewhere. It’s a classic case of being entrepreneurial — being open to new roles in the market and following value in your regional business ecosystem, rather than blindly following the past.