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Towards a Sustainable Economy: State of the Doughnut

Research overview:

The complexity of achieving sustainable development requires a new approach to decision-making, one that recognises the interconnections between social and environmental factors, accounting for people’s needs as well as the natural environment upon which they depend. The challenges of present-day issues such as social deprivation and climate change are rooted in inter-dependent systems that require innovative responses at multiple levels. 

Key objectives:

Having already embarked on an ambitious agenda to pursue environmental sustainability, Cornwall Council is taking bold steps towards addressing some of these challenges. To realise this vision, an assessment of current conditions is needed to identify priorities and inform progress. In a 3-month project funded by the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund in 2020, a team of researchers from the ESI collaborated with Cornwall Council, using Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ model to assess the current state of social and environmental conditions across Cornwall. 

Cornwall’s geography is diverse, meaning that social and environmental sustainability challenges and priorities will vary across the county. A 3-month follow-up project in 2021 set out to: provide a more detailed understanding of how sustainability indicators vary across Cornwall; identify sub-regional priorities for enhancing sustainable development; and examine opportunities and constraints to taking action at a local scale. Focusing on the scale of city, town and parish councils, this project identified opportunities to engage local communities, make effective use of existing institutions, and inform the wider development of county-level policies.


Our first report provided a snapshot of the ‘state of the Doughnut’ in Cornwall that can be used as a baseline from which to evaluate progress towards achieving a social foundation that meets human needs while also reducing environmental pressures. The report identifies a set of indicators that can be regularly revisited to assess progress, providing a framework to chart progress over time. This framework now underpins The Cornwall Plan 2020-2050, committing key stakeholders to improve sustainability outcomes by 2050.

The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board have adopted this plan and partners are now committed to a process of annual performance review. The University of Exeter will contribute to this by working with partners to review performance, refine the process and identify any particular challenges that need further attention.

Our second report has identified the extent to which sustainability challenges and priorities vary geographically. There are also considerable capacity challenges and barriers to action at the local scale that could be overcome by stronger partnership working. This research is well-placed to provide the foundations for a renewed local response to sustainability challenges in Cornwall.

This research contributes to a wider set of initiatives engaged in ‘downscaling the doughnut’, experimenting with the doughnut economics model as a tool to embed and monitor progress towards sustainable development. As a holistic framework to help pursue the goal of meeting people’s needs within environmental limits, the ‘doughnut model’ is attracting increased attention in a variety of locations across the world, and our research helps to signal Cornwall’s leadership in this field. Our research supports efforts to develop an inclusive vision, amplifying the voices of local communities in shaping change, and prioritising partnership working to achieve a more sustainable Cornwall.

Cornwall already has high levels of inequality, and it’s important to think about the fair distribution of costs and benefits as we tackle environmental challenges. Increasing the scope for local decision making and leadership should allow communities to develop appropriate plans for change.

Dr Rachel Turner

Towards a Sustainable Economy: State of the Doughnut.
Download the full report here

Citation for this work:
Turner, R., Poznansky, F., Smirthwaite, N., Blundell, A., Benson, D., Gaston, K.J., Hamshar, J., Maclean, I., Wills, J. and Yan, X. (2020) Towards a Sustainable Cornwall: State of the Doughnut. Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, UK.

Sustainable Development in Cornwall: Local Perspectives on Challenges and Opportunities.
Download the summary report here and full report here

Citation for this work:
Turner, R.A., Blundell, A., Collins, C., Exeter, O.M., Wills, J. (2021) Sustainable Development in Cornwall: Local Perspectives on Challenges and Opportunities. Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, UK.

Project Team

Rachel Turner (University of Exeter)
Frederica Poznansky (University of Exeter)
Nell Smirthwaite (University of Exeter)
Amber Blundell (University of Exeter)
David Benson (University of Exeter)
Kevin Gaston (University of Exeter)
Jessie Hamshar (Cornwall Council)
Ilya Maclean (University of Exeter)
Jane Wills (University of Exeter)
Xiaoyu Yan (University of Exeter)
Claire Collins (University of Exeter)
Owen Exeter (University of Exeter)

Project Sponsors

A collaborative project funded by the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund.

Introducing the project