Regenerative Tech: Slow Down & Mend Things
10 design lenses for building regenerative technologies within regenerative business models that can repair our fragmented world—and why we need ‘embodied wisdom’ and wise leadership to wield them properly
The Dream Of Technology-Driven Disruption For Mass Emancipation & Empowerment
It was early 1999 and the dot-com extravaganza was in full swing. My only interest in technology to date was my old Zx Spectrum and the Playstation (my main account at the ad agency I was then a strategist at). A colleague sent me a link to an online pamphlet called The Cluetrain Manifesto. It discussed, in a language I could understand, how the internet was changing business forever.
A notion began to take root: could technology, with its capacity to create networks of passionate people, be used to connect us all up and empower us to be better together? Could it disrupt old and entrenched forms of power-knowledge that had ruled the world for so long? Could it deliver psychological and social emancipation at scale?
Within weeks I was co-founder of a start-up to help tech companies start-up and scale-up world-changing and ground-breaking technologies (and media) through insightful brand strategies, human-centered innovation, and employee creativity and empowerment. We ended up working with loads of dot coms—and then pivoted, when they disappeared, to working with people like Microsoft (on mobile apps before the App Store) and the BBC (on the most successful TV show of all time).
As I write in Spiritual Atheist: A Quest To Unite Science And Wisdom Into A Radical New Life Philosophy to Thrive In The Digital Age:
“Whether we want to share ideas, money, our apartment, data, love, or anything else, we can do it together through technology, peer to peer as opposed to an expert to consumer. The internet allows us to organize ourselves without hierarchies and to draw on the wisdom of many people?—?the crowd?—?to create solutions to our problems in ways nobody could have dreamed only a few decades ago. Digital technology is rewiring the world, inviting us to become more networked and connected to make full use of it.
In fact, the evolution of digital code and social technologies might well be nature’s way of healing the emotional and social alienation that technology itself created. Like the dock leaf that grows near the nettle, ready with an antidote to the pain, digital technology has the power to help us heal the psychological, social, and ecological wounds inflicted by the technologies and work conditions that characterized the Industrial Age. Thus within our grasp, perhaps for the first time in human history, is the tangible possibility of a just and equal society for all.”
From Toxic Tech To Regenerative Tech That Leaves the World Better
However, 20-odd years later, much of that promise has not been realized. Facebook’s motto, conceived by Mark Zuckerberg, to “move fast and break things” has become the default rallying cry for Silicon Valley. However, as an industry, it has led us to a precarious place: we have created digital solutions to just about everything apart from our genuine human needs for inner peace, shared wealth and wellbeing, collective meaning, a true sense of social belonging, and a deep interdependent and sustainable connection to nature.
We have moved fast. We have broken much (including our own entrepreneurial ethical commitments and nervous systems).
The results can be seen literally wherever we look: from teenage girls driven to self-harm and suicide by cyberbullying and FoMo to rampant speculation in shares and cryptocurrencies, impoverishing many who can least afford it; and burning up fossil fuels in the process. To buy one cheap NFT via the blockchain, uses the same amount of energy that the average American citizen uses in a month. With some modeling predicting that we have already gone past a 1.5 degree world, we need no more ecologically- and socially- destructive tech of any kind.
“[T]he ‘move fast and break things’ era is over. “Minimum viable products” must be replaced by “minimum virtuous products”?—?new offerings that test for the effect on stakeholders and build in guards against potential harms.” Hemant Taneja, Harvard Business Review
But the true social, psychological, and ecological costs of everything from Facebook to Bitcoin are only just becoming clear. However, this is not the place to list the toxicity of much 21st technology. I have written on the problems of speed and scale in entrepreneurship in Slow Start-Ups To Avoid The Toxic Shadow of Tech.
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It is easy to critique the excesses of the tech world from atop a moral high ground. What is much, much harder is to go beyond deconstruction to reconstruction: to build technology that is more healthy, balanced, and holistic in place of the old.
This piece is for those who want to build world-changing technologies that restore, repair, and regenerate our crisis-hit world. It has one clear intent: to lay down some key principles to bear in mind, and hold in our hearts, when we attempt to leverage digital-anything to land a positive impact.
I am writing for you-all; but also for me and my team—to guide us as we innovate and scale. We are currently breaking ground on a tech-delivered “embodied wisdom” app (more on what this later) that leverages AI, VR/XR, and our own human development technology (developed over 30 years) Bio-Transformation Theory & Practice to help people heal their own pain and step into their own creative and purposeful power.
