The big ideas: Doughnut Economics

Published: 29 June 2023

Recent instability amongst US banks, growing discontent with jobs, housing shortages and growing inequality is reinforcing the need for the new economic models and mindsets. Doughnut Economics asks our economy to prioritise people’s capabilities in relation to what’s needed to sustain a healthy thriving life.

The big ideas: Doughnut Economics

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions must be halved by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5C. Simultaneously, the intersecting crises of inequality, biodiversity loss and public health inequity continue to damage livelihoods around the world, increasing popular discontent with the political and economic systems we all live in. Recent instability amongst US banks, growing discontent with jobs, housing shortages and growing inequality is reinforcing the need for the new economic models and mindsets.

Recent shifts in economic thinking have pushed back against an outdated pursuit of GDP growth whereby 20th century economic models overemphasised the rationality of economic actors.

As a result, policy decisions failed to account for earth’s planetary boundaries. These boundaries provide a framework to describe the limits to the impacts of human activities on the Earth system - when making decisions around planning, redistribution, food production, transport and education.

Drawing on several economic disciplines and fields of thought like ecological economics and feminist approaches to the economy, Doughnut Economics asks our economy to prioritise people’s capabilities in relation to what’s needed to sustain a healthy thriving life. First published in 2012 in an Oxfam report by Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics outlines the mindset and ways of thinking needed for humanity to thrive within our planetary boundaries. The model asks us to evaluate economic decisions according to their impact on people’s access to necessities such as food, healthcare, education, water, electricity and security.

Raworth argues that to meet the challenges of the 21st century, a new economic ‘state of mind’ is needed. We should, she explains in her book, forego our societal and political obsession with economic growth and instead embrace circularity and regeneration.

Raworth asks us to see the big picture by recognising that the economy is embedded within, and dependent upon humanity’s socio-economic needs (i.e., capabilities) and the living world. Therefore, we should understand our economies, societies, and the rest of the living world as complex, interdependent systems that are best understood through the lens of systems thinking.

Such systems mindset offers an approach to analysing the interconnected trends and issues shaping todays and tomorrow’s world. To tackle planetary emergencies linked to the environment, the economy and socio-political systems we have to understand their systemic properties, such as tipping points, interconnectedness and resilience. As such, the goal becomes planetary and societal ‘thriving’ - defined by Doughnut Economics as a world in which the social foundations of communities are met without breaching our planetary boundaries. It is within this notion of thriving, that Raworth sketched out our planet’s doughnut.

A doughnut?

The doughnut visualises what is needed to meet the needs of all people in the 21st century within the boundaries of the living planet. Consisting of two concentric rings which represent these two facets of sustainable human thriving, the doughnut’s social foundation offers the foundation from which no person goes without life’s essentials, thus ensuring they have the capability to live a meaningful life.

The doughnut’s ecological ceiling ensures that we don’t overshoot the planetary boundaries that protect the life-supporting systems which meet humanity’s basic needs. Between these two sets of boundaries lies a doughnut-shaped space that is both ecologically safe and socially just: a space in which humanity can thrive. Building on the acknowledgement that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in urban areas, Doughnut Economics works from eight principles:

Embrace the 21st Century Goal

Aim to meet the needs of all people within the means of the planet. Seek to align your organisation's purpose, networks, governance, owner-ship and finance with this goal.

See the big picture

Recognise the potential roles of the household, the commons, the market and the state – and their many synergies – in transforming economies. Ensure that finance serves the work rather than drives it.

Nurture human nature

Promote diversity, participation, collaboration and reciprocity. Strengthen community networks and work with a spirit of high trust. Care for the wellbeing of the team.

Think in systems

Experiment, learn, adapt, evolve and aim for continuous improvement. Be alert to dynamic effects, feedback loops and tipping points

Be distributive

Work in the spirit of open design and share the value created with all who co-created it. Be aware of power and seek to redistribute it to improve equity amongst stakeholders.

Be regenerative

Aim to work with and within the cycles of the living world. Be a sharer, repairer, regenerator, steward. Reduce travel, minimize flights, be climate and energy smart.

