Lessons from a small country – thinking for future generations

Wales may be a small county but it is the world’s first Fairtrade nation, a world leader in recycling, a UK leader in organ donation and at the forefront of genetic and Alzheimer’s disease research. 

It is a country that is doing today what the United Nations hopes the world will do tomorrow – focusing on sustainable development in the interests of future generations. That means thinking long-term, and integrating ecology and economy rather than having them run on separate tracks.

Photo by Catrin Ellis on Unsplash

In so many ways, in fact, it has changed the nature of how governance is done. It is the only country, of the 193 countries who signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, that has the legislative mechanisms to deliver on those goals. The Brundtland definition of sustainable development was published in 1987, but Wales is the only country that has enshrined that philosophy into law.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales), passed by the Welsh government in 2015, is the first legislation in the world to enshrine the rights of future generations alongside current ones. It creates seven goals for living within our environmental limits in the arena of health, prosperity, resilience, communities, language and heritage, equality, and Wales’ role in the world, and identifies five ways of working – prevention, thinking long-term, collaboration, participation and integrating activities – to achieve positive outcomes for as many of the goals as possible.

“The seven goals are the what; the five ways are the how,” says Jane Davidson, the Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing who proposed the act. Her book, ‘Future Gen – Lessons From A Small Country’, sets this landmark legislation in an historic context by going seven generations back, to when Wales’ coal, steel and iron generated the industrial revolution that effectively made Wales the ‘first industrial country’ – but at the cost of the health and well-being of Welsh residents and their communities. 

“There is a pervading feeling in communities ‘left behind’ by the move away from coal and steel – and with some justification – that they did all the work and did not receive the benefit. If any country needs to look after the health and well-being of future generations, it is Wales!” And, she says in the book, it is exciting that so many people are returning to Wales now that it is doing that, and that the Future Generations act is becoming a tool of Wales’ ‘soft power’ in the world.

Snowdonia. Photo by Kenny Orr on Unsplash

The landmark act was the outcome of a national conversation called “The Wales We Want” that began in 2011, when the Welsh government committed itself to making sustainable development the core principle that drives public bodies in Wales and establishing a new statutory Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. 

The conversation, involving stakeholders, businesses and politicians, mirrored an exercise conducted by the United Nations called the “World We Want”. And its origins went back to 1997-9, when – after a referendum – Wales elected a new National Assembly and became a “devolved government” within the United Kingdom. It became one of the first places in the world to incorporate “sustainable development” into its constitution.

Welsh Ministers are required to publish national indicators to measure progress towards the well-being goals, to set milestones in relation to those indicators, and to report each year on progress. Public bodies are audited on their compliance. The act also provides a blueprint for action in the private sector, and more than 350 organisations have signed up to a Sustainable Development Charter.

In many ways, Davidson says, just as Wales led the world in terms of its resources during the Industrial Revolution, it is now a country with extremely valuable resources for a post-industrial revolution – wind, tides, sunshine, and fresh water sufficient for its population- that at last can benefit its own residents in a way that will strengthen their health and their community economies.

One of the things learned along the way is that while policies sound good, they are not enough by themselves. There is a qualitative difference between a ‘duty to promote’ sustainable development and a ‘duty to deliver’ sustainable development. The goals redefine what government’s responsibilities are by changing the value framework at the heart of government, she says – it makes government think long-term, work collaboratively and involve the people who are affected by the policy and legislation.

It has been a journey, she says, one in which the government has learned as it has gone along. (She is no longer in government.) There have been short-term events that could have derailed the government’s agenda, but what has happened is that government has learned to think long term even when it must make short term decisions.

Davidson says that as a result of writing her book, she has been talking with many people she would never have met otherwise. And for some of them, who are skeptical about the idea of climate change, the idea of thinking for future generations is new and promising. I am going to listen again to the YouTube video, which offers very thoughtful perspectives, and finish reading her book. It feels as if we have entered into a different kind of conversation, and Jane Davidson and Wales are in the forefront of this discussion and that I can learn from them. I hope we all can.


#FutureGen and Nature: Jane Davidson and Tony Juniper in Conversation. CIEMM on You Tube, Oct. 4, 2021

Jane Davidson: Policy For The Planet – How One Small County Made Sustainability The Law. DNA of Purpose Podcast with Rebecca Tapp, 

Legislating for Sustainable Development in Wales. Regions4 Sustainable Development.

Meet the ‘Future Generations’ Commissioner of Wales. Reasons to be Cheerful, Apr. 5, 2022