Jun 22 2010

Well-Being of our Community – Invaluable but not Invisible

Today Jeff and I are announcing a project we will be spending a lot more time on this Fall.  We would like to get you involved in photographing the value in our lives that cannot be expressed in monetary terms- invaluable things we do every day that contribute to our well-being and the well-being of our communities.  These are things that don’t cost a dollar, and do not contribute to GDP, but make our lives richer.

Our inspiration was a recent trip to Charlottesville, VA during Fridays after Five.

On the downtown pedestrian mall we were awash in the flow of people meandering to one end of the mall to join in with the salsa band.  It was a brutal winter for Charlottesville, but on that evening, spring weather made its first appearance and short sleeves and sandals were out with a cathartic vengeance.  Street performers and musicians were surrounded by amebic, smiling mobs.  A grassroots symphony of laughter and the clatter of glass and silverware from al fresco dining floated by on the breeze.  A complete spectrum of the local community- from stroller to cane- could be taken in with a single scan.

Here was a vibrant community.  If asked to pick the happiest community out of a line-up, a five-year old could surely spot this one.

It was the same day that the first quarter U.S. GDP figures for 2010 were announced.  The figures were higher than expected and the stock exchange tickers plotted a new, skyward course in celebration.  (It turns out that this new course lasted only one week, until a glitch in the circuitry of one of the exchanges and a downward adjustment of the first quarter jobs growth figure conspired to bend the arrow back earthward, yet again).

The contrast was inescapable to us.  So we started asking questions:

How would you tell a five-year old what a thriving community looks like?  Well-Being?  Social capital?  How to make it, build it, nurture it?  How could these things, which we value so much but aren’t accustomed to counting, be so elegantly and simply conveyed as a GDP report; a single number that goes up or down?  While the loudest voices during this down economy tell us the best thing we can do for the economy is to “shop!” and “spend!” what is the equivalent advice is for improving our communities’ well-being?

And more importantly, who could tell me how Charlottesville got to this place, at this moment in time?  Who else is working to recreate this scene where I live now, in D.C., as the Capital Hip Hop Soul Fest plans to do July 24?

The race among competing alternative measures to GDP is on, but until there is consensus, we thought that we could start with something much simpler, and possibly more meaningful: a blog project centered around community-led photography of the non-monetary economy.

There are some bigger wonky reasons for wanting to do this, but that’s just the back-drop.  Some countries, such as Bhutan and France are moving away from GDP and towards Well Being as primary indicators for national vitality and prosperity. Time Magazine recently discussed whether the U.S. might be thinking about the same thing (something Bobby Kennedy was talking about 40 years ago).

If the world does move away from GDP and towards well-being indicators, we are curious what that will mean for individuals, communities, and businesses, and for how they will measure their success in that new paradigm.

We are looking for partners interested in working with us or being interviewed by us to help us explore this topic, including three main focus areas:

1) Community Social Asset Mapping – conducting simple surveys to help us identify our community’s “social assets;” those things (people, entrepreneurs, clubs, businesses, even websites) which contribute to a stronger community by building new relationships, strengthening new ones, increasing the amount of time people share and give to others in their area, etc.  We will back these surveys up with interviews to go on the blog.

2) Community Photography – photography of the everyday things people do that have value and don’t cost a dollar. We are looking, in particular, to get local students involved.

3) Entrepreneur and Business/Nonprofit Profiles – photography of what a positive social impact looks like, on a personal and moment-by-moment level, for B Corps, Ashoka Fellows, or other groups that have built a positive social impact into their missions.  If there is demand, we might even roll up our sleeves and help businesses or nonprofits complete social impact assessments, using existing tools such as the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness project screening tool or the B Corps impact assessment tool as a guide.

Do you have ideas, want to help, or want to suggest friends of yours we should meet?  Thanks!


Jun 16 2010

“… as a means to an end”

In some ways, it was inevitable that the mission of Night Train Consulting would be to help others pursue novel business strategies and technology solutions “as a means to an end,” rather than as the end goals themselves; we are both analytical (read: a little geeky), with Jeff’s background deeply rooted in start-up technology and data mining, and Alan’s in sustainability strategy. When you put those two backgrounds together- and sprinkle on top a little Bob Dylan and a healthy dose of reading on topics like economics, psychology, mathematics, environmental science, well being and social capital- it became obvious that while there are many, many things an organization or an individual can choose to maximize, over and over again we find ourselves returning to the basic things we have valued since the beginning of time: genuine, meaningful social relationships with other people. Ergo, “Technology with Social Skills” was born.

