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Sophie Howe headshot

Image: Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales

 

“Within the space of a few years a culture sometimes ceases to think as it has been thinking up till then,” writes philosopher Michel Foucault, “and begins to think other things in a new way.” 1

 

In 2015, Sophie Howe became the first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales and her team are radically deconstructing political policy and the current culture around that, reimagining policy to create a country where a sustainable future is at the heart of everything.

 

A sustainable tomorrow means creating a society where social, environmental, economic and cultural well-being are on equal footing. Howe aims to make decisions in a way that recognizes the connections between health, wealth and well-being. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act became law in 2015 and has gathered attention worldwide, Nikhil Seth, Head of Sustainable Development at the United Nations, “What Wales is doing today we hope the world will do tomorrow”.

 

The Act itself changes the political landscape. It positions government decision-making  – focusing on well-being and the things that make life worthwhile. Howe believes the best way to plan for the future is to go out and create it. But, a plan only goes so far, and new ways to communicate are the catalyst for radical social change, a wider cultural change is required. In the interview below with MAIM researcher Katherine Simpson, Howe discusses the future of intelligence not in terms of cognitive intelligence (IQ) but emotional intelligence (EQ) or as Jack Ma, Founder of Alibaba says love intelligence (LQ). This mode of empathetic communication will be critical in the future of decision-making and policy.

 


 

Katherine Simpson: I’m fascinated by this pioneering act, let’s start by describing your role in a sentence and you can be as honest, literal or novel as you feel fits best?

 

Sophie Howe: I’m going go back to what it says in the legislation because it’s as good as anything, “The guardian of the interest of future Generations”’

 

Katherine Simpson: The Guardian! How important is the Future Generations Act for developing an ethical progressive future do you think?

 

Sophie Howe: I think It’s really important, because in my opinion we’re recasting the way that we think about policy and the things that we do here in Wales. For a start it’s putting social, environmental and economic and cultural well-being on an equal footing. For a long-time, it’s started from the economy as being the most important thing and there’s been this presumption that jobs, and growth are more important than the environment and sustainability and that it’s fine to have an environmental impact because of the benefits of jobs and growth. There’s also been this assumption that if you have jobs and growth there is a sort of trickle-down effect in terms of society and culture and so on and that’s just not the case because we know that GDP can go up and lots of people are still living in extreme poverty or relative poverty and so growth isn’t equal. What this is actually doing is recasting the way that we think about those things – and putting that on a legislative footing is incredibly powerful. Of course, it’s not going to change the world or change Wales overnight but putting in this structural footing is a very strong message to send.

 

Kath: I’ll come back to some of those thoughts later, but I just wanted to get a sense of your background. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how the role came about and why you took it? You previously were the Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales tackling violence against women and girls, how have those past experiences influenced you now?

 

Sophie Howe: My personal background, I grew up in a place called Ely, in Cardiff which was always in the top 10 and not for positive reasons – in the Welsh Index for deprivation, it was one of those quite challenging areas. My mum was a secretary. My dad was a diesel fitter. It was quite unusual in a way because they both worked. I grew up there in the 1980s which was the height of the Thatcher government and mass unemployment and Ely was one of those areas that was hit particularly hard with that. However, because both my parents worked I was looked after a lot by my grandparents who lived on the other side of Cardiff which couldn’t be more different. Even now the stats in terms of life expectancy from the area of Cardiff that I grew up in compared to the area of Cardiff where my grandparents lived, where I actually went to school is like a 10-year difference in life expectancy.

 

Kath: Oh my god, 10 years?

 

Sophie Howe: Yeah! Within a couple of miles. And, that’s about poverty and deprivation. I suppose I came from a very deprived area but actually went to school in a very affluent area because my grandparents used to pick me up after school. So, I could very much see that divide. Which has definitely influenced me because I suppose sometimes you grow up in an area and that’s your world and that’s kind of what you see – I grew up in that world but then I saw this other world and I suppose that informed my thinking. My dad was a political activist and I was involved in that from a toddler and stuff that he was doing around political activism. That understanding of a broader social policy context – obviously not that I defined it like that as a three-year-old but – that kind of understanding about that broader social policy context of which we operate in, and a sense of fairness in the world, that was really important for me. Another big influence was my mum who was quite a strong feminist really and she worked as a secretary in television and I could see that in lots of ways she was far smarter than the men. She was actually doing most of the work the men were taking the credit for. So, I guess I’d say I was quite a feisty kid growing up. I was quite streetwise, but then again, I was also in this kind of school with lots of middle-class kids. I was the feisty one in situations and I challenged things that I thought were wrong. I remember when I was about 11 years old leading a campaign to get the school to allow girls to wear trousers in the winter.

