Overline: Wales and Germany
Headline: Together for Future Generations

Just five weeks after the UK formally left the European Union, a shared learning event organised by the IASS and the Welsh Government on 5 March in Berlin showed that the desire for Welsh-German cooperation in the area of sustainability is unwavering.

Diskussion Future is now Event Berlin
At the end of the one-day workshop between IASS and the Government of Wales, representatives of future generations from both countries came together and reflected their impressions of the day. Mishan Wickremasinghe, Julian Bents, Kirsty James and Rebecca Freitag (from left to right). B. Bartelsen

Kick-off event and workshop: “The Future is Now”

The first in a planned series of binational workshops, “The Future is Now” event brought together around 70 people from Wales and Germany to share their experiences of implementing the SDGs and come up with ideas for speeding and scaling up the transformation to sustainability in response to the UN Secretary-General’s call for a “decade of action”. The participants were all guided by the following question: What can we learn from those who are doing things differently and use the decade of action to close the sustainable development implementation gap in Europe?

Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a challenge for every country. With a population of three million, Wales has already set off on the path to implementation and was the first country in the world to enact legislation in support of the 2030 Agenda five years ago. While Wales can point to this “Future Generations Act 2015”, so far all Germany has to show for itself is a Sustainable Development Strategy that is not legally binding.

 The “Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015” thus took centre stage at the event as a model Germany can learn from. Forged in a process of public consultation on “The Wales We Want”, this legislation aims to make sustainable development the central organising principle of governance at all levels in Wales. One of the ways it does this is by obligating Welsh governments to publish a Future Trends report after every election, where planned policies are considered and justified in the light of future developments.

 Individual sessions were an opportunity to explore issues such as the development of marine energy in Wales, the German energy transition, reactions to transformation in Lusatia and South Wales in the post-coal era, and the concept of the economy for the common good. After an opening address by IASS Administrative Director Jakob Meyer and a video message from First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford, Jane Davidson (in Video 1), Pro Vice-Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, spoke about the Welsh journey to legislation. As Minster for Environment and Sustainability (2007–2011), it was Davidson who first proposed legislation to make sustainable development the guiding principle of the Welsh government. She also created the Climate Change Commission for Wales as well as the post of Sustainable Futures Commissioner.

I hope that everybody who’s here today is up for a revolution, because we still haven’t got there. And this learning event needs to do exactly that.

Jane Davidson, Pro Vice-Chancellor Emeritus, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Davidson referred to Professor Donella Meadowes, a pioneering researcher who published the book The Limits to Growth in 1972. In that book, she argues that in order to survive over the long term, societies have to make use of the following five tools: visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning and loving. Quoting from the third edition of Meadowe’s book published in 2004, Davidson pointed to its relevance for Wales: “Each of those elements […] exists within a network of positive loops. Thus their persistent and constant application, initially by a relatively small group of people – Wales – would have the potential to produce enormous change, even to challenge the present system, perhaps helping to produce a revolution.”

Watch the recording of the presentations by Amelia John, Mark Drakeford and Jane Davidson:


The Future Is Now: Opening with Jane Davidson (Video 1)

Amelia John (also in Video 1) from the Welsh Government described how the Act translates the 17 SDGs into 7 goals specific to the Welsh context. Rather than relying on an abstract definition of sustainability, it formulates five ways of working better for decision-makers that “speak to people’s hearts and minds”. The importance of an emotional connection with the goal of sustainability was also emphasised by other speakers.

Sustainability needs to become our DNA.

Rebecca Freitag, former UN Youth Delegate on Sustainable Development (see Video 4 below)

What has the Act achieved in the five years since it was introduced?

Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe (see Video 3) talked about her role as a “critical friend” of the Welsh government with powers to monitor its work in order to ensure that the good intentions expressed in the Act are translated into impact on the ground. She is, for example, keeping close tabs on how the £5 billion allocated to transform rail services in Wales is being spent across the 7 goals. The Act has meant that environmental and social concerns have been brought to the fore in this process, with a commitment to reduce emissions and create opportunities for social enterprise.

The Act’s influence can also be seen in the increased involvement of “unusual suspects” in decision-making processes. Thus instead of a typical urban planner, a public health expert is now in charge of developing Cardiff’s transport infrastructure. As a result, sustainable transport options, including bicycle super highways, play a prominent role in plans for the city’s future transport system.

Watch the recording of Sophie Howe’s presentation:

The Future is now: Integrated Approaches to Transformation with Sophie Howe (Video 3)

Workshop sessions on specific topics

In the morning, participants divided into smaller groups to discuss issues such as “individual and collective action” in two (former) coal-mining areas in Germany and Wales. IASS researcher Johannes Staemmler talked about the gap between reality and aspiration in Lusatia, a region in the process of winding down its lignite-mining industry, which has been designated a “model region for transformation” in the context of Germany’s exit from coal.

Inspiration could come from the Skyline Project in former mining areas in the South Wales Valleys. Taking the example of the town of Treherbert, Project Manager Chris Blake described how local people of all ages became involved in plans to develop the public lands around their town. In participatory processes that went far beyond consultation, they were empowered to actively shape the future of their locality. Blake highlighted the role of remembering. With the help of artists, the residents of Treherbert reconstructed the town’s past and reaffirmed their identity through storytelling. Their collective memories became the basis for a positive vision of the town’s future.

As in the case of Treherbert, the narrative – the story that’s told – was a recurring theme throughout the day. As was the new dialogue between the two countries that is to be strengthened and intensified. No wonder, then, that the Welsh national poet Ifor ap Glyn picked up on the narratives encapsulated in proverbs in a poem written especially for the event:

Wash my fur but don't get me wet.
I want the benefits without any debts.

Ifor ap Glyn

The example of Treherbert also highlighted the importance of civil society. In his presentation, the Chairman of the Maecenata Foundation Rupert Graf Strachwitz said that public governance was currently undergoing an unprecedented transformation but a lot of governments and public bodies have been slow to wake up to this and “still think they’re in the driving seat”. Other actors, including civil society, individuals and the scientific community have a lot to contribute and need to be more involved in public governance. Strachwitz also pointed to another major development: the breakdown of the European nation state concept and the growing importance of sub-state actors. Civil society had become a significant player in this context, but there were limits to what it can do: “Civil society can generate a lot of ideas and help in the implementation process, but regulation is not a job that civil society can take on.”

Watch the recording of the presentations by Welsh national poet Ifor ap Glyn und Rupert Graf Strachwitz:

The Future is now: Civil Society Perspectives with Ifor ap Glyn (Video 2)

Closing discussions at the end of the one-day workshop

Jane Davidson opened the two closing discussion rounds with the question: Can the futures thinking that we’ve been talking about today help us deal with the current crises of climate change and the coronavirus? 

Watch both discussions here:

The Future is now: Speaker Panel Discussion and Future Leaders’ Feedback (Video 4)