Photograph by: Erika Stevenson
By Iiris Aliska
On 22.11.2023 the Wellbeing Economy Alliance held the second ever Wealth of Nations 2.0 conference at the University of Glasgow. The purpose of the conference was to engage actors from across the civil society, government and third sector with the Wellbeing Economy, and to share ideas on how it could be implemented.
What is the wellbeing economy?
Wellbeing economy is an economic paradigm that places the well-being of people and the environment at the centre of economic decision making. Wellbeing should become both the precondition to economic activity, as well as the end product. This obviously departs from the usual growth based economic model, and would have significant benefits for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Wellbeing Economy Alliance itself is a collaboration of organisations, alliances, movements and individuals working towards a wellbeing economy, delivering human and ecological well being.
Leaving neoliberal economic activities behind to advance holistic wellbeing would warrant significant socio economic restructuring which seems impossible to many. But in practice, the change in the way we think about what we want from economic activity, and what our values are when conducting it already has a significant impact on societal and environmental wellbeing. Scotland has been very successful in this; actors from all sectors have shown engagement and interest in the Wellbeing Economy project.
Perhaps because adjacent values have already been embedded in the Scottish way of life through the National Performance Framework, commitment to the SDGs and policies pursued by the Scottish Government. The very same trend could be seen in the participant directory of the conference and program; all sectors from non-profit to government were well represented.
Since Scotland has become a hub for the Wellbeing Economy, it comes at no surprise that Wellbeing Economy Alliance Secretariat for Wellbeing Economy Governments; WEGo. WEGo is a collaborative network that aims to share and boost government policy and ambition towards the Wellbeing Economy. The participating states are Scotland, Wales, Finland, New Zealand, Canada and Iceland. The states were represented by government delegations, youth participants and actors and video messages from the states’ leaders themselves.
The day began with welcoming remarks from Jimmy Paul, the director of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland, and apologies from FM Nicola Sturgeon who was supposed to give a keynote address in the afternoon. In his address, Paul reminded the participants of the goals of the day was to encourage people to:
● KNOW: the progress being made to deliver a Wellbeing Economy
● FEEL: motivated to accelerate this further
● MAKE: clear commitments to play your part
He also reminded participants to talk and exchange ideas and inspiration as much as they could, setting the tone for the rest of the day. The atmosphere did feel relaxed but enthusiastic, which only grew with all speakers. Next the stage welcomed Fiona Duncan, the chair of The Promise, who spoke about family and childhood wellbeing, and how improved social work and investment to Scottish families could improve overall societal wellbeing. Her speech was followed by a panel by Jim McCormick, Satwat Rehman, Fraser McKinlay, who discussed their fields’ view and progress on the Wellbeing Economy. They identified weaknesses in the welfare and care system. As a really significant point, they brought up ways the system could be changed to proactively tackle issues threatening wellbeing, instead of endlessly and often inefficiently treating health issues.
The morning ended with the World Café. All participants could take part in small roundtable discussions about the challenges and opportunities of WE in their respective sectors. These included education, third sector, public sector, businesses, funding and philanthropy, and sport. I took part in the business and third sector groups, which both saw opportunities in increasing collaboration between actors, finding practical solutions in bringing WE to the forefront of thinking, and increasing investment in projects that generate a virtuous circle of wellbeing. It was great to see how the values of wellbeing as well as the SDGs are at the heart of Scottish Civil Society.
Miriam Brett was the first speaker of the afternoon, and highlighted the importance of changing how society views economics and the role of everyone in shaping it. The speech was followed by speeches from Anton Muscatelli, the principal of the University of Glasgow, and MSP Angus Robertson. Both highlighted the role of Scotland in the promotion of the Wellbeing Economy and what had been done by the University and the Government to address it.
