Bringing ‘wellbeing economics’ to a town near you

THE challenges of the last few months have led us to think about the type of recovery we would like to see. Following the outbreak of Coronavirus, we know that we wish to ‘build back better’. But what does that mean, say, for the prospects of our towns and cities? 

Let’s use our imagination…

Imagine an economic system which delivers social justice on a healthy planet; a system in which the economy works for the people, not the other way around. 

This is a ‘wellbeing economy’. It requires us to rethink economics, recognising that growth is an optional means, never the end goal. And it must always be inclusive. 

But what does this actually mean in practice? Perhaps it’s easiest to start by explaining what a wellbeing economy is not

A key component of our current economic system is the reliance on gross domestic product (GDP) to measure a country’s success. Unfortunately, GDP can be a misleading figure that reveals little about the millions of people who actually keep the economy running, day in and day out.

GDP doesn’t acknowledge the outpouring of community support many have experienced these last few months, and it neglects our country’s renewed focus on nature. It measures cash transactions, which include drug dealing, but ignores volunteer work and caring duties.

Here’s a helpful way to see the contradictions inherent in GDP: if you drive your petrol-fuelled car into a congested city, GDP goes up, whereas it completely ignores the number of cyclists using bike paths to commute into that same city. Yet, cycling is one of the trends that we were pleased to see during lockdown.

This is no longer a niche perspective. The tumultuous events of 2020 (and sadly, potentially continuing) have prompted a mainstream examination of our economy and who actually benefits from it.

In June, the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery published its report, ‘Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland’. While this was a welcome addition to the debate – not least in giving the term ‘wellbeing economy’ something of a star billing – we still need to tread carefully in considering what type of growth we are seeking.

And local governments are playing a key role in building a wellbeing economy from the ground up. North Ayrshire Council, here in Scotland, has committed to ‘building back better’ through community wealth-building strategies and a ‘green new deal’. How land and assets are used for the common good is a key part of North Ayrshire’s strategy.  

There is an ambition to achieve both economic recovery and improvements to the appeal of towns and places. So, local communities are currently being  invited to have their say about which regeneration projects are priorities within their area. Their input will influence a regeneration plan. 

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance (Scotland) – of which I am a trustee – is part of a global network of organisations, movements and individuals working together to transform the economic system into one that delivers human and ecological wellbeing.

Not all of Scotland’s towns are going to be economically robust, but that’s not to say they are incapable of delivering on ‘wellbeing’ measures. 

An useful framework for analysing a town or city is ‘doughnut economics‘.

In addition to GDP, it measures a diverse range of other factors such as the level of education, gender equality, poverty, crime, climate change and bio-diversity. 

Developed by progressive economist, Kate Raworth, it illustrates a new economic model as two concentric rings symbolising human needs on the inside and an ecological ‘ceiling’ on the outside. Between those two rings is the doughnut; the space in which we can meet the needs of society within the means of the planet. 

Amsterdam is leading the way in using the doughnut as a tool for transformative action. Hopefully, this will inspire many more places – from neighbourhoods to towns and cities – to take a holistic approach as they begin to re-imagine and remake their own futures.

Sarah Deas is a trustee of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (Scotland). Winner of the 2020 Institute of Directors Scotland Non-Executive Director of the Year Award, she is also chair of North Ayrshire Council’s Community Wealth Building expert advisory group. 

A version of this article first appeared on the website of Scotland’s Centre for Regional Inclusive Growth, here: