April 24, 2023

The world’s first ‘future generations’ commissioner on ‘cathedral thinking’

The world’s first future generations commissioner, Sophie Howe, can already identify the impact of short-term thinking on future generations in Australia, despite only being here a few days.

She notes news reports highlighting the impact of rent costs rising at much higher rates than youth support incomes over the past few years, and how they are contributing to youth homelessness, which will further contribute to other challenges later on. And, when considering issues like climate change, housing, defence and aged care, it’s never hard to find short-term decision-making that’s failing the jobseekers of tomorrow, the elderly of the future, as well as those that are yet to even be born.

Howe is currently in Australia to highlight the value of putting considerations for future generations into decision-making, after her six years as Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner came to an end in 2022.

I met with Howe today alongside human rights lawyer Professor Susan Harris-Rimmer, and Taylor Hawkins from the Foundations for Tomorrow. Both Harris-Rimmer and Hawkins are leading calls in Australia to adopt a similar position as Wales, and see law reforms that can help hold decision-makers accountable for Australia’s long-term interests.

Howe took the position seven years ago, with the mission of protecting the interests of future generations in Wales. Her time crossed over the pandemic period, which saw countries all over the world scrambling to take action, despite having plenty of warning signs regarding the risk of a pandemic and the communities that would most likely be impacted. But she describes how Wales’ experience with making considerations for the future ultimately helped as they determined how to build back.

She says her ideas around the needs of future generations stem back to her childhood, growing up in a poorer community in Wales. The first in her family to go to university, she worked in local politics and was encouraged to run for office. When still in her early twenties, and six months pregnant, she was elected as a councillor.

Howe went on to become deputy police and crime commissioner, as well as an advisor to two first ministers of Wales. She is also now a mother of five.

She describes how short-termism results in decision making that may benefit some people immediately – and help get those making such decisions elected or to win more clients and contracts – but that so often the cost to future generations fails to be considered.

Asked what causes this short-termism, she noted short electoral cycles – like the three-year cycles Australia has in Federal politics. She also spoke about the fundamental principles in business and how we perceive return on investment and shareholder value in purely financial terms.

“We’ve lost the cathedral thinking,” she says. “The idea that a cathedral could take one hundred years to build before you’d ever be able to fully appreciate that.” Now, we marvel at those cathedrals and the work that went into them. Their legacy lives on well beyond anyone who was ever involved in designing or building it.

Howe points to plenty of examples of future-thinking that have occurred since Wales enacted the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which embeds the protection of future generations into legislation and makes sustainable development the organising principle of government.

The act means that all public bodies need to outline how they are meeting current needs, without compromising the needs of future generations – including the Welsh Government, health boards and local authorities.

As commissioner, Howe addressed a number of projects – including infrastructure projects, and the need to consider long-term environmental impacts. She has made recommendations around universal basic income, home energy efficiency measures, shorter working weeks and the establishment of a national nature service.

Education particularly has seen positive changes in Wales, including through addressing the future wellbeing of children – especially physical and mental health — as well as on addressing skills like creativity and empathy, to note some of the changes coming in the future from areas like robotics and AI.

Now advocating for similar future-generation considerations internationally, Howe notes some of the shifts that have been occurring, including the United Nations’ proposed declaration for the future generation. She sees future and foresight thinking happening in countries like Canada, Finland and Lithuania and also believes shifts to wellbeing budgets and other initiatives, like in New Zealand, Scotland and even in Australia with the Treasurer’s first budget last year, are moves in the right direction.

“But with all this, we need to make sure these measures don’t just become a high-level tick-a-box exercise. It needs to be embedded from how the budget is set, to how ministries set policies, to state and local government, and so on.”

Susan Harris-Rimmer shared how prevention thinking that translates into policymaking is still generally rare in Australia, adding that it’s difficult to think of examples where we’ve done it well. Even on areas like superannuation, which were designed to address the financial needs of Australia’s future ageing population, she describes how despite best efforts from women to predict how the system’s design would impact future generations of women, we’re now dealing with the consequences of it today.

“You can’t predict the future, but you can give future generations better options,” Harris-Rimmer says.

by Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Founding Editor of Women’s Agenda, and now heads up the publication’s parent company Agenda Media. She’s a journalist and editor turned media entrepreneur and business owner.