THE transition to a wellbeing economy is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious policy commitments ever proposed by the Scottish Government.

Abandoning GDP as the sole measure of a population’s success should, in theory, engender enormous changes in our society.

Ensuring that our politicians factor in both human and environmental health in their decision making may drastically alter the kinds of policies and projects that are voted through by Holyrood.

But one could be forgiven for thinking that, at present, Scotland’s wellbeing economy feels more like a bureaucratic exercise than a lived reality. We are, after all, in the early days of this transition.

It is useful, then, to look elsewhere in order to understand what changes may be coming down the pipeline for Scotland.

Amanda Janoo is an economics and policy lead at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance – a collaboration of organisations and individuals promoting the delivery of a wellbeing economy.

She told The National that the coronavirus pandemic helped to highlight exactly why a change to our economic system is necessary.

“The identification of essential workers around the world was really quite telling,” she said.

“When we were trying to maintain current standards of wellbeing – that’s without even looking to the future – it wasn’t hedge fund managers that we viewed as essential.

“It was care workers, supermarket workers, plumbers, farmers. That’s already an indication of the wellbeing economy mindset, because you’re looking at the ways we’re producing and providing for one another that are genuinely essential to our wellbeing.”

In practice, that means scrutinising individual policies not just on whether they promote GDP growth but if they improve human and environmental wellbeing in the long term.

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In New Zealand, for example, the government’s budget priorities have been shaped by its Living Standards Framework (LSF) since 2019.

The LSF is a set of wellbeing indicators – ranging from environmental amenity to time spent with family and friends – that act as a guide to show where money needs to spent to genuinely improve people’s lives.

Margreet Frieling is a Knowledge Co-Lead for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and a former policy analyst in the New Zealand Treasury.

“Since 2019, budget priorities in New Zealand have been focused on the just transition, shaping the future of work, reducing inequalities, improving child wellbeing, and improving mental and physical health outcomes,” she said.

“That’s quite a change from the previous focus on growth.”

The results of this change in the budget process are difficult to quantify, particularly given the long term aims of the priorities and the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, the country still struggles with unaffordable housing and high youth suicide rates.

But Frieling added that while it was important to focus government actions on the outcomes that matter most to society, a wellbeing economic approach also requires governments to change their ways of working.

To witness that in action she pointed to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in Wales.

Derek Walker, the current Future Generations Commissioner in Wales, said that the act makes it the “obligation” of all public sector bodies in Wales to think about how present decisions will impact people 50 to 100 years in the future.

“The suspension of all future road building projects in Wales is a great example of that,” said Frieling.

“Because it’s a manifestation of having that accountability mechanism in place, which recognises that new roads may not necessarily lead to improved wellbeing.

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“Instead, it forces policy-makers to ask questions around rethinking and redesigning a transport system that works for the health of the environment as well as for future generations”

But a shift wellbeing isn’t just about changes in government. It also requires more significant citizen participation in policy making.

“There’s a bit of a risk that this becomes a very technocratic exercise,” added Frieling. “But the sort of change we’re looking at isn’t just about governments. It’s about the whole of society.”

That may involve more initiatives like citizen’s assemblies.

Scotland’s Climate Assembly, which took place between 2020 and 2021, resulted in 81 recommendations to the Scottish Government – some of which do appear to have informed policy decisions (such as ramped up efforts to reduce plastic waste).

However, following the assembly’s last meeting in 2022, there is no real means for members to follow up on how the government is progressing with their recommendations.

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In Ostbelgien – the small, German-speaking region of Belgium – the parliament established a permanent Citizen’s Council.

This council, made up of 24 people over the age of 16 who live in the region, sets the agenda of and prepares Citizens Assemblies, which then go on to make recommendations to the government.

While the assemblies themselves are not permanent, the continued existence of the Citizen’s Council allows them to follow up and monitor the policy recommendations previous assemblies have made.

It has been heralded as an example of how to improve political participation and hand over agenda-setting power to citizens rather than politicians.

The nomenclature of “wellbeing economy” is fairly new.

But the ideas that make it up have been around for a while and have informed policy in countries like Costa Rica for decades.

Following a brutal civil war in 1948, the country abolished its military and redirected defence spending toward things such as reforestation and providing universal healthcare and education.

Pioneering policies such as giving landowners direct payments for the environmental services taking place on their property (like biodiversity protection or carbon sequestration) have led it to becoming the only tropical nation to have reversed deforestation.

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In 2020, the suburb of Curridabat in the country’s capital of San Jose even extended citizenship rights to pollinators, trees and native plants.

This means that urban planning is centred around returning ecosystem services to spaces where they have been lost, for the benefit of biodiversity as well as air and water quality.

Now, Costa Rica is regularly ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world.

Ultimately, said Janoo, this transition is going to require both policy-makers and citizens to re-examine their assumptions about the economy.

“We’ve internalised for such a long time the idea of trickle-down economics, that we need to grow the pie for everyone to benefit.

“But moving a wellbeing economy requires us to genuinely consider how we get the economy to do more of the heavy lifting when it comes being circular and regenerative by design.

“It asks us to recognise that human health and life is clearly more important than the aggregate growth represented by GDP.”