Regenerative Development | Designing for the Deshkan Ziibi Conservation Bond Project

Go figure it was renamed. Deskan Ziibi, meaning Antler River, is the original name for the majestic Thames River that flows through Ontario. I recently had the opportunity to co-facilitate a session with my cohort (the fabulous Koral, Jennifer, Emily, and Claire) and the Deskan Ziibi Conservation Bond Project as a part of my ongoing studies with Regenesis through The Regenerative Practitioner course. The conservation project is an innovative and exciting application of a financial instrument to conservation efforts. Or so I thought…

The Project

From our cohort report:

The Deshkan Zibii Project consists of a collaboration of cross-sector partners testing an innovative tool to finance conservation work in the Carolinian zone of Ontario, Canada. As the pilot project was initially implemented, conservation organizations partnered with leaders from local First Nations communities to guide the restoration of 150 acres of land from its current use as residential, farmland and band-owned land to healthy prairieland. Corporate, community, and government outcome payers joined in relationship with an investment firm to secure financing of the project through a newly-established bond whose return on investment was contingent on increased levels of biodiversity. These stakeholders were also joined by the nearby Ivey Business School which created shared metrics for monitoring the progression of the restoration. 

The Place

First and foremost, the DZ project is on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Attawandaron, and Wendat. It is currently home to the Chippewa and Oneida peoples, all of whom before settlement had healthy systems of governance, education, trade, language, and kinship. As the original stewards of this land they related to it in ways that ensured harmony and balanced its rich natural resources producing plenty of goods and foods necessary for long-term thrival. 

At first it seemed that this project was largely about the bond mechanism that brought a conservation-minded investor together with municipalities, the private sector, and local landowners. And while the bond mechanism is a new concept that incentivizes outcomes aligned around the regeneration of biodiversity on the land, I was surprised working through the project to discover that the bond is not the main regenerative design element.

Regenerative development is always placed-based because experience shows that potential is grounded in place. Place, an experience and concept once far more influential in life, has a unique essence and story. It can be understood through  many lens all of which form a holistic view of what makes a place unique. The land can be viewed from geophysical, hydrological, biological, settlement, economic, developmental, historical, and psychological lenses and its key patterns and flows discerned. Through this its regenerative potential can emerge, however, these lenses can only capture so much. They fail to capture the true essence of a place, the felt sense of what it is like to be or live on the land. 

Uncovering the essence of the place, both quantitative and qualitatively, provides a key part of the understanding required to see the place as a complex living system that is evolving over time. By seeing today as a freeze frame in the timeline the project/place can be seen in the context of its influences through the past until present and discover what potential its future holds. 

Like most in the North American continent this place has a history of Western settlement that conflicts with Indigenous stewardship. The 150-acres of land in question sits in the rich Carolinian zone of Canada, home to Canada’s highest biodiversity and 25% of its human population despite being only .25% of its total land mass. Great swaths of this land were previously forrest and rich hunting lands which have been converted into highly productive agricultural lands where most farms use modern industrial agriculture techniques like monocropping and heavy fertilizers which further destabilize the region. 

The Thames River is instrumental to life in the region and can be seen as the main artery that runs from the city of London nearby (population 400k) all the way to the Lake Ontario. In many places it is the watershed that is a significant driver of the patterns of life and here is no exception. But one more example of water is life. With high levels of pesticide use and urbanization comes runoff which affects the quality of water and life. These effects contribute to some local’s well water being non-potable resulting in a multi-decade boil-only water advisory. 

This interdisciplinary approach with both quantitative and qualitative data weaves together into a rich tapestry of this particular life shed, a process that can be done with all places.

Nested Wholes

A key part of regenerative thinking requires consideration of relationship specifically answering how is this project (place) in relation to larger wholes? 

First, this requires an understanding of ‘wholes’. Holism is the view that systems can be conceived as wholes. It is juxtaposed with reductionist thinking which is the action of reducing wholes into individual parts. Reductionist thinking has dominated that last 200+ years of human history since the scientific revolution ushered in a period of previously unimaginable scientific, technological, and civilizational evolution. The scientific method, which requires variables be controlled and measured, has led generations of Western thinkers to compartmentalize both the man-made and natural worlds. The result is a presently dominant worldview of reductive techno-extraction where externalities are not accounted for. Instead the externalities are relegated to the commons, to the whole, the view of which is obfuscated by myopic economic outlooks and self-interested (and self-terminating) greed. 

Fortunately indigenous ways of being/thinking combined with many philosophical and religious traditions provide a frame for understanding that these parts assemble to make a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. In understanding wholes, complexity theory helps us begin to fathom the scope and depth of the maze of existing symbiotic (or antagonistic) relationships. The greater the connection the greater the health and resilience of the system. 

