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#futuregen can't wait

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

As Minister for Environment, Sustainability, and Housing in Wales, Jane Davidson proposed what became the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The Act has been inspirational to other countries - not least the UK, where Lord John Bird of the Big Issue is currently proposing a Well-being of Future Generations Bill to the House of Lords. In her passionate book #futuregen - Lessons from a Small Country, Jane tells her own story and of her love of nature, as well as the story of her bill - both its success stories so far in encouraging long-term thinking and the systemic obstacles it has encountered. A recurrent theme in Jane's book is that we need to move away from short-termism further and faster by aligning the mechanisms of government with measures embedded in policy.

As an inspirational example of moving quickly, Jane describes Project Skyline, an image from whose website is shown above. On p.150, Chris Blake sets out a few ideas that they developed with the help of entrepreneurs and ecologists:

200-hectare natural woodland reserve Renewable energy generation from sunlight, water, and wood Forest crofts for families Commercial vegetable growing under glass on the old colliery site Community orchard and a pumpkin field Timber harvesting and processing operation Zero-carbon social housing Woodworking skills shed Treehouse glamping pods Forest performance space Green burial area ...

Project Skyline and Circular Economy Wales are exemplars of the aspirational model that Jane sets out on pages 130-131:

Perhaps we should try to use the bio-regionalism of Wales more cleverly - imagine a mosaic of communities defined by geography that meet their energy and food needs with local resources and have economies founded on social enterprises that in turn support an ecosystem of micro-businesses and small traders living within their environmental limits and enhancing biodiversity on the way. That would be a model worth developing in the spirit of the vision outlined in 'One Wales, One Planet'!

This is exactly the model described in my forthcoming book Supercommunities. Communities are smaller than states, so can move faster. They can also adopt a standard step-by-step approach, which is very helpful to people on the ground. Imagine you are a city official, for example, tasked with #futuregen compliance. Your first thought will be, "What on earth am I supposed to do?" And your second, "How do I know what good looks like?"

Without a standard step-by-step approach, #futuregen work will fall into the same trap as precursor efforts such as the NHS Carbon Reduction Strategy (2009), which by 2014 had evolved into their Sustainable Development Strategy. 10 years on, data shows that 1 in 3 of NHS trusts in England have still not created either a Carbon Reduction Management Plan or a Sustainable Development Management Plan (SDMP), over 60% of them are not on course to meet the Government’s carbon reduction targets, and about half of them haven't even made a healthy transport plan. Anecdotally, many SDMPs are costly form-filling exercises, undertaken to comply with regulations and likely to create only low social benefits.

A standard step-by-step approach to #futuregen that is flexible enough to allow natural diversity among communities cracks these and several other nuts at once. As well as helping people get going in a way that they can measure (and hence manage), it ensure that efforts by different communities are aligned. In Wales, The Future Generations Report 2020 observes not only that "more needs to happen across the public sector to make the well-being goals a reality" but also that "Where good things are happening, they appear to be pieces of a jigsaw that don’t always fit into the wider puzzle of the organisational approach." If every public body goes its own way, not only is everyone wasting massive effort to reinvent wheels, but outputs won't join up with each other. There will be no economies of scale, and even at a local level, organisations won't know how to work together effectively or take advantage of changes.

The underlying problem is that policy tends to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. It’s not enough to set out a regulatory framework. To work as intended, legislation must also set out a practical mechanism for change, so that public bodies have an immediate way forward. Councils and other public bodies need to know what they must do, how to fund it, and how to enable it with digital technology. Then public bodies can swing straight into action with low risk of failure, without needing to reinvent the wheel, and using a joined-up approach.

My forthcoming book, “Supercommunities” ("a trove of practical ideas for change makers," Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, The RSA) sets out such a mechanism for change. It is a step-by-step guide that any community can use to become sustainable, resilient, and antifragile. In brief, the book draws together research from multiple disciplines and (critically) adds 3 missing links that show how to:

  1. Use community assets to build local wellness;

  2. Help community organisations collaborate effectively (with each other and organisations from other sectors);

  3. Fund community assets from global capital markets.

A step-by-step approach to #futuregen based on the book might involve identifying the following:

  1. Local community capitals - natural, human, and industrial enablers of value delivery

  2. Local community assets - resources that improve local wellness

  3. Which assets depend on which capitals, in what way, and how this is being funded

  4. The organisations who maintain each asset, how they collaborate to do so, and how this is being funded

  5. The assets that local people are using to support their holistic wellness, how effective the assets are in this, how they map to the UN SDGs, and where there are gaps/overlaps

This approach could be embedded in updates or supplements to #futuregen legislation, and doing so would create the best kind of compliance requirements - controls that help those tasked with the work, rather than adding to their burden.

It would also open the door to support with technology tools. A common weakness of social change initiatives is failure to adopt supporting tech, which is a real shame. Why shouldn't #futuregen initiatives benefit from the same 21st century enablers as corporations? At the most basic level, communities can use simple tools like the showcase of exemplar social businesses at Social Echoes. A more powerful solution is now emerging from the Supercommunities book – the Internet of Communities, an open-source Web platform that any community can use to help implement the approach. The aim is to help communities of any size, anywhere in the world, adopt long-term thinking and become antifragile at scale and pace.

It's not enough to agree what must be done, is it. We also need to make it super-easy for people on the ground to do it - ideally, make it easier than not doing it. People whose home has toppled into the sea and teachers who find children sleeping rough behind bins know that #futuregen can't wait.

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