4. Social sustainability

In Denmark, we have built up a strong welfare state in many areas, and have a good starting point for the development of a socially sustainable society. But we also have many social challenges. It seems that in some fundamental areas, we have stalled or even declined.

Abuse of alcohol and drugs is a challenge and loneliness has been a general problem in the population. Many Danish young people are unhappy and feel marginalized. Stress and the use of psychotropic drugs is increasing, and confidence in the labor market is declining. In other words, we are facing a psychological challenge as much as we are facing an environmental one.

 Sustainability is at its core about circulation and balance. Social sustainability is thus not only about material equality and social security, but also about human equality and the experience of contributing to society and of being valued as an individual. People who feel valuable take responsibility for themselves and for society, and are better able to relate to their environment. Today, there are too many people who, for various reasons, are marginalized within Danish society.

 The transition to ecological sustainability will necessarily largely be done locally. It can be hard to know what to do at the individual level, but a lot can be done collectively. Today, however, people are no longer automatically a part of a local community. It is therefore important to restore local communities and groups who can act together and boost this sustainable transition.

 Cohousing, ecovillages and cooperatives are already well underway. These are examples of groups in the informal economy (civil society) that are important players and should be supported and further developed through more local initiatives that can create change from below.

 The Alternative thus wants a dynamic and engaging society that creates social and health-related equality and justice. We should all have the best opportunities for creating an individual life as part of the community. This is best accomplished by increasing social mobility and eradicating negative social legacies.

 The Alternative wants a society where everyone can contribute to the community. We want a society where there is room for diversity and opportunity for all citizens to develop themselves. We will have to reorganize society so that we can break the inequality curve and increase equality and confidence amongst population groups.

 The Alternative will therefore challenge the socio-political agenda through bold experiments. We have to bring the focus back on well-being, and we have to dare to invest in people.

 The Alternative has three key issues within social sustainability:

  1. Balance in everyday life
  2. Investing in people
  3. Everyone should be able to contribute to society

4.1. Balance in everyday life

Over the last 30-40 years, there has been a marked change in the way we live, work and conduct our daily lives. Family life is often characterized by the fact that both parents work full time, whether they live together or not. The former division between the time we spend at work and the life we lead together with our family and friends, is collapsing.

We have a work culture and family life that for some is characterized by great personal enjoyment, but for others is associated with major challenges. Some cannot imagine a better life. Others are unable to get a work and family life balance, either socially, economically or emotionally.

For The Alternative, a socially sustainable society is a society where the individual citizen experiences a life characterized by meaningfulness, quality and social significance.

Flexible work life

The Alternative wants a labor market characterized by greater organizational flexibility and diversity – a flexibility and diversity that reflects the different needs that we as humans have over a lifetime.

There are periods in a person’s life where he or she can and wants to work a lot. On the other hand, there are also times when a person either cannot or does not want to work at the same high level of intensity.

It should therefore be possible to save working hours up if a person, through a period of time, puts in a lot of extra work effort. The excess hours should be able to be put into a time bank, out of which they can again be drawn if there is a period in a person’s life where he or she wants to reduce the time spent working or stop working altogether. The different parts of the labor market should participate in developing a model for the time bank.

Balance between family and work life

The Alternative will work with Danish parents with young children to create a much better balance between family and work life. This starts and ends, of course, with each parent. The Alternative believes that businesses, the different sections of the labor market, and not least the public sector, must assume a social responsibility for us to create the best possible conditions for a good family life and thereby a good childhood.

The Alternative will take as its starting point, the Family and Working Life Commission’s 31 specific recommendations to relaunch the public debate on the condition of families with young children. This will be done through a series of public debates around the country in the autumn of 2014 and the spring of 2015.

Experimenting with new housing, building and ways of living

Accommodation facilities that are designed around the possibility of social interaction are generally very popular, and Denmark has historically been the frontrunner for experimenting with new forms of housing and living. The Alternative wants to build on this tradition in the transition to sustainability because new forms of housing and living are a way to reduce our collective ecological footprint, while at the same time achieving greater human well-being.

There are already many such social and environmental projects around the country, but we want to make it much easier for citizens to try out different forms of housing, building and ways of living – both in the countryside and in the city. This could be done by making public land available, through easier exemptions in the Agricultural Zone Law, through targeted requirements for local plans, and by providing assistance in the form of guidance, research and financial support to the establishment.

The Alternative also wants to prioritize public investment in residential areas and projects, where the social, ecological and cultural aspects are thought through and integrated into an overall solution designed to benefit children and adults of all ages. We also believe that social needs must be incorporated more into urban planning in general, creating natural and attractive spaces where people can meet, and where social life can unfold.

4.2. Investing in people

The ways social funds are awarded today do not work. Money is awarded without clear objectives as to what social challenges it is meant to address, and too many resources are wasted on maintaining a bureaucratic system. The current system does not provide the best conditions for the creation of new, holistic solutions, targeted at solving social challenges. It also does not create knowledge about what works or why it works.

That Alternative will change this. We want to turn the system on its head. In Denmark, we must see social spending as investment in people; an investment that benefits all of us. Not everyone has the same starting point in life, and it is important that society invests in giving all people the prerequisites for creating a good life. We need to create the best conditions for new, holistically-oriented solutions in the social domain that prevent people from ending up on the sidelines of society. Sustainability, both socially and environmentally, is naturally rooted in the local community. It is therefore natural that sustainability initiatives should be anchored locally and use local involvement as an engine for change.