For any project that a regenerative practitioner is working on, the question is not whether or not a complex system of interweaving relationships exists but how well do we understand the nestedness of existing wholes and relationships? By understanding how a project is nested within a Proximate Whole and a Greater Whole, a designer can begin to account for the flows and relationships, and most importantly, the needs of the wholes within which the project is nested. In this way the project becomes not just an end to itself but a system actualizer that considers larger systemic problems, builds a larger group of stakeholders (a guild), and creates more viable solutions that are likely to exist over time. 

By designing for the larger environment in which a project is located, elements of entropy and natural change can be accounted for. Perhaps most importantly, by conceiving of and engaging with a larger group of stakeholders, designers seek to deliver greater levels of able-ness (meaning human capabilities) which creates self-sustaining projects and virtuous cycles that perpetuate across futures certain to change. 

We considered many different combinations of nestedness for the DZ project. Here we were informed by our work understanding the story and essence of place which allowed us to play with the many lenses at each level of wholes. We saw the project nested within political/municipal entities, geological/hydrological boundaries, cultural/historical regions, etc… An important principle in regen design work is iteration, the process of continuous revolutions of consideration taking new insights/combinations into account. 

Through our many iterations we finally perceived that the DZ project is nested within the Thames River (Proximate Whole) which is nested in the Carolinian Zone (Greater Whole). This perceptualization allowed us to then consider the challenges and needs of these much larger systems and see the project as a solution catalyst. 

The existing group of stakeholders already agrees that biodiversity is one desired outcome of the project. By considering the relationships between this acreage and the larger wholes it became evident that land use and management was a key lever with the potential to both increase local biodiversity while addressing the regional challenges created by industrialized agriculture and urbanization. 

It also became clear that while outside the proximity of the project itself the urban center of London with its large population holds the potential for greater connection with the land. Involving both the urban and agricultural stakeholders in the restoration project could unlock the potential for more widespread investment in the project, land, and its people. By bringing urbanites to the Deshkan Ziibi project to interact and feel the land, river, and people, relationships based on mutualism could begin to add layers of appreciation, interaction, and investment. These inflows could facilitate the long-term health of the project while providing needed getaways, wholesome natural experiences, and deeper meaning and connection with the region’s original/natural land-and-waterscape. 

Through our work we concluded that while the bond mechanism had loose ways to measure success through increases in biodiversity over time, it has the potential to take into account the potential for increases in other forms of capital. This multi-capital approach is essential for understanding potential as it requires designers to move beyond our traditional accounting of financial capital, or in this case, natural capital (biodiversity), and also consider social, cultural, and political capital. The health of this region is explicitly tied to the health of its people, particularly the original occupants of these lands. Designing to increase the culture of stewardship and the social interactions surrounding the watershed and its access, use, and care will create greater vitality and aliveness for all involved. Solutions that only deliver increases in one or two forms of capital fail to conceive of their maximum impact. 

Design Interactions

Regenerative Design and Development is an iterative, inquiry-based, experiential dialogue as opposed to an academic case-study project-producing endeavor. It’s local, regional, and global considering necessitates meaningful, compassionate, and empathetic interactions across the broad spectrum of stakeholders. Dialectic, when two or more people gather in search of the truth (or essence), is one of the primary tools of inquiry. Throughout the project we had opportunities to connect with project and indiginous leaders to hear their immensely valuable perspectives.  As we sought to understand we continued to be informed by these conversations and iterate our understanding.

As designers it is imperative to do the personal development work necessary to be an effective operator. Translation: cultivating in one’s self a high degree of awareness is essential for recognizing ego in the design process. There’s a myriad of internal technologies that can be practiced to yield the capability to check personal bias or ambition. This is of utmost importance because this work is not about what the designer wants or thinks is best. This is not about preconceptialization of what the ‘answer’ is or about validating any initial beliefs. The need to be personally right must not exist. Rather it is the commitment to a collective emergence of realized potential and an unlocking of collective (vs individual) will. An effective designer can navigate the realm of inquiry noticing what arises within them and using the sensing faculties to employ what is useful to draw out deeper discovery from interactions and dialogue. And so it went for us as we interacted with stakeholders and our understanding evolved.

Our time together with the whole Deshkan Ziibi team was another example of regenerative design in action. In a more corporate, traditional, or formal setting, it would be common to show up in front of the DZ team as a group of consultants and present findings and understandings. A presentation (one-way communication) with maybe some Q&A at the end is the antithesis of what regenerative design brings about. It is a way of being, thinking, and doing. With that in mind, we designed an interaction meant to give the experience of being a regenerative designer. Our goal was to create the opportunity for team members to be exposed to design thinking, to wrestle with some of the frameworks, and stretch their current imaging of what the project’s role and function is.


This article scratches the surface of what was considered, explored, and discussed. As designers and consultants our primary role is to assist project teams in the evolution of their thinking. Using a multitude of frameworks and technologies sourced from a variety of disciplines, lineages, and practices, we support the discovery of a project’s true and greatest potential.