GDP is not fit for purpose any more. To save democracy, we need new economic metrics

Chancellor Philip Hammond, who gives his first budget today. Image: Getty.

In 2008, the world missed a huge opportunity to transform how we think about the economy. This culminated in two political earthquakes eight years later that have rocked the global order to its core.

There is every chance Brexit and a Donald Trump presidency could have been avoided, had politicians and “experts” capitalised on the opening provided by the Great Recession. We should have re-written the rules governing our economies and global capitalism.

Failing to reform the most basic one – how we measure economic success – fuelled the growing wedge between what the experts were telling us (there’s been a recovery) and what ordinary people were actually experiencing (there hadn’t). Decision-makers continued to privilege the former while only paying lip service to the latter, helping to trigger a populist backlash. 

Politicians knew this could have been avoided, because they almost came up with a solution. In 2008, right-wing French president Nickolas Sarkozy commissioned heavyweight economist Joseph Stiglitz to run a Commission that would give us the tools to assess our economies in new ways – on the grounds that GDP could not tell us anything useful about how well economic output was being converted into better lives and livelihoods for people.

GDP may have been a somewhat useful proxy for welfare in the age of mass production and full employment, but not so in an era of globalisation, service-based economies and labour market turbulence. The UK government under David Cameron responded by looking for the right answer in the wrong direction, developing the Gross Domestic Happiness and subjective wellbeing initiatives. But these indicators have sat in the shadow of mainstream statistics, rarely shaping serious economic analyses.

The lens through which our political leaders saw and made decisions about the economy changed very little. Three things have generally been used to vindicate the British Government’s “long term economic plan”: financial savings (austerity), GDP growth, and dropping unemployment rates.

But this narrow diagnostic has only served to disguise structural economic problems (such as chronically low productivity), stagnating or dropping living standards for many people and places, and a sharp rise in low pay and economic insecurity. Sure, we have been getting some growth and record employment: but families haven’t been getting better off, not least because these jobs haven't been providing enough to make ends meet.


This is why, as the Final Report of the Inclusive Growth Commission published this week argues, “business as usual” is no longer good enough. We need to define and measure economic success in a new way, looking not just at the quantity of growth but also its quality. This, in our assessment, forms one of the five cornerstone principles of inclusive growth: we must track the human experience of growth, not just its rate. 

There are three key things wrong with the way we design, collect, report and apply economic statistics. First, as GDP critics have argued, the indicators that shape our policymaking and public debate are unjustifiably narrow. As a result, they lead to conflation on an industrial scale. Growth in output is conflated with growth in productivity and economic dynamism; growth in employment is conflated with growth in family incomes; and extremely narrow economic indicators (such as GDP) are conflated with broad improvements in human and societal wellbeing.

It is in our cities where much of this conflation has its most perverse effects. Our report reinforces the evidence that cities are the hubs of economic growth, but also where inequality and deprivation tend to reach their peak. The disparities within London tell their own story. 

Second, we too often deal in aggregates, national aggregates in particular. These aggregates – whether it is GDP, employment rates or household incomes – conceal the significant variations that exist between different places and different groups of people.

This is what Bank of England’s chief economist Andrew Haldane discovered when he toured Britain to understand why so many people claimed not to have felt the post-recession recovery despite GDP growth, a jobs boom and growing market confidence. He found that, when you cut up and disaggregated the data, things became much clearer: this was a recovery “which for most has been slow and low, for many partial and patchy and for some invisible and incomplete”.

Just look at the employment gap for disabled people: it has actually grown from 30 to 32 percentage points since 2010. There has been no jobs miracle for most of the 7m working age disabled people in the UK. Similarly, if you studied the job creation statistics in the US you would have seen an important precursor to the grievances that propelled Trump into power: a lot of good quality jobs have been created since 2008, but nearly all of them have gone to college graduates. Those with less formal education, who had already lost out from the “adjustment costs” of globalisation, did not see a recovery.

Estimated average household income (after housing costs) by middle layer super output area, England and Wales (2014), with proportions of neighbourhoods in selected city regions in top and bottom 20 per cent of income distribution (2014). Click to expand. Source: RSA Visual Analysis of ONS (2016).

Thirdly, privileging a small set of economic indicators has had a distortive effect on our decision-making. Everything from our infrastructure choices and public investment decisions through to our inward investment strategies has become a narrow numbers game: evaluated against GVA uplift or numbers of jobs created, but not on the quality and inclusiveness of the output and employment. It is little wonder, then, that state investment too often reinforces inequality instead of tackling it. 

So what can we do about it? Most crucially, we need genuine parity between GDP and other important, distributional indicators. This is why we argue that the quarterly GDP statistics should be published alongside other measures such as mean and median wage growth and employment statistics, as part of the same release. GDP should no longer be seen as the gold standard for health-checking our economy.

Similarly, rather than making public investment decisions on the basis of GVA impact, they should explicitly be made according the wider “quality GVA” they create. The same should apply to the money being channelled through devolution deals and any post-Brexit substitute programmes for EU funds. Clearly, this also means we will need to collect granular statistics (regional, neighbourhood and below) much more thoroughly and comprehensively and increasingly – with technological and data advances – in real time. 

Our towns and cities must also show leadership in mainstreaming new ways of measuring and evaluating economic success. Through the course of our Commission we encountered examples of this happening already: from Glasgow’s tools to “poverty proof” its budgets and policies through to Greater Manchester and other city regions’ work on tracking inclusive growth and ensuring investment decisions can support “quality job” creation. As the Commission argues in its final report, places should tailor what they measure to suit local circumstances and the priorities set by their citizens.

Examples of the type of data that local leaders could draw on to track inclusive growth. Click to expand. Source: RSA Inclusive Growth Commission (2017).

Internationally, cities are spearheading real innovation in redefining economic success and how to measure and track it. They have the potential to develop 21st century tools for measuring what counts, helped by advancements in big data and machine learning (which can, for example, enable real-time tracking of social outcomes without the lag of conventional public data).

So what might this new approach to measurement and application of economic statistics achieve? At the very least, it would force us to have a different sort of conversation about growth. Importantly, this would not be confined to temporary debates that follow crises. The publication of quarterly inclusive growth statistics would keep the agenda live and mainstream.

It would also ensure that as a society the criteria through which we judge ourselves (and our politicians, public services and businesses) have a real connection to the lived experiences of people. Decision-making could potentially be radically transformed, as could the trust between policymakers and citizens. It could reconnect people to their communities, economy and democracies.

In 2008 we let a huge social moment slip. Despite the Great Recession ripping to shreds our core economic dogmas, we reverted to type in the period that followed. We cannot afford to do the same again in our current social moment. We must begin to measure what counts. 

Atif Shafique is Lead Researcher for the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission. You can find him on Twitter @Atif_Shafique.

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.