Accountabilities needed for Future Fit Institutions

by Jayne Engle, Indy Johar, Alex Ryan

What is Emerging?

Are we at the darkest hour, just before the dawn?

The hard stop of the Covid crisis is akin to the rock bottom of addiction. It marks a moment of intense suffering for vast numbers of people and it has made visible that we face ever-increasing inequality and climate apocalypse if we don’t change course. Liminal space is created at rock bottom, and transcendence is possible. The Covid dissolution of the order of things has already caused mass suffering, death, and grief for far too many. Amidst the despair, we can also observe a fluid, malleable situation emerging in which new patterns of life and institutions can be born. As parts of society are held in suspense, we sense a major transition toward a new age — one of increasing uncertainty and of long emergencies. At this threshold, there is collective yearning for connection, even as polarization increases and trust in societal institutions is eroding. We are experiencing a once-in-a-century opportunity and imperative to reset, rebuild, and re-imagine our very civilization.

What new accountabilities for civilization-level change are needed?

Despite massive relief efforts and heroic support by many governments, institutions, organizations and peer-to-peer support networks, it is increasingly clear that most of the institutions we have created are not up to the challenge of civilization-level change. Why? There are a multitude of reasons including how the context has shifted so greatly that many are no longer fit for purpose. One of the deepest reasons may be that even the best of governments and multilateral institutions of the world lack the accountabilities that are required for putting us on a path to an equitable, just and healthy planet for all people. The old logic of our economies is to continuously accelerate the extraction and monetization of natural resources with inexpensive labour as quickly as possible to fuel unsustainable cycles of material consumption. Extractive consumer capitalism is not the answer to drive us collectively to a flourishing future. New economic logics and accountabilities are required in our transnational institutions, in trade agreement structures, and in constitutions of nation-states. The four aspects of accountability that are essential for the future and currently missing from most governments and international institutions are the following.

1. Accountability to future generations.

It is little remembered that the origins of democracy enshrined accountability to future generations. This crucially important commitment quietly fell away from governments several hundred years ago, and evolved to a condition where governments typically adhere to short-termism of political election cycles. Accountability to people who are not yet born requires logics of long-termism be present in policy, funding and investment decisions, and it requires new forms of participatory engagement and representation, such as civic assemblies, including with representation of future peoples.

2. Accountability to the earth.

Most constitutions and legal systems not only fail to acknowledge inherent rights of nature, land, and the earth, but they also see nature as ‘valuable’ to the extent that she serves an economy through production and consumption of goods. Persons and corporations have rights, but nature does not. Indigenous governments are a stark exception to this, where notions of healthy and generative relationship with nature are sacred and are a fundamental responsibility and commitment of people. In order to stop biodiversity loss and build for planetary health and regeneration, we need to be in relationship with earth and hold ourselves accountable to the health of ecosystems.

Further, the current model of sovereign nation states does not recognize accountability regarding the inequality that is created between countries when governments of high-consumption countries (typically referred to as ‘developed’) extract from nature and people (‘resources’) of low-consumption (‘developing’) countries. Countries who have contributed least to the climate crisis, for example, are paying the highest costs in terms of extreme weather, acute disasters, and loss of life, and countries who have contributed the most to ecological disaster continue to wreak havoc to planetary ecosystems and have little accountability or recourse for doing so. Taking ecological debt and extraction into consideration is required for the transnational governance institutions we need to build if they are to be fit for the future.

3. Accountability to our designed world.

It is also clear as humans, if we are to survive we will need to reimagine our relationships with our manufactured world, our world of human made objects — buildings and products extracted, processed, engineered and carved out of nature and given new form and momentary utility. Our current reality is self terminating — as we drown in a pool of micro waste from plastics to co2 — constructed on the historic illusion of an infinite material world in which property became the most appropriate means of stewardship. We need to conceive a structural relationship between people and material things, one that challenges proprietary use with stewardship and in which the relationship is as micro treaty with rather than to enslave.

