This report was written in the final portion of Life Itself’s first internal Hack Day(s), where we spent 48 hours discussing and developing our ideas around Sustainable Wellbeing. My contribution to this enterprise has focused on how the principle of sustainable wellbeing could be advanced through economic innovation systems.
Given it was written in a few hours it is necessarily rough, but provides what I hope is an interesting provocation nonetheless. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Life Itself has for the past months been engaged in an initiative around what we have dubbed “sustainable wellbeing”. Our prior blog and accompanying video interview by my colleagues Liam Kavanagh and Rufus Pollock outlines the core ideas behind this principle for social organisation (and we hope, over time, associated political movement).
A further question arises, however, if one accepts that we should indeed attempt to shift towards sustainable wellbeing as a principle for social organisation – “what follows?”. It’s all well and good agreeing at the general level that we should foster innovations which are both wellbeing producing and environmentally sustainable, but what should we actually do as a result?
There are a number of different responses one could take to this question. There is strong evidence that a number of different initiatives, from mindfulness programmes to community agriculture, fit the bill for sustainable wellbeing excellently. It would certainly be of value to push for the advancement of these both across the third sector and at the level of policy (as some of our close collaborators on the sustainable wellbeing initiative are doing).
There is a meta-question involved, however. While the potential of some initiatives is clear, many other innovations remain unimplemented, unexplored and undertheorised. The reason for this is one of incentives. Under our current economic system neither wellbeing nor climate sustainability are financially well rewarded and, as I outline below, there is a ceiling on what can be achieved through centrally planned investment (e.g. by private philanthropy). To underpin the shift to a society and an economy which is organised along the principles of sustainable wellbeing, new models for incentivising social innovation in this area must be implemented.
Life Itself has already worked extensively on the topic of incentivising innovation through our work on remuneration rights, having already outlined how such systems could transform the pharmaceutical industry. This document outlines the need for innovation around sustainable wellbeing, and how a Sustainable Wellbeing Innovation Fund could underpin this.
It uses the SCQH format, which you can learn more about here.
The current dominant systems for measuring and producing social value are out of date. Markets can be hugely powerful tools of innovation but only innovation that produces monetizable value, and their dominance of society has therefore limited the realisation of wellbeing through non-material means. Market failures are acknowledged to be widespread but we actually have no idea how much loss in human flourishing has resulted from failures to mobilise resources towards their greatest potential for welfare.
Market failures have also led us to a state of climate emergency. Our current paradigm is one addicted to environmentally degrading economic growth, and as a result most established routes to wellbeing are highly environmentally damaging (consumption, holidaying abroad etc). There is also an increasing evidence base around wellbeing increasing measures which are not predicated on emission producing activities or even economic growth more broadly, such as mindfulness1The value of such interventions has even begun to permeate the medical mainstream: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/nov/23/nhs-to-give-therapy-for-depression-before-medication-under-new-guidelines. There is an significant and underexplored opportunity space for innovation in sustainable wellbeing creation, understood here as the creation of wellbeing which is, at a minimum, strongly compatible with climate sustainability (i.e. low to no emissions).
Whatever one thinks of the prospects of decoupling economic growth from climate emissions, it is advisable given the high degrees of uncertainty to plan for the worst. Just as conservative financial planning is considered the mark of fiscal responsibility, so too should conservative planning around wellbeing sources be considered a mark of social responsibility. Devoting at least some resource to supporting innovations in wellbeing generation which will hold even under conditions of economic shrinkage (managed or otherwise) is therefore advisable. Furthermore, evidence shows that there is a decoupling of wellbeing from material wealth past certain thresholds; even if decoupling is achieved, ensuring a happy and flourishing existence for all will require alternative innovations to transcend this plateau.
Traditional markets do badly in fostering the required type of innovation which would fulfil the considerations above. The price mechanism doesn’t incorporate externalities, and market failures abound. In short, market economics as they stand cannot be the backbone of innovation which does not have a direct financial correlate.
We also don’t have any commonplace improvement on markets for fostering wellbeing innovation. Push funding mechanisms e.g. grants (be they philanthropic or governmental) and subsidies rely on “picking winners” and require centralisation of knowledge and control which is antithetical to the innovative potential of markets. Funders must have a strong idea in advance of which interventions will be most wellbeing supporting, failing to capture the innovative potential which has made markets great.
At the same time, there is an urgency about our efforts. The climate technologies which would be required for us to continue with business as usual appear far away2https://theconversation.com/climate-scientists-concept-of-net-zero-is-a-dangerous-trap-157368 and in parallel there is an ever increasing prevalence of mental health conditions (one rough proxy for negative wellbeing), particularly among young people3https://www.who.int/health-topics/mental-health#tab=tab_2. Not only are we running out of climate runway, but despite continuing economic growth there is good reason to believe we are approaching a crisis point in wellbeing. This was even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has demonstrated that population wellbeing in the UK and no-doubt beyond, is not resilient to the external shocks which will likely continue to punctuate a future of environmental emergency.
How can we support the creation and operation of innovative interventions and initiatives which increase wellbeing in ways which have minimal environmental impact?
