Taking Doughnut Economics from idea to action – welcome to the Action Lab

September 30, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Kate Raworth launches a brilliant, potentially world-shaping, new initiative

This week is the online launch of Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL). At the heart of it is a community platform, open to everyone who wants to turn Doughnut Economics from a radical idea into transformative action. We’ll be co-creating tools and sharing stories of how to build regenerative and distributive economies, working with teachers and community makers, towns and cities, researchers, policymakers, businesses, and changemakers worldwide. If you want to be part of it, please do join us – we’d love to have you in the community.

Doughnut Economics Action Lab website
This is DEAL. Dive in.

There’s really no better place to write about the launch of DEAL than on this blog, because the idea of the Doughnut pretty much came to life here nine years ago.

In 2011, having been deeply struck by the concept of planetary boundaries, I made a back-of-the-envelope drawing of a half-baked concept that added ‘social boundaries’ into the mix with planetary boundaries. Months later, when I nervously sketched it in front of some esteemed scientists in a workshop on planetary boundaries, the climate scientist Tim Lenton said, “That’s the diagram we’ve been missing all along – and it’s not a circle, it’s a doughnut” (so, yes, he’s to blame for the name).

I quickly mocked the idea up in clunky Powerpoint, and Duncan suggested I blog about it here, and invite the wisdom of the crowd to help complete the concept. The crowd stepped up to the challenge (special hat tip to Felix Dodds) and Doughnut 1.0 was born just in time for the 2012 UN Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. The concept quickly gained far more traction internationally than any of us at Oxfam could have imagined, and it went on – I’m told by those on the inside track – to quietly help shape the evolution of the SDGs.

Developing the doughnut model
From planetary boundaries to back-of-envelope to crowd creativity to Doughnut 1.0.

Five years on, Doughnut 2.0 was published, along with Doughnut Economics, a book exploring the new economic mindset needed to bring humanity into the Doughnut’s ecologically safe and socially just space. I then spent two years giving talk after talk about the ideas in the book, until I stopped and asked myself: OK, who actually wants to do this? Who is ready to go beyond words and start turning this into practice?

I soon knew the answer because I was getting messages every day from people who didn’t wait to be invited, instructed or permitted, but just started acting. Teachers, from Mumbai to Manchester, who were already bringing the Doughnut alive in the classroom, even though it wasn’t on the curriculum. Urban planners from Stockholm to KwaZulu Natal who were designing ‘Doughnut Districts’ for 21st century city living. Civil servants from Cornwall to Colombia who were turning it into a local policy-making tool. Community groups worldwide who started hosting Doughnut Hackathons and inventing Doughnut board games. Pioneering businesses that were assessing their social and environmental performance against the Doughnut’s dimensions.

Using the doughnut model
The ones who just start doing it.

All this deepened my conviction that 21st century economics will be practised first and theorised later – and that this was where and how the practice would begin. So I found a co-founder in the regenerative economist Carlota Sanz; we assembled a small and fantastic team (made possible thanks to some key early funding) and together we set up Doughnut Economics Action Lab. The name is very intentional: our aim is to move from ideas to action, and it’s a lab because everything we are doing is an experiment. Our launch this week is the culmination of 18 months of imagining, designing and preparing, and we can’t wait to see what happens next.

Reflecting on the Doughnut’s journey over the last nine years, here are six insights into how to start turning a radical idea into transformation action: we have put them at the heart of our work as a team.

Go where the energy is. As the mother of 11 year-old twins, my time was pretty tight over the past decade, and that forced me to start following a beautifully simple principle. Don’t waste time knocking on shut doors: work with the changemakers who are already in action, because there are plenty of them. This principle is now central to our strategy, and we celebrate and amplify the early pioneers because their innovations are what make the ideas real and make them spread (think dancing guy and the first followers).

Embrace play. The ‘Doughnut’ is, of course, a ridiculous name for a vision of humanity thriving in the 21st century (and now you know who to blame for that). But here’s the unexpected upside. Many people are afraid of economics: they pull back, stiffen up, or switch off if you say the word. But no one is afraid of doughnuts – love them or hate them, you’re not scared of them. It turns out that the simple, bold image of the Doughnut sends out a wordless invitation to make it your own, make it irresistible and share it with others (think New Power, and the way that Actionable, Connected, Extensible ideas spread).

Make practice part of your protest. In an era of recurring crises and rising protest, it’s essential to be able to point to what you are for, as well as what you are against. As Milton Friedman once put it, “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” So, yes, make sure that your idea is lying around – but better still, have it up and running, as living proof that another economy is possible.

Unleash the power of peer-to-peer inspiration. The most inspiring person is probably not someone talking on a stage, in a book, or on TV. So often it is someone just like you who is already doing that thing that you thought was impossible. A teacher inspiring a fellow teacher, a mayor inspiring a mayor, a child inspiring a child, a CEO inspiring a CEO. This is why we have designed DEAL’s community platform to showcase the tools and stories of changemakers of all stripes: their work will create the greatest ripples amongst their peers.

Stories of using the dougnut
DEAL Community stories waiting to spark peer-to-peer inspiration…

Don’t be the movement – join the movement. Many excellent initiatives in new economic organising are gaining momentum worldwide; the potential of creating critical mass lies in building the connections between them. That’s why DEAL’s aim is to create tools that can be combined with, and enhanced by, the work of others, so that we contribute to generating a far bigger movement for economic transformation.

Create boundaries, for integrity and creativity. Opening up an idea for the world to adapt and innovate with is no easy thing. You have to let go of control – but only once the right boundaries are in place. For DEAL, it’s key to avoid the Doughnut getting greenwashed by mainstream business co-opting it and undermining its integrity in the process (think Three Horizons and the risk of H1 capturing H2 disruption). Which is why, at the same time as embracing creative commons licencing (CC BY SA 4.0) we have trademarked ‘Doughnut Economics’ and created a set of rules for its use, along with the Doughnut Principles of Practice, to be followed whenever the Doughnut is put into practice – and we and DEAL’s community will call it out when they clearly are not.

Will this work? Of course we don’t yet know – it’s an experiment after all – but we do know that we’ll learn and evolve as we go, with a community that’s ready to figure it out with us. And at this point in 21st-century flux and crisis, we are convinced that open design and community co-creation is the smartest and fastest way to make transformation possible.

So if you want to get involved in putting Doughnut Economics into practice, join the community and help us make this experiment fly. Bring your energy, get playful, make practice your protest, promote the wider movement, help us balance openness with integrity, and create ripples of peer-to-peer inspiration. Let’s get this Doughnut on a roll.

See you in the Action Lab.

September 30, 2020
Duncan Green