We need ecological innovation

Wakelyns

Wakelyns organic agroforestry hub in Suffolk.

Innovation must mean real ecological transformation and not just new ways for companies to extract value through mining and externalise waste.

Our current systems have delivered an unhealthy society and a broken planet.

Everyone’s talking “green” now as part of the “build back better” agenda. There’s a great deal of emphasis on “innovation”, “skills” and “productivity”.

That was the focus of a parliamentary roundtable I attended with the London School of Economics and Politics focused on “sustainable growth” for the so-called levelling up agenda, chaired by Professor Tony Travers.

But I found in the presentations and much of the discussion a curiously old-fashioned idea of what innovation is and what skills we need. It was the same kind of 20th-century mindset that I found in a widely shared Telegraph article by William Hague tackling the same issues.

Ecological

The former Conservative leader and many of the contributors at LSE equated innovation with industrial, chemical and civil engineering. It involves making lots of high-tech stuff, to be less carbon-emitting, and, maybe, less planet-damaging, than the “stuff” we have now.

This is an agenda for business-as-usual with added technology. It is still treating the planet as a mine, even if the occasional nod to the circular economy makes it sound somewhat less as a dumping ground.

I suggested that we consider innovation more broadly. That could start with including ecology as a focus of innovation.

There’s plenty of evidence of the need for such an approach in the Dasgupta Review. This showed that natural capital per person had declined by almost 40 percent from 1992 to 2014.

I pointed to examples of ecological innovation, such as the wonderful Wakelyns organic agroforestry hub in Suffolk and the hugely productive Ferme du Bec Hellouin in Normandy.

Our current systems have delivered an unhealthy society and a broken planet.

Impact

These are spectacular innovators in agroecology, producing healthy food in large quantities from small areas while having great social and natural impacts.

But I could also have pointed to increasing management of road verges and other public spaces for wild fauna and flora, and projects to help parents feed small children more healthily.

All of those fit with David Burkus’s definition of innovation as “application of ideas that are novel and useful”- and they're good for people and planet too.

Also clearly fitting in with Burkus's definition are social and economic innovations. This might include the Universal Basic Income that could transform the way people work, study and live. It would include 15-minute cities that could free up people’s time to use more productively than commuting.

The LSE panel spent a great deal of time talking about in the age of Covid-19 in particular, and the need to create jobs. The four-day working week as standard with no loss of pay is an innovation that could also have a massive impact there.

Stuff

We also talked with the LSE about productivity. The concept here was also stuck in the 20th century, with the focus always implicitly and often explicitly stuck on increasing GDP.

This is despite what Professor Dasgupta in his Treasury-commissioned report had to say about the need to change our measures of progress.

“Productivity” as currently envisaged all too often means producing poverty, inequality and environmental destruction.

Many questions were not asked: What are things being made for? Is this labour tackling inequality making our lives better?

Most politicians and thought leaders are, it seems, still fixated on making more “stuff”.

Power

When it came to talking about skills, again the focus was all on engineering, on construction, on making things.

Now I do not deny that the UK has a desperate shortage of those skills. Those needs are well known. But we also have a desperate shortage of other skills: in the caring and medical professions, in community organising, in town planning that truly understands active transport needs.

When the “skills agenda” is in view, those are not in the foreground. They’re often not in the picture at all.

Our current systems have delivered an unhealthy society and a broken planet. We need an approach that is far more innovative than business-as-usual with added technology.

And “levelling up” is entirely the wrong frame to put this all in. It suggests “lifting” the rest of the country to something like life in the London and the South East pre-Covid, when that was nothing to aspire to, and certainly not “green”.

Another contributor at the LSE dismissed what I was suggesting as only being “small” and “local”. That’s surely the point - what we need is not a “levelling up” agenda, but a spreading out of prosperity and wellbeing to every community in the land.

None of our local communities have nearly enough of those and new ideas to effect real, necessary change. And none have the power and resources at the local level to deliver them.

This Author 

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer. 

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