How do we define growth, today? Is it social justice, wealth, technology, health? Or maybe it’s having enough food and water, or a rich biodiversity, the list goes on. In truth it’s hard to measure in such a rapidly changing world, but if the world is changing so quickly, then why hasn’t our definition of growth changed too?

It’s no secret that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) dictates modern economics, but GDP cannot account for the widespread inequality and change our planet is facing. Simon Kuznets, who first defined this measurement, warned early on that “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of its national income.”

It’s certainly hard to argue that wealth equates to welfare when today, 2 out of 3 countries have worse living conditions than they did 40 years ago. Poverty, injustice, and climate crisis exist on an unprecedented scale, and the richest 1% of the population own half the global wealth. 

Considering this, can we really call any country ‘developed’? Kate Raworth doesn’t think so. She believes it’s time for a completely new economic model, one that allows humanity to thrive, while saving the planet at the same time. 

Introducing Doughnut Economics

Last week, as part of We Make The City festival in Amsterdam, five of our Clean Energy Challenge winners pitched to an audience of investors, signalling the final step in the Accelerator programme – with thanks to our partners at Social Enterprise NL and the IKEA Foundation.

Earlier that morning, economist Kate Raworth of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, opened the festival ‘Complete Turn Over’ event with an introduction to her revolutionary model for a future-proof economy: the Doughnut.

Doughnuts? Turnovers? Unfortunately for those members of the audience who’d forgotten breakfast – these key terms couldn’t be further from our sweet-toothed associations. Instead, we were offered much more: a comprehensive analysis and understanding of circular economies, regenerative design, and the need to redefine wealth or ‘growth’ in modern economics. The Doughnut model seeks to reshape the minds of our leaders, reform the way we live, and drive systematic change in how we treat the planet. 

But what exactly is the Doughnut, and why is it important in the creative industry?

For years, global economics has favoured growth, but as Raworth concludes “growth in finance does not serve us anymore”. Currently we’re stuck in a linear system that’s failing our planet and people. The responsibility to change this system belongs to every industry, in every city and every country. 

The Doughnut model itself is simple enough. Two concentric rings each represent either a social or ecological boundary. The area between those two rings defines the “ecologically safe and socially just space” in which we should strive to live. Anything that crosses these boundaries represents social or ecological deprivation. 


The inner ring, named Social Foundation, concerns twelve standards, or foundations, necessary to live socially just lives. These encompass things like food, water, energy, social justice, gender equality, and education. The outer ring, the Ecological Ceiling consists of nine planetary boundaries, beyond which lie “unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points”. These boundaries include climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, freshwater withdrawals, air pollution, and ozone depletion.

At present, no country falls within the ecologically and socially just space. Wealthier countries (via GDP terms) typically meet more social thresholds, but massively overstep the ecological. According to GoodLife at the University of Leeds, who run a worldwide evaluation using Doughnut Economics, the Netherlands sits at the top right corner of the global scale – meaning its social performance is ideal, but its ecological performance is poor, crossing over biophysical boundaries in nearly every category. Compare this to the The Philippines, which sits in the bottom left corner, who overstep none of the biophysical boundaries, but fail to meet any of the social thresholds – with huge gaps in democratic quality and life satisfaction.


So, how can we work to close these gaps, and bring society inside the equitable ring? Already there are organisations successfully employing the Doughnut principle, and for the first time, city-wide experiments in Amsterdam have seen the model implemented long-term (lead by Marieke Van Doorninck, Alderman for Development and Sustainability in Municipal of Amsterdam). 

