Like no other country in the world, Wales is planning ahead. Six years after the Welsh government passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, it’s reshaping how projects align with everything from sustainability to racial and gender inequities. The law made Wales the only nation to legally commit to protecting the interests of future generations: All public project teams must demonstrate that the decisions they make won’t compromise tomorrow’s people.
To ensure the initiative had proper leadership and frameworks, the government installed Sophie Howe as the world’s first future generations commissioner. Since 2016, Howe has helped Wales’ public bodies—from its health boards to its local governments—achieve the act’s seven goals: building a country that is prosperous, healthy, equal, with cohesive communities, ecologically resilient, culturally vibrant with a thriving Welsh language and globally responsible.
She’s used to such challenges: At 21, she became Wales’ youngest councillor. She later managed the legal department for the country’s Equal Opportunities Commission, served as a special adviser to two first ministers of Wales, and was the first deputy police and crime commissioner for South Wales.
Why did the Welsh government create the Future Generations Act and your role?
In 2011, the Welsh Labour Manifesto included sustainable development, and the government then asked its citizens: What is the Wales you want to leave behind to your children and grandchildren? The conversation we had as a nation led to the passing of the Well-being of Future Generations Act of 2015, which reflects Wales’ commitment to a better quality of life for both current and future generations. And it meant the establishment of an independent commissioner to ensure well-being goals are at the heart of all public institutions.
What are your main duties?
I identify the biggest challenges facing future generations and the policy areas that, if we get them right, would have the best contribution to the well-being goals. After consulting with citizens, experts and academics, I came up with six areas that I focus on: housing, transport, planning, keeping people well, future skills and childhood adversity. I’m both coach and referee. As coach, I encourage, cajole, advise, break down barriers, and connect different players and sectors to make good things happen. As referee, I also monitor and report on progress.
MATTHEW HORWOOD / GETTY IMAGES NEWS
With so many goals, how do you help projects realize benefits?
We have to think more holistically about the art of the possible. I can build a house with brick and mortar so someone lives in it, or I can build it with renewable energy to reduce its energy use and I can use local skills and materials to stimulate economic growth. We try to widen the lens through which people look at what they’re doing.
Can you describe an initiative where your interventions led to greater alignment with the goals?
In response to calls I made to look at modern methods for building low-carbon homes, the government put in place a housing program to trial innovative ways to build homes. I then scrutinized the approaches taken to do that. At first, the program only asked builders to demonstrate contribution to one of the well-being goals to get funding. After my intervention, it now asks builders to demonstrate how their homes will contribute to multiple well-being goals. They might consider how energy-efficient homes not only reduce carbon emissions but also reduce poverty by lowering fuel bills, and they have a positive impact on people’s health.
How do you encourage stakeholders to work toward these goals?
This is not just aspirational policy; it is a law. So that’s the starting point. If you apply for money from the government, you have to demonstrate how you meet our criteria and frameworks. We built a tool through which we ask public bodies to answer a series of questions about long-term scenarios and effects, so they maximize their contribution to the well-being goals. And if there’s a new policy or funding that doesn’t align with the Future Generations Act, it’s my job to call that out.
How do you convince stakeholders to go on that journey?
We invest a lot of time and resources identifying what I call frustrated champions so they can help us change the system. These are people who have seen better ways of doing things but have been frustrated by systems that work in short-term budgets, political cycles and silos. For example, social workers who deal with the same families from one generation to the next can help us get to the roots of childhood adversities and focus on early intervention. It’s changing habits of not just one lifetime but many lifetimes. People struggle to envisage the future. It’s about winning over hearts and minds to do the right thing.
Title: Future generations commissioner
Organization: The Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales
Location: Cardiff, Wales
What one skill should every project manager have?
The ability to work with unusual suspects—people you don’t know but who can expand the benefits of your project or program. So, if you build a school, you speak not only with the educational authority and the teachers but also with the larger community.
What do you wish you had known at the start of your career?
People don’t always do what they say they’re going to do. So just getting things into a strategy document doesn’t mean anything will actually change. The hard part is cultural change.
If not this job, what would you do?
I’d love to take what I’ve learned here to other countries across the world and help them act in the interests of their future generations.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
People who tick the box and miss the point. They go through the bureaucratic motions but don’t focus on whether that achieves better outcomes for people and the planet.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BERE:ARCHITECTS
Low-carbon house in Ebbw Vale, Wales
Can you describe a project that you helped shift to that long-term approach?
One early test of my role as commissioner involved a proposal to build a new motorway. I didn’t believe it was in the interest of future generations, so I asked the government to consider it in terms of our well-being goals, like a healthier Wales: Would it increase air pollution? How would it contribute to the goal of ecological resilience when it would go through a nature reserve? The motorway had been considered a done deal, but the government changed course and rejected it. And last year, a new transport proposal in the same location included rail, cycling and walking to solve the congestion problem.
What’s the value of project management for your role and mission?
For us, effective project and program management is about taking a step back and asking how to make a project even better and more aligned with our national goals. For example, when a local council built schools, they built them to zero-carbon standards, they used local labor, they involved their pupils in designing the schools, and they even had one class develop a social enterprise where the kids ran a catering company to feed the builders. They not only built a school, they also improved kids’ skills and education. That kind of innovative approach is exactly what we want project management to do. PM