Doughnut cities

There is no place in the world where all residents share the same level of prosperity, or where this prosperity has been achieved in a sustainable or just manner. Therefore, the question is what kind of prosperity is achievable for citizens around the world without destroying the environment and harming the prospects for a decent life of fellow men and future generations?

In this essay I will look for an answer. The doughnut principle proposed by Kate Raworth (on the photo above) is a promising starting-point, hence the title chosen. I will try to avoid the hypocrisy of a well-fed Western man who advocates a reduction in consumption for sustainability, because billions of people are hungry or poor and dream of some wealth. Moreover, they are not the main polluters.

The social origin of greenhouse gasses

The recent Oxfam report Extreme carbon inequality shows that the poorest half of the world population – around 3.5 billion people – is responsible for only 10% of total global emissions from individual consumption. About 50% of the emissions come from the richest 10% of people around the world. They have an average carbon footprint that is 11 times as high as that of the poorest half, and 60 times as high as that the poorest 10%. Even a 50% reduction in consumption by the top 10% and a doubling of consumption by the lower 50% would result in a worldwide decrease of consumption of about 15%.

Doughnut cities is the seventh edition in a series of essays on how cities can become more humane. That means finding a balance between sustainability, social justice and quality of life. This requires far-reaching choices. Once these choices have been made, it goes without saying that we use smart technologies to realize them.

The essays that have already been published can be found here.

Also, within all countries, the production of greenhouse gasses varies with income. The graph shows that the concept of rich countries is misleading. A small part of the population of most countries has affluent and still-growing opportunity to consume and to contribute to the production of greenhouse gasses; the majority of the population stays far behind.

Per capita consumption-related emissions in G20 countries

Economic growth remains a political and economic priority in almost all countries. Growth that is measured easily by adding up the total amount of financial resources that is spent from year to year. Mainstream economic thinking assumes that demand will always grow and that, in an effort to meet this demand, firms will deliver an increasing amount of goods and services, resulting in never-ending economic growth. In this vision, growth is the main goals of a successful economy and the measure of success.

As early as 1968, Robert Kennedy stated in a speech at Kansas UniversityGross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder to sprawl. Fifty years later, the ecological and social effects of the dominant economic model are more visible than ever.

Wellbeing Economy Alliance

In 2017, the governments of Scotland, Costa Rica, Slovenia and New Zealand signed a new alliance, the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. Costa Rica is among the top three countries in the world for the well-being and happiness of their people. The government of New Zealand does no longer accept GNP as the supreme measure of progressWe need to make sure we are looking at people’s ability to actually have a meaningful life, an enjoyable life, where their work is enough to survive and support their families, the prime-minister said.

A growing group of people is realizing that the world needs a kind of prosperity that satisfies the needs of the entire world population – now and in the future – and comes about in a socially and environmentally sustainable way.

The big question is what responsible prosperity and a society that is able to foster it look like. But first, we have to understand why this kind of society has never come closer.

The cursed trinity of economic growth, inequality and environmental decay

To start with the latter question, economic growth, the profit of companies and the value for shareholders, not to mention the annual increase in compensation of top managers, are exactly the circumstances that underlie most environmental and social problems in our world.

Wealth on one hand and poverty and environmental decay on the other are strongly connected. This view has been proclaimed by Marxists for years but new – less ideologically inspired – research using census data from 1980 to 2013 provides evidence that economic inequality and regional differences are intertwined. A study by Harvard alumnus Robert Manduca, The Contribution of National Income Inequality to Regional Economic Divergence shows that the growing regional differences within the US are largely a product of national economic inequality, in particular the outsized economic gains that have been captured by the 1% wealthiest people. This elite with its numerous connections with international business and politics is also the main ideological source behind the doctrine of endless growth. Its power has prevented adequate social and environmental policies for more than half a century, including the only measures that could have prevented global warming, namely the internalization of external costs and in particular carbon tax.

Policy for responsible growth

Below, I summarize a number of insights regarding the conditions of responsible prosperity.  Together, these insights enable the formulation of policy guidelines for countries, regions or towns.

