I recently co-organised and attended the 6th Foundational Economy Conference, held in Vienna, Austria from 14-16 September 2023. In collaboration with colleagues from the Competence Centre for Infrastructure Economics, Public Services and Social Provision at TU Wien, the conference explored how defending, strengthening and expanding accessible, affordable and sustainable basic goods and services is essential for an eco-social transformation that can secure everyone’s basic needs. At a time when multiple crises – war, global warming, disasters, famine and social injustice – are creating heightened insecurity among populations, the search for security and stability is becoming a pressing issue.
In the introductory keynote, Prof Julie Froud from the University of Manchester, highlighted that the development of the foundational economy concept was a way to make sense of why so many foundational infrastructure systems are in trouble. Collective problems of under investment, financialisation, privatisation and neglect are putting increasing pressures on the foundations of our everyday lives. The foundational economy provides a more positive reframing of these essential infrastructures and an important space for social and policy innovation.
Her talk then went deeper into understanding the current crisis of everyday liveability more broadly to challenge traditional policy concerns of growth, jobs, and ‘business-friendly’ supply-side interventions. Beyond the ‘cost of living crisis’, Julie emphasised the importance of dispersed social innovations. These are needed, for example, to provide innovative services in health and care, supported by demand management through attention to prevention and the drivers of ill health, or social prescribing. Crucially, redesigning essential services and social infrastructure is needed across services, that centres around people and focuses on quality and access.
The conference invited speakers from a broad range of disciplines, putting approaches of the Foundational Economy in conversation with feminist, degrowth and intersectional perspectives on social provisioning and eco-social transformations. Parallel sessions on topics as broad as transformative climate action, commodification of housing, participation and urban planning, digitalisation of foundational infrastructures, universal basic services or democratising energy transitions were coupled with keynotes and panel discussions with high-ranking politicians from federal ministries and city administrations.
A major challenge discussed was the transformation of welfare states to cope with the ecological crisis while simultaneously securing the prosperity of citizens and protecting them against a variety of social risks. Prof Max Koch from the University of Lund highlighted in his keynote that strengthening public infrastructures and improving public services is an essential building block to enable an affordable, climate-friendly, and safe life for all. In the 21st century, a sustainable welfare state policy consists above all of identifying and facilitating synergies between social and ecological objectives and of weighing up conflicting goals. In her keynote, Prof Corinna Dengler (Vienna University of Economics) further argued for feminist engagement of the foundational economy with debates on care to move from a care-less economic system to a caring society. In a similar vein, Mathew Lawrence (Common Wealth UK) emphasised that building democratic ownership is the foundation of a life-centred economy. Ultimately, these issues have to be embedded in place, relating to community needs and the political-institutional context of space.
The conference ended with city walks to different locations across Vienna: the Karl-Marx-Hof, a work by the Otto Wagner student Karl Ehn, as one of the many social housing complexes built as part of the housing programme in the period between 1923 and 1932; the Welttellerfeld as an interactive educational site making the complex interrelationships of the food system tangible for everyone relating its global dimensions to a specific place of production and consumption; and the wastewater treatment plant ebswien as a service provider for the City of Vienna and a true ‘eco-power plant’, generating more energy from renewable sources than needed for its wastewater treatment. These city walks provided space to end the conference by discussing the role of the Foundational Economy through concrete examples of public provisioning systems in Vienna.
The conference inspired discussions and strengthened a network that will inform my research in the coming year. Building on the connections made, my goal is to further develop the understanding of the geographical dimension of the foundational economy and its role for sustainable wellbeing. I am eager to continue the conversation with scholars and practitioners, among other routes through the 7th Foundational Economy conference, that will take place in September 2024 in Cardiff, organised by the Foundational Economy Collective and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data.
All photos courtesy of IFIP/TU Wien