Why we need to drop GDP as a measure of progress

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How do we measure progress? There’s no question that the indicators we use to achieve this are of utmost importance as they underpin key high-level decisions. Since 1944, the measurement indicator we have used is GDP. I am going to work through the flaws of this measure, and suggest alternatives that would more accurately and universally reflect human progress.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can be defined as the value of a country’s overall output of goods and services at market prices, excluding net income from abroad.* In other words, the economic value placed on the amount of stuff a country produces. GDP has become the measure of progress. Countries use it to compare how they are doing against other countries. Governments use it to compare how they are doing against past governments.

In truth, it was never intended to be used in the way it is now. Simon Kuznets, the creator of GDP, said of it that, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”** He disputed its accuracy as an indicator of standard of living. I’m inclined to agree, and I have serious reservations about GDP; honestly I find it astonishing that it is used as it is now. And that’s without even going in to the copious number of methods that governments have come up with allowing them to doctor GDP and present a falsely optimistic picture.

Pure production output fails to take in to consideration the physical or psychological well-being of the citizens, and indeed GDP has often been criticised for this recently. Some have called instead for ‘Gross National Happiness’ as a measure. I object to this, although it does have some merit. I take issue with happiness as a measure, because happiness is a fleeting emotion and my neuroscience background tells me that it exists (like any emotion) purely as a feedback mechanism rather than a long-term state of being that we can attain. I would argue that ‘Gross National Well-being’ is preferable, as our general sense of well-being is less transient than happiness. Perhaps for some people they are one and the same though and I am simply being pedantic.

GDP also fails to consider two concepts which I feel will become of increasing importance given current global trends. Those concepts are resource efficiency and environmental footprint. As we bump harder and harder against the natural limits of the planet, both of these will have to be used as measures of progress. How efficient we are at using resources and minimising waste will matter because of the growing scarcity of global resources. Countries ought to be incentivised to be as efficient as possible with the resources available to them. Similarly, we are making living conditions increasingly precarious through runaway climate change. Widespread deforestation is a danger given the crucial role that trees play in regulating the delicately balanced composition of elements in our atmosphere that we depend on. These are just two examples of environmental footprint; there are many others.

Somehow, it is in our human nature to keep on developing and moving forward; to learn and to create. Improving our sense of well-being and standard of living would seem to be at the heart of this, as we continue to make our lives more comfortable, more safe and more efficient. So this sense of well-being must remain in any measure of progress. Well-being does not go hand in hand with material wealth/output however, and yet GDP as a measure of progresses incentivises material production. By removing material production from progress indicators, you free up other means of improving well-being such as sense of purpose, sense of community, and leisure time to name a few.

So I believe a better measure of progress would incorporate well-being, resource efficiency and environmental impact. In this sense you are capturing the key indicators of progress – the country’s ability to sustain itself and its citizens’ well-being.

The Happy Planet Index developed by the London-based think tank New Economics Foundation is an excellent example of what a true measure of progress could look like – check it out. I would also recommend looking in to the recently launched Social Progress Index.

 

 

 

 

*Taken from The Business Dictionary http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/gross-domestic-product-GDP.html

**Taken from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Kuznets

Changemaking: A flaw and an opportunity to do good better

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This recent article from Nesta sheds light on a worrying observation for those working to create social or environmental change. Despite the consistent increase in resources (human, financial, tech) invested in social and environmental issues, the underlying trends that we are trying to reverse continue to worsen. The article ends by asking whether we are willing to ‘abandon Business-As-Usual approaches’ and embrace new approaches to social innovation. In attempting to ‘do good’, ethics dictates that we must be critically assess our approaches, and aim to invest resources in the most effective manner possible.

I’ve observed a clear and worrying trend during the time I’ve split between Australia and the UK. It’s certainly not the root of the issues outlined above, but it is a clear opportunity. It is as follows:

The concept of being an agent of positive change, of ‘changemaking’ has become far too synonymous with social entrepreneurship. I see this as a fundamental flaw in our approach to generating change, and with that an excellent opportunity to do things better. I will explain.

