Quality of whose life? Prosperity by another name?

 Everyone wants quality of life, and particularly in the cities where we live: we also want prosperity, sustainability, and now resilience. These are all huge fuzzy concepts which can be endlessly debated, measured, indexed and so on. They are increasingly topical not only for the urban ‘consumer’ side, but for the ‘producer’ side in a globalized networked economy: if our city has high ‘QOL’ factors then entrepreneurs and knowledge workers will be attracted, thereby increasing the QOL in a virtuous circle.

UN Habitat put together a ‘City Prosperity Index’ (CPI), as in their State of the World’s Cities 2012. A follow-up meeting of experts was organized in Tehran in 2013: this was not straightforward, due to lack of visas and other issues, but a valuable collection of papers eventually came out in Habitat International.

Looking around there are numerous indexes, benchmarks, league tables: many aim to get beyond the simplicity of GDP and the Human Development Index, with more nuanced information, with complex schemes of weighting: for instance the Social Progress Indicator: Legatum Prosperity Index: or the WHO Urban Heart index all point in similar directions.

Overall, it’s not always clear whether a new index produces really useful new information: after huge efforts, the international rankings of the Social Progress Indicator, CPI and so on, seem to be very similar to the hierarchy of GDP, according to Roger Pielkiejr.

Synergistic prosperity looks for the relational inter-dependencies between a city and its hinterland or its neighbours. Image by Joe Ravetz
Synergistic prosperity looks for the relational inter-dependencies between a city and its hinterland or its neighbours. Image by Joe Ravetz

More widely, such indexes tend to bypass the crucial geo-political realities. For example the Legatum index (with the now- standard whizzy info-graphic techniques), shows:

  • The ‘top’ 10 or 20 countries as those with historic imperial / colonial legacies. (i.e. OECD countries generally: USA / Canada, Australia / NZ: the Nordics and other western European countries). Many of these also enjoy huge natural resource advantages.
  • Likewise the “bottom” 10 or 20 appear to show the result of failed post-colonial intervention and continuing expropriation (sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan / Pakistan): or in some cases the post-Soviet oil republics.
  • Likewise the UN Habitat Cities Prosperity Index tends to reflect this geo-political hierarchy: Vienna, London, Vancouver or New York near the top: Kinshasa or Ouagadougou near the bottom.

Furthermore this kind of league table with crude labelling of ‘top versus bottom’, is similar to the labelling of schoolkids: (a) patronizing and/or disempowering, and (b) unhelpful to practical actions in policy or enterprise. Similar issues apply to the city in its rural or regional context, with questions such as:

  • How much of the informal economy, slum housing or poverty in the city is due to rapid in- migration from poorer rural areas? (e.g. from one point of view, this could be a sign of positive progress rather than negative).
  • What is the ‘load’ of the city on its hinterland (e.g. water, minerals, & more particularly flow of human resources, investment in skills etc.)
  • How much of the wealth of the city has been expropriated from poorer countries, or from its own people?

The benefit of the CPI is apparently that it reflects city-level issues with city-level data. But apart from that, does it add unique information, or does it duplicate other existing indexes?

The fundamental point is that ‘prosperity’ is not only an internal condition, but ‘relational’. Cities aren’t just freestanding things, but exist in a system of global or regional inter-dependence, with relations of exchange, hierarchy, expropriation etc. So prosperity isn’t just about accumulation of private wealth behind closed doors: it’s about external relationships, impacts, exchanges, cross-subsidies, trade-offs, responsibility and reciprocity, on a crowded planet.

We can argue that prosperity is also an ‘emergent’ quality, in that such relations can ‘emerge’ and self-organize, generally through a process of social learning. Farmers learn how to co-exist with ecosystems: manufacturers learn how to produce, and consumers learn how to use best what they can afford. The sum total of such learning can work as a kind of social intelligence or ‘urban brain’.

This raises the question of how to represent such ‘relational’ and ‘emergent’ qualities which together add up to a kind of ‘urban brain’, with metrics and benchmarks? The idea of synergistic prosperity looks for the relational inter-dependencies between a city and its hinterland or its neighbours. It also looks for the emergent processes of learning and intelligence, in public or private or civic sectors. It also looks beyond the material economic level, to include for social, cultural, political and ecological forms of human experience. With such indicators and metrics, we can put together measures of prosperity and/or quality of life, which go beyond the simple reproduction of existing hierarchies of power and wealth, and which indicate real co-evolutionary progress. The areas of search include:

  • Social systems: equality, diversity and cohesion measures:
  • Technology & infrastructure: internalized impacts: adaptive capacity:
  • Economic systems: economic diversity: knowledge complexity: collaborative capacity
  • Ecological systems: footprint, inter-dependence & expropriation measures:
  • Political systems: transparency, participation, cybernetic feedback:
  • Cultural systems: diversity, creativity, identity measures:
  • Urban systems which integrate and support the above:

These ideas are in process, for the forthcoming Urban 3.0: creative synergy and social intelligence. Such questions were debated in a CURE seminar in September 2014, with Professor Bob Marans (Institute for Social Research and University of Michigan). This seminar aimed to link ‘Quality of Urban Life’ (QOUL) to wider questions on the CURE agenda: ‘urban resilience’ or ‘urban prosperity’: the coming ‘low carbon’ and ‘sustainable consumption’ transitions: and how urban policy-makers can improve or enable QOUL.




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