Recovery, regeneration and renewal: back to the past?

Recovery, regeneration, renewal, renaissance.

What is it with the ‘Re’ prefix in the economic development business?

‘Re’  indicates a sense of reversal, going back to the original place, a sense of ‘undoing’.

Recover -“to regain health or strength” – “to get (anything) back

Regenerate -“make over, generate again,”

Renew – “to resume, revive – to bring back vitality

Renaissance – “to be born again

In each case there is a sense of making good something that is now broken.  Of restoring things to how they once were – of returning to better times; of making new starts as if we had somehow jumped the gun in the 100 metres.

So what about that other old chestnut in our business – ‘development’?  Isn’t ‘de’ just another prefix indicating a retrograde step – meaning, as it does,  ‘to undo’?

But what about the second part – ‘velop‘ as in ‘envelope‘ meaning ‘to cover‘ or ‘to veil‘.

So the root of ‘develop’ is something about ‘uncovering’, ‘unveiling’ a sense of ‘revealing’ something.  Think photography in the pre-digital era.

Development is not about going back but allowing, even facilitating, movement forward.  It is about removing ‘covers’ so that what is already there can flourish.  It is not about putting things right, making fresh starts and ruing mistakes.

It suggests that things are just the way they have to be.  The question is not about what we once were – but what we have the aspiration and potential to become.

The challenge is how best to move forward to a new future rather than how to move back to a ‘glorious’ past.

Semantics matter.

If we believe that our job is to put right something that has gone wrong; to mend what is broken, this will define our work.  A belief that our job is to help good people make progress will define our work in a way that will prove much more effective.


  1. I’d argue you can’t go forward unless you understand where you’ve come from. Regeneration is what plants do: they have their time and they sow the seeds of the future. It’s not just about making good what’s broken, but about using the resources we have creatively rather than assuming we need to dispense with them and start again.

    But really there isn’t a dichotomy between regeneration, renewal, renaissance or even recovery and the kind of development you’re talking about. Unless you’re advocating a ‘year zero’ approach (which I don’t think you are) all development has to be rooted in what’s gone before, one way or another.

    • I think we are in riotous agreement here Julian.

      Development has to be rooted in history, culture, skills and aspirations (which are both products of personal and social history). Michael Porter might tell us that our future is in biotech and creative industries but if our past is in mining and engineering then the transition is not straightforward. It takes more than a bit of re-training for a new identity to emerge – and in my world development is just the emergence of identity – a process of becoming.

      We have to start with what we have got. And with an assumption that people (even those in pretty dire straits) are just fine. They do not need fixing, renewing, rebirthing or a renaissance. They just need a fair chance.

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