11 July 2023

WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO BUILD AN INCLUSIVE, REGENERATIVE FUTURE FOR AUSTRALIA?

“What would Australia look and feel like in 2030 if we successfully transitioned to a regenerative economy?” 

There is something exciting playing out right now around Australia. It’s not immediately obvious. You have to look for it. But when you find it, it’s a beautiful sight to behold. Around Australia, a community-led revolution is flourishing. It’s most apparent in our political systems with the election of 11 community Independents in the 2022 federal election. But the same revolution is also playing out in our economic system. Let’s take a closer look... Meet Brad & Chloe Darkson of Moonrise Seaweed. Their mission is to decolonise saltwater agroecology and present a best practice model for First Nations-led seaweed farming. Their solution is based on Kaurna Country in South Australia and seeks to develop a model for seaweed farming that is specific to local regenerative practices and creates genuine First Nations participation in this new industry. This solution could disrupt coastal aquaculture monocultures, provide food security for local communities and decolonise this industry.   Now just imagine regenerative solutions like this playing out in thousands of connected locations, industry sectors and businesses around Australia.  

Moonrise seaweed co.'s mission is to decolonise saltwater agroecology and present a best practice model for First Nations-led seaweed farming.
Moonrise seaweed co. © Baxter William

Around Australia, there are visionaries, regenerative entrepreneurs, community leaders, and pioneers like Brad and Chloe Darkson, who see that within the problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, water pollution, cost of living rises, and mental health decline, lies opportunities to collectively respond with regenerative solutions and “create a more beautiful world” (Charlie Einstein). In the words of Margaret Mead: “The world is full of amazing opportunities brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.”   The Rise of the “Benefit Maximisers”  These regenerative economy pioneers are actively steering Australia away from an extractive, profit-maximising economy, towards a fair, just, and nature-positive future, or a 'benefit maximising economy'. They see the rise in collaboration with First Nations leaders and Indigenous Knowledge and connecting to Country as central to this regenerative economy. 

image
Adelaide Hills & Fleurieu Local Learning Lab © Baldwin Media

WWF-Australia’s role in catalysing this shift in mindset and market towards a regenerative paradigm has been channelled through the Innovate to Regenerate (I2R) Program and Challenge. What we connected into was a blossoming new economy. Over the last three years, we have worked alongside these pioneers, and experts in regenerative business, regenerative finance and regenerative systems, including dispersing $2 million dollars in funds to 26 catalytic regenerative enterprises.   You can find out more about Innovate to Regenerate here.

While the funding has represented a lifeline, it hasn’t given sufficient ‘runway’ (in Start-up parlance) for these enterprises to realise their full potential. Most of these initiatives have succeeded due to the perseverance of their remarkable leaders and volunteers in the community. With 150 projects having applied to the Innovate to Regenerate Challenge, and a further 65 regenerative entrepreneurs joining three pilot “Local Learning Labs” (Regenerative Economy workshops), there is significant opportunity to further catalyse the momentum and nationwide potential of this vitally important sector for Australia's transition to a regenerative economy.

So what's holding this vital sector back?

image
Innovate to Regenerate Panel 1 illustration © WWF-Australia

Firstly, current economic value indicators don’t value regenerative activities (like community resilience, mental health, biodiversity regeneration, etc.), leading to a critical shortage of capital for the sector. This leads to underfunding of the regenerative sector and disconnection between regenerative economy and mainstream economy actors and policies. This challenge, highlighted by Willow Berzin of the Coalition of Everyone, means many regenerative enterprises are run by volunteers, leading to burnout, which makes it difficult for these businesses to thrive and deliver value.

Secondly, a shift is needed in economic mindset towards regenerative, cooperative and decolonised principles at all levels. Regenerative principles seek to avoid industrial-style scale, extractive principles and perpetuation of colonial mindsets in creating, carrying out or supporting this work. This results in a clash of values between extractive, or profit maximising, approaches to enterprise, and regenerative, or benefit maximising enterprises. An outcome is that there is a limited flow of capital towards regenerative enterprises, and on the other side, regenerative enterprises can be reluctant to take traditional venture capital. Within this challenge, is an important conversation around comfort with distributed power and resources as compared to centralised capital and risk management.

Thirdly, there is a need for institutional support to build capability and collaboration in relational and systemic approaches to community-led regeneration. This is more than funding capacity and capability support. It is growing ecosystems of collaboration within and between communities, across tenures and across stakeholders. This takes time and requires patient investment.

The opportunity is huge; however, these barriers are real and significant. So, let’s look at these insights and learnings we’ve gained from the community of entrepreneurs and partners we’ve been working with in a little more detail:

1. Increase access to regenerative finance and investment

There’s not enough finance or institutional support flowing at the required volume into place-based, small to medium-size regenerative enterprises, primarily early-stage enterprises, and large-scale start-ups. There are now plenty of funds flowing into climate tech and large-scale decarbonisation projects, but more needs to flow into regenerative ventures that bring other benefits to communities, as highlighted by Georgine Roodenrys, national circular economy lead with Deloitte. Additionally, funds are needed to ‘de-risk’ large-scale, high-risk, high-cost projects and lower the barriers to entry. For Dr Ingrid Schraner of re.source, a circular economy project involving reuse of coal ash in NSW coal-ash dams to create new products, significant investment is needed from government to help with the scale required to make this project financially feasible; this investment will produce a return, but it will take 10 years and needs initial capital to help with feasibility as well as provide confidence to industry that this can work.

