Cities across the world are exploring Doughnut Economics, shaping up their Doughnuts, sourcing the ingredients, playing with the mix, and reimagining the health of our communities and planet.
Some are further along in their Doughnut journey than others, with funding, government and research support in place. But all are grappling with what it takes to move from talk to action, from ambitious goals to measurable impact.
Back in October 2020, I chatted with fellow designer Alice Howard-Vyse about how our respective cities — Sydney and Berlin — were “getting their Doughnut act together”. Sydney was just starting out, inspired and supported by the Melbourne initiative, and Berlin was only a few months ahead. Alice wanted to know how the Berlin initiative was organised and structured. Like most cities, Berlin was and is still working it out. We swapped stories and quickly discovered that while some challenges are cultural and geographical, there are common themes in ‘designing the Doughnut’.
Perhaps most notably, people want to get involved but are not quite sure what to do or where to start. In Alice’s words “we have all manner of wonderful people, who have lots of interest and are activated, but have nowhere to land.” This resonated with what I had learned from other cities: we are working this out together, there is no manual. And while we work it out we can find comfort, strength and guidance in the experiences of others, embodying the open, nurturing spirit of the Doughnut principles.
Our conversation led to this story, a collation of experiences shared with me in March 2021 by seven interviewees in five Doughnut cities — Sydney, Melbourne, Berlin, Brussels and Amsterdam. We discussed how they got going with the Doughnut, what it means to ‘start well’, obstacles they’ve faced, what participation and collaboration can achieve, and examples of actual transformation in action. It’s for would-be ‘city conveners’ starting or growing their city’s Doughnut, designers and facilitators wanting to know how they might support initiatives, and those generally curious about how cities are experimenting with the Doughnut and taking steps towards transformation.
“What we learn we share, we don’t hold back behind the doors of the City or University.” — Jennifer Drouin, Amsterdam.
What ‘shape’ is the Doughnut taking in these cities?
In the five cities I spoke with, the Doughnut community was referred to as an initiative or coalition. Interviewees pointed out it’s not a movement in the classical sense, and not to be confused with a political party, as the Amsterdam Donut Coalitie is sometimes incorrectly interpreted.
Amsterdam, Brussels and Melbourne are funded initiatives, with two to six ‘core’ team members connected to government, industry or research programs that are typically focused on local development, transition and sustainability.
Amsterdam Donut Coalitie is funded until the end of 2021 by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, where Kate Raworth has been appointed Professor of Practice. The Coalitie has one full-time and one part-time team members and actively collaborates with researchers, students and freelancers. Marieke van Doorninck, Deputy Mayor for Spatial Development and Sustainability in Amsterdam, is supportive of the Coalitie.
The BrusselsDonut is a consortium, with the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) as an official member. It is a project led by Confluences, an association specialised in the support of co-creation projects. The consortium is funded for nine months and supported by the Regional Public Service Brussels Economy and Employment, and the office of Barbara Trachte, the Minister for Economic Transition. There are six team members: a full-time Project Manager and researcher with a PhD in economics, a co-creation project specialist and consortium leader, two economics researchers, and two activists and participation experts.
Funding by a non-government entity, such as the Amsterdam arrangement with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, makes things more neutral and provides autonomy for exploring the Doughnut in the way the initiative best sees fit. However, other initiatives have warned of ‘donut-washing’ when funding is offered by political, business or lobby groups.
Berlin and Sydney are actively exploring funding opportunities. A mix of actors have been shaping the Doughnut in these cities since mid-2020 through targeted community workshops and community events. Actors include academics and researchers in futures, foresight and socio-ecological economics, collaborative commons groups sharing knowledge in the social sector such as Sydney Commons Lab and New Economy Network Australia, consultants in energy, innovation and sustainable development goals, and designers working in industrial, strategic and systems thinking.
How the Doughnut got started
There were two main catalysts for Doughnut initiation in the five cities interviewed: volunteer conveners, and city alignment to the Doughnut way of thinking. When these two converged, support and funding became more attainable to emerging initiatives.
