Beyond a narrow econometric view of development: The Global Wellbeing Lab

The critique against the GDP-based economic paradigm is not new. A couple of years ago the ”Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress” presented their report (2009). Here, among others, economists Joseph Stieglitz and Amartya Sen argued that we need to ”shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being”. Developing new metrics is part of this process, but it is important that we also think about the broader and more fundamental task: changing institutions and their logics beyond econometrics to an approach were the resilience of social and ecological systems and the wellbeing of humans are in focus.

On a policy level, there are several initiatives around the world. In the US, states like Maryland, Vermont and Oregon has introduced ”Genuine Progress” Indicators (see also the Demos blog on this). Most well known, however, is probably the small Asian country of Bhutan, who have decided not only to measure Gross National Happiness but also to use these indicators to screen policies and programs.

The Global Wellbeing Lab (GWL) is an initiative from the Global Leadership Academy of GIZ (Germany’s development agency), MIT’s Presencing institute and The Gross National Happiness Center in Bhutan. The intention is to ”convene regional clusters of innovators from business, government, and civil society whose work aims to shift institutions beyond the pursuit of narrowly measured parameters of success (such as profit or growth for its own sake) to broader aims that translate into sustainable wellbeing for our societies and the environment.” The topics include investigating the new opportunities that are emerging as a result of this growing critique – among governments, businesses, social entrepreneurs and civil society actors.

A key point in the Global wellbeing lab, is the approach to think about change on an inner, personal, as well as systemic, level; the need to shift from ego-systems thinking to eco-systems thinking. Leading this process is Otto Scharmer of MIT/Presencing institute, and the individual and collective learning journeys are guided by his Theory of U approach, which emphasize the need to ”lead from the future as it emerges” – letting go of the ambition to control the future, instead focusing on awareness and attention, grounded in individual and organizational empathy.

The lab members brings global diversity as well as cross-sector competence. Participants range from Robert Axelsson, chairman of Hållbara Bergslagen (Sustainable Bergslagen), Mary Jane Morifi from the Nelson Mandela Children Hospital Trust (South Africa); Professor Lorenzo Fioramonti , director of the Center for the study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria (South Africa); Alfred Tolle, senior sales manager at Google (Ireland); David Bullón Patton, director of innovation at the Ministry of Science and Technology (Costa Rica); Gregor Henderson, who is coordinating the initiative to set up ”wellbeing what-works centers” across Britain; to Alexander Høst Fredriksen, founder of the social enterprise Cykelven in Copenhagen. And myself.


GWL 2.0 members at the sensing journey/workshop in Bhutan, May 2015. From left: David Bullón Patton, Regina Reyes, Gregor Henderson, Kevin Cooke, Hang Mai, Dr Ha Vinh Tho, David Graf. 

The Lab kick-off took place just outside of Berlin in mid-February 2015 at the ecological retreat Landgut A Borsig. During two days the the 25 menbers of the GWB 2.0 interacted not only with each other, but also with some participants from the 1.0 lab and engaged facilitators from GNH Center Bhutan, the GIZ Global Leadership Academy and the Presencing Institute. The focus was mostly on group interaction, listening and learning from each other. One of the methods was dialogue walks, when we would walk for about a half hour in the village, talking and listening about each others passions and life-defining moments. But the lab is not only about talking and listening – the idea is that it should also lead to pilot projects/prototypes that can be local as well as global. Important, however, is the need to restrain us – to have us ”hold our horses”. Most of us are used to work in environments where we tend to be ”jumping to solutions”. An important component of the Theory of U, is to sense and ”become part of” processes, rather than trying to control and program it. So – the idea is that we are to set out on individual ”learning journeys”, but also interact in regional clusters as well as in the wider, global, lab. Our European regional cluster met in Malmö in early April. You can read more about this sensing journey on GWLs blog!


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