2. Mainstream flexible and long-term grant conditions to allow for innovation and adaptation

Grant rules are a usual suspect as a barrier for regenerative enterprise. Grant rules can stifle innovation. Many project leaders we worked with said flexibility in grant funding is important so the project can adjust and direct funds where they are needed. Regenerative enterprises often require longer timeframes to develop trust and relationships within their community, as shared with us by Kerry Jones from TACSI, so designing longer-term grants to reflect this process will greatly support community leaders.

3. Institutional support to strengthen capacity in the regenerative ecosystem

Adelaide Hills & Fleurieu Local Learning Lab
Bringing together the innovation ecosystem © Baldwin Media

There is also a lack of investment in resourcing to build capacity in the regenerative ecosystem to network community leaders and stakeholders across and between communities. Burnout is a very real outcome, as well as despair in the lack of momentum. Kerry Jones, from TACSI, shares that supporting a whole-system is an important solution to this challenge.

4. Decolonise access to land and capital for Indigenous-led regeneration

Colonisation and concentration of wealth and land in the hands of the few is an ongoing legacy of Australia’s colonial history and continues to be a significant barrier for First Peoples to access their land to care for Country. This was shared with us by Brad Darkson of Moonrise Seaweed. Co. Additionally, there is the opportunity to review the values and conditions attached to capital to avoid perpetuating colonial attitudes and compromising regenerative values and ways of working.

5. Deep connection to Country and perspective taking

image
Adelaide Hills & Fleurieu Local Learning Lab © Baldwin Media

Community-led regeneration needs deep connection to Country and culture, with a focus on community development. While this is growing, more authentic engagement is needed. Ultimately, connection to Country and culture and engagement with Indigenous approaches to regeneration can support the transition of the industrial mindset towards a regenerative mindset, enabling decolonising how land and capital are accessed. 6. Shifting away from industrial / extractive / profit-maximising mindset

The shift to a regenerative economy involves a profound change in mindset, values, and guiding purpose for economic activity. The current economic paradigm is restrictive, with extractive conceptions of value and value creation. We need to shift towards mutual, life-giving concepts of value and shifts in how we evolve our society with Nature and well-being at the centre. This flows through to how regenerative enterprises are designed, how we choose to support or fund these enterprises, and how we shape policies to support this emerging regenerative economy.

7. Moving from isolated local governance to connected governance

Lack of connections and governance systems across a bio-region restricts the capacity of enterprises to share know-how, respond to cross-community regenerative needs and opportunities, and collaborate on opportunities to address system-wide needs. Willow Berzin of Coalition of Everyone, and Meaghan Burkett of Ethical Fields, shared with us that investment and support are required to experiment with and incubate new approaches to regional governance and community wealth building to fund regeneration and support local transitions to regenerative economies.

8. Capability development for community-led regeneration

Communities hold a wealth of ideas, knowledge and networks to bring regenerative enterprise to life but need targeted capability support and funding to achieve this. What we found through WWF-Australia's Local Learning Labs is that in addition to the capabilities required for any start-up, such as financial know-how and business planning, community-led enterprise also needs to be able to build deep relationships with their community, create buy-in and consider models that build community ownership and wealth. Often the team running the enterprise is small, and teams require support with strategic planning as their bandwidth is taken up by operational activities. Therefore, institutional support also needs to include funding or investing in community development and capacity building essential to support early-stage initiatives to launch.

Moving forward

Solutions...
Innovate to Regenerate Panel 2 illustration © WWF-Australia

It’s time to shift to the collective story and nurture the community-led regeneration movement that is growing. The future economic, social, and ecological opportunities are vast if we approach the transition towards a future-fit economy regeneratively. The context is changing rapidly, and in a favourable direction, with the federal government pursuing the Voice to Parliament referendum, working towards a well-being economy, launching the Nature Repair Market, the Nature Positive Plan, and the Net Zero Authority. There are amazing opportunities to evolve business models, and investment approaches to be aligned with the non-extractive core of these enterprises, the bio-regional and networked nature of resilient community-led regeneration, and the decolonising imperative of our current economic system to enable deep connection and foregrounding of Indigenous Knowledge, culture and innovation. The regenerative economy is picking up pace, but this transition needs support. Whether it’s policy innovation, new financial models that prioritise regeneration, or new on-the-ground solutions. Or further support for these solutions and those that applied for funding through Innovate to Regenerate – there's so much still to do, so we hope you’ll consider getting involved in a way that’s relevant to your own superpowers. 

How can you contribute to the sector?

Each of us can contribute to removing barriers and realise potential so the sector can flourish and grow. WWF-Australia is partnering with Deloitte to better understand the perception of mainstream business on the regenerative economy and what we can do to hasten the shift.  We look forward to continuing to partner with you in the years ahead.