I am also a co-founder of a regenerative business consultancy. So it is crucial that I walk the talk we espouse: and use our shared understanding of regenerative principles and practices to develop a tech play that is as regenerative as possible. I have already staked out 15 criteria for creating any brand, business model, or project to be regenerative. Now I want to focus on the specific tech/design features that I believe may be intrinsic to a really regenerative technology play.
Overcoming Digital Affordances For Alienation & Abstraction, Exploitation & Extraction
The recalibration of our understanding of how to design, develop, and deploy tech cannot happen fast enough. This is because technology has inbuilt affordances that, without conscious leadership, tend towards alienation, extraction, exploitation, and extraction at speed.
The capacity for digital to scale at speed means that poorly designed tech solutions can impact tens of millions, for good or ill, in months and not decades. It took TikTok just 18 months to reach 1 billion downloads. Sadly, the default paradigm in the modern world is to use the power of technology to make the capitalist machinery go around at an ever-increasing velocity.
Technology and disruptive innovation?—?the term that is used to describe epistemological breaks that ‘free’ us from old business systems?—?are neutral. They can lead to liberation, or they can thrust us into more suffering.
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While all human tools are agnostic like this—a knife can save a life as much as end one—digital technology is particularly challenging to wield wisely—with wise leadership—as it is the end result of the quintessentially modern project to abstract and rationalize our world.
Software is totally disembodied from the messy, chaotic, and contradictory wetware of human nature. The machine age has reached its zenith in Amazon algorithms to flog stuff, and Facebook feeds to monetize attention.
Therefore digital tech has underlying affordances within it which lead us to algorithmize complex and almost certainly not-entirely-linear human consciousness in service of accumulating vast profits at lightning speed.
Precisely because it is disembodied and abstracted from human hearts, code has an inbuilt tendency to allow its inventors to exploit our less angelic natures: our insatiable desire for more money, likes, followers, sex, power, status, and stuff that is driven by a dopaminergic reward pathway in our brains that feeds on anticipation, not satiation.
Simply put, our world-planet cannot cope with more digital creations emanating from disembodied minds that lead to more schisms in our collective hearts; and more devastation in our shared communities and ecologies. The world does not need any more technologies that alienate, exploit, and extract at pace.
At the same time, it is highly unlikely that we can meet all our true human needs across 9 billion people without high-tech solutions. We need technology to play a major role in the reduction of carbon, pollution, and waste; and in the meeting of intense needs around nutrition, safety/shelter, health, education, social connection, and more across a complex global economy of billions.
For technologists, old and new, the urgency of shifting direction towards regenerative technology—transforming society’s problems from the inside out—is paramount. If we don’t make this shift, we will merely accelerate the degeneration of our planet as a living system; and ourselves as living elements within this wholeness. So the challenge is: how do we build technologies from this place that resolve the unprecedented 4 crises of advanced modernity?
To jump to the chase, here are some key design lenses, written in the form of “Guiding Questions”, to consider when developing digital anything. This is far from being comprehensive and complete— it is but a start. There are also some brilliant ones by Hemant Taneja here.
10 Design Lenses For Building Regenerative Technologies
- How do we design our technology to create very low or zero carbon emissions—and actually, ideally, being able to draw down carbon and sequester it in some way without relying on offsetting by third parties as a solution—always being prepared to downgrade service in order to minimize damage to the environment (e.g. 4K/UHD streaming generates four times emissions of standard def)
- How can we use business activities, purpose/passion/energy, and ‘waste’ to rejuvenate and/or regenerate the complex web of life/biome within which our offices, servers, and sales and marketing touchpoints exist—and bring abundant over-flowing connection, a sense of inherent and always-existing wholeness, and life-enhancing conditions into the rhizomatic human relationships that make, service, and run our tech?
- How do we surface and challenge hidden assumptions that underpin our technology about 1) human nature?—?especially those that disempower and diminish every human being’s innate capacity for strength, fullness, wholeness, healing, health, connectivity, love, and creativity?—?and 2) ecological nature?—?especially those that assume we can continue to drive limitless economic and industrial growth indefinitely on one shared planet?
- How do we slow everything down, including the rate of return to investors, so we make appropriately regenerative decisions based on reflection and intuition as much as data and information—building and expanding our tech in a patient, sustainable, nature-based (seasonal?) rhythm that is in tune with 1) the human body’s limits for toxic stress and overwhelm and 2) the planet’s limits on carbon, waste, extraction, etc.?