This has very obviously been the case while working with certain organizations, such as nonprofits like Machik (whose main objective, in my opinion, is to optimize trust and social capital between key groups in and outside of Tibet), or the many social entrepreneurs we have come across at Ashoka. But we are now understanding that this is true of for-profit businesses as well.

This is the reason that one business professor I deeply respect at the University of Virginia, Brad Brown, recently dusted off an analytical tool he was first taught in business school years ago: linear programming. Professor Brown teaches undergraduate business students at UVA about sustainability, so the reason he is kick’n it old school again with linear programming is to ask the question (paraphrasing); are we leading students and businesses astray with the thinking that any “profit-maximizing business” can maximize economic, social, and environmental goals all at once? If you’re not familiar with linear programming, it boils down to this; to maximize any given system, you can have many constraints, but only one objective. He points to a rockstar of the NGO world- BRAC- which set off maximizing something as simple as calories per dollar, rigorously and scientifically monitoring, testing, and iterating all programs against that goal.  They went on to build the world’s largest and arguably most effective NGO, which earns 80% of its own revenue through for-profit businesses owned and run by the formerly-poor. I know there is plenty of conversation about this in the so-called “Impact Investing” community too, which refers to investing with an explicit social objective in mind. Can you maximize both economic and social objectives at the same time, or must you pick one?

When Jeff takes the stage tonight at Ignite D.C. and makes his D.C. debute in the performing arts, this theme will focus front-and-center in the form of a conversation about barefoot running and minimalism as a philosophy. Minimalism is basically about maximizing something, using your resources as lightly and efficiently as possible. The “something” you maximize can be anything, but when used as a philosophy for living your life, it seems to focus mainly on maximizing well-being relative to resources consumed (conveniently, the same basic formula behind the Happy Planet Index).

Tomorrow we will be recapping the evening and the various conversations we will be having in and around it today, and we will be asking you; what do you or your business maximize? If you think you are maximizing multiple things, how is that working out for you? Or, do you find yourself giving preference to one objective over others when the going gets rough? In a pinch, what is the one objective you will not sacrifice for the sake of any other objective?

We look forward to hearing from you.


Jun 9 2010

U.S. Well-Being vs. GDP

Is financial wealth our most important asset?

We’ve written before and will continue writing about alternatives to GDP such as the Bhutan Gross National Happiness index, the Happy Planet Index (Time Magazine, Jan ’10) and France’s recent decision to include well-being indicators in national accounting (WSJ, Sept 09).

Not to beat a dead horse, we’ll let Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz summarize the basic argument for us: “National income statistics such as GDP and gross national product were originally intended as a measure of market economic activity, including the public sector. But they have increasingly been thought of as measures of societal well-being, which they are not. Of course, good statisticians have warned against this error. Much economic activity occurs within the home – and this can contribute to individual well-being as much as, or more than, market production.” (in the Financial Times, Sept 09)

The conference this week in D.C. on metrics and evaluation of the social impact of investing (Global Impact Investing Network, put on by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs) put us in a data-crunching mood. We decided to ask ourselves a simple question: how well does GDP correlate to Well-Being indicators in the U.S.?

Thanks to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Gallup, we were able to compare the two side-by-side for metropolitan areas of a decent size. We were most interested in anomalies; places with similar scores on well-being indicators but different GDP, or vice versa.

Here’s a fun one from running that comparison; Boulder Colorado (home to the University of Colorado) and Provo/Orem Utah (home to BYU), have 2 of the highest scores on the Gallup composite well-being survey. Yet the per-capita GDP of Boulder is $56,396, versus $21,345 in Provo/Orem. This difference somewhat increases when cost of living is considered, and decreases when median household income is considered instead of per-capita GDP.

There are also other anomalies with high ratios of reported well-being compared to per capita GDP, including:

  • McAllen/Edinburg/Mission,TX
  • Lake Havasu City/Kingman, AZ
  • Prescott, AZ, and
  • Ocala, FL.

To all of you data-loving, impact investing or economics geeks out there. Any theories to help explain these anomalies? What are these places doing to achieve greater well-being more efficiently (in terms of economic cost) than other cities in the U.S.?