people taking part in an exercise class
Young people take part in FitCreativ, a mobility exercise class and part of the Com’ON initiative in Cluj-Napoca, Romania © Loránd Vakarcs/Pont Group

Five decades since The Limits to Growth report argued that increasing populations and industrial development were pushing humanity over the edge, new concerns about global warming, inequality and mental illness are reinforcing the view that measuring progress by economic activity alone is too reductive.

The New Zealand Government’s Wellbeing Outlook, to take one example, recognises that traditional measures of success, such as GDP growth, are not what matters most to people. Human capability, the natural environment, and social cohesion should be incorporated alongside physical and financial capital.

As a member of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, Wales has enshrined these concerns into legislation with its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, and created the world’s first Future Generations Commissioner.

Today, we face multiple crises: not only ecological, social, economic and political, but also cultural and psychological. This reflects a growing sense of separation from our inner selves, each other and nature.

It is misguided to think that a model of infinite economic growth and technological innovation can be a path to societal and planetary wellbeing.

Climate protest in Vienna
Supporters of the Fridays for Future climate action movement in Vienna, Austria, last September © Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images

We need to re-evaluate and create alternatives. The 2022 Earth For All report by the Club of Rome — the think-tank that also commissioned 1972’s The Limits to Growth — underlines our collective responsibility for growth within planetary limits in a single generation — including wellbeing, ethics and values.

For young people living in cities, crisis and opportunity collide. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas — a proportion expected to rise to two-thirds by 2050. By that time, 60 per cent of the urban population in developing countries will be under 18 years old, according to UN-Habitat.

The pandemic revealed the fragility of the current model of economic growth. Social services, healthcare and other systems were severely strained, and unacceptable numbers of people were left without provision.

The response to this need was the creation of a wealth of social innovations with a focus on care and values — rather than just profit — which offered the prospect of more sustainable and collaborative approaches. These helped provide more equitable healthcare and education to underserved communities.

Over the past three years, I have helped develop OurCluj, a 10-year initiative in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca that seeks to improve the wellbeing of young residents by creating a space for collective reflection and connection.

In a study I co-authored with Eric Gordon and colleagues, we call it a “values-based urban living laboratory” because it fosters innovation based on trust and care before growth. It is part of the global OurCity initiative which recognises that systemic change requires time and persistent engagement.

a teacher and a student in front of th eclass demonstrating a lesson
Students take part in Wello and Learning QUB, a wellbeing and capacity-building programme for schools in Cluj-Napoca, Romania
two children writing on a whiteboard
© Roland Váczi

The aim is to involve local non-profit organisations, government, businesses, and communities to test and assess projects — such as the recently launched social innovation fund to support young entrepreneurs.

Urban innovation requires not just an assemblage of projects and practices, but a more ambitious approach that reflects on the past and imagines the future. Artists play an important role in spurring imagination and bringing participants together, while a wide range of groups is experimenting with sharing power, funding decisions, and building trust.

Several models are already under way. Doughnut Economics Action Lab — a movement based on the bestselling book by economist Kate Raworth about living within social and planetary boundaries — has been adopted by Amsterdam and more than 40 other cities including Barcelona, Brussels, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Ipoh in Malaysia and El Monte in Chile are experimenting with it.

Community-led initiatives are flourishing, from Birmingham to Rio de Janeiro. They aim to design economies that are regenerative and distributive, sharing wealth better and meeting the needs of all inhabitants.

Another example is the community-led Transition Network involving more than 1,200 groups in more than 40 countries. Founded in 2006 by Rob Hopkins, an activist and author of From What Is to What If, it is rooted in values that cultivate collaboration, inclusivity, learning and self-organisation.

people inside an auditorium attending a talk
A community-led example of the Transition movement at the “Climate Change: What Next” event in Totnes in the UK © Rob Hopkins

The Transition movement works towards a low-carbon, socially just future while cultivating a caring culture focused on mutual support. They use participatory approaches to set up renewable energy projects, re-localise food systems, and create community green spaces.

In Liège, Belgium, for example, a project backed by local people has built a “food belt” with the aim of growing at least 50 per cent of the city’s food locally.

Our planet’s multiple crises cannot be solved with conventional thinking, top-down management, and hierarchical social structures. These have been tried and failed. Dominant financing practices are also ill-suited to finding solutions.

Instead, we need to consider these new approaches, which are often bottom-up, collaborative and inclusive. They create spaces for imagination and embody basic values that support wellbeing. They are creating change in people, organisations and societies.

© Lea Kloos

Cities undergoing rapid social and economic transformation are uniquely placed to foster these novel ways of working together with a bold ambition for the wellbeing of all. In doing so, they may provide a compass for a thriving future for humanity.

Barbara Bulc is a social innovator, steward of the OurCluj initiative and a founder of Global Development and the SDG CoLab.

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