December 13, 2023

Imagining a Wellbeing Economy in Ireland: a long read

by Hannah Paylor, Carnegie UK

Throughout 2023, Carnegie UK has been working in partnership with WEAll Ireland, bringing together a community of artists and other creatives to imagine what a society that puts wellbeing first could and should look like.

On 15th December, supported by Carnegie UK, WEAll Ireland will host a participatory event in Dublin. The event will celebrate the first year of the project and launch a Community of Practice. In this long read, Hannah Paylor shares some of the learning from the project and reflects on the role of movement and narrative building in bringing about social change.

The backstory

“Well-told stories help turn moments of great crises into moments of new beginnings.” (Marshall Ganz)

The back story

It is time for a new story. It has to be. The unfolding crises of poverty and the cost of living[1], of trust in our democracy[2], and of climate and biodiversity, mean that it is no longer viable to pursue social progress through the same methods. We need to imagine alternative futures. Ones where everyone has what they need to live a good life, and where we truly care for our world for the generations to come.

At Carnegie UK, we believe that collective wellbeing can be the framework for achieving this vision. But it is increasingly clear that we need more than good quality, evidence-based public policy to transition to a more just society. We need to work together, across boundaries and disciplines, to unlock our collective imagination. And we need to increase our sense of what is possible when we all work together.

Carnegie UK has been following, with interest, the work happening on the island of Ireland. Between 2017 and 2021, we provided support to three Community Planning Partnerships in Northern Ireland to embed wellbeing within their community plans.[3]  In 2021, the Government of Ireland[4] published a wellbeing framework designed to measure progress as a country and better align policy decisions with people’s experiences.


“New ideas are, thus, now required and, even more, their communication to citizens – ideas based on equality, universal public services, equity of access, sufficiency, sustainability. New ideas are fortunately available in the form of an alternative paradigm of social economy within ecological responsibility, but they must find their way on to the public street.”

President of the Republic of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, OECD Conference 9.10.20

In 2022, the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Ireland Hub (WEAll Ireland) began exploring the role that arts and culture could play in reimagining a wellbeing economy. Their vision: to create an island of wellbeing[5]. From these early conversations, they started to build a community of practice, bringing together artists, researchers, and activists to explore creative responses to the idea of a wellbeing economy. Their ambition was to create a community of practice that generates new narratives about change that expand public understanding and grow support for an economy that puts people and planet first – a wellbeing economy.

Achieving this ambition is a long-term endeavour. Throughout 2023, WEAll Ireland has focused on collaborating with a smaller number of participants to co-design the processes and ways of working of the community of practice. Carnegie UK has been privileged to be involved in this phase of the project. And, although as an operating foundation we are not a funder in the traditional sense, we have contributed financial resource and in-kind support to run deep dive events and cover the costs of people participating. But we have also – perhaps less typically for a philanthropic foundation – been involved as a participant in the process. A member of the community of practice, we wanted to participate to learn more about the role of movement and narrative building in bringing about social change. As an organisation invested in the collective impact of alliances, we also wanted to see what we could learn and achieve together by sharing power, working in collaboration, and building relationships.

In striving to achieve our strategic objective of putting wellbeing at the heart of decision-making, we have often worked with or sought to influence governments. Here, we wanted to try something different. In the longer term, we wanted to find out whether this would be a more or less effective route to change than traditional methods, like lobbying governments in Ireland to implement established policy frameworks for delivering wellbeing. But we were also interested in what role we could play as a social change foundation in building the infrastructure for change. How would it feel for a foundation and policy organisation to invest in something where we did not control the outcome? And what learning might we be able to share with others about this process?

