The source code for life? Measuring what matters

There is a tech joke that goes, “I want to save the world, but I don’t know the source code”.

Well I believe the source code that saves the world is measuring what matters. At its heart, to extend the tech analogy, it is about the ‘user experience’. Or to come back to the real world – it is about the quality of our lives. If we are clear on what matters most, i.e. that we can all live well – and we know how to measure it, i.e. the description of quality of life, both today and in the future, then we can break through the haze of discourse on sustainable development/green economy/green growth to make sustainability real, personal, and ultimately achievable.

Around this overarching goal for a better quality of life there are some physical realities. The physics, chemistry and biology of our environment and our ecosystems both enable and constrain our ambitions.  Understanding these conditions sets the thresholds for innovation to work within.

When you bring these two indicators together: quality of life and environmental health you start to grasp the main components of the source code that lights two of the most important dials on the dashboard of indicators that should steer our development, our economics, our governance.

I remember, I first caught a glimpse of a sustainable economy when I saw this famous graph:

Human welfare and ecological footprint compared

The insight from this graph is important because it captures the essence of a green economy:  that we need to maximise human development whilst minimising ecological footprint.  It describes a fundamental new economic ratio: the efficiency of the new economy delivers the most wellbeing with the least amount of environmental impact.

Since this graph, we have got slightly lost in arguments around metrics and measurement. There is much discussion amongst policy makers on how to measure ‘wellbeing’ but no international consensus yet achieved. Similarly, there is  much discussion on how to measure environmental health, with 9 planetary boundaries adding to the insights but complicating the process of simplification for one overarching indicator (that ecological footprint offered).

But despite these developments, the main concept remains intact: a sustainable economy – maximises wellbeing for the majority and minimises environmental impact.

Reinventing indicators?

This leads me to another important point.   Many of the problems we are currently encountering are due to the blinkered use of one indicator as the main policy driver – Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Many experts and policy makers are now in search of alternative and new indicators to replace GDP.

What we need to recognise, is yes we need new indicators (such as wellbeing and environmental health), but most importantly, we need to use clusters of indicators, together, that articulate trade-offs, or the opportunity to find multi-dimensional solutions – maximise wellbeing: minimise environmental impact: create resilient economic sectors and systems.  Clusters, clusters, clusters.

We manage what we measure

I like business. I like its dynamism, its innovation.  We need this innovation.  But we also need functioning markets with clear rules, defined by science, not ignorance, lazy policy and incumbent greed.  We need markets that are rational locally, nationally and globally. Most importantly we need governance at all these levels that makes decisions to the ratio that sits at the heart of a sustainable economy:- maximise wellbeing : minimise environmental impact.

The Sustainable Development Goals should edge us towards this global ambition and rationality, which in turn should help national governments unlock themselves from the dominance of GDP, which in turn, should start to set the new framework for sustainable markets that will reward business sustainability, giving capitalism a reboot that it needs and from which we could all benefit.

It is in everyone’s interest to have healthy businesses, economy, society, environment, and individual prosperity and collective prosperity.  I believe it is possible to have all of this, the source code is there, the systems are emerging, the innovation is already underway.  We just need business, policy and international leadership to step up to the opportunity, resolve the residual definitions and institutionalise the dashboard.  Through this project we are working to support this leadership.  We look forward to hearing your views.


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