 

Kath Simpson: I can really start to see the connections between you background and becoming ‘the guardian’ which is a big part of the discourse of the Act. It’s amazing to see a woman in this position. Is there anything else you wanted add about your move into politics?

 

Sophie Howe: Yeah, because of my interest in politics I was the first of my family to go to university and there was a brilliant female candidate, Julie Morgan, in the area where I lived, and I volunteered in my first year of University to help on her election campaign. Julie was a strong influence on me, she led campaigns for twinning [adjacent Labour constituencies would choose a man and a woman]. So we had the first National Assembly for Wales, where all of the seats that should be elected should be equal and that achieved the first gender balanced assembly. She basically encouraged me as part of this movement to stand to be a local councillor, which I did at the age of 21, but then I found out that I was pregnant and I was in my final year of Uni. It was an unplanned pregnancy and it was all a bit of a disaster at the time and that’s been another significant impact on my career because I was told at that point, “Well that’s it your life’s over now, you’ll be like all the other girls from Ely”. And, that basically made me more determined to prove myself. When I stood for election, the opposition said, “Don’t vote for that pregnant schoolgirl”. This just made me more determined and more passionate about fighting inequality, particularly gender equality. I think my passion about domestic abuse comes from that because I think it’s one of the most endemic issues in our society, which is no matter what we say it, still hidden and not tackled in the way that it should be. The thing that I’m completely passionate about and putting into a broader context is equality and how we tackle diversity.

 

Katherine Simpson: Tackling diversity and equality is the crux of the Future Generations Act and well-being is the pivot to achieve that. I actually teach yoga and over the last couple of years there has been a massive well-being movement, but I find it quite a loaded term and also quite conceptual to communicate. If we’re re-thinking well-being what does it mean to you and the Act?

 

Sophie Howe: What it means to me, is probably in the same ballpark as a lot of people. It’s the things I always talk about – it’s the things that make life worthwhile. So, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of Michael Marmot’s work on the Social Determinants of Health. Basically the things that impact on your health are not whether we have a good NHS or any of those things. The social determinants of Health are about relationships, whether we have access to decent work, not just work, but decent work is really important. It’s about the quality of the areas that we live in. Why is it that more kids in deprived areas play in poisonous playgrounds because of air pollution? Why should that be?

 

Whereas now I’m pretty fortunate to be able to live in quite a nice area where you can walk out and you could be in parkland within a couple of minutes, the kids can go to a good school. I’ve got good public transport links. I’ve got all my family around me. Those are the things that is well-being for me. Whereas for other people, they almost don’t even get to this little comfort as well-being, because their basic needs are not being met or there’s too much focus purely on meeting their basic needs. The way public services do business is too focused just on basic needs and not looking at a person holistically. You can have your basic needs met, but that still doesn’t mean that it’s going to contribute to your well-being. An analogy would be how our benefit system operates. OK, arguably the benefit system meets your basic needs, although there are some arguments that it perhaps doesn’t even do that these days. So you might be able to put food on the table but the way in which that’s constructed the meaning of well-being is very process-focused – for example

you’ve got to apply for x number of jobs each week even if they’re not of any relevance to you and so on. It’s not looking at that person holistically and it’s not looking at how that person is potentially giving back to a community. I think this is the case of women in particular. I’ve met women in the South Wales valleys, who are not in work, but they are actually looking after their next-door neighbour. They’re taking a meal every night to their elderly father and they’re picking up the grandkids from school. They are doing all of those things which are absolutely fundamental not just to their own well-being but the well-being of the wider Community and that’s not valued at all and that’s the real issue. Why is it that we focus on particular things like, you must have a job, or you must live in a house like this – it’s all about material things. When actually we need to be valuing more the things that make life worthwhile and the contribution that many people are making along those lines which just isn’t recognized.

 

Katherine Simpson: With all the things that you’re doing now within your work, how does it play out into your life and your family. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to practice what you preach?

 

Sophie Howe: Oh, I definitely do. When you talk about sustainability which is a key part of the legislation you immediately think about environmental sustainability – I’d say the average person on the street tends to think about environmental sustainability. I was as bad as everyone else. In my last job, my office was 10 miles away. I’d get in my car, outside my house and drive to work, walk three steps into my office and sit at my desk all day. The same thing that many people do. What I recognize now, because of this job, is the interconnections between all of these things and the smaller simple changes that you can make in your life to actually promote that wider well-being. I haven’t driven my car to work I don’t know how long for now. I get on the bus or sometimes get a lift from my husband but before I do that I let the kids scoot or ride to school and I actually really enjoy doing that. And I think about getting off the bus a stop earlier because I actually enjoy walking and I value nature. Before, probably like lots of people, I took it for granted. I think it’s having that sense of the basic things – I’ve lost weight since coming into this job, not because I felt like doing anything different but because I’ve been doing those simple things in my life, like walking a lot more, like being a bit more focused on the food that we eat and things like that. Even though I work long hours, that’s okay because I enjoy doing what I do. It’s not actually been that difficult to make those changes. I haven’t noticed them as something hard to do. All I’ve noticed are the positive benefits that those changes have brought and that’s really positive. We have lots of really good workplace policies in my team that the rest of my staff are taking on board as well, but we probably don’t have enough time to get into all of that.

 

Katherine Simpson: I think it’s somehow expected and that well-being is like a package deal. It’s not just for the Act, it’s about being holistic in every sense.

 

Sophie Howe: Yeah.

 

Katherine Simpson: What about the concept of ‘time’ and how you have short-term and long-term goals for future generations. In the reality of what the world is looking like now, how does time influence the way you make decisions?

 

Sophie Howe: I think that’s really interesting because generally what we do is we plan on the basis on the here and now and that’s understandable. On a personal level it’s very difficult to anticipate ourselves in the future. That’s why we’re so bad at pensions and making decisions now about any potential long-term care needs you might need or looking after our health. Generally, I feel we’re quite bad at that and that mirrors how we do public policy. We plan on the basis of the here and now, if we’re lucky we might set a longer-term plan, so the next 10 years is as long as it ever gets. What we need to be doing is getting much better at fore-sighting. I know you can’t predict the future but there are certain things that we know for certain, like we’re going to have an ageing population, climate changes is here and it ain’t going anywhere unless we do something about it. Like the fact that our economic model at the moment doesn’t work – the rich could be getting richer the poor could be getting poorer. So, there are certain things that we know pretty much as a fact and we need to be planning ahead to tackle them.

 

What’s also important is back-casting. We don’t just say that “Oh well we’ll try to make plans for the future, but we don’t know what the future is going to be”. It’s this concept that the best way to create a plan for the future is to go out and create it. You’ve got to have a vision of what you want the future to look like and then cast-back from that, taking into account the trends and scenarios as far as you can. That’s not saying that the way to achieve that is linear, of course it’s not because you have disruptive things that come along like Brexit. But at least you’ve set the vision for the future that you want rather than just saying, “Okay, well we’ll deal with the here and now and we’ll try and plan for the medium term without taking into account any of the things that we know are coming our way”.

 

Katherine Simpson: Disruption introduces uncertainties, we can only act on the here and now and the data and predictions that have been gathered.

 

Sophie Howe: Yeah, but I`m thinking that if your long-term plan is to get X, Y or Z. Okay, you might not know how you’re necessarily going to get from here to there but if you’ve got some sort of aim you might have to go around the houses a bit but you’re still heading in the right direction. If you don’t have a long-term vision you haven’t got a clue where you’re going, and you’re just taken off by whatever happens to happen.

 

Katherine Simpson: Maybe one of the ways it could happen is something that you talked about at the symposium at Central St Martins where you talked about cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence and LQ this ‘love intelligence’. How do these modes of communicating or strategy effect the future?

