When Melbourne meets the doughnut
How did Regen Melbourne emerge?
Kaj Lofgren: In the summer of 2019 - 2020, Australia suffered some of the most severe bushfires we’ve ever seen. We called it the black summer: billions of animals were killed, we lost many human lives and had unbelievable property damage. Smoke covered our major cities. Living in Melbourne with two young kids, one with asthma, I had the feeling that my family was not safe anymore. What was a conceptual idea about climate emergency became a physical, lived experience for many Australians, at the very same time. It changed the conversation. And then, four weeks later, we started to hear about this virus coming from China. In Melbourne, we had one of the longest lockdowns in the world: six months with very strict rules limiting going outside and exercising. We realized for a second time in a few months that the system cannot protect us from the symptoms that we have created: climate change and biodiversity loss but also social inequality.
The system cannot protect us from the symptoms that we have created.
What happened then?
K. L.: These really severe conditions were greeted with unbelievable collective solidarity. There was a really strong sense that this was a crisis we had to navigate together as a community. That is the moment, during the lockdown, when Regen Melbourne emerged. We were five organizations at the beginning, with very strong and diverse networks. We started to gather in Zoom rooms. Other organisations gradually joined us: we were 10, 50 and now 135 organisations, with thousands of individuals.
How exactly did it work? What did you do together?
K. L.: We used the doughnut methodology that came out of Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Portland. We set up workshops on five cross-sector dimensions: healthy Melbourne, connected Melbourne, empowered Melbourne, enabled Melbourne and ecologically healthy Melbourne. We held huge online forums with between 50 and 120 people. These moments were very fun and lively: we had music playing, breakouts and miro-boards. I am convinced that we need joy and love to keep us connected when we face such difficult situations. One of my favorite books, Hope in the dark by Rebecca Solnit, talks about the power of joy to fuel social movements.
How do you make sure that everyone who joins the movement is aligned with your vision and values?
K. L.: We are asking our members and partner organizations to subscribe to our vision and principles. I suspect there will come a time in our development where we have to be more strict on who comes in, but as long as we build our movement, we need to be inclusive. Of course, there is a risk of people taking advantage of that openness, joining the movement without being completely aligned with our work and vision. Nevertheless, I think the conversations around greenwashing, social washing and perhaps even doughnut washing are focusing on the wrong signals. The fact that people want to be part of that arc of change is a strong signal that we are doing the right work.
What did Regen Mebourne achieve? And what are you up to now?
K. L.: Through this process, we generated huge miro boards. A team of facilitators collectively distilled this content and highlighted key insights, from which our mission and vision emerged. Our strategy is now built around four pillars: community (building a strong network), storytelling (building a new narrative for the paradigm shift that we want), projects (to demonstrate what this change can be in real terms) and research and knowledge (to produce indicators that prove our impact).
The neoliberal economic system would want us to think that it’s a problem of individuals. But it’s a system problem.
Can you share examples of projects and narratives that can inspire change?
K. L.: One of our main challenges consists in making the Yarra River swimmable again. It’s the major waterway that runs through the heart of Melbourne and it holds a huge amount of cultural, economic and social value. It has been a gathering place for the first nations people for thousands of years. Although it has been swimmable before, it is not anymore. A collective of individuals and organizations has been thinking about making it swimmable again for a long time but unfortunately, hasn't made a lot of progress. Regen Melbourne is putting a target in place to make it swimmable by 2030. Our hope is to bring a more collective approach to address this complex issue. There are many other challenges that our network members are exploring as well: making Melbourne a 100% cycling city, creating an urban forest in Melbourne, etc. The idea is that Regen Melbourne could begin acting as a strategic convenor around some of these complex problems that we are facing today.
As part of its research pillar, Regen Melbourne is working on a set of indicators of Melbourne’s transition. How do you think these indicators will help you to move Melbourne forward?
K. L.: The workshops that we hosted helped us produce wonderful artifacts: a vision statement for Melbourne, the Melbourne doughnut and the Towards the regenerative Melbourne report. This process embraced lived experience research, which is thoroughly underappreciated I think. It will always struggle to make an impact in a world that demands measurement and data. However, if you want to transition a system, we have to meet the world where it is. And so we have partnered with four major universities in Melbourne to work on a mature analysis of what a city portrait for Melbourne could be. Our goal is to produce a tool in the Regen Melbourne toolkit that can explain how we are making collective progress as a network and as a city, and how we value our city more broadly than just GDP.
Are these projects and the other pillars of your strategy (storytelling, community, research) your theory of change?
K. L.: Our vision is that we need structural conversations to make our system change. The neoliberal economic system would want us to think that it’s a problem of individuals. But it’s not! As long as we incentivize certain behaviors and punish others, it’s a system problem.
It’s not a market problem that we need to solve, it’s a structural adjustment that we need to make.
Therefore, Regen Melbourne can contribute to broad discussions about the way our system is structured and leads to certain outcomes. For instance, short-termism in the electoral cycle and public policy making is a massive structural issue. Shall we have a commissioner for future generations in Australia or in Melbourne? Adopting budgets around well-being, like in New Zealand, is another example of a structural discussion that we can contribute to.
Do you think that cross-sectoral collaboration is the key to a successful transition?
K. L.: Absolutely. We're very good in Melbourne at collaboration and problem solving. But most of it only happens issue by issue, problem by problem, sector by sector. We can organize a week, at the policy level, on homelessness or water quality or gender equality - without realizing that social and environmental concerns are deeply interconnected. The donut economics methodology was a fantastic way to highlight this interconnectedness and make it visually clear.
You say we need collaboration, projects, narratives, community and research to make structural changes in our economic and political systems. But how do we deal with our current system, the one that we inherited from? How do we move from there to the system that we want?
K. L.: I’ll take one example that speaks for itself. In the Australian context, our main environmental problem is coal mines, which are profoundly embedded in our society at the local, state and national levels. Our economic system is currently designed to incentivize the continuation of this industry through handouts and subsidies. It’s not a market problem that we need to solve, it’s a structural adjustment that we need to make. We can unlock the resources that sustain that industry to make it transition. Meanwhile, we need to acknowledge and respect what that old economy brought us, especially work for many people. We need to be joyful in birthing the new economy, just as much as we need to be respectful in hospicing the old one.
Kaj Lofgren is the strategy lead at Regen Melbourne. He is also the entrepreneur in residence at Small Giants Academy, where he collaborates on the academy’s education and storytelling initiatives, and a director at Typehuman, exploring how emerging technology is affecting human dignity and public life.