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Fireside chat with James Ehrlich, Founder of ReGen Villages

Who is James Ehrlich?

James Ehrlich is Founder of ReGen Villages Holding, an Entrepreneur in Residence at the Stanford University School of Medicine Flourishing Project, Faculty at Singularity University, Senior Fellow at NASA Ames Research Center. James is a serial entrepreneur in software and media technology, an award winning PBS Television producer and director. Born and raised in New York, Mr. Ehrlich completed his undergraduate education from NYU before moving to Northern California to start his first software company in 1991, creating digital effects and video game platform technologies licensed by major media and game companies. In the mid-1990’s, James a lifelong journey of case study research of organic and bio-dynamic small plot family farms, intentional communities and ecovillages around the world, culminating in a successful national Public Television show “Organic Living (cooking and lifestyle series) that reached over 35-million homes each week, and also co-authored a best selling companion cookbook on Hachette (2007).

In 2012, Mr. Ehrlich became a senior researcher and technologist at Stanford University, focusing his thesis on the future of living in software enabled, bio-regenerative and resilient neighborhoods outside of cities. In 2016, ReGen Villages Holding was formed as a Stanford spin-off in the Netherlands and has garnered global media attention for its bold and innovative approach to concurrently address urgent housing crisis and climate change. ReGen Villages is an active member of the EU Network for Rural and Smart Village Development, part of the New EU Bauhaus working group and appointed to the U.N. Climate Secretariat Resilience Lab.

What’s the story behind ReGen Villages?

ReGen Villages was born out of years of personal experiences and case study research on beautiful and flourishing communities around the world who have designed their neighborhoods around ecovillage principles of living within nature and not separate from it. The inspiration of ReGen Villages is in many ways culinary, after spending over a decade producing a popular television cooking and lifestyle series, traveling around the world and featuring family farmers and enjoying delicious farm-to-table meals.

The power of these strong and resilient communities built around clean water, renewable energy, high-yield organic food production and circular waste-to-resource management was deeply impactful. With a previous successful career in software and technology, it seemed only logical to extend the research and development of a software relationship to the natural world, which is the primary thesis of ReGen Villages being born from Stanford University at the Center for Design Research under Professor Larry Leifer. It was decided that because ReGen Villages considers all of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals under one umbrella, that an impact company was formed as a Dutch and EU entity in 2016, for the sole purpose of addressing urgent global housing crisis and climate action, as a way to connect with sovereign wealth and pension funds compelled with ESG, SDG and Green Transition requirements.

What was the most difficult part of your experience in the early beginnings?

In the first few years of research and development of ReGen Villages I confronted a great deal of skepticism on the idea that anything could ever break the trend of populations moving to urban areas. There were also many critical voices who felt that integration of  neighborhood infrastructure into circular flows was not feasible, or necessary with district power, water and waste infrastructure seemingly always accessible. The current challenges are more deeply ingrained to this status quo of ‘traditional’ residential development, where greed and complacency are some of the key challenges in the process of reimagining new build neighborhood developments that are regenerative and resilient. Due to COVID-19 and the palpable exodus from cities and office life, there is a new trend back toward the countryside to suburban, peri-urban and even rural areas. The key for ReGen Villages is the fact that we have persevered and remained consistent with our thesis and our plans, where now we are engaged in due diligence with global institutional investment funds who are compelled with our innovative impact business model approach that addresses their requirements for SDG, ESG and Green Transition impact.

What are you most proud of regarding your business?

ReGen Villages has built a global brand since 2016, with over 150-million web impressions and nearly 40-thousand families registered to buy or rent homes in ReGen Villages communities around the world. We are also so proud of our team efforts in the development of our VillageOS™ software, that will enable worldwide replication and scale of both designing and operating regenerative and resilient neighborhoods. We are also deeply honored to participate in the European Network for Rural Development and EU Smart Rural Villages Commission, in addition to the New EU Bauhaus Roundtable, and most of all, to be appointed in 2020 to the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat Resilience Lab as one of the top ‘bright light’ initiatives in addressing all of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals under one impact umbrella.

What is your vision for the future of ReGen Villages?

We are on an urgent mission to solve critical housing shortages, with the integration of neighborhood scale access and agency to clean water, renewable energy, high-yield organic food production and circular natural resource flows. The challenge is to rapidly create these lilypads of self-reliant, resilient and flourishing communities around the world, as means to prepare for the effects of climate change that are also creating the most dynamically shifting economic and health related times in human history. ReGen Villages intends to reshape the way new neighborhoods and retrofits are developed, by focusing on the balance between nature and productive open space, with new build housing that provides safety and security in daily lives. Moreover, ReGen Villages can help transform emerging economic areas in the global south by designing for extreme affordability, as a means to bridge social and affordable housing gaps that provide a path to ownership. Our objective is for ReGen Villages to be able to transact with sovereign wealth and pension funds (via green bonds and other impact investment instruments), and to apply these asset-backed funds to their greatest possible potential in creating beautiful and vibrant communities.

What’s your advice for the businesses that are trying to adapt to this economic climate?

The first point to consider is that tele-work is here to stay, and that C19 has proven that whole populations can work effectively from home and remotely from offices. Therefore it only makes sense for businesses to recognize this as the renaissance that it is, and allow for this as an opportunity space to usher in new innovation.  The time has also come for business models to shift precipitously from GDP (gross domestic product) to GDH (gross domestic happiness), or gross domestic flourishing (GDF), and to create new spreadsheets that look at long-term positive externality impacts, rather than short-term extractive profits. The advice is also to quickly understand the nature of machine learning, robotics and Ai, and the prediction of these technologies to change the very fabric of the work environment, which also means preparing for tectonic shifts in the definitions of work, employment and economies globally.

Please name a few technologies which have the greatest impact on your business.

Machine learning and digital twin software that will change the face for generative design, implementation and management of regenerative and resilient neighborhood infrastructure as expressed within our VillageOS™ software. We also see a revolution happening now with prefab construction and 3D printing of homes, where circular and earthen building materials are providing high-quality and lower cost housing, that is carbon neutral and energy-positive. The advent of autonomous transit, drone deliveries and drone taxi services will mean ubiquitous access for mobility and freight on demand that will spur more local and regional production of goods and services – this will come to the fore with the greater realization of how fragile global supply chains and logistics are. The game changing technology for ReGen Villages will be the next generation of neighborhood scale energy storage systems, where solid-state batteries that can charge and discharge in real time will enable whole communities to be self-reliant from energy grids, and in aggregate where neighborhoods will contribute more power back to national grids than they take.

What books do you have on your nightstand?

  • “Into the Magic Shop” by Dr. James Doty“Siddartha” by Herman Hesse
  • “Critical Path” by R. Buckminster Fuller
  • “The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-Sustaining World” by Graham Bell and Bill Mollison

Because of the current economic climate our publication has started a series of discussions with professional individuals meant to engage our readers with relevant companies and their representatives in order to discuss their involvement, what challenges they have had in the past and what they are looking forward to in the future. This sequence aims to present a series of experiences, recent developments, changes and downsides in terms of their business areas, as well as their goals, values, career history, the high-impact success outcomes and achievements.

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