This is where remuneration rights come in. Remuneration rights models are an approach to incentivising innovation which combine the best elements of central funding and market mechanisms. In summary a central funding pool is created by governments, usually through tax or the addition of small extra charges for services people already use (e.g. internet bills). Innovators who create something, be it an organisation, practice or even piece of content, can apply for a remuneration right on their creation. This right entitles them to a proportion of the central fund, which is allocated to them in line with some outcome based criteria. In this case remuneration might be a function of some measure of wellbeing and climate impacts, with quality adjusted life years (QALYs) and CO2 emissions footprint being common and obvious examples.
Life Itself has already undertaken significant work outlining how remuneration rights models might work, so I won’t waste time retreading thi ground here. For further information see https://openrevolution.net/faq/ and, for a use case around the pharmaceutical industry, https://imedproject.org/white-paper.
We would propose this be dubbed the “Sustainable Wellbeing Innovation Fund”, and hold that it would have numerous benefits:
- It would offer a market like mechanism for innovation, meaning there is no need to pick winners. Monetary incentives would drive novel means of producing wellbeing in climate sustainable ways, just as they drive innovation in the traditional economy.
- Such a fund would carry the potential for cost saving. To take the UK as an example:
- The cost of mental health difficulties in the UK reached a record level of £119 billion in the year 2019/204https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/publications/spending-review-wellbeing
- The UK government, despite spending cuts across the health service, has increased spending on public mental health and physical activity (both plausible determinants of wellbeing) in 2020/21 vs 2016/175https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/nhs-in-a-nutshell/spending-public-health
- It is therefore plausible that innovative approaches to increasing wellbeing could plausibly reduce the spending required across other sectors such as public mental health, and could be absorbed into spending budgets which are already committed to wellbeing interventions.
- Finally, the opportunity space to innovatively boost population wellbeing in sustainable ways appears significant
- UK government measures show that, even pre-COVID, wellbeing had been somewhat plateauing6https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/measuringnationalwellbeing/april2020tomarch2021. It is also plausible to understand the significant wellbeing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as demonstrating the need to boost wellbeing resilience in the face of external shocks (as “inner focused” interventions such as mindfulness have been show to do7https://www.themindfulnessinitiative.org/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=46ef10fd-4d64-41f9-91a6-163d52cd304c
Needs and next steps:
Synthesising and operationalising wellbeing metrics
While we have used QALYs and UK ONS measures as a unit for our examples due to them being widely known and understood, in reality more work needs to be done to develop and properly implement improved measures of wellbeing. Work on measures capturing a deeper and more nuanced picture of wellbeing which can still be effectively integrated into systems would be highly useful for initiatives including, but far from limited to, a Sustainable Wellbeing Innovation Fund.
Current measures of wellbeing don’t capture all of what matters; there is much tacit value that intuitively is important to how we understand a flourishing existence that is lost through reduction to subjective wellbeing metrics, and such metrics can end up harmfully promoting warped perceptions of the self (isolated, materially and selfishly driven etc) and of wellbeing’s determinants8Sarah Atkinson, The toxic effects of subjective wellbeing and potential tonics, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 288, 2021 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113098
More research is therefore needed to gather and assess metrics and indicators of wellbeing, but to explore how they can be operationalised into systems of economic governance (and governance more broadly) in a way that is both practically feasible “on the ground” while retaining an accurate and (at least relatively) nuanced picture of what comprises and contributes to true human flourishing.
Building measurement capacity
Our vision for initiatives such as the Sustainable Wellbeing Innovation Fund is that they operate in as decentralised a manner as possible. One area where this is particularly desirable is the evidencing of project impact. Of course it is unrealistic to expect every social entrepreneur to develop advanced social scientific skills in impact evaluation in order for their project to succeed, however we believe that with adequate support and resources innovators can be empowered to take a more active role in the process of demonstrating impact.
Relating to the above point on developing and implementing measures themselves, synthesising this work into accessible toolkits, explainers and standardised frameworks for measuring wellbeing impact can democratise at least part of this process. Even if evidence gathering is supported and verified independently, empowering innovators to be more active not only aligns with democratic principles but has the potential to reduce the resource burden of verification significantly.
With respect to the sustainability portion of the remuneration function, actors which help organisations track their emissions already exist. Further work needs to be done to open up access to the data and processes required to empower organisations to do this for themselves, but this is not only underway but in fact an area Life Itself is also working on.
With proper foundations of measurement in place, small scale pilots become possible. At the local level, these can be funded for example by city councils or even larger private philanthropic funders.
We would suggest an initial, limited time horizon pilot in areas where wellbeing boosting innovations would have high impact, and where it will be possible to access and/or collect sufficient baseline data on wellbeing (which goes beyond the traditional measures of wellbeing, for the reasons discussed above).
A pilot should seek to examine not only impacts on wellbeing (and the associated economic and emissions costs) but also potential savings across other sectors. It is our belief that wellbeing innovation funded in the manner described has the potential to offer significant cost savings in other areas (mental health support and social work are two plausible cases), and that it is highly worthwhile also examining whether this has been the case in the pilot study. Should the results turn out as expected (low-carbon wellbeing increases, and reduced expenditure on the social costs of low wellbeing and associated behaviours) the case can more plausibly be made for such an approach at the level of national policy.