It’s time for the wellbeing economy – Duncan Thorp

The term “wellbeing economy” is cropping up in more and more places. Increasing numbers of social entrepreneurs and other innovators are voicing their support for it. But what is a wellbeing economy?

Only people who have truly experienced poverty can understand it, says activists (Picture: John Devlin)
Only people who have truly experienced poverty can understand it, says activists (Picture: John Devlin)

It’s fair to say that it means different things to different people. According to the Wellbeing Economy Alliance: “A wellbeing economy is designed with a different purpose: it starts with the idea that the economy should serve people and communities, first and foremost. A wellbeing economy means allowing humanity to determine economics, rather than the other way around.”

Other terms are used too. An inclusive economy, resilience economics, community wealth building, an impact economy, a circular economy – all of these approaches are part of the same jigsaw puzzle of an economy that works for both people and planet.

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As we look towards economic recovery we need to consider this approach and how we build back better, instead of returning to the old economic model. This is a model obsessed with GDP above all else – instead of how we achieve good housing, food and other life essentials for everyone.

According to a recent UK poll just 6 per cent of people want the economy to go back to the way it was before the pandemic and lockdown policy. It’s a symptom of the fact that we’re living in a time of soaring global inequality, economic insecurity and a fast changing world where personal and national identities are being challenged. This has not resulted, so far, in global unity around building a new economy. Instead we have the rise of political populism and extremism in significant parts of the world and a culture of fear over perceived threats, now exacerbated with Covid-19 and lockdown policies.

On the plus side many of us now appreciate that “essential” workers don’t just include those saving lives in hospitals but also the armies of low paid people in insecure work. Supermarket workers, delivery drivers, carers and cleaners have literally been saving lives. How do we prioritise their wellbeing going forward?

But the crucial question is how do we build this new type of economy – in practical terms – in every local community? How should local authorities adapt their economic strategies? What role should business play? How do we deliver the simple basics of life for everyone like we already do with healthcare?

In May Social Enterprise Scotland submitted our response to the independent Scottish Government economic recovery consultation. After consulting with our innovative social enterprise members we stated that it’s essential to address inequality in our communities, with access to these basics like food and shelter a priority.

We also stated that we must build resilience through collaboration, balancing local, national and global responses, as well as consider the wider environment in which we live, including climate, our built environment and lifestyle choices.

We recently held a Policy Forum on the “New Economy” that heard from experts and social entrepreneurs about what this might mean. Solutions like the Real Living Wage, fair work and ethical business, as well as formerly radical ideas like Universal Basic Income, were discussed.

Certainly social enterprises, community groups and voluntary organisations have stepped up to maintain local economies during lockdown. This includes community-owned development trusts, housing associations, co-operatives and new community groups. Their role in economic recovery can’t be underestimated and must continue to be front and centre. They are the wellbeing economy.

But how do we harness the energy and innovation that has taken place to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs? Those people who will have gone through the crisis and understood that things need to change.

The poorest and most financially excluded have been crying out for radical economic change for a very long time, it’s just that no one has listened. Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari says it best: “This is because the conversation about poverty is usually dominated by people with little direct experience of being poor.”

Those who didn’t grow up with economic insecurity fail to understand not just the material deprivation but the profoundly damaging mental health consequences of poverty. We all now need a shift in mindset, you might say a new economic consciousness.

Social enterprises often exist as emergency responders but they can also exist to tackle the causes of economic inequality. A new generation of social entrepreneurs, rooted in their own local communities, are the ones who can lead us in building the wellbeing economy.

Duncan Thorp, Social Enterprise Scotland

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