Throughout 2023, Carnegie UK has participated in three main activities associated with this work:

  • As a member of WEAll Ireland’s Coordinating Circle; meeting on a regular basis to update on activities and discuss governance issues.
  • By participating in deep dives[6] and online events to develop a prototype community of practice, including the gathering of activists and creatives in Derry-Londonderry with talks from Tim Jackson[7], David Bollier, Sandra Waddock; Peadar Kirby and Kate Petriw; and
  • Capturing the learning from this work through storytelling[8] by spending time interviewing members of the coordinating circle and community of practice. We used ‘public narratives’ framing to create a space for individual and group reflection.

This essay provides some of our reflections and learning from these activities in the form of a story. Stories allow us to see the world that we’re stepping into. They facilitate deeper understanding. But we need to be open to using different methods to enable stories to be told.

“… any attempt to change our world must recognise a fundamental truth: it must speak a language people understand. Science can sketch the nature of the problem. Technology can facilitate the solutions. Economics can point out the costs and benefits. Art engages the soul.”

Tim Jackson

The community of practice has been exploring the role of cultural assets, like art, poetry, and filmmaking to build a collective story, of past, present, and future. Art, in its broadest sense, allows us to see things differently. It can help to imagine alternative narratives. But, as Tim Jackson emphasised in his talk on Art and the Wellbeing Economy, it is not a tool to be instrumentalised to achieve social change. Art, culture and imagination are not accessories to delivering collective wellbeing, but at the very heart of it – and as such they need to be invested in and given space to grow.

The learning in this essay is a story in itself. Over the last year, we have used the public narratives framework developed by Marshall Ganz to reflect on what we are learning. For Ganz, an effective public narrative connects three key components: story, strategy, and action. What we at Carnegie UK like about Ganz’s framework is that it builds on the capacity of the values we hold and experience individually, to stir and provoke collective action.

Marshall Ganz: a story of self, us and now

Developing a public narrative is both a process for creating a shared story and a mechanism for change. It is recognised as a framework for harnessing grassroots power in the way that it uses storytelling to activate engagement and participation. According to Ganz, a public narrative is made up of three interconnected parts:

A story of self – based on the individual and their own reflections or their story of why they feel compelled – emotionally – to act and do the work they do.

A story of us – tells a narrative about why a particular community is called to act. This is about creating a shared, unified story based on collective motivations and goals.

A story of now – communicates the urgent challenge we are called upon to face and calls us to action. [9]

The Story of Self

Based on the individual and their own reflections or their story of why they feel compelled – emotionally – to act and do the work they do.

When Carnegie UK started the project with WEAll Ireland it was immediately clear that the Coordinating Circle – the group responsible for the governance and oversight of the project – shared values of fairness, equity, voice, and agency. These values were personally expressed in one-to-one interviews, with participants citing political scientist and Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s ‘principles for managing a commons’ [10] as inspirational to their work and practice.

During the one-to-one interviews and ‘deep dives’ in Derry-Londonderry and Cloughjordan, individuals in the WEAll Ireland community of practice expressed being motivated by a vision of a totally new economy, and the role of art in social change.

“I’m hoping that the wellbeing economy can be an invitation and an opportunity for artists to see their work as something that can really create change in the world.”

Derry-Londonderry deep dive participant

But they also talked about how these motivations come with mixed emotions that can be both energising and paralysing. A sense of optimism and hope that an alternative way forward is possible, combined with feelings of fear: that individualism focused on extraction and wealth creation will remain the dominant focus and prevent social progress.

It became clear through discussion that each member of the community of practice had experienced some kind of ‘awakening’ about the current economic model.

The Story of Us

The Story of Us tells a narrative about why a particular community is called to act. This is about creating a shared, unified story based on collective motivations and goals.

the story of us

Photograph of visual harvesting of key themes by Community of Practice participant, Gráinne O’Neill.

Members of the community of practice are ready for change. They are ready to create a vision of a shared island of Ireland focused on the rich cultural assets it has. And they want to build a shared vision for the future based on creating a system that cares for both people and planet. This is the collective story they tell.