Volunteer conveners refers to a handful of politically, economically and/or sustainability-minded people who are inspired by the Doughnut Economics book, high-profile invited speakers, or topical films e.g. the 2040 Documentary, as well as the progress of other cities such as Amsterdam. They share the model with peers, host community workshops, and use social media to unofficially build and maintain the community. In the early days of the initiative these individuals become the unofficial ‘city conveners’, and may go on to become core members of the city’s Doughnut initiative.
City alignment to the Doughnut way of thinking generally means civil servants and politicians connected to sustainability and economic development portfolios are exploring use of the Doughnut to orient strategies for economic transition. When parties and politicians support the Doughnut way of thinking, representatives of the city may also connect with the ‘core team’ leading the city’s initiative, or support from the periphery.
Getting the recipe right
People are keen to ‘do’, but don’t know how or where to start
Doughnut ‘conveners’ in each city don’t seem to have any problems getting people to show up and take interest. The communicative strength of the Doughnut Model, and its vision for creating a safe and just world, with inclusivity, equity and authenticity at its heart, compels many people. As Nicole Hartmann says “It sparked something in me as something one can do in the city of Berlin too”. Alice Howard-Vyse comments “I posted something on LinkedIn in late 2019, and said ‘who’s interested in getting Sydney in the Doughnut?’. It had such a response.”
Those showing up to Doughnut intro workshops and webinars come from different walks of life, including grassroot groups, research and academia, engineering, systems thinking, circular economy, and politics and civil service. Many are not economists, nor have a background in economics. They’ve likely read the book, and maybe seen a related presentation. They’ve been enticed by the model’s values and promises of a better future, want to be part of the ‘movement’, and now await further instructions on what they can do. But translating the theory to practice is the hard part; as Patrick Léon Gross says “… to operationalise it into meaningful concrete steps requires a very detailed understanding… of touch points between the world and the concept.”
But the Doughnut is decentralised and distributed by design; no one person decides what the plans or instructions are. The Doughnut ethos is that we should play with the model in whatever way we want as long as we stay true to its tenets, and that through that process we’ll learn what Doughnut Economics is. “Don’t just read the article and don’t wait to get funding” says Sean Trewick, “start playing in the sphere of influence you find yourself in.”
The role of city conveners
Getting people to ‘just start playing’ isn’t easy. They still look to the conveners for guidance. The city conveners’ capacity and ability to support this need depends partly on their funding and infrastructure:
Amsterdam, Brussels and Melbourne are funded. All have dedicated community platforms, monthly community meetings, monthly newsletters, and at least one funded team member who channels enquiries coming through the community platform.
In contrast, Berlin and Sydney are currently unfunded. A handful of people voluntarily manage the community, using LinkedIn for broader communications such as upcoming workshops. Despite having little time and resources they feel responsibility to make things happen. Both cities are actively exploring funding and support options to address this.
City conveners — whether in a funded initiative or not — feel pressure if they are seen as experts holding all knowledge of the model theory, and determining who is doing what with the Doughnut in the city. They put themselves in a stronger and more sustainable position when they make clear to the community that they are facilitators, enablers and ‘matchmakers’ in a peer-to-peer collaboration network. As Alice Howard-Vyse says “I am not set up as a community organiser. I am an ecosystem builder and strengthener.”
Here are examples of messaging some initiatives are finding helpful to repeat in workshops and webinars to clarify their roles and set community expectations:
The Doughnut is experimental in nature, so feel free to experiment in your own way in your sphere of influence.
We are not here to teach the theory of Doughnut Economics, but are happy to share some basic concepts via materials provided by the DEAL and the DEAL community. The learning itself is up to you, and we encourage you to do ‘learn by doing’. We are still learning too.
We hope to empower others to keep going, by making space for collaboration and connection.
We are trialling tools and methods that individuals and organisations are welcome to use and adapt for their own purposes, to get people comfortable with complexity and thinking how to apply the Doughnut within specific strategies.
On starting well: five top tips
So you want to shape your own local Doughnut? Here’s five top tips for getting your ingredients in order, from securing funding, to pacing yourself, to how you relate to others.
1. Align the Doughnut to problems — and values — to get funding. “Organisations only spend money on solving problems and the government is an organisation with a heap of problems to solve” says Sean Trewick. “Governments at any time have numerous active initiatives, all with problems to solve, people to engage, and value to report. The Doughnut can be applied in so many ways. Find a way that adds value to one or more of the initiatives in your City”. Others in the DEAL Community caution initiatives about funding offered by political, business or lobby groups that are simply “Doughnut washing”. The general community advice is “not to start with the Doughnut” in conversations with these groups and instead to give them examples of local things which embody different Doughnut principles, see how these examples resonate, and make an assessment on whether values align before making any commitments.