- How do we ensure we help our users transform their pain and patterning with our tech so they become more healed/whole, loved/loving, ‘full’/ embodied with our technology, rather than triggering individual and collective trauma, stress, alienation, loneliness, and addictions (that usually result in both technology producers and consumers becoming more disembodied, alienated, and dissociated)? Or, to put it more biologically, how do we avoid over-stimulating the Executive Control Network’s desire to predict and manage away risk, frailty, chaos; and the dopaminergic reward pathways’ desire for constant surprise and anticipation (e.g. addiction-driving loot boxes and Likes)?—?and instead trigger more connective, curious, compassionate, creative pathways, such as those facilitated by oxytocin (love), acetylcholine (learning), and the Default Mode Network (divergent thinking)?
- How will our technology reduce or alleviate pre-existing structural injustices in our society (those driven by economic, gender, class, race, access to finance, crime, etc. etc.)—and increase access to important life-sustaining and life-affirming services that meet genuine human needs of the many, not the desires of the few?
- How will our technology foster vulnerable, open-hearted, curious, compassionate, authentic, and reciprocal relationships—with sharing of genuine data and insight—as opposed to stimulating posturing, patriarchal power and status games, acquisition of followers, FoMo, misinformation, righteousness, outrage, etc. etc.
- How can we generate an honest exchange of value for our service/experience that is sensitive to low-income people’s capacity to afford technologies—and that avoids hijacking our human desires for content and connection to leverage personal data and eyeballs for profit in a manipulative and dishonest way?
- How could we use our tech to stimulate acupuncture points / sweet-spots in the system where small(ish) interventions that could generate large-scale social and ecological impact—whilst, concurrently, mitigating/avoiding “unexpected returns” of our technology (e.g. the US funding/training Usama Bin Laden to fight the Soviets in the 1980s; and the UK funding/training Mussolini to keep the Italians fighting in WW1)?
- How do we ensure that we avoid excessive concentration of ownership and power with our tech?—?ensuring there is diverse and distributed ownership for genuine long-term stewardship and working to co-create ‘markets’ in an interdependent ecosystem vs. the “crush the competition” mentality of existing tech culture?
By these criteria, few existing technologies that have been scaled are regenerative.
However, many green shoots are rising: the use of CRISPR in therapeutic medicines for currently incurable diseases; the use of solar to purify and desalinate water; the use of Clubhouse for Native American land/community restoration; a decentralized worldwide web, like that developed by Tim Berners-Lee; blockchain-enabled waste processing, sustainable fishing, and workers’ welfare; and reduced inequality from DeFi.
So how do we make the shift happen?
There Will Be No Regenerative Tech Without Embodied Wisdom In Technologists
The challenge is that stating design lenses like these, talking about “tech for good”, developing ethics teams, funding institutes, writing papers, creating media, and spreading purpose statements in tech companies… is easy.
But it all means little to nothing without courageous ‘transformational leaders’ to execute such ideals in the ‘heat of action’: where expectations for us entrepreneurs to deliver 10x or 100x ROI/IRR, crucial cuts in CAC and CPA, and major momentum in MAU, MRR, and MOM media growth can trump all care, compassion, and interconnectivity.
No tech is perfect and the shift won’t happen immediately. But if we slow down enough to ask, dwell, inquire, and make wise decisions that integrate data/mechanistic realities/capitalist expectations with our (healing) heart’s intuitions about what is important for a world that works… then we have the possibility to use this agnostic medium to sustain our species and society; and resolve the 4 crises.
Let me be clear and candid: the entirety of modern reality is stacked against the possibility of making mainstream tech regenerative. The dominant paradigm of the last few hundred years is to choices that promote alienation over connection; extraction over contribution; exploitation over restitution; and accumulation over communion.
The sheer weight of nerves within us conditioned over a lifetime to fire in ways that drive control/protection/accumulation/extraction/exploitation?—?within a system that is premised around rewarding such protective patterns with power, prestige, and profit?—?is almost too much to resist.
Our cognitive biases and assumptions about the role of business, human (customer/user) nature, and the value of technology will resist the development of regenerative tech.
Anchoring in biases are emotional ‘neural signatures’ from past experiences that often have us defend against perceived threats—that rarely exist in a physical form—with addictions to work, fiery competition, and unnecessary aggression rather than working towards shared human flourishing.
If we have experienced emotional wounding, not being seen/liked/loved, social pain, decreased status, separation anxiety, and any form of trauma?—?and let’s face it, who hasn’t??—?our cognition, and so our behavior, around tech, will be clouded by greed and neediness (to be liked, respected, etc.). We all have egos that demand to be special, rich, liked, and recognized—until we wake up and grow up that is.