I define ‘changemaking’ as the act of generating social or environmental change with the aim of improving upon current circumstances. Or more simply if you like, trying to make the world better. There are clearly a great many techniques one could use for achieving this, but one approach has taken on an excessive and unjustified prominence; social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is the act of building a new organisation with a social or environmental purpose. I have nothing against social entrepreneurs and would apply that label to myself – I have  founded two organisations myself and have had a significant hand in the establishment of two others. The title of this blog is a bit of a giveaway. I would, however, suggest that this makes me well-placed to critique.

In Australia I searched for programs that develop my ability as a changemaker. Overwhelmingly, they support or prioritise social entrepreneurs; The Foundation for Young Australians’ Young Social Pioneers program, Centre for Sustainable Leadership program and of course the School for Social Entrepreneurs. When I was invited to attend the Foundation for Young Australians’ ‘Young and Extraordinary’ event, most of the delegates were attempting to start their own initiatives. Likewise as I have searched further afield for leadership development programs or networks, it is rare to find one that doesn’t expect you to be working with an organisation that you have founded. In other words, they expect you to be a social entrepreneur.

This learning towards social entrepreneurship is not just evident in the programs that cater for them, but also in how we praise them. Founding an initiative is seen as a stamp of approval, and to some extent I felt as though I wouldn’t be perceived as credible within the changemaking community unless I did so. In Australia, many of the winners of the ‘Young Australian of the Year’ awards had founded their current organisations. Social entrepreneurship is seen as sexy and we place these people on a pedestal.

And yet…social entrepreneurship is just one piece of the complex puzzle that is changemaking. It has its place yes, but setting up a new organisation is hardly the solution to every problem we encounter. In fact, I feel it irresponsible to assume that it is, given the resources we then expect people to put in to it, and given that every positive step will have some negative side effects. There are only so many resources to go around, so splitting them between ten organisations (there are over 50 breast cancer charities in Australia) with identical missions is hardly ethical or efficient. A little competition is healthy and valuable yes, but it has gone to to absurd levels. We must weigh up our options carefully if we are serious about generating positive change, and there are other approaches we can use. Perhaps this particular social or environmental problem needs more public awareness. Perhaps it needs corporate resourcing. Perhaps it needs a different systemic approach from government. Perhaps what it definitely doesn’t need is a new organisation launched to tackle it.

So what about intrapreneurship – generating powerful change from within an organisation that already has resources waiting to be put to use? There’s collective impact, which recognises that real change is only possible when corporates, governments and nonprofits are all sat around the table. And what about politics? Whether we like it or not, government and politicians run the country (along with banks and heavyweight corporates, depending on what you read). What about campaigning and rallying people around certain issues that matter – empowering social movements? Or how about producing and publishing research that moves our understanding forward? There are other subtle ways too, like speaking or writing where we can reach many people and have a positive impact. These are the different techniques I speak of.

I’ve had to search out these other areas myself. There is no School for Social Intrapreneurs. No course for people who want to make a positive difference through politics (and my goodness could we do with one). I’ve learned about collective impact by searching out organisations who have this at their core and getting involved. I’m learning now about politics by chasing up and spending time with my local Councillors and MP. There are two barriers here:

1) We do not encourage changemakers to explore these areas.

2) We do not have the programs to cater to these interests.

These issues I feel are especially poignant for young changemakers entering the space with good intentions and uncertainty around how to channel them. Currently, they will get pushed towards social entrepreneurship as a default, which I firmly believe to be a mistake.

