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Can We Scale a Regenerative Business Model? Yes, in Fractals

Image credit: Superuse Studios Rotterdam. Used with permission.

Regenerative businesses appear all around us. And everybody who reads my work knows I applaud them. I support them. And I’m part of several teams that create them.

They are the future! They are the best way to combine business with purpose. They will be an important key for people, planet, and prosperity for all species.


Regenerative business models take many forms. Sometimes they are social start-ups who use natural processes to create value for more species than just people.

Some stay small and have a great impact by sharing their stories and using systemic design. They will create multiple benefits (including multiple income streams) to make the model work.

Some grow into being large, influential companies that create a better world in the process of doing business. Whatever form they take, regenerative businesses are game-changers…

What am I talking about? Here are some features of regenerative businesses. And of great entrepreneurs who change the rules of their game.

Regenerative businesses always:

  • Use systemic design. They create their business in such a way that it fits within natural ecosystems, being productive for humans as well. It is the ultimate people-planet-prosperity model with systemic thinking as a driver

  • Use abundantly available materials. An example is Novamont in Italy. This (large) biorefinery produces smart chemicals from abundantly available thistles. Their plastics e.g. are fully biodegradable in soil and water. Waste is used as an abundant resource as well. It is designed consciously as part of the business model and either used within the company itself or used by partners in a collaborating ecosystem. No linear thinking, always systemic thinking with responsibility for all outputs of your business

  • Create multiple benefits. Regenerative businesses will act from a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity. An example is Dycle in Berlin. In this case, the benefits are sixfold and counting… A fully compostable diaper without plastics or chemicals to harm the babies. Local community forming for parents. Fertile soil. Land restoration. Fruit trees and food. These are a wealth of benefits, aren’t they? And they all feed on each other in the business model because of their synergy

  • Innovate using nature as a compass. Biomimicry can be an inspiration here. Or many unused technologies within (quantum) physics, biology, and green chemistry that are mentioned in the more than a hundred Blue Economy cases. Two inventors, I am personally in awe of, created a company called Blue Earth Innovations. This company uses quantum physics to change the world of water, health, and food production. And in the future, perhaps they will change the world of energy and many more basic needs

  • Have a long term scope. The business will map out its synergy elements that will build upon each other’s value to create its model. Then the entrepreneur will choose wisely which element to build on first. A driver here is minimum effort combined with maximum impact. You cannot do everything at once and you have to take care not to dilute your energy. Always keep the long term vision in mind and do not compromise on short term gain if it will endanger the long term vision

  • Use stranded assets to finance the start if starting big. Or to finance the scale-up in its growth process. One example is the earlier mentioned Novamont, that used money and buildings from a closing oil refinery to get started as a biorefinery. Another example is Rotterzwam. They started small, producing oyster mushrooms on coffee waste in the city. Their scale-up process involved an impact investor buying the location (a huge, empty tropical swimming pool at the edge of the city, a real stranded asset…). They turned the building into Blue City (see picture at the top of this article). Several years and lots of collaboration with other start-ups, labs, an architect, and other entrepreneurs later, they are an example to many…

“When we look at what is truly sustainable, the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world” -Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute

Okay, so far some examples of smaller and bigger regenerative companies. One thing they have in common is that they make the most of ALL they have. So have a good look around and see what is of value that you can use to create multiple benefits for all in your company.

First of all, I want to stress that scaling up can never be a goal in itself, although it might be a real motivator for some entrepreneurs. For me personally, it wouldn’t be. I’m perfectly happy in my freelance company that creates multiple benefits for all and I have no desire for scaling up. My company creates in collaboration:

  • Healthy food in several food forests

  • Healthy buildings in collaborating with Dutch and German partners in the Healthy Building Network

  • Healthy soil in a project with Dutch farmers

  • Healthy water and healthy food in my scaling-up contribution to Blue Earth Innovations and other regenerative businesses

  • Inspiration by lecturing, writing, and collaborating in teams of startups, established companies, universities, and governments

  • Expertise by fulfilling my role in the European Commission

  • Explanation of complexity and systemic design, making it easier to handle

  • One new project for 2020 is: the Island (r)Evolution, motivating islands to build their own regenerative economy, kicked off with a talk in January at Green School Bali. Followed up by a webinar on regenerative island economies with Connectle in May

  • And whatever comes my way next…

If you want to know more about my way of creating a ‘right livelihood’, earning your keep and making an impact without scaling up, keep following me, I will write about it sooner or later… But some entrepreneurs have a bigger picture in mind. They find it easier than I do to handle bigger money and bigger risks in the hope to create a bigger impact. That’s okay. Everybody is different and I’m convinced we all have our own role to play. So how can we scale a regenerative business model? We cannot do it the regular way, the linear way, because a whole network of stakeholders will be involved in the business. We will be locally connected and we do not want to ship our products all around the world. So how do we scale?

