Michael Green: numbers as ammunition

Michael Green:
numbers as ammunition

A revolutionary measurement instrument
An economist who dishes up loads of numbers, graphs and geographical maps yet still draws packed houses – how does he do that? Michael Green’s infectious optimism and witty humour undoubtedly contribute to his success. Millions of people viewed his TED Talks about social progress, his Social Progress Index and the Sustainable Development Goals.

What is your story at CWF2019?
“I will be there to explain how incredibly fast the world is progressing, and also why this progress is not fast enough. Yes, we are making headway. But if we continue at this rate and pretend it is business as usual, we will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) before 2094. The data are crystal clear. They show, for example, that the rich world is lagging behind on some points, while poor emerging economies are making a lot of progress. Ethiopia and Bangladesh, for example, are making major strides. Other countries, like the Philippines, are not going quickly enough. And many countries are getting worse in terms of rights and inclusion.”

‘If we continue at this rate, we will definitely not achieve the SDGs before 2094.’

The key aspect of the work of British economist and author Michael Green is the Social Progress Index (SPI), his revolutionary measurement instrument that, as a counterpart to the Gross Domestic Product, measures the real well-being of a society. Does everyone have access to fundamental needs such as food, water, housing and safety? Do people have the building blocks to improve their lives, such as education, information, healthcare and a sustainable environment? And does everyone have the opportunity to chase their dreams and achieve their goals, supported by personal rights and access to higher education, without being thwarted by, for example, discrimination or exclusion? These and other factors together make up the Social Progress Index.

Sharing ideas
What do you hope to convey to your audience?
“Because we will not achieve our objectives if we continue in the same manner and at the current rate, we need creativity. Social innovations, technical solutions and scaling up require creative thinking. And what is the role of businesses and investors? Just getting good financial results is no longer enough. Companies realise it’s no longer just about the value of shares and are becoming increasingly aware of the interests of their customers and communities. I hope to be able to convey the urgency of this issue, so that we can together convert this into actions that will be truly conducive to achieving the SDGs. Sharing ideas to jointly tackle such challenges as housing, rights and sanitary facilities. The same goes for challenges in European countries, such as in the areas of rights, inclusion and a reliable government: these require creative solutions. We have to act quickly.”

As an economist, you work with objective data. What role does creativity play in your work?
“We are fortunate enough to have an open source product. My organisation has a global network and we train our partners to work with the index. In doing so, we benefit from their creative input, as they know the local circumstances like no other. The idea to go beyond comparing countries and to create Social Progress Indexes for regions, cities and even municipalities, for instance, came from a local partner in Brazil called Imazon. In 2014 they asked if it was possible to measure the social progress of the 772 municipalities that make up the Amazon region of Brazil. We said ‘let’s try!’, it was a success, and we are now rolling out this local SPI tool around the world.”

Looking beyond economic growth
The Social Progress Index discloses the degree of social progress. Does that also have an impact at local level?
“Certainly. You can see the SPI as an addition to the GDP. The financial crisis of 2008 taught us that it is important to look beyond economic growth. At the time, everything appeared to be going well, but that was not the case. If we convert social progress into numbers, we can adjust our policy accordingly. You manage what you measure; that applies at all levels. The index is used globally as well as at local level. Mayors and local politicians use the SPI to determine where things are going well and what needs to be improved.”

What motivates you in your work?
“I used to work in government, so I am a pragmatic person. But I am also an optimist: the world can change dramatically if we use the evidential value of the available data. That excites me, that we can make a difference using numbers.”

‘’Climate change has shown that a favourable Gross Domestic Product alone is not enough’

Are you experiencing opposition?
“Surprisingly little. The spirit of the times is in our favour. Ten, twenty years ago, I would not have been able to do all this. Climate change has shown that a favourable
Gross Domestic Product alone is not enough. People want solutions.” The UN Sustainable Development Goals also reflect a consensus, reflected in the SPI, about the world we are trying to build. Critically, the SPI only measures outcomes. People squabble mostly about the inputs but there’s much more consensus about the outcomes.

Scale up and speed up
What Sustainable Development Goal are you most worried about?
“Number 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Issues such as inclusion, public services and rights are not properly regulated in many countries. And not just non-Western countries, either.”

What goal do you think we will most certainly achieve?
“Number 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. That goal is certainly achievable. In this area we are rapidly solving a major problem. Now we must scale up and speed up. If we can achieve number 6, this will have a positive spin-off for all kinds of other SDGs. That would be great.”

‘The world has made a lot of progress in recent years. But we have to speed it up even more’

Imagine you would take a trip on a spaceship. You orbit the earth and look at our planet. What do you think?
“I would think: there are still so many places I can visit! There’s so much to explore and discover! Isn’t that fantastic!”

You wouldn’t think of global issues?

“No. We are working on solutions and must be aware of the positive developments we are experiencing. The world has made a lot of progress in recent years and developments are taking place incredibly quickly. But we have to speed it up even more. That’s very exciting to me. And don’t forget: trying to achieve the SDGs is in our own interest. Take gender equality and access to education for girls and women. That is important for women, but also ensures progress on a broader scale, in terms of education, malnutrition and birth rates.”

Meet Michael at CWF2019 on 23 October.

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