In the first place, I mention the Sustainable Development Goals, a rather comprehensive list of targets, followed by the concept of a doughnut economy proposed by UK economic scientist Kate Raworth, to end with the Green New Deal in the US.

I could have included the principles of inclusive growth formulated by the World Economic Forum, the UN Millennial goals, the impressive film Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, and I could have gone back to the Report of the Club of Rome or Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring.

All of these approaches have in common that mastering environmental problems involves redistributing and redefining of the essence of prosperity.

The Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, all 193 members of the United Nations supported the 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Each of these goals has been specified in indicators. The number of these indicators has grown to 232 since 2015.

At the same time, the Netherlands has started its own approach, based on the concept of brede welvaart, (broad prosperity), another alternative for gross national product. It has been decided to integrate the policy themes with respect to broad prosperity and the SDGs, which has resulted in a slight adaption of their number and formulation. Just like the SDGs, broad prosperity has many indicators, to do justice to the diversity of its facets.

A unique aspect of measuring broad prosperity – in comparison with the SDGs – is the distinction between prosperity “here and now”, the pressure that the current level of prosperity puts on future generations (“later”) or on other countries (“elsewhere”). A further distinction is made between absolute size, growth or decline in recent years and the position of the Netherlands in comparison with the EU28-countries.

Prosperity here and now

Regarding the “here and now” indicators, the Netherlands is at the forefront of five development goals: ‘No poverty’ (SDG 1); ‘industry, innovation and infrastructure: knowledge and innovation’ (SDG 9); ‘reducing inequality: social cohesion and inequality’ (SDG 10): ‘peace, justice and strong public services: institutions’ (SDG 16) and ‘partnership to achieve objectives’ (SDG 17). In contrast, on four other SDGs, the Netherlands is in the lower regions of the European ranking: ‘Affordable and sustainable energy’ (SDG 7); ‘climate action’ (SDG 13); ‘life below water’ (SDG 14) and ‘life on land’ (SDG 15).

The trend in the development of broad prosperity “here and now” is positive rather than negative. A positive trend dominates at ‘the end of hunger’ (SDG 2); ‘gender equality’ (SDG 5); ‘clean water and sanitary’ (SDG 6); ‘fair work and economic growth: economy and production factors’ (SDG 8) and ‘industry, innovation and sustainable infrastructure: knowledge and innovation’ (SDG 9). A falling trend occurs in ‘good health and well-being’ (SDG3); ‘industry, innovation and infrastructure: mobility’ (SDG9); ‘reduction of inequality’ (SDG 10); ‘sustainable cities and communities: living’ (SDG 11); and ‘life on land’ and ‘life below water’ (SDGs 14 and 15).

Prosperity elsewhere

With regard to the broad prosperity “elsewhere”; there are more negative than positive positions and trends. The total import of fossil energy and biomass in the Netherlands is steadily increasing and the import of metals and minerals has recently increased, with the exception of imports from the poorest countries. This trend is considered negative because of the reduction of the stocks elsewhere in the world.

The Netherlands is at the top when it comes to foreign aid, but in this respect, there is also a downward trend.

Prosperity later

The trend in the development of broad prosperity “later” is predominantly positive, except in the area of ​​natural capital (negative) and human capital (neutral). This falling trend with regard to natural capital reflects the low percentage of renewable energy and a relatively high CO2 emission.

Distribution of broad prosperity

Also interesting is the analysis of the distribution of broad prosperity. The degree of broad prosperity mainly comes with the level of education, not with wealth.

The aforementioned analysis by the Dutch Statistical Office provides a wealth of data concerning the hundreds of indicators. However, many indicators have different interpretations. For example, indicators such as the growth of expenses in health care and the number of hours worked in education do not directly indicate growing prosperity. This depends on whether the increased use of resources is actually bearing fruit. Consequently, the policy relevance of some SDG’s is not immediately clear and leaves many political choices open. That is why we are diligently looking for standards with unambiguous implications for sustainable and social action.