2. Find the others, find the right energies. The need to spend time building relationships and trust was hugely emphasised by all cities, who spoke of ‘going where the energy is’, but also being thoughtful about which energies are being harnessed, and paying attention to skills, capabilities and emotional intelligence of different actors as collaborations begin to form. As Alice Howard-Vyse says“If something feels like a real push and grind, question why you would be doing it”. Georg Wagener-Lohse in Berlin agrees, adding “Take a lot of a time to get into a confident relationship with each other. Take time to learn about motivations, hopes, and then only work according to your common convictions.”
3. Be patient. Don’t force things, and don’t feel like you need to start from scratch. This includes not assuming a lead or expert role, but rather thinking about what energy, interest and skills you can offer and seeing where they might complement what others are doing. “Find the changemakers and connect them to a story that is relevant and urgent to the city” says Jennifer Drouin. “Connect the dots. There’s already so much there.” This also helps to reduce the pressure of feeling you have come up with an original idea.
4. Agree on ‘minimum processes’. Don’t underestimate the importance of setting a clear plan on how, when and why people will meet, and which platforms will be used e.g. Zoom for monthly community calls, Miro for collaboration, platform website for information, event, newsletter and tool sharing, Slack for weekly ‘core’ team meetings. This also includes deciding which languages will be used. The ‘local approach’ and use of the mother tongue is important, but can also exclude others interested in participating.
Berlin and Sydney, who are earlier in their Doughnut journey and still shaping their initiatives, think they might benefit from organisational or strategic design help to organise their groups, and design better ways of collaboration and communication. For Patrick Léon Gross, this would help answer questions like “when should we set a vision strategy? When should we do a stakeholder diagram? Is the time ripe to branch out and build a larger community?”
5. Build in time for reflection and iteration. With so much going on, time is needed to reflect on what’s been learned, what’s changed, and what needs to change. Amsterdam has weekly reflections to keep up with the pace of change, and Melbourne is benefiting from collaborating with actors skilled in reflective practice, such as Circular Economy Victoria. “Doughnut Economics at its core is a paradigm shift in the way that we manage our planetary household. This involves everyone and everything, which is extremely complex” says Sean Trewick. “Every engagement we have, we learn from. It is therefore important to test and learn what resonates with different stakeholders in different contexts and moments.”
It’s about the social, not the technical
One of the biggest ‘penny drop’ moments for those exploring the Doughnut model is its focus on the social and on being human. Cities and communities are realising that first and foremost, transforming an economy requires a cultural revolution, not a socio-technical one. This is changing the nature of conversations within cities and requires people to look at the challenge differently.
That realisation also has a personal impact on city conveners. Suddenly, they have to think about topics they previously had no experience with. “There is also a very emotional side to the Doughnut with a strong connection to culture” says Sean Trewick. “This reconnection and healing theme has come through very strongly in our work, especially in the context of First Nations.” Jennifer Drouin adds “Doughnut thinking has changed me. I was always focused on biodiversity, climate change… the outer part. I never saw the connection to the social element; one affects the other. ”
Acknowledging and working with tensions
Two major areas of tension were acknowledged by the cities interviewed: tribalism and fragmentation, and missed connections and opportunities.
Tribalism and fragmentation across suburbs, communities, regions and interest groups was spurred on by ‘militant’ viewpoints such as “degrowth is the only answer”, suspicion about the ideologies behind or ties to the theory, and historical perspectives on sustainability which feel challenged by a “new story”. There was also a sense in some cities that we have been here before, that the Doughnut isn’t new; “what’s so different and why should we listen this time?”
Some felt their local initiatives were suffering from a lack of conceptual clarity about what the Doughnut stood for — “are we talking about a general societal transformation picture for social development within planetary boundaries or a new model for economic action by the state and companies?”, lacking interest from the government which was making it hard for the idea to find a footing, and missed strategic connections with actors who could link Doughnut Economics to existing initiatives. Other frustrations arose from the perception that people are working siloes and not seeing the interconnectedness, such as food initiatives looking at food production but not economics.