This collective narrative exists beyond the community of practice. Each person interviewed highlighted how the embryonic community of practice exists because of a wider wellbeing movement of artists, activists, and researchers across the globe. They highlighted the influence of key thinkers and movement builders such as Katherine Trebeck [11] and Kate Raworth [12], as well as the global Wellbeing Alliance (WEAll) community in driving this agenda. It was clear from the conversations that although the community of practice itself is a relatively new endeavour, a lot of time and effort has been put into developing thinking and building relationships over a longer period of time, with the global Wellbeing Economy Alliance focused on demonstrating ways that the dominant economic narrative of endless growth promotes capitalism and neoliberalism.

The community of practice is also collectively compelled to critique power and inhibiting structures and systems, to demonstrate that another – fairer- way is possible. However, participants expressed a shared sense of frustration that few will resource narrative change and movement-building work, despite evidence that this is where change happens.

The Story of Now: Building HOPE

A story of now communicates the urgent challenge we are called upon to face and calls us to action.

“Movements are the story of how we come together when we’ve come apart.”

Alicia Garza, The Purpose of Power

With the urgent and volatile challenges of our time, like the war in Ukraine and Gaza, and closer to home, the cost-of-living emergency and energy crisis, it’s hard to predict what will happen next.

Members of the community of practice shared their personal and collective fears about the fragmented society we live in. Together, they want to build a narrative that things can and should be different. They see the island of Ireland’s cultural assets as the tools through which people living and working there can collectively imagine what they could do to build the changes needed. They spoke optimistically about the potential of arts and culture to build “a home and a platform for people to share examples of where systems can work better”.

The community of practice launches this week with a celebratory event in Dublin and with an invitation to others who are committed to creating a fairer, regenerative future to join the cultural creatives movement. Their story of now has three key parts:

  • Sustaining hope that an alternative future is possible.
  • The importance of cultural assets in transcending barriers and boundaries. Building relationships and connections through creative mediums could be key to addressing polarisation and promoting social dialogue and discourse.
  • Building capacity to imagine alternative futures with adequate funding and resource. More foundations and funders need to invest and promote narrative change and movement-building work.

Epilogue: Being motivated by change

“Movements have narratives. They tell stories, because they are not just about rearranging economics and politics. They also rearrange meaning. And they’re not just about redistributing the goods. They’re about figuring out what is good.”

Marshall Ganz

Carnegie UK is galvanised by wellbeing approaches that change people’s lives for the better. In our 2021 Strategy for Change [13] we committed to continuously reflecting on our programme learning and understanding our impact. And we were clear that we wanted to spend more of our time and resources investing in the collective impact of alliances and movements. We know that this is an effective route to change.

Our participation as a philanthropic organisation

As a philanthropic organisation with a presence in this piece of work as both a foundation and a participant in the community of practice, there has been much to learn and reflect on about the power we hold as an organisation and the role we play in supporting and – in some cases inhibiting – others. We were particularly thoughtful about the reflections from participants in the Community of Practice that few foundations or funders will resource movement building and narrative change work.

Investing in ideas and working with emergence requires relinquishing control. At times, we admit that this felt difficult. We had to accept that it may feel uncomfortable and challenge ourselves to reflect on why we felt such discomfort. We also had to acknowledge that when we seek to have influence, we are exhibiting pre-existing power derived from money and status. We have learned through this work that putting trust in others can lead to positive outcomes that we might not have reached otherwise.

We also learned about the importance of building open and honest relationships, and how difficult it can be to separate long-established perceptions of Carnegie UK as a funder, with our role as a participant in the process itself. As the community of practice grew over time, for those newer to the project, there was a noticeable shift in dynamic when it was communicated that Carnegie UK had funded some of the work. We are thoughtful, particularly as we challenge ourselves to work in this space more, how we might approach this dynamic in the future.

Building a community of practice that’s diverse and inclusive

Our involvement in the Coordinating Circle enabled us to learn much about how to build a community of practice that is diverse and inclusive; and how to design and facilitate spaces that allow people to participate equally and move forward towards practical action.