Fourth sector experimental zones

We as a society are in need of massive rethinking. It is totally unrealistic, however, to believe that, through politics alone, we can think our way to optimal solutions to the complex challenges we face. The Alternative therefore believes that we must live our way into the future of sustainable solutions through visionary experiments.

Many of the best sustainability initiatives come today from below; from grassroots social entrepreneurs and innovative companies. In The Alternative, we believe that the most viable solutions will come from people who are prepared to invest themselves and their money in creating sustainable enterprises and entrepreneurial communities. The state obviously plays an important role with respect to basic infrastructure, but we particularly believe that it is in the interaction between citizens, businesses and the state that breakthrough solutions will emerge.

The experimental zones can thus be seen as types of entrepreneurial greenhouses for completely new kinds of initiatives, broadly categorized as fourth sector businesses. We anticipate three different categories of experiments: regional technological experiments, where new sustainability solutions are developed and tested; municipal social experiments, where, for instance, strategies to mobilize the resources available for local, pioneering projects on a smaller scale (up to about 1,000 people) are tested; and experiments in a geographically defined area, where radical solutions that involve a combination of economic, social and technological innovation can be tested.

One could also imagine that the initiative for the experiments comes from the state in the form of a wish to try out different strategies for sustainability on a smaller scale, or from grassroots organizations who want to test the viability of their own ideas. The Alternative considers both types of initiatives to have social relevance.

The biggest strength of the grassroots-driven experiments is that citizens themselves are prepared to invest their own time and money in the projects, ensuring accountability and entrepreneurship, and probably greater long-term viability.

In the attempt to think outside of the box, it should be possible in the more pioneer-like projects to experiment with radical changes, such as the implementation of local money systems, new internal taxation models, new ownership models, and new rules for public benefits and the handling of social problems.

The experiments have the aim of letting the engagement and creativity of the population loose, and can only be realized through a transparent, democratic decision-making process. Apart from direct project support, the pioneering projects should be cost neutral to the surrounding community. They should also be designed so that they have a sound social balance and serve a clear public purpose.

Social investment

The Alternative will create social investment funds focused on the prevention of social and health-related problems. The social investment funds should develop the best conditions for the creation of new preventive solutions. They should also create a new understanding for, and use of social resources.

The social investment funds should set clear targets for the investments, and all investments should provide knowledge about what works, why it works and how it works.

The Alternative will work to ensure that we can test the social investment funds as quickly as possible in Denmark, so that we can gain experience with how to shift the funding of preventive work from expenditure to investment.

4.3. Everyone should be able to contribute to society

All too many people today do not have the opportunity to contribute to society with the resources that they have, and the cost of the economic crisis has disproportionately fallen on society’s weakest.

The Alternative wants to create a society where all people are valuable, and where there is confidence in knowing that everyone wants to contribute to the community. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate in community work, whether as a full-time or part-time employee, a trainee or a volunteer.

Our employment system must be reformed so that the system creates the best possible environment for everyone to fulfill their potential. The focus should be on the individual person’s resources.

Guaranteed basic service instead of social welfare programs

The Alternative wants to simplify the current system. Social welfare programs will be replaced by a guaranteed basic service without specific control measures. We also want to remove the mutual financial responsibility for co-resident, non-married partners. Citizens should be treated as individuals. There should not be undue barriers to social welfare recipients that prevents them from moving in together with new partners.

The employment system should be focused on how we can best support those who need it. The employment system should be a resource that citizens can benefit from through the provision of advice, guidance and other support. Ongoing guidance and discussion should be offered to individuals, so that we do not leave people outside of the labour market to themselves.

The employment system must, to a much greater extent, take into account different professions, including people who have seasonal and project work. An example is artists, whose ties to the labour market are often marked by project work, and who need to develop and maintain their talent continuously.

Regarding the conversion of social welfare programs, The Alternative also wants to strengthen the sense of community and solidarity amongst members of society. The Alternative wants to support voluntary work in all its forms, whether it be visiting a friend at a nursing home, tutoring, coaching at a local sports club, or mentoring newcomers. There should always be an opportunity to do volunteer work, even if you are unemployed or at the edge of the labor market.

A significant simplification of the social system

In the longer term, The Alternative wants a significant simplification of the current system so that sick pay, unemployment benefits, social welfare and pensions are replaced by a basic service that includes the possibility for some additions depending on the citizen’s actual situation.

In addition, workers should be able to draw unemployment insurance, so that they can maintain their income through shorter periods of unemployment. A transition to a new system will naturally require thorough preparation and time to adjust.

The purpose of the simplification is to reduce the enormous resources that case workers use today to clarify their clients’ status every time amendments are made to the law, or when a client switches from one service to another. As it is right now, practical experiences show that psychologically vulnerable people run into problems every time they switch services and, consequently, caseworkers.

The many different systems create an overdriven focus on diagnoses and expert opinions, and the extensive bureaucracy in this area risks increasing the experience of powerlessness amongst individual citizens. A simpler system will be able to channel the many resources that today are used to diagnose and categorize individuals into more productive activities.