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15 minutes with Liz Zeidler: Measuring thriving places

Liz Zeidler is chief executive of Happy City, which this week launched its Thriving Places Index. She talked to New Start about creating a common currency to help places move beyond GDP as the sole measure of success.

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On the need to challenge GDP growth as the key measurement of success
Before I set up Happy City I’d been involved in leadership work in sustainability and social justice for many years. I’d worked all over the world with communities and was both incredibly inspired and depressed. There are an unbelievable number of amazing projects in every corner of the world. I was overwhelmed by the innovation that’s out there but often these projects were dealing with the symptoms rather than the system that’s creating inequality. No one was challenging the fact that our measurement of success – GDP growth – was creating greater inequality. There was all of this energy but it wasn’t focused on changing the system.

On developing a measurement system rooted in people’s experience
After the crash of 2008-9 we saw people like the economist Joseph Stiglitz challenging the idea of GDP as our key measurement. With my partner Mike we began to look around to see what was going on at the local level in the UK in terms of a more holistic measure of progress. We realised that we couldn’t complain about measurements if there was no alternative so we wanted to find out what the alternative could be. There was so little going on at the time that we both gave up what we were doing and decided to roll our sleeves up and go out to communities to try to create a new system of measurement. We could have involved academics and created a top-down analysis but instead we went to community centres, prisons and schools all over the country to find out what matters to people and what brought them happiness.

On creating a ‘common currency’ for measuring the success of places
We didn’t want to create another report that would gather dust or have a philosophical discussion but to develop a practical tool that could be used in local decision-making. The Thriving Places Index measures the conditions that allow people and places to thrive and lead to greater happiness, rather than trying to measure happiness itself. The index has three headings – local conditions, sustainability and equality – and 48 indicators within those headings. We have now measured 150 local authorities across England and we’ve been working with five local authorities in Wales. As well as the Thriving Places Index we have created the Happiness Pulse, a simple tool to measure the wellbeing of places and people. We want these tools to be used by people across different sectors, from business and public sector organisations to voluntary and social sector organisations at neighbourhood level. It’s a common currency that everyone can get behind and which can bring silos together. Far-sighted local authorities can put these measurements at their heart and create joined-up policy making that helps them to put resources into the things that make a difference to people’s lives. The index helps places to focus on the areas that need to be prioritised and hopefully in ten years there will be fewer divides than there are today.

On the problem with inclusive growth
I get frustrated when people add another word to growth to make it palatable. So we’ve had ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘sustainable growth’. These are softening the current model and saying ‘let’s grow but at a slightly lower level’ rather than challenging the underlying assumption that growth in consumption is the end goal.
We need to sit down and question why growth is the end goal. Why are we obsessed with it? I’m inspired by Kate Raworth who in her book Doughnut Economics says that we have an economy that grows whether or not people thrive. I’m not for or against economic growth but saying that the conversation needs to be around what we need to grow in order to increase our capacity to thrive.

On creating pressure for change
It’s a big step for councils to say that they don’t want economic growth. Our index is putting something on the table that isn’t controversial and which offers a decent model of progress that places can take on board even if they’re not ready to say they don’t care about GDP growth. We underestimate the pressure that national government bears on local government around increasing GDP. We’re currently working with Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Birmingham council, who are both really interested in using these tools and we are working collaboratively with Bristol as part of their one city plan. The more we can get councils to take these new tools seriously and use them, the more we can create the pressure for change.

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