The doughnut economy

The model for a doughnut economy has been developed by the British economist Kate Raworth in a report for Oxfam entitled A Safe and Just Space for Humanity. The idea quickly spread throughout the world. The essence is that social and environmental sustainability must be guiding principles for economic policy in the 21th century and together direct economic behavior. There is no triple bottom-line: social and environmental sustainability are in the lead, economy follows.

The idea behind ​​the doughnut model is simple. if you only look at the shape of a doughnut, you see two circles. A small circle in the middle and a large circle on the outside. The smallest circle represents the minimal social objectives (basic-needs) that apply to each country. The large circle represents the self-sustaining capacity of the planet. All societies must develop policies that stay between the two lines. Where economic behavior nowadays has far-reaching consequences that go beyond both lines, future economic policy must aim to make societies thrive between the lines.

The doughnot model

Unlike the SDGs, the model is based on the coherence between economic policy, environmental and social issues. It assumes that our actions are interconnected. In many developed countries, positive outcomes with regards to the social basement are the direct results of the same economic growth that is responsible for overshooting the environmental ceiling. The main objective for each country is to achieve better living conditions between the social basement and the environmental ceiling, without assuming beforehand that economic growth is a necessary condition for this. The tables below show data about the current state regarding the social basement and the ecological ceiling. All targets mentioned have to be reached as quickly as possible. Due to significant differences between countries, in the extent to which each of these goals are achieved, policies can vary by country, region or city.

The social basement

Source: Kate Raworth Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist  (appendix)

The nine elements of the ecological ceiling are based on research by a group of earth scientists led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen and described in their book Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene

The ecological ceiling

Source: Johan Rockström and Will Steffen: Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene

In spite of superficial correspondence between the SDG’s and the doughnut  model, there are differences. The SDG’s can be compared with a dashboard with as many red and green lights as there are indicators. It is assumed that each light can separately be influenced by a slide switch. However, the color of the control lights is conditioned by interconnected (economic) processes: For instance, the green color of most social indicators in rich EU28 countries is a direct consequence of their powerful economies, that at the same time result in a dark-red color of environment-related indicators. The main added-value of the doughnut model is enabling a critical evaluation of any city’s or country’s policy to realize just sustainable prosperity.

What operating between the basement and the ceiling of the doughnut means for inhabitants of different types of countries, is the main topic for the next section.  Before, I will introduce the most robust – albeit pragmatic – model, the Green New Deal, that does not need complicated calculations and is therefore easy to understand and ready for implementation.

The Green New Deal

It is already ten years ago, that the United nations called for a ‘Global Green New Deal’ in which developed countries would invest at least 1% of GDP on reducing carbon dependency, while developing economies should spend 1% of GDP on improving access to clean water and sanitation for the poor as well as strengthening social safety nets. in 2012 and 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein ran – in vain – for presidency of the US on a “Green New Deal”. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, supported by senator Ed Markey, adopted the term during her successful campaign for the House of Representatives.

In recent days, US lawmakers including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand have voiced support for some form of Green New Deal, and New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has sketched out a Green New Deal for his state as part of his budget proposal.

Many candidates for the presidential elections in the US come with plans of their own, voters’ support is unexpecting high (see graph) and in several states in the US, for instance New York, California and Minnesota bills are passing that mirror the Green New Deal’s principles.

Support for the Green New Deal among registered voters

The Green New Deal’s goal is achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the next decade and creating millions of high-paying jobs in order to develop the necessary infrastructure and to reduce the number of poor, work- or homeless people correspondingly. In addition, the Green New Deal includes protection against monopolies, investments in public transport, access to affordable housing and healthy food, and justice for the historically marginalized people in the transition to a new economy.

The Green New Deal pretends to address four systemic national crises: skyrocketing inequality, deepening structural racism, catastrophic climate change, and the takeover of American democracy by the ultra-rich and corporations.

Towards a Global Green New Deal

For more than ten years, C40 has been promoting climate action in more than 65 cities. Recently, this alliance of big cities went one step further – initiated by Anne Hidalgo (mayor of Paris) and Eric Garcetty (mayor of Los Angeles) – and started the Global New Green Deal to connect ecological and social action, where national governments stay behind. It is founded on four principles:

  1. Recognition of the global climate change emergency.
  2. Commitment to keep global heating below the 1.5°C target by reducing emissions in the sectors that make the largest contribution: transportation, industry, buildings, and waste.
  3. Commitment to a fundamental, and irreversible transfer of global resources away from fossil fuels. 4. Intention to cooperate with those who will drive change and whose lives are affected by climate-change, including companies, governments, investors, employees, civil society, citizens, youth, and communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and poverty.

The Green New Deal proposals lacks the theoretical foundation of the donut principle, but both work in the same direction. The New Green Deal could get a boost in the upcoming presidential elections in the US. In the longer term, a more detailed model is needed and the donut principle is better suited for this.

Prosperity within limits

Cities bear a great deal of responsibility as they are focal points of economic activity, provide jobs and produce most that is needed for a decent life of citizens. In their territory most investments will take place that are needed to become socially and environmentally sustainable.

Taking the doughnut principle as a point of depart, economic activities that overshoot the ecological ceiling or do not comply with the social basement need to be redesigned, or new sustainable and just activities have to be developed.

Redesign of economic activities

The actions below mirror the before mentioned lists of policy actions to prevent overshooting the ecological ceiling and to comply with the social basement, albeit adapted to the capabilities of developed countries. The time horizon is 25 years.

Prevention of overshooting the ecological ceiling:

  • Reduction to zero of greenhouse gas emissions by the combined use of solar, wind and thermal energy. Hydrogen, salt, batteries, and warm water reservoirs are used for storage.
  • Local plants are clean; toxic or otherwise dangerous emissions are prevented or temporarily sequestered in order to maintain clean air.
  • Support of local farmers to restructure their operations in order to regenerate soils, increase biodiversity and contribute significantly to the local food supply. The selling of their products is boosted by substantial tax advantages for certificated products.
  • Reduction of traffic – that is fully electric – by reconstructing cities in order to limit displacements.
  • Realizing full circularity; the import of raw materials is stalled, with the (temporal) exception of indispensable components of batteries.
  • The use of nitrogen is limited until an acceptable level of emissions in the air or in the groundwater is reached.
  • Construction of reservoirs for drinking water and water for agricultural applications to balance water extraction and supply of water.

Complying with the social basement

  • Rebalancing material rewards and job satisfaction, for instance by substantial reduction of income inequality.
  • Compulsory education from 2 – 18, in combination with internships in companies and institutions.
  • Tax benefits for B-certified companies (companies for which societal interests are leading).
  • Local government, companies and institutions work together to offer all adults engaging and challenging jobs with salaries that enable a decent and independent life.
  • All salaries are negotiated by work councils or in collective labor agreements. Differences in salary levels are motivated; gender specific differences are prohibited.
  • Prices of (imported) products that damage health or the environment (or both) are listed and substantially taxed.
  • Prison sentence is aimed at returning to society. However, the duration of imprisonment depends on the time needed to eliminate the risk of recidivism, allowing citizens to live without fear.
  • The cost of health care and assurance depends on obtaining certificates for a healthy life and preventing lifestyle related illnesses such as being overweight.
  • Citizens can vote directly in matters related to their immediate living environment.
  • Decent housing for all adults, and adequate housing for students, situated in an attractive and safe living environment.
  • The presence of opportunities and support for commoning and place-making.
A new global oriented-mindset

A future of responsible prosperity requires a new mindset, including the meaning of the concept of prosperity itself. To give a few examples: zero greenhouse gas emissions does not only require replacing carbon energy sources with wind, sun and earth, but also new consumption patterns. Meat becomes a delicacy, to be consumed accordingly. Circular production requires a more efficient use of goods, higher prices, superior quality, the repair of broken devises instead of their replacement, and a less fashion-dependent design. With respect to the traditional yardstick of prosperity, a stable GDP, rather than a growing one is probably the highest conceivable goal, if it should be a goal at all. Wages below modal will rise considerably, wages above modal will decrease, the highest 10% in particular.

