How can a Book Change the World? The theory of action behind Kate Raworth and the Doughnut Economics Action Lab

We’re ending the LSE’s ‘Cutting Edge Issues’ lecture series with some real gems. Most recently, it was Kate Raworth, originator of the doughnut, presenting her work in trying to turn a book into global action via the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL). Do watch her talk (not least if you want lessons from a truly great presenter, with a dazzling array of one liners and props).

I won’t summarize here (some great LSE students have already done that). Instead, one of the things I was musing on as Kate spoke was the DEAL team’s emergent theory of action. i.e. how is DEAL trying to translate
into real life change a brilliant, but generalised critique of conventional economics and economic policy + a broad discussion on how to do better? This has relevance both to book authors fantasizing about changing the world one chapter at a time, and the whole ‘research for impact’ discussion, which I cover fairly regularly on this blog.

What struck me about Kate’s approach is some fairly fancy footwork, which enables DEAL to maximise its impact, despite having only 7 staff.

The key is ‘go where the energy is’. Kate set up the Lab because, as she toured the world presenting the book, more and more people started telling her about how they were applying it in their classroom, communities or local politics. So the energy was there, and Kate wanted to help it by being a catalyst and allowing those involved to share with and inspire each other. The website is thus deliberately aimed at sharing experiences, because Kate argues that people are moved to action by seeing someone else in their position (eg running a city council) doing something interesting.

She is remorselessly positive (when I used to pretend to manage her at Oxfam, this was always a bit of a sore point – she didn’t like my snarky jokes) and at DEAL that has translated into a focus on positive action, and a desire to avoid being labelled and sucked into big, generally unproductive debates on capitalism, de-growth, scarcity or anything else.

This strikes me as a nice application of systems thinking:

  • Don’t think you have to find the whole answer, a grand strategy; go where your contribution is greatest.
  • Adapt and keep moving (echoes of the US marines rules of thumb there – keep moving, take the high ground, stay in contact and improvise the rest, though I dare say Kate won’t thank me for the comparison!).
  • Combine insider and outsider strategies.

But there’s also some hard-nosed realism in there. To avoid greenwashing (big companies slapping doughnuts on their PR), as Kate explained in an FP2P launch post

‘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.’

In a follow up email after I told her I was planning to write this post, she elaborated:

‘To have even half a chance of transforming the economic system, you need people focused on bringing down the old order – they occupy bridges, lock on to oil rigs, expose corruption, lobby politicians, campaign against. They are crucial.

You also need people inside the old structures – eg inside mainstream companies or in the civil service – working to reform or transform them from the inside. These people do long, detailed, hidden work changing contractual / regulatory clauses and sometimes they call us in when we can be useful at critical ‘big think’ moments. Most times when we are invited to present (eg to the Biden Treasury Transition Team / 10 Downing St / ministerial teams) the invitation comes from one of these intrapreneur civil servants and we follow their lead.

Along with these actors, you also need people focused on making visible the new, the possible, working with the pioneers and innovators who don’t wait for permission but start doing it anyway. That’s where DEAL is focusing a lot of its work.

The Amsterdam Donut Coalition is a good example: they just announced that they were starting up, and have since inspired many other places to follow their example. We as DEAL didn’t have this planned – it just happened – so we have adapted to work with it. Now there are local groups setting up worldwide, and coordinating with each other.

So when anyone asks us (as a student did during the webinar) how do you convince / persuade a government / multinational corporation/ person to change – we don’t claim to have the answer. At this stage of our work at least, we have far more than we can manage to do by simply working with those who are already persuaded and are getting into action, so that’s where we focus. And we know this work complements the roles that so many other organizations are playing. We all need each other contributions to the whole – hence the importance of creating an ecosystem of new economic changemakers.’

Where the Energy Is

The result is inevitably partial – skimming DEAL’s community platform, most of the initiatives are local (often at city level) and northern, although there are some examples of national work, and growing involvement from low-income countries such as Bangladesh. But that’s OK, as far as Kate is concerned – do what you can, go where the energy is.

In my initial rave review of Doughnut Economics, I worried about the lack of attention to power and politics. I felt that Kate (or someone else) should work through the ‘how change happens’ as well as the ‘what’ of rethinking economics – a Doughnut Politics to accompany the economics. But it turns out, a great idea will generate change through inspiration, in ways that can never be anticipated. I still worry about the politics of climate change (and lament the fact that Matthew Lockwood has stopped writing his Political Climate blog), but I can see the benefits of big idea-led change too!

And when the sheer scale of the climate crisis makes many feel hopeless, you could feel the inspiration and energy the audience took from this positive approach, even on Zoom.

I tried to think who else I have seen perform this trick of turning a ground-breaking book into practical action, and could only really come up with Hilary Cottam, Schumacher (and possibly JM Keynes!). Kate recommends Christian Felber’s Change Everything, which underpins the Economy for the Common Good movement, particularly big in Germany and Spain. Any other candidates?

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