Van Doorninck explained that her reasoning for beginning the process in Amsterdam simply stemmed from the fact that radical changes were needed “the way we produce and consume is exploitative and damaging…step by step we need to build up the doughnut from all sectors of the city” – GoodLife showed that the Netherlands was dangerously close to crossing nearly all ecological boundaries. Doornick wants to cut CO2 emissions 55% by 2030, and evidently what we’ve been doing so far isn’t enough – until there’s been sufficient time to experiment, there is no way of moving on from tradition. Both Doornick and Raworth agree on the vitality of experimentation, a process that perhaps isn’t given enough weight in governmental planning. 

the way we produce and consume is exploitative and damaging…step by step we need to build up the doughnut from all sectors of the city

For individual businesses, start-ups, students, and entrepreneurs in the creative industry, our role as innovators, educators and designers is more important than ever. Our practice has always sought to challenge what already exists, change what needs to change, and inspire others around the world to do the same. According to Raworth, if we want to use our influence to shape the future, we need to fold the Doughnut model into our work. Companies like Mars, Unilever, Sainsburys, and Patagonia already are – so how can we? 

First, ask yourself these four questions:

  1. How does your enterprise help humanity move in the doughnut?
  2. What social and ecological pressures does your enterprise contribute towards?
  3. What social and ecological pressures create risks for your enterprise?
  4. Where is your enterprise now? Where is it aiming to be?

Answering these questions  will create a unique Doughnut picture to help identify in which direction the business needs to move. Then, a choice needs to be made regarding what happens next. Will your company:

Do nothing,
Do what pays,
Do your fair share,
Do mission zero,
Or better still;
Be generative.

Raworth suggests that ‘mission zero’, as forward thinking as it is, isn’t really achievable:  “Nature doesn’t do zero – it’s regenerative”. Instead, she suggests we need to work towards a generative goal that creates so much value it gives back to everyone, just like nature does.

Generative is twofold; distributive by design and regenerative by design. To be distributive we must share value equitably. As addressed earlier, 1% of the population owns half of the world’s wealth, outlining how un-distributive the global economy currently is. Enterprise ownership, ethical supply chains, community empowerment, and open source design are favoured as methods of recentering distribution. On the other hand, to be regenerative we must be cyclical and restorative. Most businesses currently work on ‘hosepipe’ economies; a model of take, make, use, and lose. Whereas regenerative design follows a circular path – take, make, use, consume, regenerate, restore, reuse. 

At present, there exists no business that is genuinely generative. But there are some who’ve made a pretty good start. Houdini Sportswear, a progressive outdoor company based in Sweden, have achieved 100% sustainability status, and according to their website, 45% of their spring and summer 2019 collection is completely circular, with a goal of reaching 100% by 2022. 


What next?

To be generative isn’t easy, that’s for certain. But that hasn’t stopped companies making complete business overhauls in search of more sustainable solutions. More and more organisations are seeing value in generative design, whether through their own ethical volition or not. One being that generative resources aren’t finite, unlike the majority we use today. The harsh reality is that if we want to impose change within institutions that value traditional growth (GDP) above all else, we need to show the economic value of generative design. Put simply: we need to make the circular economy the most profitable economy. Innovative design can lead us there, and that’s where our responsibility as creatives comes in.

When creating the Clean Energy Challenge workshops and design jams, we devised our own, doughnut-inspired ‘energy bagel’ that sought to compare carbon decadence versus energy poverty – in order to help visualise how energy should be adapted, distributed, and challenged. From this model, we could define a similar ‘safe’ space in which we should design towards in order to tackle fossil fuel consumption, while providing sufficient energy to all. 

The Clean Energy Challenge ‘Energy Bagel’

Maybe, like our Clean Energy Challenge winners, this change can come from promoting sustainable energy sources in Amsterdam, clean living conditions in Delhi, open source technology in Sao Paulo, waste reduction in Mexico City, and community empowerment through sustainable food production in Nairobi. From lamps powered by plants, to vertical farming, to terracotta air cooling systems – the innovative way in which we tackle regenerative and distributive energy solutions paves an exciting vision of the future. 

To learn more about the winning projects, and browse over 450 submissions from across the globe, head to our challenge platform. Or, if you’re keen to get started applying the doughnut to your own practice, visit Raworth’s website more inspiration, tips and guidance.