If we consider the world as a whole, the policy implications are even more dramatic. A considerable part of the world population still lives below the social basement. The population of these countries is growing fast and is concentrated in cities characterized by heavy pollution, traffic jams, dirty industries, poor housing, sanitation and water supply and increasing insecurity and inequality.

In these countries, growth of GDP, the production of goods and services, and the domestic markets as well are necessary for at least one decade. In combination with policies to control population growth and pollution, to use renewable resources and to improve the infrastructure; public transportation, water supply, housing and sanitation in the first place.

The transition to circularity is virtually impossible in the short term, as the volume of raw materials required will exceed the availability of reusable materials for years.

Where (city) governments in developed countries can focus on a transition from traditional growth towards sustainable prosperity immediately, (city) government in developing countries must simultaneously manage a decade of ‘traditional’ economic growth and a transition to sustainable prosperity.

How to become a doughnut city?

Below I sketch a couple of ideas for actions, initiated by city governments to encourage the process of becoming a doughnut city.Amsterdam and the doughnut-economy

The city of Amsterdam works together with Kate Raworth to develop a doughnut model for the city. Moreover, she was recently appointed as a professor in the Amsterdam University of Applied Science.

The doughnut model was used as a powerful tool to create a strategy for Circular Amsterdam. More than 50 officials from the city and region, together with more than 100 representatives from the construction, biomass and food and consumer goods sectors, jointly developed building blocks for policy to comply with the social basement and prevent overshooting the ecological ceiling in the donut model.

In four workshops, participants compared the current goals of the city with the donut model and outlined a coherent circular vision for the value chains mentioned. The outcome was a set of seventeen building blocks towards a holistic strategy for the city of Amsterdam, each of which has been elaborated thoroughly in the report Building blocks for the new strategy Amsterdam circular 2020-2025; directions for a thriving city within the planetary boundaries.

The above example represents a first step. Determining the critical values ​​to comply with the social basement and to prevent overshooting the ecological ceiling, like I proposed above, is an essential next step to be followed by measuring actual values ​​and bridging a possible gap with the targets. ​

The power of city governments is limited and therefore all stakeholders together – citizens, companies, institutions and national government – must take the road to a donut city as the Amsterdam case emphasizes. Cooperation can start with a charter to disclose the shared principles and subsequent actions by all parties.

The government must put pressure on companies to reconsider their relationship with society. The company’s incentive structure – maximizing profit and shareholder value and continuous growth – is not compatible with the donut principle. A growing group of social enterprises (benefit companies) has already taken this step and focuses on social goals and considers financial goals as instruments to ensure continuity.

We Mean Business

We mean Business is a global coalition of the world’s most influential businesses to act on climate change. 87 major companies – with a combined market capitalization of over US$2.3 trillion and annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants – intend to align their businesses with what scientists say is needed to limit the worst impacts of climate change. Of the 87 companies, the following already have verified a 1.5°C reduction target with respect to greenhouse gas emissions from their operations: AstraZeneca, BT, Burberry Limited, Deutsche Telekom AG, Dexus, Elopak, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Intuit, Levi Strauss & Co., SAP, Schneider Electric, Signify, Sodexo, The Co-operative Group and Unilever and recently Royal DSM.

The impact of the transition to environmental and social sustainability is illustrated in a series of articles in Fast Company Compass. Apparel and fashion, for instance, have to change considerably to align with the doughnut principle. In the first place because the low prices for clothing are connected with low wages and dangerous and dirty working conditions elsewhere in the world. In the second place because dyeing of cotton is a major burden on the environment. The movie ‘The True Cost’, available on Netflix shows this in a penetrating way.

