Common Place   /   February 21, 2014

The Problem of Assessment: Part I

Stephen Macekura

Understanding the nature of thriving in cities requires tackling a number of challenging questions about how to identify, conceptualize, measure, and assess urban life. Over a series of three posts, we will explore a variety of such inquiries: How are we to assess the health and well-being of our cities? By what metrics can we measure both the objective and subjective dimensions of human existence that would count as well-being? On what basis would we be able to evaluate social progress or regress? How, in short, would we know if our cities, and the people and places that constitute them, are thriving?

Such questions rest, in turn, on even more fundamental and perplexing ones. What is the nature of thriving? How would we know it when we see it? Can such a thing as thriving even be measured?

Categories of Assessments

Answering such questions has preoccupied scholars and community officials for well over a century, and today there is a growing industry of organizations, specialists, conferences, and journals dedicated to producing the most sophisticated and comprehensive accounting, measurement, and assessment techniques. These efforts have not been limited to cities, of course; in fact, many efforts at quantifying the social world focus either on nations or on local communities. Over time, though, these efforts have produced a common, though by no means commonly agreed upon or coherent, stock of metrics and measures that today routinely guide the decisions of experts and officials at all levels of society. The most commonly used metrics address three broad areas: economy, environment, and general well-being.


By far the most influential and controversial is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Created during the Great Depression, the Gross National Product (the immediate forerunner to GDP) was an attempt to measure the overall productive capacity and wealth—total goods and services—of a nation, and it is the most common method of assessing economic progress in the world today.

Although they were not designed to do so, GDP and many other measures of economic activity that typically make up what has come to be known as the System of National Accounts—e.g., the value of fixed assets, income-to-debt-to-savings ratios, household consumption, etc.—often function in practice as proxies for overall health and well-being. Whether intended or not, thriving ends up being reduced solely to economic matters, either linked directly to economic output and growth or to consumption, employment, and income.

This tendency has generated a great deal of discontent and criticism. Central among the many criticisms is, first, that such measures leave out critical, non-economic variables, which results, secondly, in a gross distortion of the actual health and well-being of a society. If, for example, a country’s Gross Domestic Product increases each year, that "improvement" means little if the percentage of its people deprived of basic education or health care also rises. Or if in calculating GDP, we count increases stemming from the cost of car accidents and divorce, without any accounting for the losses incurred that simply are not economically quantifiable, can we really say that that country’s overall well-being is improving?


The decades of the 1960s and 1970s saw the first sustained attempts either to revise GDP or to generate alternatives in order to capture “true wealth” and “genuine progress.” Many early reform efforts derived inspiration from the growing environmental movement, which highlighted the many consequences that economic development had on the natural world. Ecological economics emerged in late 1960s and the early 1970s as a way to incorporate the non-human world into prevailing economic models. The new methods focused on pricing nature—or, to put it another way, they assigned numerical values to the environmental aspects and consequences of development that had been previously treated as “exogenous” or as “externalities” to the economic impact.  Such efforts gave rise to decades of attempts to introduce new indices that captured these new accounting methods, including a recent effort spearheaded by the French government, the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, to produce alternative, “green” measurements for national income.

Much of this activity has fallen under the umbrella term of “sustainability,” or its cognate, “sustainable development.” With its tripartite focus on economic prosperity, environmental health, and social equity, sometimes referred to as the triple bottom line, the sustainability paradigm is today the leading framework for thinking about social progress, environmental change, and economic transformation in our time. As such, the Compendium of Sustainable Development Indicator Initiatives produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, boasts over 600 entries.  And with recent efforts by corporations such as Wal-Mart to include sustainability indicators for all their products, the push for “sustainable” measurements shows no sign of slowing down.

Social and Individual Well-Being :

Alongside this push to “green” existing development models, a closely related movement to include more socially relevant statistics in economic development programs also emerged in the 1970s. In addition to burgeoning environmental critiques of economic growth, there was also a growing recognition of the interconnections between economic growth in the First World and poverty in the Third World. Moreover, many reformers noted that large-scale development projects premised on raising national productivity and spurring changes in GNP often ignored local concerns, failed to eradicate poverty, and often imperiled the primary needs of poor populations.

Associated with reformist development economists such as Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, this movement to redirect attention away from large-scale efforts to quantify national economic change and toward small-scale efforts to count the ways in which improvements in satisfying “basic human needs” like shelter, health care, and access to food led to many “quality of life” and “human development” indicators. Typified by indicators such as the “Human Development Index”—“an index as vulgar as GDP but more relevant to our own lives,” as ul Haq suggested —such efforts resonated with the environmental critiques of existing metrics and helped popularize the idea of measuring the ecological footprint and social consequences of any human activity, whether organized as a society, community, or firm.

A relative of this effort to focus on the “ends” of growth and development (such as “capabilities” or “well-being”) rather than the means (such as income levels) was a push to focus on seemingly subjective qualities of human experience. Indeed, the other notable trend surging alongside sustainability and related indicators in recent years has been that of happiness. First articulated by the King of Bhutan in 1972 in his now famous phrase “Gross National Happiness,” the measuring of subjective well-being is now booming and has won both scholarly and popular interest. Building on insights from psychology, neuroscience, and a variety of other disciplines, approaches to quantifying happiness and general well-being have bridged the scholarly and practitioner worlds.

Over the past few decades, measuring happiness within nations, cities, and communities became commonplace. Today, indicators such as the “Happy Planet Index” and the OECD’s “Better Life Index” stand alongside national happiness metrics, which have proliferated globally and now appear in the official statistics of developed countries, such as the United Kingdom’s own Gross National Happiness indicators. Research into people’s positive and negative feelings, well-being, quality of life and life satisfaction are gaining currency as an essential part of any holistic approach to measuring social progress.[1]

What These Approaches Share

These reform efforts, and the trends they represent, have only intensified in recent years. In 2008, the OECD established the Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies, which serves to foster the development and publication of new social, economic, and environmental indicators. According to their survey conducted by UNDP, more than 150 composite indicators have been developed by public and private institutions to measure country performance in economic, social, and environmental terms.

Clearly, the explosive growth of such “social progress indicators” marks a global trend. New communications media and international symposia are playing an important role in the diffusion and cross-pollination of approaches across the planet. As a result, we see the proliferation of international standards and best practices in data collection and statistical methods as well as entire subfields devoted to solving practical problems in measuring the progress of societies in terms of a full spectrum of issues, including economic prosperity and growth, environmental health and sustainability, and quality of life and well-being.

We can summarize the history of these trends in social welfare assessment as follows: Growing dissatisfaction with the way economic indicators (especially GDP) had been employed, not only to measure the relative health of various economic sectors but as proxies for the overall health and well-being of entire societies, spawned numerous attempts to either fix or replace GDP by the middle of the twentieth century. Already in the 1960s, critics were concerned about “bringing in” various environmental and social costs to economic growth and production that had hitherto been “externalized.” Put more positively, many of these efforts were motivated to create more holistic methods of assessment. These efforts have only continued to evolve and proliferate since, with the decade of the 1990s creating a bull market in new indicators, particular those that quantified subjective aspects of well-being, such as happiness.

Given this overview, what can we say about the role of such assessments in today’s cities? What should we—those concerned with urban life—do with the mass proliferation of so many different ways of measuring the social world and our place in it? What are the potential benefits and downsides of these existing approaches? How do these measurements help us understand the dimensions of thriving?  These are the question we’ll take up in the next post.

[1] The first-ever United Nations conference on happiness was held in 2012 with more than 600 delegates from around the world. This was the first major step forward in a process, began the previous summer with when the resolution “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development” was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly.