Having worked for almost a year with acclaimed documentary director Heike Bachelier and executive producer Sonja Henrici on the concept for a film that would ask how our relationship with the economy came to this and what can we do about it, I’ve become acutely aware of just how emotionally taxing it is to think about the economy at all, let alone wrestle with how to improve it.
As someone who didn’t receive any economic education at school, I’ve had the significant advantage of starting with a clean slate; diving into the work of Katherine Trebeck, co-author of The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a Grown Up Economy, before revisiting Smith, Schumpeter, Keynes and Friedman retrospectively. It’s research that’s led me to four conclusions.
The first is that you can’t understand the intentions behind Adam Smith’s An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations without considering the wider context of the 18th century enlightenment. The second is that, in the last 100 years alone, we’ve lived through at least two reforms of free market capitalism – post-war Keynesian economics and Friedman’s 1970s neoliberalism – therefore, given the right conditions, reforming capitalism is entirely achievable.
Third is that we, the people, too often vote against our own economic interests. We’ve become issue voters: electing politicians to achieve one grand promise, rather than forecasting what their policies will mean for the cost of our weekly shop. This democratic deficit is one of my motivations for starting the Caledonia School of Speech Writing in 2021 to encourage young people to take up civic participation.
Fourth and finally, there is an increasing body of research to suggest that businesses that work not only to succeed but to do social, environmental or cultural good, actually stand to make more profit over time. Could this be the key to getting everyone behind the National Performance Framework and making Scotland the world’s first wellbeing economy?
Zahra Hedges, director of operations at Samtaler, a social value creation agency, says business leaders should ask themselves, “is this business decision only for my bottom line, or could it be made slightly differently to create social value as well?” According to Hedges, “every pound we spend with a company is a vote for how they do business.
"If you are a sole trader you can buy what you need in a way that aligns with your values. Those who can afford to make ethical consumer choices force companies to look at their supply chains, if they wish to remain competitive, which then makes it easier for everyone to access more ethical products and services over time.”
Daisy Ford-Downes, Scotland Chapter lead at Zebras Unite, a global movement supporting inclusive, sustainable businesses, believes it will be the willingness of investors in particular that will define how fast or slow new, more sustainable business models take off. “We expect so much from our entrepreneurs – a constant stream of innovation in the way we communicate, work, play and travel,” says Ford-Downes.
“But the way we fund companies remains the same. For years investors and politicians tried to emulate Silicon Valley, but there have been many hidden costs to a model that prioritises growth above all else. If investors change direction, politicians and business leaders will soon follow.”
Delfina Zagarzazú, cofounder of Innodriven and programme lead at Scotland Can B, which says it is the world's first nationwide programme on impact management led by BLab UK and the Scottish Government, says: “We know that most Scottish business leaders are eager to work more collaboratively and to invest more intentionally in their local communities, so that we can better withstand shocks like the recession caused by Covid-19.
"Equipping leaders with this kind of training is our main focus in 2020-21. It’s also encouraging to see a wave of new initiatives, including Edinburgh CAN B, which are working hard to champion this new collaborative leadership mindset to build back better.”
Vocaldata founder Laura Westring is an Alfred Landecker Democracy fellow, chair of the John Byrne Award and leads public affairs at Amiqus.