“A wellbeing economy needs to grow, prioritising social justice, climate action and nature recovery. This kind of economy will champion public health and affordable housing, wealth distribution, community resilience and education, social care and childcare, and planet-positive jobs in sectors like renewable energy.”
Frazer Osment, Chair, LDA Design
Overall, the mood of the year has been sombre with talk of climate tipping points being reached. But as we look forward, where does hope lie? In a model of growth that prioritises wellbeing and nature recovery and supports 1.5C lifestyles, argues LDA Design Chair, Frazer Osment.
For centuries, there has been global consensus about the goal of economic policy – to grow as quickly as possible. Growth has long been shorthand for raising living standards, but increasingly this position is being contested. Growth of what, and why, and for whom? Who pays the cost? What is the cost to the planet, and how much is enough?
These questions were in fact being posed as far back as the early 1970s by American environmental scientist and writer, Donella Meadows, the mother of systems thinking and author of The Limits to Growth. In the 50 years since, growth has still not been coupled to pro-planet and anti-poverty goals. In the UK, Gross Domestic Product measures activity which uses energy and resources without taking account of the associated environmental damage. The UK’s GDP positions the country as having the sixth largest national economy in the world, and yet the UK also has high levels of income and wealth inequality compared to other developed countries.
Now natural systems are at breaking point and researchers are alarmed by the ferocity of recent climate events, combined with the threat of tipping points at which severe outcomes from global heating become irreversible. “We’re on a highway to hell with our foot on the accelerator,” the UN Secretary-General said in his opening address to Cop27. In the last fifty years, the UK has lost almost half of its biodiversity and is in the world’s worst 10 per cent. The science is clear: without drastic emission cuts now at source, we will miss a rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.
Over the past few years, an all-party parliamentary group on limits to growth has been creating the space for dialogue about economic risks related to environmental and social limits. However, most politicians on the right and the left still measure progress in terms of uplift in economic value, while warning that the only alternative is recession and austerity.
A cultural shift is needed. While some parts of the economy must rapidly shrink, notably the fossil fuel sector and fossil-intensive industries, a wellbeing economy needs to grow, prioritising social justice, climate action and nature recovery. This kind of economy will champion public health and affordable housing, wealth distribution, community resilience and education, social care and childcare, and planet-positive jobs in sectors like renewable energy.
For us at LDA Design, a wellbeing economy feels within reach. We are working with the Welsh Government on how desired outcomes can be defined and carried through into projects, to support the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. This recognises the need to work in a more creative way, adopting different priorities and making different choices. All public sector activity in Wales has to show how it will achieve seven clear defined wellbeing goals, not one at the expense of others but all at the same time.
When it comes to infrastructure investment, for example, this demands a strategic approach whereby all new programmes must seek to eliminate inequality. Instead of starting with “what infrastructure should we invest in?” the first question must be “what should investment in our infrastructure enable?”.
The outcomes we need to prioritise as a society are place-based. LDA is working with a major government agency to shape a framework to achieve design and sustainability outcomes, which could be a model for a new and purposeful approach. This also chimes with the roadmap to 2030 put forward by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which focuses on the benefits that projects can deliver. It draws a direct line between the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the decisions we take about our infrastructure. This is no tweaking of business-as usual. It applies a whole system view, recognising that the built environment is not just a collection of buildings and spaces but places that deliver a full range of services, including adaptation to pressures such as climate breakdown. In Wales, this approach results in social and green infrastructure being ranked alongside roads or buildings.
Planning has a key role in envisioning and delivering the new types of places and infrastructure we need. The presumption in favour of sustainable development in the English planning system requires that we seek social, economic and environmental outcomes at the same time, but because successive governments have focused on short term delivery, and emphasised Planning’s regulatory role, it has been left to trade development outcomes against all others.
We need to see Planning properly resourced to imagine and deliver the places we need. We need hard investment from government in a new type of infrastructure to unlock the potential of the wellbeing economy. This will range from homes where everything to live a good life is within easy reach, to digital infrastructure and decentralised heat and energy networks, from mobility hubs to large-scale new landscapes and habitats.
This should generate a scale of activity that matches those expansive post-WWII programmes to rebuild Britain. Government can start by investing to help pathfinder authorities develop a new era of local plans with a net-zero vision for every area.
What’s clear is that mindsets need to switch at every level, if 1.5C lifestyles are to become the norm. This requires giving people genuine choice. One simple example is that in most places cars will only be parked up when choices include good, fairly priced public transport and active travel. 1.5C lifestyles also require far more collaboration, between communities, between companies and between countries.
Change is hardest just before you make it, points out Kate Raworth of the pioneering Doughnut Economics, which proposes a broader and more human and ecologically aware economic model. Generally, we focus on what we think we are losing, and we find it much harder to imagine what we might gain. In the months and years to come, we will all have choices about the changes we make, but it is certain we must change, and now before it is too late.
Image by Gael Gaborel Orbisterrae