Sustainability is still anchored in the growth paradigm. We need a regenerative mindset.

We speak with Daniel Hires, Impact and social innovation strategist and facilitator for systemic transformation.

How would you describe yourself?

I’m a human from Planet Earth, who was lucky to be part of some pioneering work on global communities enabled through tech, impact entrepreneurship, and social innovation. 

Today I help teams and entrepreneurs reframe their challenges from a systems perspective, build resilience into their organisations, and embrace new leadership paradigms that bridge inner and outer change.

As your main areas of interest have evolved over time, what have been your key learnings?

As I was very fortunate to build a global social innovation community from a young age, I had the opportunity to travel the world to consult organisations, facilitate innovation workshops, and give talks about a better future. 

Then came 2016, and between Trump and Brexit I asked myself: “Who are you to tell anyone about the future? You didn’t see any of that coming.” And so, I stopped doing keynotes and talks, and practiced becoming a better listener. I started to dive deeper into systems thinking to make sense of the world, and even became an employee again – and followed a job offer from the UN that brought me to Barcelona.

During this time, I not only expanded my facilitation toolbox, but I came to understand that if we are motivated by a different WHY (impact over income), it’s not enough to change WHAT we do (social enterprise), but also HOW we do it. This included new paradigms of how to build and run impact organisations, but I finally understood the relationship between the inner development of people and their capacity to drive external change.

I finally understood the relationship between the inner development of people and their capacity to drive external change.

Tell us about a key area of concern/forward-thinking trend that you are currently working on?

One key mindset change is to move from a paradigm of sustainability to regeneration. This isn’t about replacing one buzzword for another (although I can see the danger of this lurking), but essentially, it’s the difference between not adding more harm to the planet, and actively helping life on Earth thrive again. 

I started working in sustainability in 2006, helping companies go ‘net-zero’ as we would say today. Being a sustainability professional back then was an uphill battle, it was far from a must-have and often not even a nice-to-have, and I never imagined that sustainability would become so center-stage. At the same time, my heart bleeds when I see the way that many of our efforts have been co-opted and greenwashed to continue business-as-usual.

For example, how many of the people who know about ESG ratings understand that it is not about assessing how much a company contributes to sustainability, but about the risk a degrading world poses to the ability of the company to make profits?

It shows that sustainability is still anchored in the growth paradigm, whereas a regenerative mindset is centered around the principles of life which creates conditions conducive to life, as Daniel Wahl so brilliantly puts it. This is where we need to start, and from this, we can deduce principles on how to design life-affirming systems and foster regenerative culture(s).

Do we need to re-assess the meaning of society's well-being, progress and growth?

Indeed, this is exactly what I believe we need to do. When we talk about growth and progress in a business context, we often mean economic growth, which is ultimately GDP growth. Whether you believe that there can be unlimited growth on a finite planet or not, the problem is deeper: It’s about what value even means.

To illustrate, think about a tree, perhaps you have one in front of your house as I do. That tree has absolutely no value to the economy until we cut it down and sell its wood. The tree produces oxygen, gives shade, reduces the ambient temperature – all this value is nothing to the economy.

We can see symptoms of this problem in the way we are destroying our natural habitat, exploiting the weakest of our fellow humans, driving climate change through atmospheric pollution, decimating biodiversity, and increasingly leaving behind a significantly altered planet. A PNAS study from 2018 concluded that of all mammals on Earth, 60% are livestock, and merely 4% are wild animals, with humans making up the difference. 70% of birds are chicken and other poultry. And this all comes back to haunt us, from the current pandemic to the all-time highs of mental health disorders and suicide rates in Western countries even before 2020. 

This is why I say that at this point, sustainability is simply not enough, but we need to regenerate and rewild life on this planet, so life can thrive and with it, our lives. I’d like to clarify that wellbeing is not about how often you get to visit a spa, but about building lives and livelihoods that more fully address real human needs such as connection, certainty, significance, or contribution.

Sustainability is simply not enough. We need to regenerate and rewild life on this planet, so life can thrive and with it, our lives.

How do you think the pandemic has impacted us as individuals, workers and collectively as citizens?