Ok, so I’ve mostly covered the flaws. What’s the opportunity? The opportunity of course is to channel the tremendous energy, skills and good will of people to make things better in a much more effective way. I have some suggestions for how, but I would turn to people with more experience in changemaking to critique these and generate their own. So in the context of the two issues I highlighted above…

Encouraging changemakers to explore other means of generating change

I’d like to see individuals who are using these other techniques to generate change celebrated more and given a higher profile. Intrapreneurs, those working in government, campaigners, speakers. Leaders in change who are not just social entrepreneurs. I’d like to see these other techniques given more attention at changemaking events. I’d like to see programs and organisations that cultivate changemaking build in to their program at an early stage a lot more learning and information about these techniques. To critically ask; ‘is setting up a new organisation really the best and most responsible way to tackle this issue?’

Catering to other means of generating change

Here I’d love to see existing programs for changemakers start to build in these other techniques. To give those on the program a flavour for collective impact, for politics, for intrapreneurship. In time, to see programs in place that specialise in these other techniques, just as there are so many excellent programs now that specialise in social entrepreneurship.

If we are serious about generating change in a more efficient and effective manner, then we need to move away from our flawed obsession with social entrepreneurship and take advantage of this great opportunity to do things better.

Why equality is fundamental to a sustainable future

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If we want to live sustainably within the limits of our planet, we must address global inequality in standard of living. Relieving poverty is not just a good outlet for guilty westerners who want to do something that makes them feel good, but a necessity if we want to preserve a sustainable future for ourselves.

One of the main stumbling blocks in the current global discussions around any international actions on sustainability is that it is not at all a level playing field. The unsuccessful Copenhagen conference is testament to this, as unlike in the past it was the developing countries – namely China and India – who were the most resistant.

The western lifestyle is absurdly unsustainable. The demand we place on the planet for fish, meat, fuel, electricity is extreme and proportionately far higher than the majority of the people on the planet. Likewise, the impact we have through our carbon footprint, and the poisonous effect of the excessive waste we generate is also grossly disproportionate. As quoted from the article I am going to reference in this blog, Americans ‘…make up 5 percent of the global population, but use 20 percent of the world’s energy…eat 15 percent of the world’s meat… produce 40 percent of the world’s garbage.’

That sounds quite concerning to me.

This infographic brings home just how concerning it is. Costa Rica don’t put much demand on the planet right? Well, we’d need 1.4 planets to sustain the world’s population if everyone lived like Costa Ricans. If everyone lived like the French, we’d need 2.5 planets to sustain it (probably more if we’re taking in to consideration snails or frog legs). If we all lived like they do in the US? 4.1 planets. And that is at current rates. There are two further complications:

1) The population of the planet is increasing

2) The standard of life and demand on the planet is increasing across the globe

People across the world look at pictures of the USA on their TV screens, in the newspapers, on their computers and they aspire to that. For those of us privileged enough to live in the west, who the hell are we to tell them they can’t? What gives us the right to tell China to cut their excessive carbon emissions, when their per capita environmental impact/demand is far lower than that of us in the west. Who are we to tell them they can’t continue to increase their quality of life when 70% of its people live on less than $5 per day? I didn’t see many four-bed detached houses when I was in Southeast Asia, but I did see a lot of tin shacks that people called home.

Us humanfolk measure our state of wellbeing on relative, and not absolute terms. We look at those who seem better off and aspire to that. Most of the world is looking at the west and feeling as though they want that standard of living. As long as this is the case, those of us in the west will get almost nowhere in telling the rest of the world they need to reduce their environmental demand/impact. It’s hypocritical. It is us who need to radically alter the way we live if we’re interested in preserving a sustainable future.

Problem is, even if we manage across the world to make the enormous shift to a way of life that is clean, renewable and that places a demand that is within the planet’s limits, developing countries will not be satisfied knowing that their quality of life and per capita demand is far lower than those of us in the rich west. They will never accept that. Nor can we reasonably expect them to.

This asks some deeply painful questions. Are we committed enough to the future to be willing to reduce our material standard of living? To be willing to share more equally with the developing world that makes up the majority of the world’s population? Is this in human nature to do? I have my doubts.

The education system: Please reboot

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Whilst assessing the year ahead and weighing up a possible move back to the UK, a surprising realisation hit me; that as a recent graduate it seemed easier to get a job by starting an organisation rather than joining an existing one.