The speeches were followed by a panel discussion between the Wellbeing Economy Governments, and a young person from each country. The panel showed how different, yet similar, the challenges in implementation and practice are. All representatives brought up the importance of improving health care systems, ecological consumption and socially just economic practices. It was exciting to hear about the mutual understanding of the importance of placing values ahead of material profit, and willingness from all states to collaborate and support each other in making it happen.
The panel was followed by more breakout sessions, on various topics and themes surrounding the Wellbeing Economy, and its implementation. The day ended with a feedback session from active listeners who had made notes of conversations had and feelings that had emerged. What they had picked up on was the excitement surrounding the Wellbeing Economy, and the willingness to bring the lessons learnt to everyone's own lives and workplaces.
From a spectator's perspective, the event fulfilled what the Wellbeing Economy Alliance set out the day to be. I learnt a lot about the paradigm, how it has been implemented in Scotland, what its main challenges are, and most importantly what its potential could be.
From the SDG perspective, the alignment of values between the two projects advances the goals and interests of both. One of the challenges of engaging with the SDGs is the difficulty to put them into practice; especially in the private sector, business and political decision making. The logic behind most economic and political decision making remains inherently at crossroads with ambitiously sustainable practices. The assertion of social, physical and environmental wellbeing as the goal and precondition of decision making could, and has significantly realigned these practices towards sustainability.
As said, Scotland has already integrated the wellbeing and SDG thinking into all sectors; most significantly in the National Performance Framework perhaps. FM Nicola Sturgeon also gave a TedTalk in 2019 about the importance of wellbeing at the centre of political activity. The conference itself was a testament to how Scottish civil society aims to turn its head towards wellbeing.
Coming from Finland, the conference also gave me the opportunity to think about what wellbeing means to both of my home countries, and what it could do to address challenges faced by both. I was especially pleased to hear about what was done to raise the standard of living, healthcare and mental wellbeing in Finland. What I have always known about both Finland and Scotland, and what brings them together, is their respect and love for the environment and nature. The Wellbeing Economy has obvious opportunities to advance their protection and promotion, which made me very happy to hear.
In Finland we place nature as an important source of mental and physical wellbeing, and more than often we are encouraged to go to the forest to stay or hike as a way to relax, exercise or just take a break. We place a lot of importance on the relationship between us and nature, which I think the wellbeing thinking has further boosted and protected. This could be seen especially during the pandemic when the entirety of Finland more or less emigrated to the wild when cities and social spaces closed down. Since Scotland has an abundance of beautiful natural spaces, and an outdoorsy population, I think this is something that Scotland could learn from Finland.
On the other hand, Finland has plenty to learn from Scotland too. I had a chance to chat about the Wellbeing Economy in Finland with the Permanent Representative of the Social- and Health Ministry of Finland, and we discussed how the wellbeing thinking has manifested in Finnish policy. What I soon realised was that Finland approaches the Wellbeing Economy project from a governmental perspective; through policy, restructuring and the building of the welfare state. But, unlike in Scotland, these ideas and similar projects are not in play in other sectors, or civil society. I think Finland would greatly benefit from sharing responsibility of wellbeing through policy frameworks such as the National Performance Framework. The civil society is significant in creating wellbeing, and I think the government and welfare state would benefit from tapping into its potential.
Obviously the last year has been detrimental to wellbeing everywhere; most of the UK has resorted to survival mode and it is certainly not easy to stay focused on the bigger picture. The NHS is facing significant challenges due to underfunding and the pandemic. Not to mention the health issues that will arise from the cost of living crisis, that most likely will persist for years.
Despite this, my main takeaway of the Wealth of Nations Conference 2.0 ended up being optimistic about what the future of wellbeing is in Scotland, and what that means for sustainable development. There is much to learn from the times we are living in, and we should take the time to pinpoint what works and what does not. Moreover, we should think about what we value and what we do not, and what we as individuals, communities and states can do to build a better future from here. I think the Wellbeing Alliance could help with that.
More about the Wellbeing Economy: