Shifting the Brussels Economy – A Doughnut Story

In response to the 2023 Beyond Growth Conference, this piece is the seventh in a weekly series that was published together on 8 May in a special issue magazine, “Imagining Europe Beyond Growth”, developed in partnership with Belgian de-growth think tank Oikos. The magazine, curated by our Senior Policy Officer for Systemic Change Nick Meynen, features 18 articles from diverse actors in the “beyond growth” sphere: from thought leaders such as Kate Raworth and Timothée Parrique to political figures and a variety of green civil society allies and EEB staff passionate about system change. Stay tuned for 1 article every week for the next eight weeks!

A few months before the European Green Deal was published by Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, the Brussels-Capital Region Government published its own climate roadmap, the “Brussels Green Deal,” in a way, where the Government committed to put all its public policies at the service of its ambitious climate objectives.

Against this backdrop, I was honoured to become responsible for the economic portfolio and hastened to rename it the economic transition portfolio. By doing so, I wanted to signify the need for the Brussels economy to fundamentally transform itself so that it could become a partner in the coalition for ambitious climate goals rather than an obstacle.

But how do you do that? How do you transform a field so fundamentally entrenched with growth objectives based on exploiting environmental and human resources and embodied by the infamous Gross Domestic Product? How to make the outside world understand this willingness to change the paradigm? How do you do it appealingly? And how do we create enthusiasm and desire for transformation?

At approximately that time, I learned about the Doughnut Economics theory by Oxford economist Kate Raworth and became inspired. I started to dream about the potential of this concept for a territory such as the Brussels Region and how it could provide us with alternative economic instruments, which would help us embody the economic transition I knew was so desperately needed and made it tangible to Brussels economic actors.

Despite Covid, the stars aligned as a consortium of Brussels researchers and co-creation experts, as well as Kate Raworth and her crew, teamed up to downscale the doughnut at the Brussels region level.

We co-created several methodologies through this experience and the participation of more than 200 regional and local public administrations, businesses, civil society, and citizens. By experimenting with these techniques, the Brussels economic operators got tools to apply the concept of Doughnut Economics at their scale, be it the public policies they draught and implemented, the products they sold, or the economic choices they made and the way they interacted with their ecosystem.

But the doughnut experience didn’t only help us guide the others in their transformation; it also helped us advance and deepen the economic transition of the Brussels-Capital Region. It lent us the fundamentals upon which we could draught Shifting Economy, the Brussels regional strategy for the economic transition, by demonstrating that the ecological ceilings and the social foundation—considered “negative externalities” by mainstream economists—represent the base upon which the Brussels economy could thrive. Thanks to the Doughnut experience, we decided to anchor into Shifting Economy the notion of “social and environmental exemplarity” and use it as the criteria to define whether an economic activity could be financially supported by public money.

This is a massive paradigm shift in economic policies—in Brussels and beyond. Should the European institutions adopt the notion of social and environmental exemplarity, many economic instruments and public policies could be reoriented to serve the European Green Deal’s objectives genuinely. Think about state aid and industrial policy, for instance: at a time when the EU is searching for a better way of helping its industry cope with external challenges and to ensure that it follows the green way, opening the aid only to the environmental and social exemplary business models would give a clear signal to which business models are needed to reach the 2050 goal of net zero. This doesn’t need a treaty change or a big revolution. This only requires the will to identify the economic activities that will be helpful in the transition and to be ambitious about them.

At the Brussels level, to this date, we keep unrolling the doughnut because we want to raise awareness among all the economic actors about their need to shift from doing nothing or “doing less harm” to “doing truly good” for the planet and its people. We are convinced that it is only if we can count on the action and goodwill of ALL that our impact will be sufficient to achieve the objective of thriving within a decarbonized, regenerative, circular, and inclusive economy. We will not transition with a few frontrunners. We will succeed with everybody united around a common objective. To the sceptics, we are not saying that growth is passé. We would instead emphasise what needs to be done to prosper within the “dough” of the doughnut, or, in other words, what should be done to thrive within an ecologically safe and socially just space. Working on social and environmental exemplarity is an excellent place to start. And I hope you will join us!