On an individual level, this is in part down to my having spent the last few years embarking on similar endeavours, but the increasing number of graduates who I’ve seen reaching a similar conclusion suggests there are systemic issues too. Basically, unless you have experience, contacts or in-demand specific skillsets it’s very hard to find work in the current economic climate – and young graduates fresh in to the world of work are the ones who suffer the most because of this. Unfortunately, the current educational system is doing a woefully inadequate job of fulfilling its primary role; to prepare young people for the world of work. Degrees don’t count for much to employers given that nearly everyone seems to have one, and a degree simply teaches you how to write about stuff, not actually do stuff.

It does seem somewhat farcical that we spend 3 years and £30,000 learning mostly how to write essays or exams about our field of interest, rather than actually practice in it. If you were to design a new education system from scratch, it would little resemble the current one. These faults are hardly surprising, given that the free, compulsory system of education was designed originally for the industrial age in the 19th century. Governments are notoriously slow at updating existing systems, and are far more inclined towards minor incremental changes over large whole-scale change, even though the latter is sometimes needed. For example, the curriculum in Australia recently went through a considerable review and re-design, and the very conservative outcome was largely seen as an enormous missed opportunity to bring it up to date by those within the sector.

I know that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around at the moment due to the world’s faltering economic system, but it doesn’t feel right that graduates are unfairly penalised by the existing systems. I grew up with so many outstanding young people who would bring value to any organisation, but now can’t find paid work having had their creativity and open-mindedness beaten out of them by an education system that values sitting in the library over getting out in to the working world. Personally, I’d have found a 3 year internship in various working environments a more valuable use of my student debt and time than my degree was. Heck, the world, and consequently the job market, are changing so fast that many of us will end up working jobs that don’t even exist yet (think about the impact of the computer revolution). Surely time spent learning a broad range of real-world skills would be better suited to that future than time spent on one narrow discipline.

And this is, after all, the generation who is about to inherit a world buried under a mountain of debt, waste, and facing a plethora of considerable environmental issues. It’s a generation we need to invest heavily in; let’s actually make the most of the tremendous potential locked within our youngest and brightest. An education system that fosters real-world skills and knowledge would be a good start.

 

 

The genius that is Sir Ken Robinson vocalises this debate far better and more elaborately than I ever could here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=player_embedded

If you’ve never watched an RSA video before then you’re in for a treat!

Past and future reflections

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It’s been some time since my last blog. There’s good reason for that. But it didn’t feel right to end 2012 without writing at least once more, and there a few things I must acknowledge before the year is out.

 

There’s an analogy I like to use to explain how our energy levels work – indulge me. It involves a cup of water. When we are truly refreshed, we wake up and the water is right at the top of the glass. Our days are busy, and by the end of it the water level has dropped somewhat. How demanding it is, and how well we look after ourselves during the day determines how much that level drops. By taking time to relax in the evenings and getting a good sleep, by the next morning that water level has risen near the top again. We start off with a good baseline energy level.

 

What can happen over time, is that if the demands we put on ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally outweigh the activities that allow us to recover, is that each day we start with less and less water in our glass. Our baseline energy is lower. When we get near the bottom, then we must be careful, as if use the same energy as when the water is near the top, then we could hit the bottom of the glass. And then bad things happen – we get ill, over-stressed, feel exhausted and overwhelmed. We don’t have enough in the tank to deal with the challenges that come our way.

 

The last couple of months I’ve felt like I’ve been getting worrying close to the bottom of the glass. But I can’t just walk away from my commitments – the commitments which demand energy. So I’ve been trying to gradually wind things down; to make life less demanding. It’s taken a while to get there. There are times when I have hit the bottom of the glass and that’s been hard. I’ve gotten unwell, felt emotionally fragile and wanted some space from big responsibilities for a while.