We noticed through this work that communicating ideas around wellbeing, and ‘a wellbeing economy’ can risk alienating people with inaccessible language and theoretical concepts. We are thoughtful about how we will in the future develop our wider messaging and communicate ideas in a way that addresses these barriers.

There is a balance between creating a space that builds relationships and enables generative conversations, and structuring an event in a way that moves towards clear actions. This is something we urge the community of practice to keep in mind as the project develops.

Moments of transition: preparing for endings and new beginnings

Movements, by their very nature, take time to build and sustain. This work has demonstrated to us that when resourcing movement building and narrative change work, it’s important to find the right balance between financially supporting the movement for long enough that it can build and flourish, and knowing when it is the right time to take a step back.

Stewarding endings is something that civil society organisations – like ours – are generally not good at.[14] We have been thoughtful about this for the duration of our involvement in the project, considering our position of privilege and what we can do to support the community of practice to be sustainable beyond our financial involvement. Trying to hold these questions at the same time as trying to address power dynamics and participate as an equal participant was at times challenging. However, we found that because we had participated equally in the project, relationships and trust between and within the group developed.

Carnegie UK has acted as a critical friend and learning partner, asking questions, seeking clarification, and making suggestions to help others, like us, understand the urgency of the work or “the story of now”. And, in return, we have learned so much more about the island of Ireland, about facilitation, and about how arts and culture could be better used as a medium for bringing about change.

Long-term funding for grassroots organisations is scarce. We recognise that in many cases, it can be extremely enabling – allowing people to put down roots without worrying about future income streams. But successful movements have multiple people, stakeholders, and organisations involved. They empower local leaders. And they are built on multiple coalitions.[15]

Looking at these characteristics, and the narrative of self, us, and now told here, the WEAll Ireland Cultural Creatives community clearly has many of these building blocks in place. As an organisation that is committed to using evidence to make the case for which approaches and systems need to change, we have garnered lots of learning from participating in this project. As the community of practice officially launches in Dublin this week, we see this as a moment of transition – a time to welcome in others to take the baton.

We would welcome a conversation about this work and our role with anyone similarly grappling with these challenges or curious to hear more about our approach – please do get in touch with Hannah on [email protected].

[1] Carnegie UK, 2023. The Long Shadow of the Cost-of-Living Emergency. Available at:

[2] Carnegie UK, 2023. Life in the UK 2023. Available at:,and%20democratic%20aspects%20of%20life.

[3] Carnegie UK, 2021. Working together for Wellbeing: the report of the Northern Ireland Embedding Wellbeing in Local Government programme. Available at:,in%20implementing%20their%20Community%20Plans..

[4] Department of the Taoiseach, 2023. Understanding Life in Ireland: The Well-being Framework 2023.

[5] WEAll Ireland, 2023. Hubs Ireland. Available at:

[6] Carnegie UK, 2023. A Derry-Londonderry deep dive into the art of the wellbeing economy. Available at:

[7] Tim Jackson, 2023. The Art of the Wellbeing Economy – A Dialogue. Available at:

[8] Cultural Creatives, 2023.

[9] Public Narrative 101_ Story of Self [2018].pdf (

[10] Nicholas Amendolare, 2018. What is the tragedy of the commons? Available at:

[11] Trebeck, Katherine. 2019. Why the Future Economy has to be a Wellbeing Economy. TedTalk available at:

[12] The Guardian, 2023. The Planet’s Economist: has Kate Raworth found a model for sustainable living? Available at:

[13] Carnegie UK, 2021. Strategy for Change. Available at:

[14] Iona Lawrence, Louise Armstrong and Cassie Robinson. 2023. Fortune Favours The Brave: the case for better endings. Available at:

[15] Cruchfield, Lesley.,2018. How change happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t. Available at: