‘Scaling’ Regenerative Businesses and Organisations

Bowie Yin Sum Kung
4 min readFeb 22, 2024
The all-too-familiar business growth chart. (Image by Mikael Blomkvist)

Recently, I came across a funding opportunity for ‘climate resilience’ solutions. To my disappointment, one eligibility criterion read: ‘We are looking for a scalable idea… for example: reach millions of farmers, be sold to millions of consumers, be applied in manufacturing plants.’ I thought, how has ‘millions of consumers’ ever fit into a coherent sentence with regeneration? (Unless you’re talking about microorganisms.)

When it comes to any business concept, one that succeeds is one that can be scaled up. ‘How might this be scaled up on a national, international, or global level?’ You likely see it everywhere, too, in sustainable or green business forums, regenerative business or agriculture summits, climate change conferences, you name it. ‘How can this solution or that mitigation be scalable?’ This goes to show how off-base our society has become in the understanding of regeneration. Let’s look at what’s wrong with scaling.

What does ‘scaling’ mean in the current economic system?

The growth-via-expansion mindset can be seen in many degenerative examples, such as commercial farming with monocropping and chemical fertilisers, factory farming of animals, offshoring production to countries with low-cost labour, a one-size-fits-all education system. Scaling means higher production, lower cost, more standardised approach, at the cost of nature, life, quality (of life, of the product or process itself), and (cultural, social, bio)diversity.

What’s wrong with ‘scaling’?

‘What if everything had the same growth trajectory as the economy?’ (Illustration by Alexandre Magnin)

Scaling cannot bring about regeneration. The concept itself is touted because of how well it plays into the capitalist, degenerative system of growth-via-expansion. As the Chinese saying goes, ‘if the antiquated doesn’t go, the new won’t come’ (舊的不去,新的不來), implying that old notions won’t bring new solutions. Scaling is an old concept that doesn’t fit into the regenerative paradigm.

Furthermore, regeneration doesn’t come from plucking a good idea from one place and trying to fit it into another completely different place. Places have different dynamics, life, cultures, relationships. Scaling by replication or expansion only produce monocultures of thought, ideas, and processes. Do-gooders who stay at this level of thinking need to look towards living systems paradigm.

How do we grow regenerative movements / organisations / businesses?

Graphic by author from Carol Sanford’s Regenerative Life

We may learn from the 6th principle of the 7 Principles of Living Systems, nodal. Carol Sanford explains ‘nodal’ as ‘a strategic point for a targeted intervention’. It requires identifying and engaging with these strategic points of connection within a system. These critical points can influence the entire system.

Plants, fungi, and mold are great examples of growing nodally. The largest living organism is a fungus in Oregon; nodes on tomato plants can be cut off to become whole new tomato plants; branched veins on leaves facilitate the efficient transportation of nutrients and water in plants. In human practices, acupuncture brings holistic healing through targeting the right acupressure points — or nodes.

Growing nodally requires these prerequisites (which, unsurprisingly, coincide with the other principles of living systems!): working holistically, recognising the essence and potential of a place, developing capacity, understanding our nested relationships.

  • Working holistically, we see that the implications of our solution ripple out beyond our intended plans. How might our solution affect other people, life, geography, water, etc.? How do the nodes we have identified influence the whole system?
  • Recognising the essence and potential of a place means working locally. What uniqueness do this particular place, people, and environment hold? How might we consider that when designing a solution to enhance this uniqueness?
  • It is important to develop the capacity of the people to work with living systems principles so that we don’t fall back into a degenerative way of working. Move beyond set beliefs, expert-led mindset. Grow the capacity of reflecting upon lived experiences. Unlearn degenerative paradigms.
  • We all exist within systems of systems. How are your nodes nested within the larger ecosystem of relationships? How might we empower decentralised nodes of critical importance?

Once we’ve considered all of the principles, we might ask ourselves, as Carol elegantly puts it, ‘what [might need] tending from a human to carry out its work effectively?’

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Bowie Yin Sum Kung

I write about regenerative practices, climate and social justice, decolonial and alternative economies, economies that heal, and the wonders of nature.