 

Sophie Howe: I think it’s really significant. My first meeting this morning was talking with someone leading a review on automation and the impact on jobs and skills in Wales. If you look at it in a narrow, traditional way, which is, “Oh god we’re all worried about jobs for the future”. But if that’s what presses your buttons, emotional intelligence and the Love Quotient that Jack Ma talks about is going to be crucially important because automation and artificial intelligence is here and is only going to grow, so we need to focus on the things that keep us human. If we just focus on traditional ideas of knowledge we’re never going to be able to keep up with robots. But where you have scenarios where robots and artificial intelligence are working alongside empathy that emotional intelligence which only humans can do, that’s where you potentially get something quite beautiful. For example imagine a doctor whose primary focus of their training wasn’t being really clever at diagnosing all these different conditions, but actually the focus of that doctor might be to look at this person holistically. Yes, the patient might have a respiratory disease which a robot has been able to diagnose far more effectively. But what if the human doctor could spend time with that person, understanding what goes on in their lives, considering what measures we could put in place to help improve that condition in terms of lifestyle and overall well-being. If doctors were able to focus on that rather than the very technical diagnostics and treatment because that’s what robots and AI were able to do I think we’d have a completely different approach to keeping people well and dealing with health conditions. That’s just one example in one sector, what if teachers focused on the same sort of thing, so they were able to spend more time not just imparting knowledge but instead were able to focus on a child’s well-being. More of a focus on what’s going on at home for that child, on particular types of learning styles and what’s impacting on the child’s ability to learn or not – rather than just teaching a lesson. It’s that bigger focus on well-being. Those are the things we should focus on, humans doing human stuff could be incredibly powerful in the future. We’re still too focused on educating on the basis of knowledge rather than general life skills, well-being and emotional intelligence for the future.

 

Katherine Simpson: In that regard, have you ever thought about a utopian or dystopian future where the Act plays out in 20 years and not limited to Wales?

 

Sophie Howe: Yeah, well we did do some work a year or so back which looks at a couple of vignettes – looking at what Wales could look like. It was building in some of the future trends and scenarios we were trying to play out, exploring if we’ve got the Act right what that could look like for Wales. It was things like; decent jobs closer to home because we had taken the decision to invest in local start-up companies. Alongside that we had a big focus on volunteering and community activities, so we had people doing the walking bus to school and the teachers were focused as much on physical activity and well-being as they were on teaching. I’m trying to think, there was also a number of families that the ethnic mix in the area was much greater because there was a big inward migration, and we were using that as an opportunity to embrace all the different skills that brought in to Wales. There was a range of different things like that where we were building on these future trends but using them in a way in which we steer the policy as you would be required to under Future Generations Act to make those positive things, rather than negative. So, like the aging population the vignette included a number of older people working in schools, providing emotional resilience to children in schools. There’s loads of things that you could do to envisage this future, building on future trends, but it means that at a decision-making level now hundreds of different decisions have got to be taken in the right way, which is going to help to build that, and that’s quite complex to achieve.

 

Katherine Simpson: Yes, it’s so complex! I take my hat off to you. I think it’s an amazing Act and it’s an exciting time for the future of policy. So, the role is for seven years and you’ve got six years left in this role.

 

Sophie Howe: Well, five years left.

 

Katherine Simpson: What happens after seven years?

 

Sophie Howe: They’ll appoint a new commissioner and I think I’ll ride off into the sunset and focus on my well-being. [Laughs]. Who knows what I’ll do?

 

Katherine Simpson: Is it part of the cycle that there has to be a new person, is that part of the strategy that the role needs new blood?

 

Sophie Howe: Well, it doesn’t have to be, so in theory I could be newly appointed, but we have four commissioners in Wales doing different things, we’ve got a children’s commissioner, old people’s commissioner and a Welsh language commissioner. I’ve got the longest term out of any of them, the rest of them are four years. They did recognize the challenges ahead in the future Generations Act and should therefore have a longer term. But, my gut instinct is probably that they need some fresh blood coming in after a seven-year period, who knows what might have changed by then. I count myself lucky that I had the opportunity and the challenge to lay the groundwork, getting this right, which is going to be a long-term mission and that’s as much as I can do. Try and lay the right groundwork to pass on the next person who hopefully will start to see some of the results coming from the legislation.

 

Katherine Simpson: It’s funny you say that about luck, I love the Louis Pasteur quote, “Luck favours the prepared mind”. I see it as it wasn’t really luck that you’re in this position, it’s that you’re prepared for the position, so you became it.

 

Sophie Howe: Yeah, it’s a good phrase that.

 

Katherine Simpson: Thank you so much, Sophie.

 

Sophie Howe: You’re welcome.

 

References

 

  1. Schirato, T., Danaher, G. & Webb, J. (2012) ‘Questions of Method’, in Schirato, T., Danaher, G. & Webb, J.  Understanding Foucault. A Critical Introduction, 2nd edn. London: Sage, pp. 1–41.