IGP Stories

Conceptualising and measuring prosperity

Prosperity Index

Dr Saffron Woodcraft

12 April 2022

A narrow definition of prosperity as material wealth measured by economic growth and rising GDP has dominated political thought and action throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) challenge this vision and seek to redefine prosperity as a state of shared flourishing to be pursued alongside eradicating poverty and hunger, tackling inequalities and safeguarding the environment. This vision represents a major shift in global discourse signalling the emergence in urban policy and governance of a new and more expansive conceptualisation of prosperity, in which the range of conditions, rights and freedoms, and capacities necessary for people everywhere to live “fulfilling lives” are acknowledged to extend far beyond sustainable economies, inclusive growth and decent work.

The working paper Conceptualising and measuring prosperity discusses current debates about prosperity in research and development planning policy. It notes that prosperity as a lived experience is both multidimensional and context-specific, and must be analysed in relation to the structural conditions that can support or prevent people from living fulfilling lives. It argues that a redefined prosperity must be understood as an emergent feature of a whole ecology, which shifts conventional thinking about prosperity as an outcome of economic and social policy, toward an understanding of prosperity as dynamic and processual. Prosperity is dynamic in that it means different things to different people and places.

Examining prosperity in context

Research at the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) has examined how we might redefine prosperity for the 21st century by working with local communities to understand what prosperity means for them and how those local understandings relate to structural features of the economy, infrastructure, public services provision, and systemic social and political inequalities. IGP has developed a mixed-methods community co-production process, led by residents working in partnership with academic researchers and NGOs, to address the lack of context-specific policyrelevant knowledge about prosperity and to challenge normative definitions and frameworks that privilege income growth over a broader understanding of what people need to live fulfilling lives. The process, known as the Prosperity Index, seeks to co-produce locally and culturally specific conceptual models of prosperity and prosperous lives, from which context-specific measures of prosperity can be developed and using new household survey data, local Prosperity Indices can be constructed.

The Prosperity Index has been deliberately designed as a process for understanding prosperity as a lived reality in context rather than as a fixed research methodology. This methodology has been developed and tested by IGP, in partnership with citizen social scientists and NGOs in cities in Tanzania, Lebanon, Nairobi and rural centres in Kenya, and several neighbourhoods in London, United Kingdom

Co-designing ‘maisha bora’ model, November 2019, Dar es Salaam

Co-designing ‘maisha bora’ model, November 2019, Dar es Salaam

Lived experience and complex systems

A re-imagined prosperity must account for both lived experience, contextual values and structural constraints. This means moving away from assumptions that economic growth will necessarily benefit all, and that individual wellbeing measured by individual feelings of happiness, life satisfaction, anxiety and civic purpose, can be an adequate proxy for shared prosperity. Prosperity is more than income or wealth; and while it incorporates individual well-being it foregrounds living well together with human and non-human others.

What is needed from local and regional governments to secure rights and further advance urban and regional equality?

Redefining prosperity starts with local co-production of knowledge. Coproduction is critical to create new forms of urban knowledge that reflect the diversity of contemporary cities and bring new voices, specifically from the Global South to policymaking.

Understanding how collective prosperous lives and livelihoods might emerge within complex ecologies of systems is crucial and to recognise that prosperity is not an entity in itself or something that simply describes the state of individuals or firms or regions. Change cannot be driven by agents or firms or local governments or institutions working alone or through established mechanisms that are not focused on improving the capabilities and capacities of communities to deliver improvements in quality of life. Working with communities to understand the problems and then envisage solutions is the starting point, but in making this claim there is more to be understood.

Focusing on the intersections between lived experience and structural forces to develop a redefined prosperity that is less concerned with aggregate economic wealth and growth, and more attentive to the things that people care about and need – secure and good quality livelihoods, good public services, a clean and healthy environment, planetary and ecosystem health, a political system that allows everyone to be heard, and the ability to have rich social and cultural lives. In this sense, to redefine prosperity is to challenge both the structural features of our economies and the value premises on which they are built.

Read the full working paper Conceptualising and measuring prosperity here.

The paper has been produced as an Issue-Based Contribution to the sixth Global Report on Local Democracy and Decentralization (GOLD VI): the flagship publication of the organized constituency of local and regional governments represented in United Cities and Local Governments. The GOLD VI report has been produced in partnership with the Development Planning Unit (University College London), through the programme Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality (KNOW)

Henrietta L. Moore is the Founder and Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity and the Chair in Culture Philosophy and Design at University College London (UCL).

Saffron Woodcraft is Executive Lead for IGP’s Prosperity Co-Lab (PROCOL) UK where she leads research, policy and innovation programmes with community and local government partners across the UK to develop new models of prosperity.

Image credit: David Heymann

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