 

This week many of those commitments have been finally tied up, and packed away ready for a later date when I have the energy they deserve. And this week marks the first time in months, that I’ve felt the water in my glass getting a little higher every day. Each day I have bit more spark, perspective, energy. It’s tempting to use it all up in excitement, but I’m staying patient and letting it fill all the way up to the top. The lesson here, of course, is to learn a better balance that enables the water to stay near the top longer, and not get so easily depleted. That’s one of my reflections heading in to 2013.

 

And 2013 is very much open us now. The Christmas break has always seemed an ideal time to reflect on the past year and how far we’ve come, as well as look ahead to where we want to go next in the forthcoming year. It’s always a time of year I find especially insightful, because it lends itself to that quiet time needed to pause and consider.

 

2012 has been a special year for me. I left home to live outside of the UK for the first time; left behind all I knew. I spent four months fulfilling a long-held dream to travel. Saw Angkor. Learned to dive. Started up a new project out here in Australia. Became a Rotarian. Started a life on the other side of the world.

 

But these individual snapshots do not paint a picture, they do not demonstrate the feelings and experiences of a year. I feel more certain now in the path I’m taking, and in my capabilities to pursue it. Feel more excited by the projects I am involved in, and more able to have a positive impact through them. The learning has been huge. And I’ve met, and worked with, some astonishing people. I’d like to acknowledge them. All those who have welcomed me to a new country; you have my thanks. All those who I know are trying to make the world a little bit better; you have my respect and admiration. I hope you realise what a wonderful thing you’ve done over the past 12 months.

 

And what’s next? It’s not a question I can answer. But maybe you already know for yourself. If not, then this is a good to think on it, and to discuss with others. I know that’s what I will be doing. This time over the break I will use to recover, to make up my days as I go along, and chart out the course for the next year. It’s not often we have that opportunity.

 

Have a great Christmas, and make next year the best one yet.

Why does sunshine make us so happy?

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Well it does, doesn’t? We all know that beautiful feeling of waking up, looking out of the window and seeing blue skies with sunshine streaming in. It puts us in a great mood straight away. Conversely, when up above you is a blanket of grey clouds, we feel pretty fed up. A funny little observation I’ve made since being in Sydney is that people here, broadly speaking, are a little more friendly and cheery than in the UK. And it really is a noticeable enough trend to be obvious. And yet much of the population shares the same ancestry, so how did that happen? The UK’s not that bad is it?

But I’m not going to spend this blog convincing you that sunshine makes us feel happy. Most of us have already had this insight and if you haven’t…well you should probably stop reading here as the rest of the blog is based on this assumption. And you’re probably living somewhere without much sunlight – like Antarctica maybe. Go and take a holiday in the Caribbean and then read it again.

Neuroscientists have identified the physiological basis of this improvement in mood that occurs when we receive more sunlight. Depending on what you read, you will hear about increases in certain chemicals called endorphins and serotonin. Both have been frequently linked to mood, and indeed the main form of drug treatment for depression is a series of drugs called SSRIs, which artificially raise our levels of serotonin. I touched on the subject in an earlier blog (linked to brain changes blog).

For most Neuroscientists, they think that this increase in chemicals is a splendid answer to the question of the title. But not for me. You see, mood is an adaptive mechanism that has evolved over time to give us a biological advantage. We have reward pathways in the brain, which exist to give us a positive feeling when we do something that is good for us i.e. anything that helps us to survive or create more mini people. Likewise they give us a negative feeling when we do the opposite. Of course there are plenty of examples where this can go horribly wrong – such as with some recreational drugs, which act very powerfully on these reward mechanisms and confuse the hell out of our bodies.

So emotion isn’t just there because it’s nice to feel happy. It has a more adaptive purpose. With that in mind, why does the sun lift our mood? Or rather, why does our reward mechanism in the brain tell us that being in the sun is AWESOME? When I connect up the dots I’m left with the conclusion that sunlight obviously has an impact on our bodies that is important for us physiologically – important for our survival and health.