To be honest, I don’t know. The reason I’m not sure is based on an observation that we are increasingly living in our little bubble of reality. I wrote my university thesis in 2005 on ‘Cyberbalkanization’, since then I have been sensitised to this idea that one property of the internet (over one-to-many broadcasting media) is that confirmation bias in the selection of news and information leads us to increasingly live in echo chambers. What I can see, and perhaps this is skewed by my own bubble experience, is that this tendency is even more pronounced as remote working gives us more control over who we meet, thereby losing an element of serendipity as well as oftentimes only exposing us to the most extreme versions of people we disagree with, as the algorithms try to provoke strong emotional reactions. I believe this is a danger to our societies, and I believe it’s a part of the explanation of some of the unrest we see today.

Can we identify best practices by countries/cultures/sectors/generations in the way they are addressing current challenges and transitioning to the new environment?

To be honest, I don’t believe in best practices to simply imitate or follow what works for others. While we can learn from other examples, I think it’s not possible to skip the process of understanding your context, your ambitions, available resources, talents, and weaknesses when developing strategies and practices that work for you or your organisation. Not only do your employees and clients sense the lack of authenticity, blindly copying other practices undermines the entire process of leadership.

One set of practices that I often find useful is to ask how we can be better ancestors. Rather than following an investor’s logic of discounting the future, it’s useful to practice more long-term thinking, commonly termed ‘cathedral’ thinking or ‘seven generation stewardship’. It asks us to consider the impact of our decisions seven generations into the future. This idea stems from indigenous practices, whose wisdom I believe that we should turn to more often in these times of transition. Particularly working with company teams, this is a powerful way to broaden their perspective while distilling what matters, help step into a new mindset, and connect with a desire for the future that is deeply rooted within the (nowadays very inflationary) idea of ‘purpose’.

A great example of how this has been implemented in government is the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, established by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.T The Commissioner’s role is to be the guardian of future generations. This means helping public bodies and those who make policy in Wales to think about the long-term impact their decisions have. 

Another piece of indigenous wisdom is to look to and learn from nature, rather than seeing it as something hostile or that we should overcome. While the oldest company is barely 1500 years old, nature has been ‘innovating’ for millions of years. Biomimicry practitioners look to nature for technology and design inspiration, such as creating more efficient shapes and surfaces of cars and trains, however I believe there is even more potential in learning from nature’s principles when it comes to e.g. ecosystems thinking that fosters interconnection rather than isolation, collaboration rather than competition, alignment of capabilities rather than reproduction, and building organisations that are resilient rather than efficient. 

it’s useful to practice more long-term thinking, commonly termed ‘cathedral’ thinking.- It asks us to consider the impact of our decisions seven generations into the future.

You mentioned that you also work on inner change, can you explain this a bit more?

Einstein is quoted as having said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Looking systemically at any problem reveals its interrelatedness to other challenges, and I believe that what has gone unexamined over the past decades is the extent to which our ability to drive change in the world is limited by our inner capacities such as self-awareness, clarity, courage, presence, or empathy.

When I talk about transformational change and regenerative cultures, I believe it must start with ourselves, as we are often still stuck in these old narratives. For example, while we realise that challenges are complex and interconnected, our solutions often reflect a mechanistic/industrial thinking in which outputs can be generated by the right inputs and process – while a better metaphor is often that of a gardener that understands that while she can create the right conditions for seeds to grow.

One framework I support and work with is the Inner Development Goals (IDGs), which are a set of 23 skills and qualities of human inner growth we need in order to achieve the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Another approach I use is Theory U which was developed by MIT’s Otto Sharmer, which helps us develop collective leadership capacities based on an ecosystem awareness, and connecting to the source of one’s being and inspiration.

I know this can sound a bit out there to some people, but I notice a growing interest in this topic from business leaders, as they navigate uncertain and complex environments while dealing with high incidences of burn-out, serious mental health issues and personal relationship breakdowns. There is an increasing awareness that we are hitting the limits of the tayloristic models of control as well as technocratic, external solutions, and that this way of solving problems is in fact the problem. 

What keeps you motivated?

Despite the dire times we live in, I think growing up as a third-culture kid in different countries and cultures, and later spending a lot of time living out of a suitcase, have helped me thrive in uncertain conditions – so I’m motivated by a potential to contribute. 

I also consider myself extremely fortunate that I find deep meaning in my work, both on a personal level as well as the effects it has in the world. Between my professional network and clients, I get to work with some incredible people and the interactions with them enrich my life tremendously. Finally, my 3-year-old daughter is a great source of inspiration and motivation: I learn from her way of seeing the world, and she helps me connect to the generations that will follow – to whom I’m trying to be a good ancestor to.

One framework I work with is the Inner Development Goals (IDGs), which are a set of 23 skills and qualities of human inner growth we need in order to achieve the 17 SDGs.

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