A recent critique of the Government’s wellbeing budgets misses the larger context that they are part of a growing international movement. It also fails to acknowledge the complexity of the issues being addressed, argues Justin Connolly.

Dennis Wesselbaum recently called for better public policy to support greater wellbeing in New Zealand. For Wesselbaum, this means we should stop looking beyond GDP and instead develop what he calls a proper strategy for economic growth. Yet for an increasing number of people and governments worldwide, better public policy means recognising that GDP is no longer fit for purpose as the main measure of our economic success. More nuanced economic measures and activity to ensure our wellbeing – a thriving planet and people – are required.

To move to a wellbeing economy recognises that economic development in the 21st Century means delivering ecological as well as human wellbeing. It recognises that a healthy environment underpins thriving human life. It knows that a healthy economy is made up of both monetary and non-monetary activity. It encourages indigenous knowledge to strength our economies in unique ways. And it takes an inter-generational lens to decision-making and investment.

Yet there is no doubt that delivering a wellbeing economy will be hard work.

Some investments will look different while others might look similar. We’ll have to un-learn long-held assumptions on which we have based our economic decision-making and explore new ones. We’ll have to be innovative. Thankfully, we’re good at innovating in this country.

The answer is not to return to the old ways.

New Zealand’s wellbeing budgets are just a small part of this global movement towards wellbeing economies. Tim Jackson (Prosperity without Growth) and Kate Raworth (Doughnut Economics) are two examples of hugely influential economic thought leaders in this movement. Both visited New Zealand before Covid-19.

Jackson and Raworth are ambassadors of a key global organisation known as the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. WEAll is an alliance of organisations and people building momentum for economies that support wellbeing for planet and people. New Zealand is one of a growing number of countries where WEAll has a presence.

New Zealand is also a founder member of a WEAll programme called WEGo, the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership. This is a forum for public servants to share ideas and knowledge on wellbeing policies. All while retaining their own sovereign decision-making.

There is no doubt that wellbeing economy policies are hard work. Just as importantly, they will take time to deliver. This is because the challenges of achieving its vision are enormously complex.

Most of the challenges we are facing are often just symptoms of much deeper systems of cause and effect, interacting in a multitude of ways. Dealing only with the symptoms won’t solve the issues long term. Fortunately, systems science can help understand how to deal with such issues.

Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline) has championed a system’s approach to deal with complex problems for decades. This approach is currently experiencing a resurgence across business and civic society – in part because ‘obvious’ or ‘traditional’ solutions have failed to deliver the promised results.

Senge describes 11 system ‘laws’ to help us understand and deal with complex systems. Some of these laws are worth highlighting here.

A couple of these laws highlight the futility of continuing with the ‘old’ way of doing things:

The easy way out usually leads back in

We usually find comfort applying familiar solutions to problems, sticking to what we know best. Yet to be successful we need to look beyond the familiar and try new things. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein highlights what we should do here: “We shall require a substantially new way of thinking if mankind is to survive”. In other words, we need to do things differently. The singular focus on economic growth and jobs that has dominated for decades is no longer sufficient.

The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back

Our challenging issues are the result of complex systems, which are often difficult (but not impossible) to understand. Often, when our standard, well-intentioned interventions don’t seem to have the impact we expect, we do more of that intervention – pushing harder with what we know.

This often results in unintended consequences that dampen or cancel out our desired impact. This is the system ‘pushing back’. We need to recognise that systems aren’t linear. Doing A won’t always result in B. We need to understand the compensating feedback within systems and where they reinforce the wrong behaviour or cancel out the desired behaviour.  For example, accommodation supplements might be raised to help lower income families afford rent, yet this often contributes to a rise in rents by landlords.

Thankfully, several of Senge’s ‘laws’ also provide guidance on how to address entrenched problems.

Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

Delays between causes happening and their effects presenting are common in complex systems. For example, your childhood learning massively impacts your success as an adult, yet for some learning deficiencies things may take 15 or 20 years to present as a problem.

These delays can also impact our perception of problems, as we usually fail to see these connections. For example, younger generations are more used to dirty rivers or air pollution as the norm, because it’s what they grew up with. (Although that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it!)

Behaviour grows better before it grows worse.

This one is important. A focus on short-term (or ‘results now’) solutions may improve things temporarily, but they often don’t improve things in the long run. The same problems often return, sometimes more strongly.

For example, traffic congestion may be eased by building an additional lane for traffic. Problem solved – in the short term. In the longer term the reduced congestion and greater capacity for cars (in the new lane) encourages more cars to use the road. It may even increase the attractiveness of suburbs serviced by that road, encouraging more people to live there. In the longer term the traffic returns or even worsens, in part encouraged by the previous ‘solution’.

Just as importantly, the reverse of this law is also true – behaviour can grow worse before it gets better.

Sometimes when you implement change, the behaviour you are trying to improve will continue to grow worse before it grows better. This is due to the delay between cause and effect already discussed. The right solution may be abandoned because it is not perceived to be working, but it just hasn’t had time to take effect yet.

For example, in some parts of New Zealand, fertiliser applications could be stopped today, yet water quality in nearby rivers would continue to decline for years. This is because it can take years for nutrients to make their way from the land, through slow-moving groundwater, to rivers. The effect of action taken now won’t be seen for years to come.

To achieve improved wellbeing over generations will take time to manifest.

There is no better example of this than climate change. The climate issues we are dealing with now are a legacy of actions taken over the last 100 years or more, which we continue to perpetuate. While the impacts of action that we need to take now will not fully manifest for at least a generation.

Perhaps most importantly though, is Senge’s final law:

There is no blame

When we recognise that we are all part of the same inter-related system(s) we recognise that there is no separate ‘other’. Looking for people or things to blame is usually our go-to in society. Yet rarely is it beneficial. Regardless of how we came to create the issues we are dealing with – and yes, we did create them – we need to work together to figure out how best to address them in the longer term.

Never has working together to recognise the complexity of the issues we are dealing with been more critical.

Viewing the economy in terms of wellbeing isn’t a PR exercise. It’s a challenging, multi-faceted, inter-generational look at the way our economy is structured and how it delivers wellbeing. Both for the planet and us who live on it, now and in the future.

New Zealand needs to have many more wellbeing budgets, under successive governments of all flavours. They will necessarily continue to evolve, as will how we measure and manage our current and future prosperity. The challenge for us all is to engage in the discussion, help shape those future systems and recognise that this is a long-term game.

Justin Connolly is the director of Deliberate Ltd, a specialist consultancy that helps teams or organisations understand and navigate complexity. He is also a founding member of the Aotearoa New Zealand...

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