4. Accountability to all people.

Democratic governments answer to voters and interest groups within their borders. This means that children and migrant workers have no say — and in some places those who are imprisoned and otherwise lack access to vote — in decisions that affect them and their future. What’s more, voting every few years is not enough; it perpetuates a pattern where people who vote assign their agency to distant governments in whom they are losing trust. Even those who do vote feel increasingly powerless and distrustful, and those living on the margins are increasingly unheard or dismissed. A flourishing future will require recognition of everyone, not only a subset of voters and interest groups, including a recognition and realization of rights to self-determination by Indigenous nations.

Furthermore and fundamentally, histories and continuing conditions of human oppression, servitude and slavery have created social injustices and obscene inequalities within and between countries which must be fully acknowledged and acted upon through local and global solidarity if we are to heal and move forward as a species.

We need institutions that recognize these accountabilities and the interdependence between them that is required if we are to build regenerative cultures — and a plurinational Canada — in a just world for all. The Bretton Woods institutions were designed at a different moment in history and are no longer able to fulfill the full set of needs required of global institutions. What are the next-generation Bretton Woods institutions needed for the world we now inhabit?

Introducing the Emergence Room

There is revolutionary energy in this historic moment.

Amidst the rapidly evolving backdrop of Covid-19, we are listening to a range of people from policymakers, to educators, changemakers, investors, philanthropists, and business and civil society leaders and have decided to set up an Emergence Room as a space for collective sensemaking, provoking structural change, building bold collaborative actions and proposals, and imagining possibilities for better futures. Think anti-war room. The Emergence Room aims to make sense of and amplify emerging patterns for positive change. Our aim is to help catalyze global transformation to a society and economy that recognize interdependence and that value life, equality, and the wellbeing of the planet and all people on it. We want to structurally strengthen collective resilience and capabilities for an age of unknowable risk.

The Emergence Room is designed to be an agile platform and collaborative space where participants can incubate ideas and seed projects, and develop bold initiatives, experiments, and policies in service of the above goals.

We are developing initiatives with others that will contribute to societal missions for equitable societies on a healthy planet. We are building initiatives which:

  • Are systemic
  • Rebuild institutional infrastructure
  • Have potential to catalyze paradigm shifts
  • Recognize interdependent relationships between people and planet
  • Recognize collective responsibility to future generations

The qualities and principles emerging as important to guide us are:

  • Recognizing five aspects of governance: transnational, Indigenous, federal, provincial, municipal.
  • Revisiting Reconciliation: what is/are the social contracts to embed seven generation societal thinking?
  • Creating regionally distributed and place-based alliances.
  • Reimagining human relationships between people, with nature, technology and the future.
  • Strengthening social legitimacy and trust.
  • Building hybrid institutional mechanisms across sectors and governments.
  • Taking a long-term view of societal change while prioritizing the transformation decade 2020–2030.

To start, we will prioritize work that helps to build Transition Finance Infrastructure as well as working with others to design a Transition Innovation Foundation — the next generation of a regionally-distributed innovation foundation required to build social legitimacy and civic resilience for the new age we inhabit. We are also developing initiatives that contribute to missions of participatory social infrastructure, community wealth and a wellbeing economy, climate action, and learning for the 21st century. We are talking with a wide range of stakeholders including innovation foundations, Indigenous leaders, arts organizations and investors.

To learn more about some of our initial thinking, please see this Emergence Room deck as well as draft concept notes on the Emergence Room and Transition Finance Infrastructure. We are looking to collaborate deeply with mission-aligned allies in Canada and globally from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. If you’d like to contribute to building the Emergence Room, kindly let us know through this simple form.

by Jayne Engle, Indy Johar, Alex Ryan

*Disclaimer: We write as co-initiators and on behalf of the Emergence Room, and not necessarily representing the views of any organization.

Cities & Places director @jwmcconnell @cities4people| Adj Professor McGill Univ urb plg | next gen cities & philanthropy/ participatory planning| @JayneEngle