“One chapter of Kate Raworth’s book is about the principle of systemic relations in our society. But most people are not aware we are living in a dynamic system and we have to understand how the system runs so we can find solutions.” — Georg Wagener-Lohse, Berlin.
Making it real — what cities are doing
What is clear from speaking to the five cities is that making the Doughnut real requires thinking and acting differently, and in more interconnected ways. “The whole process of trial and error is necessary to grasp the complexity of the Doughnut” says Tristan Dissaux. Some of the cities have tried a theme-by-theme approach, but have found it doesn’t work because it’s too broad. They’ve realised instead that they need to start with what’s happening on the ground, try a few things, then work out which direction to take and what to keep or adjust in their approach.
Lots is happening in the cities; here are some examples of what they’re up to. Check out their websites (links at bottom of article) for more news on what they’re doing.
Amsterdam continue to find ways of making the Doughnut visible in the city through festivals and school events, and bi-monthly workshops aligned to DEAL themes including arts, education, organisations and policy. They are excited to be kicking off a storytelling course at the University of Applied Sciences where 1,000 students will go into the neighborhood to interview people and develop Doughnut stories, to help build their understanding of the concept.
In Amsterdam a citizen-led initiative called Donut Deals is experimenting with the Doughnut model in a social and ecological context. One of the Donut Deals – ‘smart window dressing’ – involves a multicultural community without access to education who are experiencing financial hardship paying energy bills. The group have been taught new skills to make ‘isolation curtains’, which provides employment and access to community and friends. In turn, their energy costs and CO2 emissions have reduced. Jennifer Drouin says “…it’s a very small-scale example, but it touches the inside and outside of Doughnut.”
Berlin are facilitating workshops with diverse actors using methods like Three Horizons and systemic analysis to gather ideas about dominant trends and systems, future possibilities for change, and what resources and actions are needed to get there. They are also engaging with Masters students exploring the Doughnut from different perspectives, and lobbying political parties to integrate economics for the 21st century into their 2021 election programs.
Brussels have developed a methodology to get their city into the Doughnut in a participatory way. The group are working at four different levels, corresponding to four scales of analysis. Together, these levels form a comprehensive approach to the challenges of transition, and individually enable different perspectives that speak to different audiences.
Melbourne continue to “converge the energy” and bring people together in a network, getting people into the Doughnut through projects focused on social innovation that are aligned to the ‘problems’ of the city. They are also engaging with councils and businesses to build Doughnut Economy awareness, weaving in the Doughnut through interviews, smaller round tables, and general survey engagement.
Sydney initiated a ‘Building a Coalition’ workshop to grow the network and explore ideas for how the Doughnut might apply on a practical level, mapped ‘who’s who’ in the city working on climate change, social equity, income and work, energy and other related topics, and are in discussions with potential collaborators such as NSW Circular on next steps.
Where and how is participatory design showing up?
The need for participation is acknowledged by the cities, and some are making inroads into more participatory practices by centering diverse actors in their approaches to projects.
“We have talked a lot about participatory design, about citizen participation and assemblies… when you feel as a citizen you not only have privileges but have duty to partake, when you see yourself as a political individual. “ — Nicole Hartmann, Berlin.
“Through participation, we didn’t want to just collect data. We wanted real participation because selecting indicators is a political thing, the way you measure things is already deeply political. So we wanted to involve the actors on the choice of indicators, asking ‘What do you think should be on the portrait.’” — Tristan Dissaux, Brussels.
“True participation means putting everything on table, putting up a list of activities, and running for it.” — Georg Wagener-Lohse, Berlin
Hopes for the future
The three funded initiatives (Melbourne, Brussels, Amsterdam) are focused on ‘making space’ for collaboration around the model and testing it in local contexts, but none of them have long-term funding (as yet). How the emergent, distributed approach of these cities will stay in play when funding runs out is yet to be determined, but it seems unlikely things will simply stop.
Sean Trewick from Circular Economy Victoria (CEV) has used the Doughnut as its Vision and core of its Theory of Change. CEV aims to continue to explore ways to use the Doughnut to guide the complex socio-technical transition to a more circular economy.Similarly in Brussels and with the BrusselsDonut report due in May 2021, Project Manager Tristan Dissaux is clear that it’s not a conclusion, but a starting point for others to take on board.
