Co-founder of ZOE, Jonathan Barth tells us about ZOE’S story and the institute’s work with the European Commission, bringing new economic thinking to mainstream policy-making.
What’s the story behind ZOE?
Originally, ZOE was very active in building the student movement Rethinking Economics Germany, but we realised there was more for us to do. We can’t wait for a new generation of economists to grow up and then make their way into politics. There is an urgency to bring these ideas from new economic thinking directly to policy, now.
There is an urgency to bring ideas from new economic thinking directly to policy, now.
That was the impulse to start ZOE. We wanted to be the intermediary between policy and new economic thinking and at the same time feed questions from policy back into research. As a result, ZOE’s approach to research is very policy-applied.
We are witnessing a polycrisis right now. It is, unfortunately, a perfect storm. And it is this perfect storm that inspires our work: in this polycrisis, how do you structure an economy in a way that stays within planetary boundaries and also achieves decent living standards for all?
In this polycrisis, how do you structure an economy in a way that stays within planetary boundaries and also achieves decent living standards for all?
Questions like this are often answered (and then advocated for) from a moral perspective. What is often missing is the economic angle: What does this imply when we think about economic policy? What does it imply when we think about monetary and fiscal policy, industrial policy, trade policy? So with our work, we are trying to close that gap. We look at planetary boundaries from an economic policy angle.
Who do you work with, and what approach do you take?
We’ve worked a lot with the European Commission and European Policy, as a trusted partner for people inside the commission. We do a lot of listening first, to understand the political context, where people stand on an idea or issue, and what they need to be a champion of these ideas. We work not only at a political level but at the technical level too. A good example of this work is our Feasibility and Impact Analysis of Fiscal Policy Reform Proposals.
We do a lot of listening first, to understand the political context, where people stand on an idea or issue, and what they need to be a champion of these ideas.
There are two different kinds of processes for policy-making: agenda-setting and policy implementation. Agenda setting ensures a policy proposal comes onto the agenda (and then the Commission or the German government, for example, would work on that.) Policy implementation concerns policies already on the agenda, so then the work is influencing the detail of what is decided.
Zoe’s agenda-setting work is research-driven: shaping public opinion, presenting different ideas, and offering countering arguments. Our policy implementation work draws on the Three Pillars of ZOE’s approach.
Pillar 1: Listening and adapting the work to the needs of internal champions.
Pillar 2: Co-developing policy ideas and options, bringing in new thinking, and applying design-thinking and co-creation to public policy design.
Pillar 3: Identifying ideas and proposals that are both feasible (able to be implemented) and will also have an impact – and then adopting different ways to advocate for them.
What kind of progress have you seen your work making? And towards what?
A good illustration of the progress we see our work making is our work to mainstream the idea of Doughnut Economics within the European Commission. We held a Policy Lab at the beginning of this Commission on how to put sustainability and wellbeing at the core of economic policy. Out of that co-creation workshop, the Doughnut was recognised as a useful framework that a group of people from different departments across the Commission organised around. They set up the ‘EU for Doughnut’ group, running an internal workshop presenting the different policy areas where the Doughnut could be useful. In addition, ZOE and Doughnut Economic Action Lab (DEAL) hosted a webinar last year, attended by more than 300 people from across the Commission. You can read more about how the European Commission is exploring ways to apply Doughnut Economics in policy processes on DEAL’s website.
We also worked with the Research Directorate General, which has opened several tenders to support research on how the Doughnut can be applied in policy, as part of the European Research funding programme Horizon Europe. There are now millions of Euros going into this research, which is a huge lever. The fact that public policy is now supporting this kind of direction isn’t just down to ZOE, but I think it’s an outcome we really contributed to.
There are now millions of Euros going into this research, which is a huge lever.
We’ve also worked to ensure that a sustainable wellbeing economy is named in the Commission’s Environmental Action Programme, and that they have a “beyond GDP’ dashboard to monitor progress.
What about the wider ‘new economy’ field? Where do you think the opportunities are for greater progress?
I think there is a huge shift in the economic policy paradigm. Economic policy has been driven a lot by neoliberal, neoclassical thoughts in the last 40-50 years. Throughout the last crises it became clear that the idea of free markets as the way we organise the economy is not sufficient.
The state needs to play a stronger role in guiding the direction in which the economy develops, making sure that the economy is contributing to public good. That has ramifications for the economic policy areas I’ve already mentioned. It affects how we think about fiscal policy, industrial policy, free trade, and how we shift towards green models.
The new economy field can create momentum around each of these policy areas, making sure an economic perspective is present. As a field, we also need to invest in the blueprints for how an economy should look in the future. We need greater coordination. We need to acknowledge each other’s respective roles, and that everyone trying to shift to a new economy is playing a key role in this field.
We need to invest in the blueprints for how an economy should look in the future.
What could people do to support your work?
- Researchers: get in touch if you want to make work relevant to policy, so policy and research are better linked.
- Citizens: read our work and share it!
- Journalists: write about the work, increase the visibility of new economic thinking and practice, and bring forward some of the arguments.
- Funders: it would be great if more funders recognised the links between the societal and ecological challenges we face.