Still, a new report Managing the Impacts of Climate Change 2019, published by Zurich Insurance Group concludes that the business sector as a whole appears to be lacking in ambition as far as climate change is concerned.


The Global Ecovillage Network wants to move towards a world where citizens play a central role on the road to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The aim of Senegal is to create 14.000 ecovillages that are deliberately designed through locally owned, participatory processes to strengthen their economic, social and cultural identity. They must become a model for governments that want to adapt an effective approach to climate change, rural exodus and deforestation. Ecovillages are based on five principles of sustainability, that reflect the doughnut principle.

Picture: Participants in a Democratic Republic of Congo ecovillage design course – Photo: Global Ecovillage Network

Responsible prosperity and the humane city

One of the lessons of this essay is that becoming a humane city does not depend on the value (red light – green light) of individual indicators apart, but is a result of their interaction.

This essay therefore elaborated on the interaction between characteristics of ecosystem and society, such as the availability of food, drinking water, housing and material welfare.

The doughnut principle emphasized that these values are interchangeable only to a certain extent, and that freedom of choice is limited by the necessity to comply with both the ecological ceiling and a social basement. This means that the effects of the production and consumption of goods and services must remain between these lines.

Another insight from this essay is that operating between the lines is contextual. Temporary overshooting the ecological ceiling seems inevitable in developing countries in favor of economic growth to correct serious social deficiencies.

In the introduction of the series on the development of humane cities of which this essay is a part, I have positioned each the articles in three groups of competing principles: sustainability, social justice and quality of life. I wrote choices must be made within each of these principles and the three principles as a whole must be in balance. In other words, there are more doughnuts to deal with in search for the humane city and each of the articles will look for its own one. Ultimately, the picture will be fairly complete. The value of the doughnut principle is in evoking discussion about conflicting principles – from the search for optimal choices to the definition of upper and lower limits that should not be exceeded. But also, that there is room to make choices: the dough of the doughnut. Below, I summarize how the desire to become a humane city and the principle of a responsibly prospering city (briefly referred to as the doughnut city) can reinforce eachother.

Actions to align the principle of responsible prosperity and the development of humane cities
  1. Becoming a humane city means looking for a balance between sustainability, social justice and quality of life. These principles are versatile and parts of them are at odds with eachother. Before an optimum is determined, the lower and upper limits must be established. Good health, for example, cannot compensate for global warming.
  2. Responsible prosperity is a useful concept to describe differences between countries, regions and cities. In its most simplified form, it is about dividing an agreed value for ‘good things’ (income, care, education et cetera) by a value for ‘bad things’ (income inequality, insecurity, pollution, extinction of species, global heating etcetera).
  3. Full application of the doughnut-principle requires the establishment of an ecological ceiling and a social basement at global, national and regional level. Establishing national and regional values is urgent given the necessity to differentiate between developing, emerging and developed countries.
  4. It is a widespread misconception to view economic growth as the goal of economic action. This concept had better disappear from our language. Instead, the purpose of economic action is to make nations, regions, and cities thrive in a responsible manner.
  5. As money has become a value in itself, the intrinsic value of work was suppressed by extrinsic motivation, namely making money. An unemployed income therefore is a bad idea and must be replaced by creating sufficient opportunities for meaningful and sufficiently paid work for everyone.
  6. The definition of standards related to the ecological ceiling (‘sustainability’) is mainly based on current scientific research. The definition of the social basement (standards regarding social justice and quality of life) are scientifically informed human choices.
  7. Setting specific goals for different parts of the world with regard to the ecological ceiling and the social basement is an act of governance.

November, 2019

This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

This article was first published on and is republished with permission.

  • author's avatar

    By: Smart City Hub

    Smart City Hub is founded in 2016 to provide cutting edge intelligence for professionals and decision makers working in smart cities worldwide.
    On Smart City Hub, smart city leaders will get the latest news, trends and strategies about all aspects of smart cities, like city management, traffic, security, energy & water supply, citizen services, ICT, housing and building.

  • author's avatar

    Visit the author’s website