Until we have consciously evolved our consciousness within, we will continue to make choices that increase our power/status, financial rewards, and social recognition?—?rather than those that seek to contribute to society from a pervading sense of mutual interdependence.
Until we tame our inner urges with disciplined self-mastery, contemplative and/or ecstatic embodiment practices, relentless pattern-spotting, willingly regular soul-searching, continuous trauma-healing, and endless purpose-clarifying.
When we do this over a sustained period, we develop embodied wisdom?—?which they don’t teach this on MBAs (at least, not the ones I’ve been invited to teach on). We can only be really regenerative technologists if we have enough embodied wisdom within.
None of us can be exempt from the intense seductions of building more toxic tech?—?even if we have done lots of work on ourselves?—?until we have embodied and integrated into our daily decisions the wisdom we have acquired about what the planet, our people, and our own hearts are crying out for. Only sufficiently healed (and still healing) hearts have the cognitive coherence and purposeful action needed to regenerate rather than extract/exploit.
As I go into much more detail in Now Lead the Change: Repurpose Your Career, Future-Proof Your Organization, and Regenerate Our Crisis-Hit World by Mastering Transformational Leadership, developing and deepening our embodied wisdom is the prerequisite for truly transformational leadership.
Here is a working definition of “embodied wisdom”:
When presented with problems and challenges in the outside world, we have the resources to first feel, sense, and understand— in a holistic and nuanced way—various forms of guidance within our own body and mind (what we call the 6 Is: information, instinct, intuition, insight, imagination, intelligence).
We have the capability to ensure that our felt senses, emotions, beliefs, and behaviors around an issue are grounded in a stable, grounded, and whole center—and so are free of the distortions, destabilizations, and defenses that arise when we have unacknowledged, unprocessed, and untransformed social pain, trauma, addiction, and stress. This inner wisdom then turns back towards, and into, the outer world…
As we then ‘metabolize’ the problems and challenges we are presented from the inside out, leading to coherent meaning-making, co-creative decision-making, and compassionate form-making that solves concrete problems inn a way that fits the moment—and is always oriented towards fostering thriving, interdependent, and reciprocal relationships with each other and nature; and the tangible alleviation of suffering in our shared social and ecological systems.
From Embodied Wisdom Will Come The Regenerative Renaissance
Anyone who wants to develop regenerative tech?—?or harness the myriad SaaS offers that allow us to stitch together services like WordPress, Zoom, Shopify, Clubhouse, Youtube, Facebook, and more into a regenerative tech without coding?—?needs to stop, slow down, reflect, intuit, and inquire into how best to do so with embodied wisdom, and without generating more discord, inequality, disconnection, and carbon. It is time to slow sh!t down and mend things, not break things.
Thankfully, emerging generations have grown up doing just this: with yoga, wisdom practices, and meditation becoming a part of everyday life for many; festival, indigenous, non-Western, and ‘shamanic’ cultures being constantly (re)discovered and integrated (sometimes) into everyday life; decisions being made around purpose, values, equality, and justice on school campuses and in team huddles; and trauma-sensitive healing and coaching engagements becoming increasingly normal.
Therefore the time really is ripe for building regenerative technologies. If we succeed in developing them, funding them, and scaling them without falling back into old habits, we can deliver a paradigmatic and transformative breakthrough in Western society: where a contemporary form of embodied wisdom, brain-based but still heart-led, lifts modernity out of its materialistic and mechanistic dead-end to reach a metamodern Regenerative Renaissance that billions yearn for in their hearts and minds.
Hidden within the existential threats to our societies and ecologies is the opportunity to mend/heal/whole our world with modern technological innovations that are powered by individually and collectively developed embodied wisdom.
Such a grounded, connected, and nature-based way of feeling, sensing, knowing and seeing can be seen as a contemporary and science-inspired unfolding of premodern wisdom around interdependence, stewardship, reciprocity, deep-time thinking, and intimacy with nature that are all crucial for any community that wants to thrive.
Meanwhile, we continue to employ and deploy postmodern critiques of power, extraction, and exploitation to keep us true—with tough coaching love—whenever we preen, puff, posture; and seek prestige, power over, and profit more than necessary.
Given our shared predicament, perhaps this is the only game worth playing for the next few decades.
The future may be bleak. There are so many complex problems to solve. We may not make it.
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