Scaling in Fractals

Regenerative businesses will always be scaled in fractals. Every hub has its own optimum size and its own embedding in the environment. Networks will be shared but will also be built locally with appropriate partners for the new hub.

When building a new hub, please keep sight of:

  • Never copy-paste from the first hub to the new one. Always copy-morph and adapt the new hub to the new location and its culture, availability of resources, etc.

  • The new location might mean another resource material. We will always look at what is locally and abundantly available, so that might be a different resource material (rest stream or biomaterial or else) in the new location

  • Even production processes might change if e.g. human energy might be more scarce in a new location or if the culture is completely different

  • Because we will produce as much as possible for a local market, the products itself might be different if the needs are different. Or the branding might be adapted

  • Regenerative businesses are always embedded in a network. This might mean that collaboration partners have different views, different needs and your products will adapt itself to that fact

That said, in our examples, Blue City might not be located in a tropical swimming pool in the next city, but maybe in an empty factory. And Novamont might not use thistles, but nettles, algae or industrial hemp for its biochemicals on a new location outside Italy. The financial people I speak to, all say the same. We need to ask completely different questions for scaling a regenerative business. It’s not just about Return on Investment (ROI) and cash flow anymore.

We need to really ask ourselves:

  • What are the benefits for all species, including humans?

  • What are the possible negative consequences of a bigger scale?

  • What is the optimum size of one hub? In every case, that might be different, depending on the products and the locations…

  • How do we make sure the synergy in all of our activities will really create the multiplier effect in the company and make the business model work as desired?

  • How do our relationships with customers and suppliers contribute to each other’s performance and create a community of win-win-win for basic needs?

  • Also, keep asking yourself questions about a fair way of distributing the money flows. How to share it between the startup, the next hub, the people involved in making the real product or providing the service, the benefits for suppliers, etc.

Deal with Death in Your Company

From ‘Qualitative Growth’, an essay that has been written by Fritjof Capra and Hazel Henderson, comes this extract:

“A developing organism, or ecosystem, grows according to its stage of development. Typically, a young organism will go through periods of rapid physical growth. In ecosystems, this early phase of rapid growth is known as a pioneer ecosystem, characterized by rapid expansion and colonization of the territory. The rapid growth is always followed by slower growth, by maturation, and ultimately by decline and decay or, in ecosystems, by so-called succession. As living systems mature, their growth processes shift from quantitative to qualitative growth.”

Maybe the most important part of scaling regenerative business models is that the entrepreneurs should not be afraid to let certain parts of their company die at some stage. Just because these products or services do not serve the world anymore. Technology might have changed, circumstances might have altered.

And companies should act upon that in order to remain purposeful… It will be hard. “Kill your darlings…” But I certainly find it an interesting aspect of regenerative businesses.

Of course, in order to make the death of certain products and services acceptable, it helps to have a diverse portfolio within the company. I’m not suggesting your company as a whole should die. We’re here to change and adapt and keep the purpose of our actions in line with basic needs.

Company Branding

And here comes an important aspect of your company branding. It is very wise to have a strong WHY which is broader than just one product. Your company should have a zoomed-out ‘why’ that really embraces a basic need.

  • transport instead of just cars

  • food instead of just apple juice

You’ll get the gist…

I really would like to hear from entrepreneurs who scale their regenerative business. How do you do it? And how do you deal with the matter of death, decline, decay? Please, leave your answer in the comments, and let’s learn from each other.

And whoever wants to connect, do not hesitate to find me on LinkedIn or somewhere enjoying my freelance right livelihood, contributing to regenerative projects…

This article first appeared in 2020 on Medium.

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