The best answer I can come up with is Vitamin D. Sunlight is well known to increase Vitamin D in our bodies, a vitamin that is quite tricky to get from any other source in the same quantity as from the sun. It’s good for our teeth, bones AND does truly marvellous things for our immune system. Well that’s pretty awesome. I guess with that in mind, it would make some sense that our brain is telling us to go and soak up more of it.

The bizarre lead on then from this then, is that those of us living in countries without much sunlight and feeling miserable (typically associated with higher levels of mental illness, especially seasonal affective disorder and even higher suicide rates) are actually receiving feedback from our brains telling us to LEAVE. It’s basically saying to you, “Look, you can stay in this country with its rubbish weather where I’m not going to get any of that delicious Vitamin D I like, but I’m going to make you feel bloody miserable if you do.” If this was the most powerful driving force for humans, we would probably see a very different population density across the globe, with hoards of people moving to Latin America and the Caribbean, and no one left in Scandinavia or the UK. I don’t know what would happen to Eskimos.

So those are my two cents on the matter. Hopefully I’ll uncover more reasons why our brains have adapted to encourage us to get outside in the lovely sunshine.

And in the mean time go and listen to ‘Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone’ by Bill Withers. It’s been in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this blog…

Going through the phases of expat life

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So I’ve been in my new home, Sydney, for coming up to two months now. I’ve been preparing for this move for so long that I arrived already with a clear idea of people I wanted to meet (even some meetings already in place), organisations and projects I wanted to look in to, places in the city I wanted to visit. I knew about suburbs that even people living in Sydney didn’t have a clue existed, and I even had an ‘Arrival Action Plan’ to guide me through my transition.

Two months have shot by in a blur of faces, places and awesome opportunities, and I’ve spent much of it sporting a stupid smile reminiscent of a cheshire cat (the cute pink one, not this more distburbing one), marvelling at how brilliant it all seems. Of course, it’s had it’s really tough moments; times when you miss friends and family and aware of the fact that you hardly know anyone yet, which can get pretty lonely. But I expected that and have accepted those dips when they’ve happened – I’m a lot more ok these days with the lows of life when they happen and realise their important place in life’s unpredictable ride (blog on this coming soon…). The overall feeling I’m left with is that these two months have been even better than I had imagined, and all that planning for this stage has paid off in a big way. I’ve been riding the crest of a big, salty, Bondi wave – something I’m not yet capable of doing literally, but I’ve got quite a good handle on those more metaphorical waves.

And then last weekend something unexpected happened; I had a real dip in energy and enthusiasm, and didn’t know what to do next. As you might imagine, this felt… more than mildly confusing and disorientating. After two months of having really clear direction, I suddenly couldn’t tell left from right. It was confusing. And disorientating. Is this painting a clear picture of how confused and disorientated I was?  I do hope so, because that’s the real take-home message here I don’t want to repeat those words anymore.

Once I accepted these feelings, I then began to gain an insight in to what was causing them. Firstly, I had gone pretty full-on at the whole getting-settled-in-to-my-new-life thing, and actually it had been pretty exhausting. Secondly, for all my planning and ‘arrival action plan’ master schemes, I hadn’t looked beyond the landing phase. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounded whether we could get the project rolling, and about what my life here would look like, so I hadn’t dared look too far ahead. Now that’s been taken care of, I enter a very different phase. I’m looking at 6 or 12 months down the line, and putting together an image of how I want that to look. The first two months have been characterised by novelty and adventure, but the next six won’t be to the same extent.

What really interested me, was a conversation with a friend and colleague of mine here in Sydney, who upon hearing my experience explained that she went through almost identical phases when she first moved to China as an expat. There’s so much to take in when you first arrive, but once it calms down you’re faced with the challenge of figuring out where to invest your energy in the long-term with regards to projects, people, hobbies… I’m fortunate that Sydney has a plethora of awesome projects, people and activities. But now I need to consider where to focus and what’s most important to me over the next year. The decisions I make at this stage will have strong consequences for me over the next twelve months. So I’m not rushing them…

Whatever decisions I make one thing is clear.

I have to learn to surf.