“We hope that through what we’ve done in our project, others will take the Doughnut in their own organisations and start thinking about their action in terms of the Doughnut, and that the portrait will keep evolving, that politics and administrations will continue evaluating their strategies through the donut lenses.” — Tristan Dissaux, Brussels.
In the next 3–6 months Amsterdam wants to build a true sense of community, where people can more easily find each other and work more together. They also want to involve more students and the younger generation in general, so that young people can contribute in a meaningful way.
“…[we want to] move away from the egoistic competitive person to a collectively thinking working body.” — Jennifer Droiun, Amsterdam.
Berlin and Sydney are busy shaping their initiatives, focusing on how people collaborate and communicate, and how best to harness and respect people’s energies. As Alice Howard-Vyse says “I don’t think it’s for one individual to hold or do. It requires a coalition, and that coalition requires some level of organising, logistical help and admin.” Both cities are also planning further workshops and broader community events to attract the attention of the public, decision-makers and local policy influencers.
All cities are highly aware of the lack of diversity and inclusiveness in their initiatives, and have made this a priority as they move forward. Some cities are engaging partners to provide guidance on this, including the Coalition of Everyone and Regeneration Projects in Melbourne. “it’s very easy to fall into echo chambers of similarly minded people” says Sean Trewick. “The Coalition of Everyone was brought in specifically to look at that. It’s the most challenging aspect of our work, to bring in and challenge different opinions.”. This is echoed by Alice in Sydney, saying “…we have a range of people but aware we were female skewed last night [at a community workshop]. We didn’t have indigenous voices there that I’m aware of. It’s absolutely top of our agenda. It’s a balance, getting the ball rolling and respecting people’s time, but also not pulling people in before we have anything to offer.”
Communication campaigns, and community outreach festivals were suggested by some interviewees as ways to take the Doughnut deeper into communities and find key people to be part of the conversations at the centre of the Doughnut — education, food, energy, political participation, social justice — and also to send a message to politicians about the groundswell of interest for change. For example Brussels are launching a communications campaign to circulate their Donut Portrait amongst different networks and via different media.
Concluding thoughts and questions
Though the five cities are at different stages of their Doughnut journey, it feels like they are all crossing, or about to cross, an important threshold. They are playing with the ingredients, trialling different ideas, nurturing relationships and connections, and in turn seeing things emerge.
One thing is clear: there’s no manual and we are all working it out together. This means that we have to be patient and kind to ourselves, and not feel pressure to have it all sorted before we dive in.
“A common trap for entrepreneurs working on complex problems is to wait for institutions to get their house in order first. Only by starting to work on the problem will the pathway to solutions emerge”. Conway, Leadbetter & Winhall.
There are of course lots of unanswered questions. And that’s ok. Here are some I’m sitting with:
How can cities ‘keep things local’ while also accommodating different languages, so all members of the community can participate?
How might we get people to more genuinely connect and experiment with Doughnut themes and truly get to grips with what transition takes?
Is the ‘initiative’ or ‘coalition’ model going to become the norm for cities getting into the Doughnut? And if so, how can cities ensure they do this in a decentralised way?
How can we acknowledge and hold tensions among different actors in a city, but still ‘speak in the same direction’ towards a better future?
In a stroke of excellent timing, the DEAL have just kicked off a collaborative process to collect questions like these from Doughnut initiatives around the world. They plan to progressively share learnings back via the DEAL Community Platform as part of their wider learning process.
I look forward to learning more about and experimenting with these things as a friend of Donut Berlin and a member of the global DEAL Community, and will be keeping a keen eye on the community platform as learnings are served up.
A big thank you to the contributors for sharing their valuable time and experience:
I am also extremely grateful to Sara Robin for copyediting and advice, Rob Shorter of DEAL for feedback, and the inspiration of The Hum for ideas explored in these interviews.
About the author: Kate Goodwin is an Australian designer and researcher based in Berlin, and friend of the Donut Berlin initiative since July 2020. Her interests are in social and climate innovation, and creative approaches to engaging with complexity. More at matchbox.studio or Twitter @matchboxstudio.