International measurement of welfare in a broad sense

30/11/2016 12:00 / Author: Jaap van Sandijk / Photography: Sjoerd van der Hucht / Category: International developments
Statistics Netherlands (CBS) researcher Jan-Pieter Smits has been appointed Professor of Quantification of Sustainability at Eindhoven University of Technology’s Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences. He joined the faculty on 1 September 2016. In this capacity, he will continue to work on international application of the CBS-designed measurement system for sustainable development. In addition, together with three co-authors he will complete his research on economic growth from 1850 onwards in relation to welfare in a broad sense and sustainability.

International measurement system

Over the next five years, Smits will occupy a one-day-a-week CBS teaching post at Eindhoven University of Technology while continuing research at CBS in the meantime. What is his biggest challenge? ‘Making the concept of sustainability measurable in an internationally comparable way’, he answers concisely. ‘This involves exposing three dimensions: not only the consequences of economic growth for today’s broad-based welfare but also for welfare in the future, as well as in the rest of the world. After all, every choice means making demands on natural resources, and thus hasimplications for following generations and for people living elsewhere in the world.’ Smits aims to develop the Dutch measurement model further using around 100 indicators – as set out in the sustainability monitor for the Netherlands, ‘Monitor Duurzaam Nederland’ – and expand it into an international measurement model for ‘welfare in a broad sense’, a term used increasingly widely to refer to sustainability. ‘In this way we will be able to compare the situation in the Netherlands with that in Germany, Great Britain, the United States and Japan, for example.’

More focus

The teaching post is likely to play a key role in internationalisation of the Dutch model. ‘It is just easier to focus on this topic from academia than from the world of statistics’, Smits says. ‘We hope the chair will provide an extra boost towards general acceptance of the measurement system. Look – we now know that GDP does not paint the whole welfare picture while we are exhausting natural resources at the same time. But our measurement system will only be seen as a viable alternative when it validated. As of now, 65 countries have welcomed our model; Belgium has recently taken the system into production. The Temporary Committee on a Broad Definition of Welfare in the Dutch Parliament has said it would like to adopt the measurement system as a basis for debate. But there is still a world to win.’

‘We hope the chair will provide an extra boost towards acceptance of the measurement system’

Effects of economic growth

Another component of Smits’ chair is his research on long-term development of economic growth and the effects on welfare in a broad sense and sustainability. Smits is doing this research together with peers from TU/e and Groningen University (RUG). ‘For this research, we are looking at economic development in the Netherlands from 1850 up to 2030. We are analysing developments within various industries and technologies while also looking at a number of welfare effects including climate change.’

Learning from the past

This focus on the past has yielded some interesting insights. Smits: ‘Take for instance the period 1950 to 1973; these have consistently been dubbed ‘the golden years’. But in that period polluting industries, including the petrochemical sector, grew at a dizzying pace. We are still paying for the emission levels we had back then.’ What does this knowledge mean now, in 2016? ‘We can learn lessons from the past by looking at developments generically. For example, how do we turn away from a given technology when it causes such problems? A country’s national culture plays an important role here. The aim everyone is harping on about at the moment is ultimate decarbonisation. But how do we engage businesses and citizens? A historical analysis of interactions among national economy, technology and institutions can help us gain a deeper understanding of the conditions which are necessary for economic growth to foster broad-based welfare and the sustainability of this welfare.’