Aim to thrive rather than to grow

Don’t let growth become a goal in itself. Know when to let the work spread out via others rather than scale up in size.

Be strategic in practice

Go where the energy is - but always ask whose voice is left out. Balance openness with integrity, so that the work spreads without capture. Share back learning and innovation to unleash the power of peer-to-peer inspiration.

To learn more about these eight principles, visit the Doughnut Economics Action Lab.

Glasgow’s doughnut

Policy officers from across the city have been working with the GALLANT City Portrait team to better understand how Glasgow can become a ‘thriving city’. The University of Glasgow, in partnership with Glasgow City Council, are working on a £10.2 million research programme: GALLANT - Glasgow as a Living Lab Accelerating Novel Transformation. Emerging from the Green Recovery Dialogues and in support of its COP26 legacy ambitions, the council has teamed up with C40 Cities to realise the just and sustainable ambitions of the city’s communities.

Several key issues and opportunities have been identified by city stakeholders and communities that need to be incorporated into local policy to ensure Glasgow becomes a thriving city. Using the doughnut, these are based on four thematic areas: local-social; local-ecological; global-social; and global-ecological. These lenses offer a systemic way of looking at how Glasgow can thrive. A comprehensive overview can be found here.

The city portrait highlighted the importance of recognising intergenerational poverty in Glasgow, with the entrenched nature of inequality and cost of living impacts being a severe barrier to health and wellbeing around the city. To tackle this, a number of solutions with co-benefits have been identified. The desire of Glasgow’s public servants gives an important foundation from which to tackle socio-economic inequalities.  The portrait identified the city’s education services as key enablers in ensuring Glasgow incorporates the Doughnut Economics framework into policy and local planning.

There was also recognition of the need for positive land stewardship and holistic land management, with spaces cognisant of community needs. Globally, there is an urgent need to rethink how land is valued, with more meaningful metrics of ‘value’ ascribed to natural assets (green and blue spaces). There is also a need to incorporate the cultural and social value of land into measurements with the 2030 sustainable development agenda highlights the role of culture as an enabler of development.  Among the 2030 Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 11 on sustainable cities makes it clear that culture has an essential role to play in realising sustainable urban development.

Alongside cultural capital, Glasgow’s natural capital also has a key role to play in supporting Glasgow to become a thriving city. Nature based solutions can improve air quality, through planting more trees and regenerating derelict land into biodiversity spaces.

There is increasing evidence that green, blue and hybrid infrastructure can cost-effectively deliver what otherwise would require expensive grey infrastructure investments or other energy intensive responses. Urban nature-based solutions offer a plethora of benefits including climate adaptation and mitigation; clean water and air; cooler streets; and access to green public spaces for recreation and physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

When looking at Glasgow’s global impact, tackling over-consumption and embracing the principles of the circular economy are crucial in Glasgow’s transition to sustainability. Alongside changing consumer behaviors, there is also an urgent need to reduce emissions and tackle health inequity. Science is increasingly recognising the co-benefits of tackling climate change and improving health equity. The idea that two wicked problems can be tackled simultaneously through solutions is evidenced through initiatives like energy decarbonisation. Not only will household bills be cheaper, but air quality will be improved (especially in the most deprived areas). Further, nature-based solutions can act as key mechanisms for job creation, air quality improvement and increased leisure space for communities that currently have little access to clean and biodiverse greenspaces – the importance of which cannot be underestimated.

The Glasgow city portrait is an ongoing piece of work, with initial findings starting to be published. An important part of the process is understanding how the city is currently meeting its aspirations whilst identifying action points and changes in local policy. The Doughnut Economics framework offers a tangible footprint in which cities around the world can thrive, ecologically, socially and economically. Early insights from Regen Melbourne have highlighted the potential of the doughnut to build collaboration and create safe and just public spaces. Whilst in Amsterdam governance, ownership and finance have been identified as key target areas. The Amsterdam Doughnut Coalition community platform has shared a number of stories around regenerative design. As Glasgow continues its work on sustainable solutions, the City Portrait will evolve, and provide a tool to both steer and record the City’s transformation.  

By Ben Murphy, Education Officer, Centre for Sustainable Solutions


First published: 29 June 2023