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Collaborating for change in the transition to a regenerative economy

Tasha Day

What opportunities could a transition to a regenerative economy offer environmentally, socially and economically? What role can universities, businesses and governments have in this transition?

We have reached a key moment in which we need to act; we are already seeing the effects of climate change and we must quickly mobilise and make alliances to minimise the damage and work towards a sustainable and just future. As part of the re:gen-u project, UIIN have been in conversation with regenerative economy experts from across the Netherlands to find out what first steps we can take in this transition. The following insights are taken from these interviews.

What is the regenerative economy?

The regenerative economy is a transformative concept that goes beyond traditional economic models and even green growth. Whilst the definitions explored in our interviews were varied, they each shared a common characteristic: placing life at the centre of our socio-economic activities. Rather than the typical focus on quantitative growth and GDP, the regenerative economy focuses on qualitative growth in ecosystems, communities and individuals.

At present in the Netherlands, the concept of the circular economy dominates the political and research agenda for sustainability, and the country has ambitious plans to be fully circular by 2050. Government-wide plans for circularity tend to focus most thoroughly on ecological and raw materials aspects of sustainability, and relatively less on financial and human aspects.

The Netherlands still has a neoliberal capitalist economy, that places value on the continuous pursuit of economic growth; this is simply not sustainable. Perhaps our biggest challenge, therefore, is how to change the deeply ingrained growth-oriented mindset towards a regenerative one and engage actors from government, higher education, and the private sector.

Higher education (HE)

The HE sector represents a key intervention point in the transition to a regenerative economy as it has direct access to talent and the ability to shape their future. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are behind all our policymakers, product designers, bankers, economists etc. It is a crucial moment for the transition, it is essential that universities step up and work to accelerate it.

The role of HEIs is to function as amplifiers of knowledge creation, transfer, and accessibility so that the diffusion of key concepts and exchange of ideas in society at large can be accelerated”.

At present, the HE system is focussed on individual gains (e.g. publications), and often hinders collaboration and knowledge exchange. It would help if universities offered more teaching- or engagement-centred career tracks, tailored to impact on Sustainable Development Goals. HEIs also need to break down silos to stimulate cross-disciplinary and systematic thinking about these challenges.

Degree programs should include courses with pluralistic perspectives and teach theories that take into account planetary boundaries. Courses should also become more engaging for students. They should expand on theoretical and practical relevance, utilising innovative pedagogies such as challenge based learning, hackathons and industry involvement in curriculum design and delivery.

In this tricky and decisive moment, universities should abandon their so-called neutrality, take a side and become more activistic”.


There is currently a crisis of imagination in our governments; they are suffering from an inability to challenge the status quo and imagine anything other than the current system. However, this is also a key moment for policymakers to reassess what they are doing and for what purpose. They have a large role to play in not only in policy-making but also in raising awareness to nurture the mindset shift towards the regenerative economy.

Universities can play a crucial role in supporting governments by providing evidence-based research and expert knowledge to inform policy decisions and raise awareness among policy makers. Initiatives such as the Amsterdam Donut Coalition connects change-makers from government, academia and civil society to collaborate on finding solutions for the city’s sustainability challenges.

Private sector

The private sector is perceived among interviewees as both a help and hindrance in the regenerative transition. The sector makes up a large share of the world’s biggest polluters and large corporations have often lobbied against environmental regulation on the national and international scale, standing firm in the way of progress. However, at the same time, the private sector has a massive opportunity here and can channel their focus on developing products and services to change consumption and social behaviour and provide people with regenerative alternatives.

Through strategic partnerships, universities can encourage and assist industry in the transition by providing expertise and knowledge on sustainability practices and business models, or undertaking joint research projects, academic exchanges and student or researcher consultancy projects.

Furthermore, in order to inspire this entrepreneurial and regenerative spirit we need courses at universities that combine these topics and foster responsible intra- and entrepreneurs; this is exactly what the re:gen-u project hopes to provide.

Addressing resistance

Resistance to the transition is largely about fear; a fear of change and having to give up one’s current lifestyle, and also fear that quality of life will worsen. Awareness raising, knowledge and best practice sharing is therefore crucial to demonstrate the benefits and the necessity of the transition.

In order to successfully transition, we need commitment from all sectors, be it universities, businesses, governments or wider civil society. Universities can lead the way in educating the innovators of the future and building a coalition of the willing, collaborating with governments, businesses, and civil society to achieve a regenerative and just future.

Ready for more?

If you enjoyed this article then you might like our podcast episode about how academics can make an impact on sustainable development goals.

Pathway to Impact program is designed for ambitious academics across all disciplines at every career stage to boost both the scientific and societal impact of their academic work through external engagement and partnering, SDGs as well as effective communication and personal branding. The next addition of the program will run from March 2024.

Tasha Day (author) is a Project officer at UIIN, where she undertakes research activities and creates content on a wide variety of topics including entrepreneurship education, sustainability and research valorisation.

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